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Edith Newman Devlin (1926 - 2012):

Edith Devlin was for many years a highly popular and much admired teacher of literature in the Extra-mural department at Queen’s University, Belfast, where her classes began with a few dozen students, but grew to number several hundred and became well-known, and well-known about, not just in Ulster but beyond, on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Irish Times described her weekly course in literature thus: “Surely a contender for the most popular leisure course in Ireland, and something of a cultural phenomenon in its own right.” 

Edith Gaw was born in Dublin and with her siblings brought up in financially straitened but otherwise positive circumstances, in the gate lodge of St Patrick’s Hospital Dublin by her father, her mother having died young. She was educated at the Diocesan School for Girls and Alexandra College, followed by the University of Dublin, Trinity College, where she graduated in 1949 with first-class honours in English and French. In 1961 she moved to Belfast where she taught undergraduates at Queen’s University. In 1969 began to deliver lectures in the Extra-mural Department, which later changed its name several times: Open Learning, Lifelong Learning, Continuing Education have been some versions of what was the same enterprise, and Devlin’s lectures were most certainly representative of any or all of these, as her literature classes drew students from all over Ulster and beyond, some even travelling from Dublin to attend. Her knowledge of, enthusiasm for, and analytic and descriptive abilities about, a broad gamut of the literary canon, attracted a similarly wide professional and non-professional spectrum of the population, and of all age groups. Her outlook was broad: she once stated that Literature gave her students “a wider perspective and a greater understanding of what it is like to be a human being. It helps them to discover the essential self that lies under the worry and fret of everyday living.”

On another occasion she expanded on this. “I'm the only one offering the real classics. That's why so many people come back year after year. Two come up from Dublin, 10 come from Derry and one person comes from Sligo. This term we’re doing Rousseau and Augustine, and I try to show how great literature is just as relevant today as it ever was.” Her first course was entitled “ Love and the Woman Novelist”;  Devlin would later recall that someone inquired about the course clearly suspecting a rather more lascivious content. 

Nor did her pedagogy confine itself to the lecture hall – and by the 1990s only the largest of the University’s lecture theatres would suffice for the hundreds who enrolled to hear her – as there would be groups who went with her on foreign trips to amongst other locations the Middle East, South Africa and Namibia (her literary range encompassed, in translation, the fullest world canon) to benefit even more from her erudition and understanding of literary works and their concerns, as it were in situ. Even a chance meeting with her in the street was to brush with someone of unfailing and infectious good cheer as well as sharp intellect. All of her qualities, to which must be added energy, impelled her to continue her vocation well past what for many would be retirement age. She summed up her philosophy once this way: “In five, 10 years’ time, ask yourself this: ‘when did I last have a new idea?’ If you cannot remember, it is time to apply to the Institute of Open Learning!” 

Devlin never retired. On this point she stated: “You can keep this on till you drop."  Lifelong learning indeed. She was appointed MBE in 1988, and was awarded an honorary DLit from Queen’s University in 1993.

Born: 21 September 1926
Died: 2 July 2012
Richard Froggatt

The Irish Times 10.11.2012; A McCreary & BM Walker: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen’s, Belfast (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); Edith Newman Devlin: Speaking volumes: a Dublin childhood (Belfast: Blackstaff, 2000); private information; personal knowledge