Eamonn McDevitt

The Tall Man In The Red Shirt

26 September 2014, 01:09

“The Tall Red Shirt” The Story of a shooting that sparked off the political awakening of the Irish Deaf community. Background: Northern Ireland in August 1971 was a very troubled place, with civil strife affecting families and individuals on both social and personal levels which lead to the rise in the guerrilla violence carried out by paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The response of the British Army to the guerrilla violence was to introduce Operation Demetrius, where the policy of internment was implemented on 9 August 1971. Predictably, people opposed the very idea of being put into internment camps on the slightest of suspicion that they were involved in paramilitary violence, so on the same day, there were 342 arrests, with 24 deaths. Of these deaths, 14 were of Catholic civilians, 6 Protestant civilians, 2 British soldiers and 2 IRA volunteers. On 18 August, there was an anti-internment march in Strabane, Co. Tyrone. Eamon McDevitt, a 28 year old golden haired tall man in a red shirt was present at this march.

When riots broke out, he ran over to Fountain Street when he was shot in the jaw by the Royal Marines. Stories vary, but most people agree on Eamon being unarmed at the time he was shot dead. At that time, the British Army claimed he was waving a gun when he was shot, but witnesses attest he was waving his arms in his way of getting attention. What the British Army did not know was that he was a Deaf man. At that time it was policy of the British Army to shoot one person in order to quell a riot. (this no longer applies.) Witnesses got the sense that Eamon was shot because he stood out, the way he was a tall man in a red shirt waving his arms around, which was not considered ‘normal behaviour’. A civilian witness heard a senior army officer shout, “Who gave the order to shoot”, which is thought provoking.

The Response of the Irish Deaf Community:

The riot in Strabane was covered by the RTE news, which wasn’t subtitled so it was not until the next day that Deaf people reading the Irish Times newspaper discovered one of their own brothers was shot. David Breslin, the Hon. Secretary of the Dublin Deaf Association (DDA), called on all members at the Deaf club run by the DDA to demand strong action and an independent inquiry into his death. The response from the members were mixed, with timidity shown by some, as this was not officially sanctioned by their social workers or priests. Nevertheless, they decided to go ahead, with another meeting scheduled for the coming Sunday, 22 August 1971. Over the weekend before the meeting, many slogans were written on placards and banners in preparation for the march, such as “Eamon McDevitt is Dead”, “The Deaf don’t hear bullets”. Once things were made clear to the members of the Deaf community at the pivotal meeting, they were galvanised into action. After permission for the march was granted by Store Street Garda Station, the leaders of the silent protest were chosen from the Deaf community. 1. David Breslin, as Secretary of the Dublin Deaf Association, 2. Anthony McElhatton, as a native of Tyrone, representing that county, 3.Christy Foran. A social worker and a representative from a leading organisation working with Deaf people approached David Breslin at his workplace, and tried to persuade him to cancel the protest march, but Mr Breslin refused to pay them any attention. They had to concede, and advised the Deaf leaders to be very careful. For this to happen was a big thing in 1971, as Deaf people then were generally expected to follow what social workers, priests and other hearing people told them to do.

The Protest March on 28 August 1971:

On Friday, the night before the march itself, a list of names of marchers was drawn up, and people given the rules they had to follow while marching. Marchers were told they had to be peaceful and orderly, with no ‘talking’, no noise, and all must keep in good marching order, and be well dressed. They were also told they had to comply with Gardai in all matters. People were very busy with the preparations in the morning of the March before it began at 3pm. Letters were typed, to be handed to Sir John Peck, British Ambassador to the Rt. Hon. Reginald Maudling, M.P., Secretary of State at the Home Office, and to Dr. P.J. Hillery, T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs. Copies were also made for the press and the TV. All letters, including the copies, were signed. Eddie Rohan, who was an interpreter and social worker working with the Deaf communtiy, met them at the GPO, a popular meeting place for Deaf people, and got the copies so he would distribute them to the Press and the TV. At 3pm, the Deaf marchers met on College Green, and were given black armbands to wear, each. There were 75 Deaf people present, along with a Christian Brother, Brother Forrester, from St. Joseph’s School for Deaf boys, based in Cabra. Eleven placards were handed out amongst the marchers. Thirty Gardai escorted them on their march which took place from College Green – Nassau Street – Dawson Street – Around St Stephen’s Green, to Iveagh House, where the first letter was handed in to Minister Hillery, then the march continued down Grafton Street – Merrion Square to the British Embassy. However, when they got as far as Holles Street, Gardai prevented them from getting any closer to the embassy, only allowing the three Deaf leaders to approach the embassy. It was only at this point that a single cameraman from RTE came and filmed them. The Ambassador was not there when they knocked. A porter opened the door and took the letter from the leaders. After a three minute silence, the Gardai gestured to the three Deaf leaders to move on, now that the protest was finished. The leaders were very disappointed as there were no Deaf people in front of the embassy, as they wanted a Deaf presence during the three minute silence, but they had a strong hearing presence, flanked as they were by gardai, which was NOT what they wanted. (The marchers were kept at Holles Street, well away from the embassy.) However, the leaders made their point.

The Aftermath of the Protest:

The protest was a great success, as while they were marching, members of the general public stopped and applauded them, as the placards let them know what the marchers were protesting about. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, P.J. Hillery, TD, replied to the letter he received, agreeing with the views in the letter to the British Embassy. The British Home Secretary, Rt. Hon. Reginald Maudling, M.P., Secretary of State at the Home Office, never replied to the letter he received. When the chaplain to the Deaf community returned from his holidays he was very concerned that the march took place during his absence. The march marked a turning point for the Irish Deaf community as it was the first time the Irish Deaf community organised something political for themselves without hearing involvement. Now political activism is a core part of the Deaf community.

Eamon McDevitt’s name

Even though there were many witnesses attesting that Eamon was unarmed at the time he was shot, the official record held by the British Army was that he was an armed man. His family has tried for many years to clear his name, with the Pat Finucane Centre, so far unsuccessfully. However, in February 2014, confidential documents found in the Ministry of Defence’s archives in Kew, London, proved that government officials knew that Eamon Mc Devitt was unarmed. Papers from 1975 prepared by the Ministry of Defence in London outlined how the MOD planned to deal with the Eamon McDevitt case, by settling out of court. The letter from Crown Counsel in 1975 advised that since Eamon McDevitt was “not responsible for his own actions”, the self-defence plea was no use, as too many witnesses saw that he had no rubber bullet. “Seeing that juries would feel sorry for Eamon’s mother as he was an innocent (simple) man, they advised an out of court settlement of £2000.” As it is now 43 years after the shooting, all the family wants is some peace. They do not want a prosecution, they want to get a verbal and written apology from the British Army for the killing of Eamon McDevitt.

Sammy McDevitt, at the plague on Fountain Street, Strabane, commemorating his brother’s death.

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