Historical Happenings for September 2016

John Devoy

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

John DevoyWith 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.

Gaelic-AmericanHe 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!

Thomas J. Clarke

Every nation honors the memory of Patriots whose personal sacrifices contributed to their freedom.  In our United States, George Washington looms up larger than life as the personification of the American Revolution, even though Samuel Adams was its architect and Nathan Hale was a martyr for its cause. In Ireland’s struggle for independence, the Easter Rising of 1916 is the landmark rising that led to today’s Republic of Ireland.  It is the Lexington and Concord of Irish history when a handful of hopefuls stood firm against the might of England for the principle of freedom.  Padraig Pearse led the men of Easter Week and is the personification of the Easter Rising in the minds of many, yet the architect of that rising, and a man who also gave his life in its cause was Thomas J. Clarke.

Thomas Clarke was born in 1858 and raised in County Tyrone where the landlord-dominated Irish population had been reduced to a condition bordering on serfdom.  In August 1878, young Tom joined the ranks of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret revolutionary organization not unlike our own Sons of Liberty.  In 1881, his activities caused him to flee to New York where he became active in Clan na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement.  On a trip to England in 1883, he was captured and sentenced to life for Fenian activities.  Prison existence was so severe for Fenian prisoners that two men sentenced with him went insane under its conditions.  Clarke persevered however, and was released in 1898. The following year, he returned to the U.S., married Miss Kattie Daly and settled in Brooklyn. He returned to Fenian activities and was employed by an Irish-American newspaper edited by John Devoy, the most powerful figure in Clan na Gael.  Highly respected for the suffering he had endured for Irish freedom, Clarke became one of the Clan’s most trusted members.

In December 1907, he was sent to Ireland to rejuvenate the IRB. As the trusted link with the Irish exiles of Clan na Gael, he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Brotherhood and was one of its most powerful advocates of revolutionary action.  He plotted a course with young IRB organizer, Sean MacDiarmada, to replace inactive members of the Council with young militants and to attract new blood into the movement.  Clarke saw a young schoolteacher speak at a commemoration ceremony and invited him to deliver the 1913 oration at the grave of Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone, an annual event of considerable nationalist significance.  Within a few weeks, the young schoolteacher, Padraig Pearse, had joined the IRB.

As the most consistent advocate of revolutionary action, Clarke set the course that led to the Easter Rising.  With the start of the Irish Volunteer movement in 1913, Clarke insured that IRB men were on the provisional committee and Pearse became the critical link between the two groups.  In May of 1915, Clarke established a Military Council of the IRB; by year’s end, they had set a date for a rising. In January 1916, he brought labor leader, James Connolly, onto the Military Council, thereby securing the support of the Irish Citizen Army – a group formed to protect the workers during the great Dublin labor lock-out of 1913.  In February, Clarke informed Clan na Gael that a rising would take place in Dublin on Easter Sunday which would signal the start of a nation wide rebellion.

The confusion of events caused by Volunteer Chief of Staff MacNeill’s late cancellation of maneuvers, upset the original schedule and caused the historic decision to rise on the following day – Easter Monday.  It was not the rising that Clarke had planned, but a braver one in military terms since hope had vanished for a subsequent rising on a national scale.  Yet, it altered the course of the Irish nation, for Irish resentment to the brutality with which the rising was crushed led to her War of Independence.  The Easter Rising was led by Tom Clarke, Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamon Ceannt, Sean MacDiarmada, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh – all of whom were executed for their dreams.  Yet the respect and admiration of these leaders for their mentor was paramount.  Just prior to the rising, when the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was drawn up, the man given the honor of having his name affixed first was the veteran Fenian, Thomas J. Clarke.  His execution was significant because America did nothing while the Brits executed an American citizen.

In 1983, a sentence found in an old biography of Tom Clarke led to a remarkable search. The sentence referred to his relocation to Suffolk County without naming the town.  As AOH County Historian, I set up a committee to locate the homesite for its historic significance.  Intensive research through old books, records and conversations with recognized experts in the field, revealed little.  Finally, a search of deeds in the Town of Brookhaven archives produced two deeds showing that Thomas J. Clarke of Brooklyn had purchased 30 acres in Manorville in 1906, and an adjoining 30 in 1907.  The name on those deeds was verified to be the same as that found in the primary position on the historic Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Today, a monument of Wicklow Granite stands on the site of Clarke’s Long Island homestead, erected by the Suffolk County A.O.H. and where an annual commemoration ceremony is held for Clarke and all who died in the quest for Irish freedom.  In 1996, the name of Kathleen Daly Clarke was added to the monument in recognition of her great contribution to the cause.  Thomas J. and Kathleen D. Clarke were an inspired, as well as an inspirational couple.  They prepared a whole generation for liberty and guided them through its fulfillment.  In no other nation’s history can one find a husband and wife so actively devoted to the goal of freedom.

Kathleen Daly Clarke grew up enduring the harassment of alien soldiers aimed at her nationalist family yet, she voluntarily placed herself, and her three children in the position of enduring that harassment again, for the sake of Ireland. Together,  Tom and Katty taught the Irish to be proud of who they were, and inspired leaders among them to action.  It was Tom who called the men of Easter Week to their duty, and led them to their destiny.  And when that destiny turned out to be the ultimate sacrifice, he went proudly and defiantly to the wall, and fired the fury of the Irish nation.  When he did, Kathleen Daly Clarke was waiting to lead them to the final victory with the tools that he had fashioned.  She established a network of Prisoners Defense offices around the country to assist the dependents of those in jails and when the prisoners were released in a general amnesty, she chose the next leader as she handed the names, plans and assets of the IRB to Michael Collins who converted the offices to recruiting stations.  It was too perfect to have been orchestrated by the hand of man alone – there had to be some divine intervention.

After her life of service, Kathleen recorded that her only regret was refusing to allow a memorial to be erected in honor of her late husband.  Her logic was that as long as one person in Ireland still suffered as a result of the Rising, she could not sanction putting money  into bricks and mortar.  Years later, realizing that not even one street in Dublin had been named for Thomas J. Clarke, she regretted that position.  In 1987, when we erected this memorial to Thomas J. Clarke, Sam O’Reilly, one of the last surviving soldiers of the Easter Rising, and a man who had known the Clarkes in life, said to me, “Tom would have liked this.”  In 1996, when we added the Katty’s name to the monument, there were some who said that if you listened hard enough, you might have heard a woman’s voice saying, “I like it too.”

This year’s service was attended by National, State and County Officers and members of the AOH and LAOH.  The Siol na hEireann Irish Pipe Band of AOH Div 8 opened the service with a selection of patriotic tunes and National Historian, Mike McCormack gave a short address at the monument evoking the memory of Tom and Katty Clarke.  Two wreaths were then placed: one with green, white and orange flowers for deceased Irish patriots and one with red white and blue for Ireland’s deceased American supporters.  Siol na hEireann then closed the ceremony with A Nation Once Again and as the last notes were sounding, the thunder of motorcycles punctuated the reverie as the Hibernian Riders Motorcycle Club rode by in salute with Irish and American flags flying.  It was a stirring finish to an emotional ceremony.  The spectators then retired to a local Country Club for a Communion Mass and Breakfast in memory of Ireland’s patriots.