John Devoy (1842-1928)

John Devoy was born on September 3, 1842 at Greenhills between Kill and Johnstown in Co. Kildare into a staunch nationalist family. His father was active in nationalist circles in Kildare and his grandfather, on his mother’s side, was a veteran of the 1798 Rising. 

At the onset of the famine in 1845 the family moved to Dublin. Devoy received his education at the Christian Brothers O’Connell’s School on North Richmond Street and at the Model School in Marlborough Street. After completing his education he worked as a monitor (student teacher) at the Model School in Strand Street. 

 He later attended classes the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin.  He also attended Irish classes where he came in contact with members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood whose aim was to end British rule in Ireland and establish an Irish Republic. When or how he became a member of the IRB is unclear, but it can be safely assumed that it was during that period of his life.

In 1861, Devoy joined T. D. Sullivan's National Petition Movement and subsequently traveled to France with a letter of introduction from Sullivan to John Mitchel. While in France he joined the French Foreign Legion, ostensivelv to gain military experience for the coming war with England.  After serving for a year on the Algerian front he returned to Ireland where he was tasked with organizing the IRB in the Naas area of Kildare.

 In 1865 when many of the IRB leaders were arrested James Stephens appointed Devoy Chief Organizer of the IRB in the British Army in Ireland.  His task was to recruit Irishmen in British regiments to join the IRB and be ready to fight for Irish independence when the time came. By the time he was arrested in 1866 his efforts and that of other recruiters had given the IRB oath to as many as 15,000 men serving in British regiments.

In November of 1865 after Stephens was arrested and imprisoned in a remote wing of the heavily guarded Richmond prison in Dublin, Devoy organized and participated in Stephens' escape, which was implemented flawlessly with the help of IRB operatives John J. Breslin and Daniel Byrne who were prison warders. Stephens hid out in Dunlin for a number of months before fleeing to France to avoid being recaptured.

In February of 1866, the IRB Council of War, aware that the British knew of their plans from informers, met to discuss plans for an immediate insurrection.  Devoy argued passionately for immediate action, as he believed it was their best chance of success; having an IRB force of 80,000 ready to strike. Stephens, who as early as 1864 had called for an insurrection, refused to go along, Stephen’s refusal, was the beginning of the end of his influence within the IRB. Colonel Thomas J. Kelly replaced him as head of the IRB in December of 1866.

 In February of 1866, Devoy was arrested at Pilsworth Pub in James Street, Dublin, while attending an IRB meeting and interned in Mountjoy Jail. He was charged with 'treason' and sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude. Having served five year of his sentence in Portland, Millbank and Chatam prisons he was released in the British government's general amnesty of 1870. Behind the "generosity" of the general amnesty was heavy pressure by the U.S. government to free the scores of former U.S. Army (and several Confederate Army) personnel, including generals and colonels who had gone to Ireland to participate in the uprising of 1867. The U.S. government intervention was the result of Fenian instigated pressure, primarily in letters from John Savage to president Ulysses S. Grant. 

Those released were required to leave the country and not return until the term of their sentence had expired. Devoy together with Charles Uderwood O'Connell, John McClure, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, and Henry Mulleda came to America.  The  'Cuba Five', so-called after the vessel they sailed on, arrived in New York in January of 1871 to a hero's welcome. They were also officially honored by a resolution of the United States House of Representatives.

After settling down in the New York Devoy worked as a journalist for the New York Herald. He also became a member of the Clan na Gael (CNAG) whose mission was "complete and absolute independence of Ireland from Great Britain, and the complete severance of all political connections between the two countries by unceasing preparation for armed insurrection in Ireland".  He became the head of the New York City chapter, which would grow to be the largest in the US.  He was the most vocal advocate in seeking America’s help in achieving  "genuine democracy and authentic republicanism" for the Irish, nothing more or less what America demanded of itself. 

In 1875, in one of the boldest and most imaginative exploits in Irish American history Devoy, John J. Breslin and other CNAG leaders approved a plan devised by John Boyle O'Reilly to rescue several Fenian compatriots from their prison in Fremantle, Australia. Breslin and Thomas Desmond who had arrived in Australia towards the end of 1875, using false identities, coordinated the ensuing escape. On April 17, 1876 six Fenian prisoners were extracted from the prison and placed aboard the whaling ship Catalpa captained by George Smith Anthony. Shortly after the escapees boarded the Catalpa it was set upon by a British naval cutter demanding their surrender. In response, Captain Anthony ran up the Stars and Stripes, challenging the cutter to fire upon the American flag.

During a visit to Ireland in 1879, Devoy met with Charles Kickham, John O'Leary, leading figures of the IRB, and Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League, ostensibly to better align their effort to free Ireland from the ravages of British imperialism. Shortly after returning to the United States, with a better understanding of the Irish perspective, he entered into an informal agreement dubbed the  “New Departure,” with Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell to create a united front that would include a combination of physical force, agrarian agitation and constitutional nationalism. In 1880, in support of that agreement, Devoy together with Parnell and Davitt embarked on a tour of the United States to raise awareness and funds for the suffering tenant farmers and the poor in Ireland.

In conjunction with that tour, Parnell's sisters, Fanny and Anna and other women activists, founded the Ladies Land League here in the United States to raise awareness, demonstrate solidarity and collect funds for embattled farmer tenants in Ireland.

By 1880 fissures were developing within CNAG.  Seen by many as too moderate, Devoy and Dr. Carroll lost their seats on the Executive Committee at the 1881 convention in Chicago as a result of delegate stacking by Alexander Sullivan, Michael Boland and Denis Feeley collectively known as the ‘Triangle’.  For the next eight years the organization was in turmoil with at least three factions engaging in independent operations including the Dynamite Campaign in England and the Bombing of the Welland Canal in Canada.  To make matters worse Sullivan brought the British spy, Henri Le Caron, into CNAG and, to cap it all off, had Dr Carroll murdered. The ensuing publicity surrounding the trial of Carroll's killers exposed the inner workings of the CNAG.

In 1900, after the murder trial of Carroll killers and the reign of the 'Triangle' ended, Devoy with the help of Joe Dillon and others managed to reconcile the various factions on the basis of a firm commitment to military struggle. From then on CNAG supported many of the Irish nationalist projects including the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and the Irish Volunteers and worked tirelessly to promote anti-British feeling and prevent the entry of the United States into the war on the side of Britain.

In 1914, Devoy took a leading role in promoting a lecture tour of the United States by Patrick Pearse to save Saint Edna’s School from closure. That same year he hosted Roger Casement, later funding his mission to Germany to procure arms and to recruit Irish prisoners of war for service in the Irish Volunteers

CNAG, under Devoy’s' leadership, was the chief source of funds and arms for the 1916 Easter Rising.

Devoy was kept abreast of plans leading up to the Rising, being in the confidence of Clarke, Pearse and Joseph Plunkett. He wanted to take part in the Rising but could not get travel documents in time.

He addressed Dail Eireann in 1919, and considered Eamonn De Valera to be an arrogant opportunist and a dangerous demagogue with little or no respect for or understanding of Irish-American politics.

Although gravely disappointed with the Anglo-Irish Treaty he reluctantly accepted it as a first step in a process leading to a 32-county Irish Republic. Many believe that Devoy's reluctant acceptance of the Treaty was influenced by his distrust of  DeValera, who as President of Dail Eireann, was responsible for selecting members of the delegation sent to London to negotiate terms of the 'Treaty'.  DeValera gave the delegation authority to accept the terms offered by the British without the prior approval of Dail Eireann.  Devoy believed, as did many others, that DeValera knew beforehand  that  the outcome would be less that an All Ireland Republic and  that he, De Valera would term the outcome a 'Sellout' to discredit members of the delegation he believed would get in the way of his own future plans and ambitions.

John Devoy passed away on September 29, 1928 in Atlantic City New Jersey. His body was returned to Ireland for burial in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

Devoy's writing included Land of Erin published in 1882, Recollections of an Irish Rebel was published posthumously in 1929.  He was editor of the Gaelic American from 1903 until his death in 1928 .He was a regular political contributor to the Irish-American newspapers.


Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


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