By Eamon Sweeney
Most people have joyful reasons to remember their 21st birthday. It’s a milestone that signifies coming of age-a junction within a lifetime, where childhood officially ends and where young adulthood begins.
It’s usually accompanied by a celebration involving family and friends that can be fondly recalled by looking at photographs as the years and the decades slip irrepressibly by. But, in that respect Harry Devenny isn’t ‘most people.’
On August 14, exactly half-a-century on from his 21st birthday, Harry will turn 71-years-old.
Fifty years earlier, his birthday ‘celebrations’ consisted of him watching his family home being first consumed then destroyed by flames as around him the area he grew up in erupted in sectarian violence. It was also just a month after his father Sammy had been laid to rest.
“I never got to celebrate my birthday. How could I?”, Harry told the Derry News.
The case of Sammy Devenny is of course well-known. In April 1969, in the midst of increasingly intensified outbreaks of rioting in Derry, a group of at least eight RUC men entered the Devenny’s William Street home and mercilessly beat him, some of his children and other people present at the time.
Mr Devenny died three months later and there is no doubt in his family’s mind that it was as a result of the injuries sustained during the police assault. As a consequence he is regarded as one of the very first victims of the Troubles.
In recent weeks, the Devenny family commemorated the 50th anniversary of their father’s death. A Mass was held at St Eugene’s Cathedral-a building which also played a significant role in the events surrounding Harry Devenny’s 21st birthday.
After the service, a crowd gathered outside where the family home used to stand and for a solitary minute reflected silently on the events now fifty years gone. A plaque commemorating Sammy Devenny is all that remains to mark the spot where No 69 William Street once was.
It was also the first time in a long time that all the children of Sammy and Phyllis Devenny had managed to gather together. Yet, the throng of people that joined the Devenny family in July illustrated that their plight has never been forgotten and neither have all the events of 50 years ago.
It was a family home that housed a total of eleven people-a mother, a father, six daughters and three sons. It that respect, it was a typical Derry household of the era, doubtlessly filled with love, laughter, tears and the hopes and aspirations that all parents hold in quiet hope for their children.
None of the police officers involved in the assault on the Devenny home has ever been brought to book in relation to it. Five decades on documents relating to the case and possibly containing the identities of the assailants, remain sealed by state authorities. They are due to be opened in 2022, but that’s something that Harry Devenny doesn’t believe will happen.
“I remember that it was around 11 o’clock and a mob of about 200 police and Paisleyites, some of who were probably police in ordinary clothes came up. Two guys were shot and wounded.
They got houses in Great James’ Street first, then they attacked and burned houses in William Street and that’s when they got ours. They were trying to get up to burn St Eugene’s Cathedral.
“My uncle Patsy drove his ice cream into the middle of them to try and stop them,” Harry said.
The attempted motorised intervention proved to be futile. The mob kept on coming.
Harry Devenny is also in no doubt that people in the Bogside area had a real sense that as mid-August 1969 approached that serious trouble was imminent. The warning signs after all had been present since at least the previous October. The entire city, like an worn out old tin kettle, at first slowly began to shake and steam, then splutter before it boiled over and spat out its screaming whistle.
That mounting political tension coupled with the dreadful strain of what had already befallen the family just a month before, saw the mother of the house take the sensible decision to get her children out of the immediate firing line.
Harry said: “We had relations in Ballybofey and my mother and the rest of the family went there. I was the oldest and stayed behind to watch the house.
“Our house was singled out for special treatment. I clearly remember them shouting ‘where’s the Devenny house…burn it to the ground.’
“This was because we’d taken a case against the RUC through the Ministry of Home Affairs because they’d killed my father.”
As it turned out, when the police and loyalist contingent started to burn buildings in the area that night, one that went up in smoke was the Paragon shirt factory on William Street. It was owned by the Richard’s family and was just yards from the Devenny’s house.
Any thought of attempting to save any contents from the affected homes, never mind the dwellings themselves vanished when the blazing factory fell on top of the surrounding houses. The all-consuming nature of the disturbances in the district also made any thought of the fire service attempting to intervene completely pointless.
With Battle of the Bogside now drawing to its conclusion, the cold light of day revealed that the Devenny home and many more around it, had been razed to the ground. Harry Devenny contends that people in the area may have taken a tiny amount of solace in the fact that whilst their belongings and family momentos were now smouldering embers encased under the ruined remains of their homes, at least the violence was over.
“I thought it couldn’t get any more serious. But it was a turning point in the Troubles. It was only the start of it. We thought it couldn’t get any worse after the murder and the house being burned. But it did,” said Harry.
The ten remaining members of the Devenny family were later placed into a three-bedroomed house at Cable Street further into the Bogside. Like the majority of the available housing in Derry, it was woefully inadequate for the family’s needs. Then again, that ‘inconvenience’ was a minor factor in comparison to the trauma they had already endured.
“I never settled in there at all. I missed our house. This wasn’t my father’s home. It had been his fathers’ house before that and had been Devenny’s shop in William Street,” Harry said.
The Derry News also asked Harry Devenny what he thinks about the intervening half century when he looks back now.
He said: “We stood in William Street after our father’s anniversary Mass. I thought about how he had achieved a lot of things both as a man and a father. But, his death achieved nothing. He was the first victim of the Troubles, but my family and I hope and pray that Lyra McKee will be the last.”
The nine children of the Devenny family, Harry, Anne, Catherine, Philomena, Daniel, Collete, Jim and Caroline grew up in the full knowledge of what had happened to them. It was a subject that wasn’t allowed to be dwelled upon in case it inflamed their young minds with bitterness.
The chain of events that led to their father’s death was started entirely randomly when rioter’s attempted to enter their house to escape the attention of the RUC. It could have been any other house on William Street, but it was theirs that the police invaded and then launched their dreadful attack.
It was an event that stuck firmly in the psyche of an increasingly politicised nationalist community-a fulcrum of the injustices of the state, its biased police force and a rallying cry to illustrate what they were capable of.
Neverthless, the Devenny’s grew up together, finished their schooling, found jobs, got married and had children. They are now grandmother’s and grandfathers themselves. And, to this day, it’s obvious that any notion of revenge was and is a concept that remains completely alien to them.
Harry says that the strong sense of unity and decency within the family came from one source only.
“My mother was a very strong person and she kept us together. She wanted us to live as she lived-in a good way. She was a magnificent person. We never became involved in any organisation because we promised her that we wouldn’t.
“She taught us never to hate anyone, because it only destroys you. We would have been lost without her,” said Harry.
But, we asked Harry, how have the lessons taught by Phyllis Devenny to her family stacked up in the rest of society in the North since 1969?
“We haven’t learned anything from the past. There’s been no closure, no justice. Why are they keeping the documents closed? We’ve already given assurances that we don’t want anyone prosecuted. All we expected was justice, but it seems that when the last policeman left our house he took justice with him.
“They say these documents will be released in 2002, but that won’t happen. Maybe it’s in their interest to keep stirring the pot, but all that will do is perpetuate the anger in every single case where files have been locked.”
CAPTION: Just weeks after the death of Sammy Devenny, the family's home at William Street went up in smoke during the Battle of the Bogside.
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