Jim Devlin: The Coalisland collosus who conquered club and county scene

Tyrone club Coalisland Fianna is set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of their former championship winning captain and county and colleges legend Jim Devlin, who was murdered along with his wife Gertie, by a loyalist gang on May 7, 1974

Jim Devlin
Jim Devlin at full-back making a magnificent catch in the 1956 Ulster final in Clones.

On the night of Tuesday May 7, 1974, Gertie Devlin drove the few miles from their isolated home in the townland of Congo to Coalisland to collect her husband Jim from work at the family bar on Main Street.

After stopping in the town for Jim to get fish and chips at a takeaway, they made their way home.

It was here that members of the murderous Glenanne Gang lay in wait.

They were killed instantly and their 17-year-old daughter Patricia was seriously injured.

They also had three younger sons, Colm (16), John (14) and Eamon (12).

It was a double murder that shocked the community, and the entire GAA world.

Jim Devlin was a household name in Tyrone during a prolific career in the 1940s and 1950s.

At the time of his death, he had been the last Coalisland Fianna captain to lift the O’Neill Cup, awarded to the Tyrone senior football champions, in 1955.

He was also on the St Patrick’s College, Armagh team that won the inaugural Hogan Cup competition (1946) and the first Tyrone team to win the Ulster Senior Championship (1956).

A class act in schools’ football

Jim Devlin was one of the greats, not only of club and county football, but also with St Patrick’s College, Armagh during the 1940s.

He won four MacRory Cup medals (1944-47 inclusive) a record he shares with Dermot McNicholl of Derry, and, in 1946, was on the St Patrick’s College team that won the first Hogan Cup competition.

It is a final that went down in the annals of college football. Captained by Pat O’Neill from Keady, Jim lined out with his brother Eddie and club-mate Liam Campbell.

The great Iggy Jones of Dungannon Clarke’s gave an exhibition that day in Croke Park as St Patrick’s beat St Jarlath’s of Tuam in a thrilling game, 3-11 to 4-7.

Jim Devlin
1946 Hogan Cup winners St Patrick's College, Armagh..Jim front row second from right. Capt Dr Pat O'Neill will be special guest at commemoration night for Jim.

Jones notched up three goals and four points while Jim held the line at full-back. Dr Pat O’Neill, who collected the first ever Hogan Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand, resides in Omagh, and was recently a guest at the MacRory Cup centenary final, ironically between two Tyrone schools - Omagh CBS beating St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon.

It is estimated that around 5,000 supporters from counties Armagh and Tyrone flocked to welcome the young heroes on their return the following night.

They were paraded through the streets of Armagh by Blackwater, Ballycrummey and Keady Pipe Bands. It would not be the last time Jim would enjoy such scenes of acclaim.

In 1944, he captained the Fianna to win the Tyrone minor championship and two years later in 1946 (age 17), was on the Fianna team that won the senior championship, lining out alongside his brothers Paddy, Barry and Eddie.

It was the first of his two O’Neill Cup medals. 1946 was quite a year for Jim as he also captained Tyrone to win the Ulster minor title in his last year playing in that age group.

The following year, Jim’s brother Eddie famously captained Tyrone minors to their very first All-Ireland minor victory, winning the Thomas Markham Cup.

Jim and Eddi,e and a number of those young players, including Iggy Jones, John Joe O’Hagan, Mick Cushnahan, Donal Donnelly and Mick McElkenny made their way to the Tyrone senior ranks.

The O’Neill county finally become Kings of Ulster

After lining out at different positions for his club, county and province during the 50s, Jim became an established full-back, hailed as one of the best in the land.

1956 will forever be etched in the history of Tyrone football. There were scenes of great jubilation as the Ulster title at last made its way to the O’Neill county.

Captained by fellow club player Jody O’Neill, Tyrone beat the Ulster kingpins Cavan in Clones

In his book, ‘The GAA in Tyrone – The Long Road to Glory’ historian Joseph Martin wrote: “Amid scenes of unprecedented enthusiasm and excitement, supporters carried their heroes triumphantly from the field.

“As they looked at the scoreboard which read: Cavan 0-4 Tyrone 3-5, they could hardly believe that on that great day, Sunday 29 July, 1956, they had finally laid the Cavan bogey. At long last, Tyrone were Ulster senior champions.

“... For Jim Devlin in particular, who had served Tyrone in many positions in both defence and attack over a period of many years and who had often borne the brunt of many an opposing attack, the victory was a source of particular satisfaction.

“There is no doubt that his return to the full-back position, where his fine fielding, his great positional sense, his ability to block out an opposing full-forward and his coolness under pressure were a source of inspiration to his younger colleagues, and one of the key factors in Tyrone’s Ulster wins in 1956 and 1957.”

Joe Martin went on to describe the joy across Tyrone as crowds came out to welcome home the conquering heroes.

He wrote: “From Pomeroy they made their way to Coalisland, home of their captain Jody O’Neill, where they were greeted by thousands of enthusiastic followers.

“Huge bonfires blazed as the team, led by St Malachy’s Pipe Band, Edendork , playing O’Neill’s March, made its way through the town.

“Once again, tributes were paid to the magnificent display of the team, and there was a special welcome for the two Coalisland representatives, Jody O’Neill and Jim Devlin, both of whom contributed so much to Tyrone’s victory.

“Throughout the county, old and young forgot the long years of waiting and disappointment, as they retold the story of the great game and relived every moment of Tyrone’s historic achievement. It was an hour awaited; it was one they wanted to savour to the full.”

Jim Devlin
Jody O'Neill leads Tyrone in the pre-match parade at the 1956 All Ireland semi-final against Galway. Down the line Jim Devlin appears to be looking across sizing up his opponent, the great forward Frank Stockwell, who he kept scoreless.
Taming the ‘Terrible Twins’

Back in those days, a provincial win was the only route to All-Ireland glory.

Tyrone came so agonisingly close in the 1956 All Ireland semi-final.

Although it was heartbreak for the Red Hands, it was arguably Jim’s finest hour when they were narrowly beaten by Galway who went on to win the Sam Maguire Cup.

Known as ‘The Terrible Twins’, the Tribesmen’s dynamic duo Frank Stockwell and Sean Purcell, had been carving up opposing defences that year.

The story goes that the night before the game, both teams were staying in Barry’s Hotel in Dublin. Purcell is said to have heard Jim Devlin say he would be able to take Stockwell.

A wager of £5 was set as Jim produced a ‘big white fiver’ inviting Sean Purcell to match it.

Jim was true to his word and kept Stockwell scoreless.

To put this in perspective, the Galway forward was the highest scorer in the Championship that year and went on to notch up a record 2-5 in the All-Ireland final against Cork.

In all the excitement and tumult after the game, the wager was forgotten.

Decades later, Purcell was a guest at a Tyrone dinner in Dungannon and recalled the story. He told the gathering he still had Jim Devlin’s fiver at home, framed.

Tyrone were defeated by two points (0-8 to 0-6) with the Galway keeper Jack Mangan making a fantastic save in the dying seconds to deny Iggy Jones a winning goal.

It was a huge disappointment for Tyrone who came so close to reaching the final.

Galway captain Mangan said afterwards: “It was the longest hour I have known in football” while the headline in the Irish Express exclaimed: ‘Tyrone rally thrilled 54,454 spectators’.

It was an era before All Star Awards (which were inaugurated in 1971) however leading GAA writer Joe Sheridan of the Evening Press, based in Dublin, nominated Jim Devlin as ‘Player of the Year’.

The following year when Tyrone again won the Ulster championship (captained by Eddie Devlin) Jim was picked for an Irish Select to play the Combined Universities team.

Jim Devlin
Jim Devlin captained his club Coalisland Fianna to win the senior championship, the O'Neill Cup, in 1955.
Captaining Coalisland to glory

Jim was captain of Coalisland Fianna when they won their sixth senior county championship in 1955.

It was another day of great celebration as they beat near neighbours Dungannon Clarkes, 2-6 to 2-4.

The report in the Dungannon Observer that week was headlined: ‘Dramatic finish to football final: Coalisland’s hour of glory at Pomeroy’.

It began: “Jim Devlin inspired Coalisland who, over their first-half jitters, had just put the ball in the Dungannon net twice inside three minutes, were away out in front by no less than eleven points, and seem to have the game all wrapped up with a victory stamp”.

“However the Clarkes made a stunning comeback but the Fianna held on for victory.

Again supporters celebrated with the players and back in the town “the team was greeted by a band and large crowds. The Fianna had reached the top again”.

Ever magnanimous in victory, the local publication recorded, “And in quiet of the dressing room after the game, captain Jim Devlin says his piece, ‘Dungannon are a wonderful team. They made a great fight of it.’”

A tough nut to to crack

Jim Devlin was by all accounts a tough man. Remarked as an unlikely looking ‘stocky’ full-back, he had a salmon leap and positional sense that commanded his area.

There was the story of a young lad making his debut for the club and Jim advised him to stick with his man in the corner while he minded what was known as the parallelogram.

A high ball came in and a number of players clashed in an effort to get possession.

When the dust settled, the Fianna rookie was lying on the ground injured and Jim bent over him and reassuredly said, “You were trespassing son”.

Jim and Gertie Devlin on their wedding day. They were murdered by a loyalist gang, in collusion with members of the UDR, on May 7, 1974.
Jim and Gertie Devlin on their wedding day. They were murdered by a loyalist gang, in collusion with members of the UDR, on May 7, 1974.
A move into administration and a spell on the stage

Devlin retired from the game through injury in 1960, and it speaks volumes for the esteem in which he was held, as that year he was elected chairman of Tyrone County Board at the age of 32.

He also took up the whistle and refereed club games. Patsy Forbes, former Ardboe and Tyrone player, and Honorary President of Tyrone GAA, recalled a match Jim officiated at the Loughshore.

It was an evening club match in Ardboe. The play was fast and brilliant and at times venomous.

Players from both sides were complaining bitterly to Jim Devlin and once the final whistle went, they continued to do so. Finally Jim decided to end the cribbing.

“So he stood at the top of the field” Patsy recalled, “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 walked off on his own. So he was a good referee in that way!”

Jim also got involved in local drama and proved to be a decent actor and excellent ballad singer. His wife Gertie (nee Fox) also had a love of arts.

They both appeared together in light operas and shows like Die Fledermaus and Show Boat. Gertie was very popular locally and was a librarian in Coalisland when the library first opened in 1969.

Children and adults alike flocked to the new library to be greeted by the welcoming smiles of Gertie and her dear friend Grace Hamilton.


Jim and Gertie’s murder shocked the local community of Coalisland but it was part of a wider and brutal campaign by what became known as the Glennane Gang.

The loyalist gang, which is believed to have killed around 120 people, included members of the RUC, UDR and UVF.

In her book ‘Lethal Allies – British Collusion In Ireland’ investigate journalist Anne Cadwallader, of the Pat Finuncane Centre, drew on thorough research that included forensic and ballistic information, official documents showing that the highest in the land knew of the collusion and the names of those whose fingers were on the trigger and who detonated bombs, as well as previously unpublished reports written by the PSNI’s own Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

The Pat Finucane Centre, who investigated the murders of the Devlins, was satisfied that there was UDR collusion in the killings.

A UDR member (the driver) served ten years for his part in the murders, however the gun men whose names were given to the RUC, were never charged. One of the other two suspects was a part-time member of the UDR.

It was a double murder that shocked not only the local and wider Tyrone community but also the whole of Ireland.

A huge crowd, that included leading GAA officials and Jim’s old team-mates and adversaries from his playing days, attended the funeral at St Malachy’s Church, Edendork.

Jim and Gertie were laid to rest in the adjoining graveyard.


Coalisland Fianna club and Tyrone GAA are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jim and Gertie Devlin.

The Jim Devlin Cup competition, which takes place between senior club teams in Tyrone is being played for the first time since 2008 this year.

Jim’s grandson James will present the cup to the winning captain.

The cup was presented by members of the 1956/1957 Tyrone teams that won the Ulster championship and has been on display in Garvaghey GAA centre.

Coalisland Fianna will also lay a wreath in memory of Jim and Gertie on their anniversary today and a Mass will be said in their honour. It is expected that several team-mates of Jim will be in attendance.

There will also be a display of photographs and newspaper cuttings in the ‘Big Hall’ at the Coalisland club, over the coming week, remembering Jim’s playing career and all those club, county and college players who lined out with him as well as the officials at the Fianna club during those decades.

Coalisland Fianna Chairman, Gerard McStravick, said: “For those old enough to remember those dark days, the murders of Jim and Gertie stunned this community.

“It is important their story is told and to remember their contribution.

“Jim was a magnificent footballer who gave so much to the Fianna, Tyrone and Armagh college.

“We are also paying tribute to those trailblazers who played alongside Jim during the 1940s and ‘50s.”

* The Jim Devlin Cup final will be held at Fr Peter Campbell Park, home of Coalisland Fianna, on Wednesday, May 8. Throw-in: 7:30pm.