Who’s Maurice Devenney? An in-depth retrospective profile

Maurice Devenney.
Maurice Devenney.

If Maurice Devenney’s grandfather was alive today, he’d be proud as Punch.

The grandson who used to listen eagerly to his views on Rev Ian Paisley is serving his second time as the deputy mayor of Londonderry, and has now been selected to run as the DUP’s candidate for Foyle in the forthcoming General Election.

Donegal man Maurice has come a long way, in political terms, since his father’s father, Moses sent him scurrying around an agricultural show in Belfast to see if he could lay eyes on the larger than life DUP leader.

In a way, when the young Maurice Devenney did catch sight of his grandfather’s political hero, his twin interests of agriculture and politics merged in his mind for the first time. Dr Paisley took time out to chat, not just to his grandfather, but to young Maurice.

Later on, politics would provide a full-time focus for Maurice, after a car crash cut short his farming career, and almost cut short his life as well.

Losing the capability to do the farm work he loved, Maurice, whose wife was also badly injured in the accident ten years ago, expanded his role within politics, believing that the experience of the community spirit, industriousness and willingness to work for others - that is part of the fabric of rural life in Donegal - could help him make a difference in his adopted new home in Londonderry.

Born to parents James and Sally and reared in Manorcunningam, Maurice Devenney went to Balleighan National School, and then Royal and Prior in Raphoe, and he credits the way he was reared for shaping his thinking.

“My upbringing was in the farming community. There was five in my family and I was the eldest. I have three sisters and my brother was the youngest. There was plenty of hard work on the farm, “ he says.

Maurice worshipped at 2nd Ray church, attended Sunday School until his communion, and never missed a day. Like his rural background, his religious upbringing is also a matter that brings him pride and good memories: “The late Gerard Wallace was one of my Sunday School teachers. I’m very proud of my Presbyterian upbringing.”

In 1981, Maurice, who married Raphoe girl, Martha when he was 20, moved across the border. But he likes to retain an element of living in a rural community.

“We have two children and we lived in Manor and when the children reached education age we moved to Northern Ireland because we felt there was a better education and health system. We moved to Drumahoe, my son went to Faughan Valley and my daughter to Ashlea Primary School. We lived in Stevenson’s Park for six years, then moved to Newbuildings. That’s where I fell in with Willie (Hay) and the DUP.

“When I was younger, my grandfather, Moses Devenney was a great champion of Rev Ian Paisley. Every Sunday I’d be at his house and all I’d hear about was Rev Ian Paisley. It’s a pity he isn’t alive now to see me elected as a DUP councillor.

“I like Newbuildings, it’s a nice rural village. Where I live I can look out at fields at the back of my house and at the front of my house. I was delighted to get elected as a rural councillor, because the rural way of life fits in with my way of life.”

Even though he moved across the border, Maurice continued to work on the farm in Donegal, until he and his wife were involved in a bad car smash, in Killygordon.

“We were almost killed, so we were.”

Both suffered life-threatening injuries, Martha being kept in hospital for around five weeks, and Maurice being hospitalised for ten weeks, including a broken foot, broken toes, broken leg, broken arm, broken ribs and a punctured lung. He believes he was “very, very lucky to be alive”. It ended his ability to play badminton and tennis as at a relatively high level, but there were even worse consequences of an accident that led to the other driver being taken to court.

“I had to retire from farming, the work was too heavy for me after the accident. You miss it. I grew up on the farm, and in the spring time I would still stop and watch machinery working. You can see how things have moved forward, in the machinery line. I still visit farms a lot and enjoy that.

“Farming has been dear to me, I know the hard work that’s involved. I grew up in an age where the first tractors became available, just after the horse and plough, and I love watching machinery operating in the fields. I did potato and cereal farming and the interest is still there and at times it does hurt that you can’t do it any more.

“My father was heavily into farming and he started from being very small to having 300 acres of potatoes and 200 acres of cereals (barley and wheat). You couldn’t do that these days. First, people worked manually until the machines came into it, and my first job was when I was nine, laying potatoes. It was hard work but it had to be done. The next hard work was gathering potatoes into potato baskets.”

Asked about the rate of pay in those days, he smiles and says he didn’t earn much: “Let’s just say I got pocket money.”

He added: “My mother was heavily involved in all of this work as well; I often heard my father saying she was as good a worker as some of the men that he had on the farm. You were reared and brought up with it, it was part of life.”

And there were no luxuries: “When we were children my granny died very young and left my mother to rear her siblings, and we all shared the same house, and were all reared together and many’s a time we had three sleeping in the one bed, until my father built a new house in the early 70s and my mother’s remaining family stayed in the old house and we moved to the new one. There were three of them plus my mother. It was some change having your own bedroom from a room where you shared with two others.

“All the toilets were outside and there was no double glazing. We had a tin bath, but we got through. We had to carry the water from a well 200 metres from the house. I remember trying to carry two buckets of water and I think more water ended up in my wellies than in the buckets. That was for general use, for drinking as well as for bath water. All of that, and the work did us no harm.

“All of that community in what was known as Moneyhaughley got on so well; there might have been 15 or 20 houses and we all got the water from the same well.

“I would say possibly I was almost reared in a neighbour’s house. When I came home from school there were McConnells who lived beside us, and my mother always told me when I came home from school that was my first dive was over to their house, and to get me to go home they used to tell me I’d have to sleep up in the attic. I called her Granny McConnell. That family’s all gone but there’s a younger generation there now - an excellent family. We got our milk supply straight from the cows of our neighbour. As soon as he milked the cows he filled the jug of milk and you went home with it - milk and eggs, that was all given by neighbours, divided out.

“People got on so well and helped one other. Growing up in a rural community and having good neighbours leaves you with an understanding of people. People say I’m down to earth, and I do think that’s my upbringing coming through.”

Maurice has taken that down to earth attitude into the chambers of Derry City Council, and believes that he will be judged by his work-ethic, and that even when he is unable to help a constituent, they will appreciate that this was because he was genuinely unable to do anything to assist them, not because he didn’t try.

He first stood for election to council in the late 1990s, and only lost by four votes, to Ernie Hamilton (UUP). The next election he wasn’t able to stand in because of the accident but he had recovered enough to stand in the last council elections and was elected. As a rural councillor, Maurice finds himself kept very busy, but he says he doesn’t mind the workload.

“I really enjoy helping people and it gives me a buzz when I see the smile on someone’s face when something works out well. Sometimes, we are the last resort that people have come to and it’s great when you can help them get a result. Unfortunately, you can’t always get a resolution to issues, but I like to think I’ve been able to help resolve most of them. Some issues are easily dealt with but some can take a year to get any results. People appreciate it when they know you’ve done your best, regardless of the outcome.

“The voters are the judges at the end of the day, and I believe if you serve to a high enough standard people will acknowledge what you’ve done. But of course there are no guarantees in politics. I always say if you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t be there. People have got to know me over the years. You have to earn that respect where people feel confident in coming to you with issues. I hope to have done enough to get re-elected, but I think myself I’ve done a good job.”

He also believes that nationalists and unionists - while holding very different views on the border and national identity - share many issues and that closer co-operation would pay dividends.

“The councillors work well together when you look at some of the bread and butter issues - both communities have health issues, issues about schools, housing, roads and all of that.”

At the moment, the difficulties facing the farming community weigh heavily on Maurice’s mind and, coming from a farming background himself, he says he feels deeply when things go wrong. Many hardworking farmers found themselves helpless during the recent cold spell, and could only watch as the biting cold destroyed their crops, particularly potatoes.

“I know how hard people have had to work, and the economic downturn has made things very difficult for them, whether they’re milk farmers, beef farmers or potato farmers. The cold spell was the worst weather for 30 years, and it could put some farmers to the wall, “ he says.

Maurice says he also learned how to respect property from his father, who “always kept a clean yard”.

“Even my car has to be clean, “ he adds. “I like to keep everything tidy. My grandfather was a farmer as well: his second love was flowers and bees. He was mad about flowers. He never had to wear masks or gloves with the bees, I saw his hands covered in bees and they never stung him. When I got my driving licence I drove him to see flower shows and bee hives.”

Asked if he never thought of turning his hands to bee-keeping, Maurice’s response was emphatic: “Indeed, I did not. I stood well back. But he was a great man, so he was. And he used to love watching the band go up Manor Street in July or August. I’ll tell you a story how I first met Dr Paisley. We would always have attended the agricultural show in Belfast. It was like a family outing and we’d have stayed two days at it, and when we entered the showgrounds we’d have gone to the area where there were shrubs and flowers and trees, and when we got there my grandfather would have said to me; ‘You walk about now and see if you see the big man’. I would have known him just through photographs. I remember the first day I was looking for him I walked through all the grounds all day and couldn’t get this big man.

“But the second day, about 12 o’clock, I got him and the first run was back to where the flowers and shrubs were on show.”

Dr Paisley took some time out to speak to Maurice and his grandfather: “It was my granda’s delight. I think if he was alive today, he’d say it was as good as winning the lottery. My grandfather had a great insight into the future of politics, and he always predicted that Dr Paisley would lead unionists. He just loved to meet that man.”

A love of pipes bands is another thing Maurice shares with his father and grandfather, and the deputy mayor is a piper with Bready Ulster Scots Pipe Band.

“Both my children play as well. My father was a piper in the band in Manor. I am delighted to say I have a nephew playing in the band in Manor yet and they have won the all-Ireland two years in a row. So there’s a strong musical background. My mother’s two brothers both played in the band in Manor as well. I was a drummer in Manor, and when I got married and my son came along he got an interest in pipes and I took both the children along and I learned to play too. It was a man called Jim Eaton who taught me, he would have played with Faughan Valley and Cumber Claudy bands. I was playing at competition level in my second year.”

Another thing that keeps him busy is membership of the Loyal Orders - a member of the Royal Black Preceptory, Orange Order and Apprentice Boys, Maurice was recently reinstalled as No 1 District Master, “which is a great honour”, and was one of the founding members of Newbuildings Victoria LOL 1087.

With all this - the politics, piping and the numerous functions attended by a District Master, Maurice Devenney’s calendar is full, so how does he get away from it all?

“I love caravanning at weekends when I can get away, and love staying around Kesh, or Rosses Point in Sligo. It’s nice to get away for the odd weekend and recharge the batteries. The other interest is in vintage cars. I have a 1948 Austin 12, and a 1970 Jaguar XJ6. I just have a love of old cars: my father has quite a selection of vintage cars.

“Any weekend that I’m not going away in the caravan, I’d go out and work on cleaning my cars and take them for an odd run. They are totally different from the modern day car to drive.”

His political future has not yet been fully mapped and no doubt he will feel that he can accomplish much more, so long as the electorate keep marking their ‘X’ or 1, 2, or 3 against his name on the ballot paper.

But other thoughts of the future are also in his mind, such as when he might take on yet another role - and become a grandfather himself.

His son Maurice Junior is now 31, married and lives in Reigate, south of London, where he is a PE teacher, and his daughter Sarah is 26, engaged, and works for the Cedar Foundation.

“We’re still waiting on grandchildren, “ he replies to a question. “You never know when the news will come.”