Joseph Denieffe (1833 - 1910)

Founding member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood

Joseph Denieffe was born to Michael and Kathleen Denieffe in Kilkenny City, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland in 1833. Other than a brief reference to a brother and two sisters in his memoir titled  "A personal narrative of the Irish revolutionary brotherhood, giving a faithful report of the principal events from 1885 to 1867" there is sparse information available regarding other siblings, or for that matter, his early childhood, his family or his schooling.

Regarding his schooling it would be reasonable to assume that he attended one of the local primary schools that comprised the Irish National School System set-up in 1831 as a result of the passage of 'The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829'(1)  generally referred to as 'Catholic Emancipation'

After completing his formal education he started an apprenticeship in the tailoring trade.

 During his childhood years the fervor surrounding the repeal of the Act of Union of 1801 and the associated monster gathering that he attended with his father was a learning experience as well as a realization that all was not well with Ireland's forced union with Britain, a union wherein Ireland was the much-maligned junior partner, controlled and governed by the dictates of a London based parliament with little or no representation or regard for Ireland's working class.

Those early realizations and experiences set the stage for his life's journey.

Denieffe came of age in the 1840's, a tumultuous and tragic period in Irish history. Bedeviled by the lack of progress by Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association dissention and discord took root within its ranks. Its younger and brightest members, (referred to by O'Connell in derogatory terms as "Young Ireland") who were associated with The Nation newspaper seceded from the association after O'Connell introduced his "Peace Resolutions" declaring that physical force was immoral under any circumstances to obtain national rights. The "Peace Resolution" was a ploy by O'Connell to discredit the so-called "Young Irelanders" who at that time were not advocating militancy as a means of obtaining national rights. In January of 1847, the seceders, led by John Shine Lawlor, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas Francis Meagher formed the Irish Confederation.

In 1845, when Denieffe was 12 years old the onset of the Great Hunger(2) added to the unease and sense of foreboding prevalent throughout the country. What would be under normal circumstances, a serious but a manageable development, became a disaster of unimaginable proportion due to the willful negligence, indifference and callousness of the British authorities towards the starving millions. By the time the 'Great Hunger' ended in 1851 over a million men, women and children had died in a plentiful land and millions of others had taken to the coffin ships to escape certain death. 

Inspired by patriotic articles and poetry appearing in The Nation newspaper as well as fiery speeches by Meagher and other "Young Ireland" leaders, Denieffe was amongst the tens of thousands of young Irishmen who joined the Young Ireland movement at its formation in 1847. 

In 1848 a series of revolutions swept the continent of Europe. The first of these occurred in February in France where people power ended the reign of Louis Philippe. The news from France gave hope to the Young Irelanders who had given up on peaceful means as a way of achieving Repeal of the Union or relief for the starving people. They set about planning for insurrection.

In March, at a meeting of the Irish Confederation, Meagher championed the adoption of a message of congratulations to the French people. Afterwards he read a prepared speech that ended as follows; "If the government of Ireland insists on being a government of dragoons and bombardiers, of detectives and light infantry - then up with the barricades and invoke the God of Battles".

Alarmed by unfolding events in Europe and Ireland the British government's passed the "Treason Felony Act" to forestall insurrection in Ireland. Under the new law sedition (treason) would be punishable by death.

From the onset the planned insurrection was doomed to failure owing to a number of factors including the arrest of its leaders, the lack of military expertise, betrayals and, not least, the devastation wrought by the ongoing Great Hunger.   

John Mitchel, was one of the first "Young Ireland" leaders to be arrested and charged under the Treason Felony Act. With news of Mitchel’s arrest, William Smith O'Brien and other Young Ireland leaders took to the hills to avoid capture. From there they launched a series of attacks that eventually petered out in 1849.  John O'Mahony and his band of volunteers were one of the last to cease activities.  Other leaders including William Smith O'Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, James Stephens and Terence Bellew MacManus were eventually captured.  After sham trials they were either a sentence of death, tortured in English prisons or exiled to the infamous prison colony in Van Dieman's Land. 

There is no evidence to indicate that Denieffe was involved militarily in the failed Rising. However, by 1851, dispirited and wary of the ongoing repressive political situation in Ireland coupled with the stagnant economy he reluctantly joined the exodus out of Ireland; an unrelenting exodus of 2.5 million people that continued from the onset of the Great Hunger in 1845 through the 1850's. The vast majority of those brave individuals, including Denieffe, came to the United States.

After arriving in the United States he settled in New York City where he found employment in the tailoring business.  In the summer of 1855 he joined the Emmet Monument Association (EMA) a military styled organization, ostensibly, organized to erect a monument to Robert Emmet. The real purpose of the EMA was to organize and train young Irishmen for a rebellion in Ireland when the opportunity presented itself.   The EMA’s organizers, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny (former Young Irelander’s) believed that opportunity would present itself during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856); a conflict that pitted an alliance of the British, French and Ottoman Empires against the Russian Empire, primarily, to prevent it from taking control of areas of the Caucasus abandoned by the shrinking Ottoman Empire.   

 Sensing an opportunity to take advantage of Britain’s perceived vulnerability the EMA held secret meetings with Russians government representatives, in Washington D.C. to discuss an arrangement wherein Russian would provide logistical support for an Irish-American led rising in Ireland.  The reasoning was that  a rising in Ireland would stress the British military supply chain by having to divert men and materials from the Crimean theatre of operations to Ireland, a development that would help the Russians.  However, despite some early victories, Russia was not able to able to overcome the allied forces, consequently the tentative arrangement with the EMA did not materialize.    

 Shortly after joining the EMA in June of 1855 Denieffe returned to Ireland to visit with his father who was gravely ill.  Before leaving the Unites States he met with Doheny, O’Mahony and James Roche who directed him to organize and recruit foot soldiers as best he could for a rising in September.  After arriving there he met with John Haltigan who introduced him to other nationalists in Kilkenny town.  Haltigan also arranged meetings for Denieffe with other nationalists in Dublin. 

As a result of these meetings an  EMA branch was organized in Co. Kilkenny whose members included, in addition to Haltigan and Denieffe, Thomas Clark Luby, Peter Langan and Philip Grey.  Although Denieffe and his fellow members prepared as best they could for the promised September landing of men, supplies and military expertise from America they were not at all surprised it did not materialize knowing that such a grand plan was so dependent on the conduct and outcome of the Crimean War. In 1856 the EMA was dissolved and its members released from their pledges.

In the meantime James Stephens who had fled to France to avoid capture after the failed Young Ireland Rising of 1848 had returned to Ireland where he undertook a prolonged trek through Ireland meeting with fellow revolutionaries who were active in the Young Ireland movement. In the fall of 1857 a messenger arrived from O’Mahony in New York asking Stephens to setup a sister organization in Ireland to the Fenian Brotherhood (FB)(3)  founded by O’Mahony and Doheny in New York.

In late December of 1857 Denieffe returned to the United States with a letter from Stephens stating that such an organization would be setup if bankrolled by the FB in the United States. Denieffe returned to Ireland in March of 1858 with sufficient funds to seed the organization. On St. Patrick Day in 1858 the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood was founded in Dublin by Stephens, Luby Denieffe, Langan, Charles Kickham, and Garrett O'Shaughnessy.

 For the next year Denieffe spent much of his time recruiting and organizing for the nascent IRB.  In March of 1859 he was summoned to Paris by Stephens with other leaders to bone up on military affairs. After a four month stay in Paris he returned to Dublin.

After his return to Dublin in the fall of 1959 he set up a tailoring business that afforded him a good living. Around the same time he met his future wife, Mary Ann Doyle, whom he later married.

For the following eight years until his final hurried departure for the United States in 1867 he was a leading figure in recruiting and organizing for the IRB.  A modest and unassuming individual he managed to remain above suspicion by avoiding the limelight and by the makeup of his clients he served, which he himself described as “some of Her Majesty’s most devoted servants”.  His premises in South Ann Street was a safe meeting place for the leadership of the IRB. 

Following the seizure of The Irish People newspaper by the British authorities in September of 1865 a series of arrest of IRB leaders, including Denieffe, took place on charges of high treason.  After a few months in jail Denieffe was released on bail awaiting trial.  Due to the sheer number of Fenians awaiting trial  he remained free on bond for up to two years. 

 During the period he very much involved in the day-to-day affairs of the IRB and participated in the planning for the Rising scheduled for the early months of 1867. He was also one of the trusted leaders made aware of Stephens planned extraction from the Richmond Bridewell prison in Dublin in 1865 as well as the rescue of Col. Kelly and Deasy from a prison van in Manchester in September of 1867. 

After the military tribunals that tried Irish-born soldiers in the British army who had taken the Fenian oath ended, and the Special Commission set up to try IRB leaders, many of whom were Irish-Americans, completed its task the time had come for the remaining Fenians to face a hostile Judge and a packed jury.  For men such as Denieffe, whose name had surfaced on numerous occasions during the trials of other Fenians, it was decision time. Denieffe choose to leave the country rather than face a predictable guilty verdict and a long prison sentence.  His wife and child whom he left behind joined him later in the Unites States.

For the rest of his life he lived in The United States. He established a successful tailoring business in Chicago. He diligently worked for the rest of his life with John Devoy and others within Clan na Gael to advance the cause of freedom freedom. 

 In the early 1900’s he wrote a series of articles for the New York newspaper ‘The Gael’ relating to his involvement with the IRB  The articles were later published as a book entitled ‘A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood’, giving a faithful report of the principal events from 1885 to 1867". ,

Joseph Denieffe died in Chicago, on 20th April, 1910. For all the years he worked for Irish freedom he did so, for the most part, behind the scene, never seeking the limelight or claiming credit for his service.

Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


1.  The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 (Catholic Emancipation) removed many of the draconian restrictions placed on Catholics by earlier Acts of British parliaments including the Act of Uniformity, the Test Acts and the Penal Laws.

Those who benefited mostly from Emancipation were the Catholic middle classes who were allowed to take seats in the British parliament, work for the civil service or the judiciary, organs of the British Administration in Ireland. A case in point was Daniel O'Connell, who led the Emancipation Campaign, became a member of the British Parliament.

Although the working classes did not fare as well as the middle classes after emancipation they were able, for the first time in centuries, to practice their faith and provide their children with a basic education.  However, under regulations set forth by the British controlled governing body teaching of the Irish language and Irish history was forbidden. Despite such restriction and other poverty based obstacles, their children, nonetheless, ranked higher in literacy than their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.

2.   In 1861 Mitchel wrote The Last Conquest of Ireland  in which he  accused England of "deliberate murder" for their actions during the 1845 Irish famine. An excerpt from the book reads as follows;

A million and a half of men, women and children, were carefully, prudently, and peacefully slain by the English government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance, which their own hands created; and it is quite immaterial to distinguish those who perish in the agonies of famine itself from those who died of typhus fever, which in Ireland is always caused by famine.

Further, I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island, that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call that famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight of the potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud - second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine....

3.  The United States based Fenian Brotherhood was a direct successor to the EMA as was Clan na Gael to the Fenian Brotherhood.

 cemetery AND grave location

NAME:     Calvary Cemetery             PHONE NO.                                           

ADDRESS:   Evanston. Cook County, Illinois, USA

LOCATION:    Plot: Section S, Block 43, Lot S5



Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                                                             Posted 5/5/2016