Ronan’s Rant: Every life is precious

Tyrone GAA player Jim Devlin, who ran a pub and grocery shop in Coalisland, was murdered in 1974 by the UVF. Such a killing was commonplace at the time, Ronan McSherry recalls, but the death of police officer Ronan Kerr has shown that much has changed since then.

Jim Devlin

“..a GAA great” – Jim Devlin

I had great regard for Jim Devlin though he would scarcely have known it. Let me explain… Jim Devlin from Coalisland was a GAA great. In 1956 he played full back on the first Tyrone team to win an Ulster final.

My late father would tell me how our neighbour Jim kept the great Frank Stockwell scoreless in the All-Ireland semi-final. The “terrible twins”, Stockwell and Sean Purcell from Galway tormented defences back in those days.

I was reared on Main Street and Jim ran a pub and grocery shop several doors away. Married to local librarian Gertie, they had a daughter and three sons, Patricia, Colm, John and Eamonn. One long stone-kicking summer afternoon, when I was ten years old, I called to the grocery shop looking for Eamonn. I waited and waited and surveyed the shelves as no-one appeared on the other side of the counter. With a quick glance towards the door, I lifted an orange, walked briskly outside and made my getaway up a nearby entry. Those back fields were my domain. On climbing the last step to Corey’s garden, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and I turned my head. It was Jim…  and then I knew how Frank Stockwell felt as the mighty full back took possession of the orange. He didn’t tell my father. I remembered that. That’s why I liked Jim Devlin.

I recall piling into the back of Jim’s van with his sons, my younger brother and the Harkness boys, Ian and Robert, one of the few Protestant families in the town, to go for a swim in Lough Neagh. In May 1974, a month before my fourteenth birthday, Liverpool beat Newcastle 3-0 in the FA Cup final with goals from Kevin Keegan and Stevie Heighway. That same week, May 7, late at night Jim closed his bar and, along with his wife and 17-year-old daughter, headed the three miles to their home in Congo, an isolated area, close to Edendork. A Loyalist gang, operating in the notorious “murder triangle”, lay in wait. They sprayed the vehicle with bullets killing Jim and his lovely wife Gertie. Patricia, who was also hit in the hail, crawled to a neighbour’s house for help.

Tyrone GAA player Jim Devlin in action

Tyrone GAA player Jim Devlin in action

The following morning, rather than taking the bus, my father drove us to school in Dungannon. As we walked to the car in the back yard, I could see Mrs Sullivan, our neighbour, crying at the sink in her kitchen. Da was angry. He shouted at a British soldier stopping the cars, “Where the f*** was your roadblock last night?” Colm Devlin, age 15, also went to St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon and I can still see him, an orphan overnight, sitting alone outside a classroom in his casual clothes waiting to sit an O-level exam. Fr McEntaggart told us in assembly, “We are all to blame.” I couldn’t understand what he meant. Jim and Gertie were laid together in the cold, cold ground.

The Jim Devlin Cup was competed for until recently by clubs in Tyrone. Few of the players had a clue who Jim Devlin was. That was the time conveniently labelled “Troubles”.

I was 19 when I put out the thumb to hitch from Omagh to Gortin. A UDR landrover passed and I heard a shout, “McSherry, you fenian b*****d!” It was a member of a Loyalist flute band I had crossed swords with at Omagh tech. He was shot dead by the IRA. It is nothing to cheer about.

His mother later appeared in a documentary grieving her loss.

Boys I knew at school and shared a drink with, joined the IRA and were cut down by British soldiers and the SAS. Others spent years in jail as their mothers made the lonely trek, week after unforgiving week, to visit them.  Violent deaths became the norm. Anonymous faces and a new number count. Life was cheap. “I see an RUC man stopped smoking today,” I heard someone say, as he rubbed his hands together. Jokes gloating over recently deceased appeared on gable walls across the divide in Belfast. At night, TV programmes were interrupted with the newsflash, “Would key holders in Dungannon/Newry/Lisburn town centre check their premises.” Cars could not be left unattended in towns, there were no flying Tyrone flags from country houses and going to dances or shopping entailed a gauntlet of searches. The Troubles affected every village and outpost across the North.

Everyone is familiar with the face of police officer Ronan Kerr. Back in the day, a death soon became yesterday’s news and was quickly forgotten. Not so however to those who knew the person and continue to feel their loss. That the killing of Ronan Kerr generated so much attention, shock and condemnation indicates how far this society has come.

The book ‘Lost Lives’ chronicles the deaths of the 3,600 men, women and children killed as a result of “The Troubles”. All the casualties are there: the Catholic mother, the Protestant worker, the newborn baby, the IRA volunteer, the RUC officer, the loyalist paramilitary, the young soldier; Jim and Gertie Devlin. It is a vital document. The Good Book talks of, “A time for love and a time for hate; a time for war and a time for peace…”

It is time for peace. The alternative offers only heartache and years in jail. We have already done that. Every life is too precious for a replay.

Ronan McSherry’s column, “Ronan’s Rant”, is published every Monday in the Tyrone Herald.

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