by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
With the 1916 Rising commemorations behind us, it may be time to reflect on those who played a major part, but were not mentioned many of the ceremonies. One of those was John Devoy, who was called the greatest of the Fenians by Padraic Pearse. Devoy was born near Kill in Co. Kildare, on Sept 3, 1842. When still a small boy, his family moved to Dublin where they enjoyed a modest prosperity. Devoy’s father had been an active nationalist in the 1840’s and John naturally absorbed a nationalist inclination to his character, but of a more advanced kind.
In 1861, he joined the 3-year-old international revolutionary society known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and the Fenian Brotherhood in America. Seeking military experience, the 19-year old youth joined the French Foreign Legion and served in Algeria for a year before returning to Ireland to bring his military learning to the brotherhood and work as an IRB organizer in Naas, County Kildare. James Stephens, founder of the IRB, appointed Devoy chief organizer with the important and dangerous assignment of recruiting among the Irish serving in the British Army. Constantly risking arrest, his success was nevertheless considerable. In 1865, the British took action against the IRB and, through spies and informers, identified and arrested many of the leaders including James Stephens. In November, 1865, Devoy led a group which successfully arranged the escape of Stephens from a Dublin jail. Devoy believed that the IRB should rise in arms against the Crown while the organization was at its strongest and began planning for that event. In February 1866, an IRB Council of War called for an immediate uprising, but Stephens refused, much to Devoy’s annoyance since he had calculated the loyal Irish force in the British Army to number 80,000. The British learned of the plan through informers and moved the compromised regiments abroad, replacing them with loyal British regiments from England. Early in 1866, Devoy himself was betrayed, arrested and interned in Mountjoy Jail before being tried for treason and sentenced to 15-years penal servitude. In Portland Prison, Devoy organized prison strikes and was moved to Millbank Prison. While in prison, he learned that the rising he had planned took place in 1867 and had failed.
Freed in January, 1871, under a general amnesty, he sailed to America into an exile that was part of the amnesty agreement. Arriving on the ship CUBA with four other IRB men hailed as the “Cuba Five”, they were met by local and NY State politicians and even received an address of welcome from the House of Representatives. Devoy made his home in the United States where he continued his fight for Irish independence as part of the American counterpart of the IRB – the Fenian Brotherhood. When the Fenians changed their direction and sought to invade Canada and swap it to England for Ireland, those who remained committed to the original Fenian idea of a rising in Ireland broke with them and formed the Napper Tandy club. The Napper Tandy club grew larger in time as the Fenians Canadian invasions failed and adopted the name Clan na Gael. Devoy, living in New York, apart from a short time in Chicago, eventually became the dominant force in Clan na Gael. Under Devoy’s leadership, the Clan became the most important Irish Republican organization in the United States and Ireland. While actively leading Clan na Gael, he became a journalist for the New York Herald and learned the publishing business.
In 1875, Devoy and John Boyle O’Reilly organized the daring rescue of six Fenians from the British Penal Colony at Fremantle in Western Australia aboard the ship Catalpa. In 1878, He financed the development of the first submarine built by Co. Clare-born John Holland to attack British shipping. In 1879, Devoy secretly returned to Ireland to inspect Fenian centres and met Charles Kickham, John O’Leary and Michael Davitt on route in Paris. It was on this trip that he convinced Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell to co-operate in the “New departure” during the growing Land War. In 1877, he had strengthened ties between the Clan and the IRB in Ireland and urged the IRB to subscribe to his ‘New Departure’ and move Irish nationalism into the arena of Parliamentary debate. This position was unpopular with the more militant faction who favored an armed rising and Devoy was severely criticized. Yet he stuck to his position for he realized, like all true revolutionaries, that tactics must change with circumstances and it was his opinion that in a shrinking world the support of other nations could be mustered to pressure England into terms.
He operated a newspaper called The Gaelic American which advocated his cause and, unfortunately, engaged in bitter and personal controversies with critics and opponents of his policy within the nationalist camp. He remained however, committed to nationalist principles and returned to militant nationalism as he saw a European conflict on the horizon that would involve Britain. He hired Thomas J. Clarke – the veteran Fenian – as an editor in 1898 and the two raised the consciousness of Irish America to Irish nationalism. In 1907, with Devoy’s approval, Clarke returned to Ireland from his Long Island home to rejuvenate the IRB with Devoy’s support from America. The IRB had grown dormant due to inactivity and poor recruiting and Clarke, the future 1916 leader, and John Devoy were thereafter closely involved with the revival of the IRB and the planning of the Easter Rising. In 1914, Padraic Pearse visited the elderly Devoy in America, and later the same year Roger Casement worked with Devoy in raising money for guns to arm the Irish Volunteers. Devoy even sent a plan to the German Embassy in New York outlining German support against England. In early 1916, he played an important role in the formation of the Clan-dominated Friends of Irish Freedom at the third Irish Race Convention, a funding organization whose membership totaled 275,000. After America entered the war on the British side, discretion proved the better part of valor and such activity would have been interpreted as anti-American so Devoy continued to work his cause as pro-Irish rather than anti-English. In all, Devoy did more than anyone to secure American support for the nationalists before, during and after the Easter Rising of 1916.
Devoy lived long enough to finally see the establishment of an Irish state although, like Michael Collins, he regarded the treaty of 1921-22 as not the end of a struggle but merely another step on the road to total freedom. He supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formative Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War, and was an honored guest of the new state in 1924 when he visited Ireland for the last time. On September 30, 1928, he died in Atlantic City, New Jersey and his body now rests in Irish soil in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. His life of struggle, prison, and exile had but one purpose – freedom for the Irish people and his native land. In pursuit of these goals he became one of the most notable revolutionaries in a century of revolution. He dedicated over 60 years of his life to the cause of Irish freedom and is one of the few people to have played a leading role in the rebellion of 1867, the 1916 Rising and the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921). In October, 2015, a statue of John Devoy was unveiled in Naas, Co. Kildare, aided primarily by the Kildare Association of New York, which partly funded the monument. The goal to keep his memory alive is a worthy one for he was a worthy Irishman!