Tyrone hero Jim Devlin’s death still resonates after all these years

The day they buried their revered, murdered former full back, his peers told each other they couldn’t believe it. Forty years later, in some ways, they still can’t.


“They were wild bad times,” shrugs Patsy Forbes, offering the common refrain as to why Jim Devlin, Tyrone’s lionhearted and crafty full back from the mid-1950s, should have been among the thousands of victims of the Troubles.

This is on a sunny afternoon in Coalisland; horse racing from England is on the television in O’Neill’s bar and Ulster football royalty have gathered around a table to remember one who didn’t make it through.

Jody O’Neill, just 19 when he captained Tyrone in the 1956 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, is host. Beside him sits Patsy Forbes who had a 10-year career with Tyrone and began playing senior football for Ardboe at 16, forming with Frank McGuigan an attacking partnership feared across the province. Jim McKeever of Ballymaguigan and Derry was the inaugural Texaco Footballer of the Year in 1958: enough said. Tom O’Sullivan lived four doors down from Jim Devlin and became the first ever Tyrone man to score a goal in Croke Park on his way to winning All-Ireland minor medals in 1947 and 1948.

In the middle of them all is John Joe O’Hagan, also a minor medallist in those years, a senior star in the 1950s and father of 1980s All-Star Damien O’Hagan.

The boys are in good form. You’d know after five minutes in their company that they are each, in different ways, as tough as nails. And that they aren’t big on cursing. They are laughing at the creaks and aches that come with time – and laughing about Jim Devlin too. May 7th marked the 40th anniversary of his death but he can still make them laugh.

Brute strength
“We often went into his shop when we were children,” Jody O’Neill says. “And he’d ask us: ‘who is the best footballer in Ireland?’. And one of us might have said Iggy Jones or Jim McKeever. And he’d say: ‘No, boys, no . . . Jim Devlin’s the best in Ireland.’ We used to bring in steel chains so he would snap them for us. That was the thing about Jim: he had brute strength. One time we were in there after Cavan had won a game by something like 0-25 to 0-6 and he pulled me by the collar and said: ‘Remember O’Neill, it’s forwards win matches.’”

Jim Devlin didn’t look like a full back. In fact, there were days when he didn’t look like a footballer at all. “As you can see, he was kind of pudgy,” says O’Neill in amusement, passing a framed photograph of a Lagan Cup match around the table.

“But he had reflexes like nobody else.”

Frank Stockwell chuckled when he took his place alongside Devlin on that Sunday in 1956 when Galway and Tyrone met. “Look at the wee fat man,” Stockwell said gleefully. “I’m going to have a blinder today.” At least that’s what went around Coalisland after Devlin held the Tuam sprite scoreless.

The night before, in Barry’s Hotel, Devlin had been predicting the same to anyone who’d listen. The teams were both staying in the hotel. Seán Purcell overheard Devlin and asked if he would care to make a wager on it. “Jim pulled out one of those big white fivers and asked Purcell to match that,” John Joe O’Hagan says.

Decades later, Purcell was a guest at a Tyrone dinner in Dungannon and recalled the story. In the rush and tumult after the match the wager was forgotten. Purcell told the gathering that he still had Jim Devlin’s fiver at home, framed.

Jim McKeever played against Jim Devlin without ever getting him to know him well but has a crystallised recollection of the first time he saw him on a football field.

“It was a colleges game – Ulster against Munster. Tom Moriarty of Kerry had a hell of a game that day. But Ulster played the loveliest football I had ever seen then – no temper or badness. And everything Jim did was terribly clever and useful. I was surprised then, when I first played against him to discover how small he was because he looked much bigger on the field.

“When I was starting for Derry, there must have been a ‘50’ or something and I moved into the edge of the square and Jim put his arms around me, grabbing me. So I threw my hand back to push him off, expecting to shove his chest but my hand went into his face. It was only then I realised how small he was.”

Despite – or because of – his size he was a torment. He showed O’Neill several of his tricks; leaning on a forward’s shoulder to throw his balance or squeezing his thumb between his fingers and then using it to jab forwards in the ribs. “Into the small rib,” O’Neill clarifies.

In 1957, Mayo and Tyrone played the Polo Grounds as guests of the GAA nation in New York. The Tyrone team wore white linen suits for the occasion, with the Red Hand crest emblazoned onto the breast pocket. Puzzled Manhattanites mistook them for flamboyant communists. Three times Jim Devlin used his thumb jab on big Pat McAndrew, all 6ft 6in of him, who swung his fists in anger. Twice he struck fresh air. The third time, Devlin sidestepped the blow and then nipped inside the bigger man. “He hit poor Pat three times and he was carted off the field.”

They had all seen Jim Devlin box. He was flinty and quick and uncompromising.

“I saw three boys come at him one day up in Dungannon,” O’Hagan says. “And they all went down.”

He was a protector at heart. Tom O’Sullivan shows an old scar running across his lower lip. That happened when Jim was looking out for him. When Tom O’Sullivan was starting off with Na Fianna, he was taking hell from a big centre half forward. Devlin trotted out and told his neighbour to swap places. “He wasn’t there two minutes when he was boxing this other boy.”

“Then some boy grabbed Jim by the arms so I pulled him away. Jim swung at your man and then he turned around blindly and hit me. Then he yells: ‘what are you doing here?’”

Sometimes venomous
Patsy Forbes laughs as he recalls playing a club championship match in Ardboe one evening. The play was fast, brilliant, sometimes venomous. Jim Devlin was a referee at this stage: a broken coccyx had finished his football career by 1960. He turned to the Coalisland amateur drama group as a way to burn up that excess energy of his and proved to be a decent actor.

But he stayed in the game by officiating football games. On this evening, players from both sides were complaining bitterly to Jim Devlin and once the final whistle went, they continued to do so. Finally, Devlin decided to end the cribbing.

“So he stood at the top of the field,” said Patsy Forbes, his head shaking “and he invited the Ardboe boys up or anyone who wanted to come up and take him on. And nobody was prepared to take him on. Not one boy. He stood there: ‘C’mon boys, so!’ And then he walked off on his own. So he was a good referee in that way!”

The Devlin house is still there, a handsome, wide-windowed terrace building in the middle of town. The family lived above the shop. “The Devlins were known for brains and football,” John Joe O’Hagan says. Five of the seven Devlin boys kicked football for Tyrone and while Jim became the most renowned, Eddie Devlin was prodigious, joining the Tyrone minor panel at just 14. Eddie had hoped to call in on this afternoon but a routine medical appointment detained him and he couldn’t make it.

Mayo’s Eamon Mongey once told O’Neill that Eddie Devlin was the best underage footballer he had ever seen. “The only comparison I could make was to Johann Cruyff,” O’Neill says. The boys nod. “Eddie was balletic in everything he did.”

Rugby crowd
Jim and Eddie had played together for the St Patrick’s Armagh team which won the first Hogan Cup final in 1946, a game steeped in mythology because it was the first and because the Ulster boys defeated the St Jarlath’s team containing Seán Purcell and Peter Solan. Eddie went to UCD to Dublin and quit the game for a couple of years, disillusioned when the GAA punished him for simply fraternising with a rugby crowd after a match: the assumption was he had attended the game.

But he was back for Tyrone’s unexpected Ulster breakthrough in 1956 and 1957. In the 1940s and 1950s, Ulster football began and ended with Cavan. They feared and revered the royal blue shirts. “It was as if we accepted that we were playing on a lower level,” O’Neill says.

He remembers a lost afternoon playing Railway Cup for Ulster against Munster and something that Jim McKeever said to Mick Higgins, the Cavan great who was coaching that day. “It was the only time I have ever heard you curse,” O’Neill tells McKeever, who pretends to be shocked.

“Mick had told me: ‘You are marking [Kerry’s Mick] O’Connell,’” Jody says.

“I told him: ‘I never marked a man in my life’. ‘You’ll effin do what I tell you’. It wasn’t working. After 15 minutes, he called you over. He says: ‘Jim, change with Jody’. I was relieved. I’m not sure how you felt about it. But I remember he says to you: ‘I want you to follow O’Connell all the time.’ He was four-letter-wording it. You came back at him. You said – and I’m going to say it: ‘I follow no fucking man.’”

Jim McKeever laughed: “I would never have said that,” he protests.

“It stayed with me,” O’Neill says. “It gave me an education. Because I’ve always believed the ball was primary.”

Dense laneways

The dense laneways of Ulster’s interior were, in the mid 1950s, peaceful and her towns generally safe. The undercurrents of resentment were still far below the surface. Incidents were isolated. Tom O’Sullivan married an Omagh girl and warned her about how quiet life in Coalisland was. ‘I says: you are coming to a town that is completely different.’ The first morning we were married, I went down the stairs to open the shop and told my wife I would be up for breakfast after a while. Jim lands in and says: ‘where is the good lady?’ I tell him she’s upstairs so he heads up and sits down and has breakfast with her. I told her: ‘Well, you’ve had a good introduction to Coalisland.’ That is what it was all about.”

None of them could have guessed at the madness of coming decades. The hints were there, but they were oblique. John Joe O’Hagan reminds them of a training session just before that Galway semi-final in ’56: miserable, wet and pitch black for a summer evening and they drove home in their gear rather than wash at the barrel provided for ablutions. “The B men stopped us and stood us for an hour. One of the boys had invoices from the hardware shop and went through every one of them while we stood on the side of the road.”

Street riots
Coalisland was green in sentiment, no question. When the Tyrone team were due to travel to New York in 1957, O’Hagan was advised not to stay at home. “I was told I’d be lifted so I couldn’t travel. I made sure I wasn’t here.”

They all remember, too, the tension after Sergeant Arthur Ovens was killed by an IRA booby trap bomb just outside Coalisland in 1957, an event that was as rare as it was shocking. But few read into that what lay in wait: the general combustion of violence and bombing and street riots and the television pictures of young men, beflared and long-haired and furious.

How to explain the pure weirdness of life as a Tyrone citizen in the 1970s? Even now, they wonder at how they managed to normalise what was deeply abnormal. The stories fly. They are in the thick of it now. John Joe O’Hagan was once walking down the street when “a boy in a balaclava came running out of a pub. ‘C’mon ta fuck, I’ve left a bomb in there.’” O’Hagan had time to make it down the road and stop oncoming traffic before the window came out.

Tom O’Sullivan found himself on his knees on his shop floor in Coalisland one night during sustained rioting and he saw the silhouette of a soldier falling to the ground after a neat rattle of gunfire. Jody O’Neill was leaving Frank McGuigan and the other Ardboe lads home after training one night when they were stopped at a UDR checkpoint. O’Neill was the Tyrone senior football manager at the time.

Worst nights
“We were hooded that night. We took a fair old battering from rifle butts. They kept saying; ‘Sure, we’ll shoot them’. And we thought we were going to be shot. We honestly did. That was the worst nights I ever had. One of the boys asked me in Irish: ‘Cad is ainm duit?’ I answered in Irish and was soon sorry afterwards.”

Some months after that, O’Neill was asked to call in to the barracks in Tyrone. He was warned there was a list of ‘targets’ in circulation featuring high-profile GAA names, including his own. He was advised to “take precautions” and be careful. They all had their habits: checking under their cars, varying their driving routes; the unconscious, automatic oppression caused by living in fear and suspicion.

On the day of May 7th, Gertrude Devlin called into Tom O’Sullivan’s shop to buy a birthday card for their girl, Patricia. The neighbours had the usual conversation; how time had flown. Tom remembered Patricia as a baby because Jim was that proud of her, he would always have the boys in to lift her. “Feel the weight of that child,” he’d boast. “God, he thought the world of that child,” Tom O’Sullivan tells the others.

The O’Sullivans were asleep when the telephone rang. Tom’s wife picked it up and called into him that the Irish News was on the telephone wanting to know if they knew the names of the people shot in “Cong”. The name made them pause for a second and then Tom remembered the townland where the Devlins lived just outside Edendork. “Congo! Jim and Gertie” he repeats now, his eyes welling briefly.

The Devlins had been driving home. They had bought chips for supper. Their son Colum was in St Patrick’s Dungannon and had sat his A levels that day. Patricia was in the back seat. The lane to their house was secluded and private: perfect for an ambush. The couple were shot in their car and a gunman was waiting for Jim Devlin when he attempted to get out of the car to get help. Patricia was injured but survived.

“I looked up the street and the place was ablaze with lights,” Tom O’Sullivan says.” I couldn’t even go down to talk to Frank Devlin. I wasn’t able to.”

Nobody could make sense of it.

“Jim would never have been militant,” says Jody O’Neill. “He was just a handy target,” Patsy Forbes adds. That Devlin had belonged to Tyrone’s gilded generation of 1950s footballers made the murder a little bit more high-profile. But the killings were so frequent and fast that the spotlight was always restless: the Dublin and Monaghan bombs went off just ten days later. At the funeral, people wondered if GAA people would become common targets. “People were a wee bit scared to travel in cars with you,” Forbes recalls.

But the games went on. Now they see that trying to train an All-Ireland-contending Derry or Tyrone team in that atmosphere fell somewhere between quixotic and daft. It never occurred to them not to. Training was pared back. Few teams got the best out of themselves. “But what was going on had the effect of making people stick together too,” McKeever says. “It didn’t help the football but it did that . . .”

Fierce faith
The atrocities worsened in the following decades. There was a conviction for the killings of the Devlins but the details of what had happened became obscured: they were two victims among the 3,637 documented in the Lost Lives catalogue. “The sadness was the same in every single house,” Forbes says. The murders fragmented the Devlin family members: few live in Coalisland now.

Jim Devlin had fierce faith in Tyrone but could he have believed that a Tyrone senior football team would ever win three All-Irelands in a decade? Jody O’Neill shakes his head. “We had begun to wonder if we would go through our live times without ever seeing one. Now Jim was an optimist. But . . . no, none of us then thought that possible. Jim . . . what would you say about him? He was just bubbling. All the time.”

Not too many people in Healy Park tomorrow will know of Jim Devlin but some of his former team-mates and friends will be there. Jody O’Neill called up to the Devlin grave during the week. The graveyard is in St Malachy’s churchyard on a height in Edendork. Forty years ago, it was black with mourners when they buried the Devlins, including players Jim Devlin had kicked football with – and some of those he had boxed. They were all shook to the core. They told each other that morning that they couldn’t believe it.

In some ways, they still can’t.

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