John Devoy. Forgotten hero, unrepentant rebel

By James Durney

In 1865 James Stephens, the founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), appointed John Devoy Chief Organiser of the Fenians in the British army. John Devoy was born at Greenhills, between Kill and Johnstown, near Naas, in 1842. His father was a tenant on the nearby Palmerstown estate and John Devoy attended school in Kill village. His maternal grandfather, John Dunne, took part in the Battle of Naas, during the 1798 Rebellion, when 350 rebels captured an artillery piece, forcing the British to retreat to Ballymore-Eustace.

John Devoy joined the French Foreign Legion when he was nineteen to gain military experience. He was posted to Algeria, but deserted a year later and returned to Ireland, joining the IRB, or as it was commonly known, the Fenian Brotherhood. Devoy concentrated on the Dublin barracks and the Curragh Camp, recruiting hundreds of men into the Fenians. Of the 26,000 regular troops stationed in Ireland, sixty per cent were Irish with an estimated 8,000 of these being Fenians. Of the militia force of 12,000, half were Fenians, while the army in England had some 7,000 men bound by the Fenian oath. Devoy based all his hopes of a successful insurrection on a mutiny in the British army. He argued that lack of arms and trained men were the cause of past failures. Now, there were many inadequately guarded arsenals and thousands of well-trained soldiers ready to change sides.

In 1865, the Fenians began preparing for a rebellion. They had about 6,000 firearms and had as many as 50,000 men willing to fight. In September 1865, the British moved to close down the Fenians’ newspaper The Irish People and arrested much of the leadership, including James Stephens and Thomas Clarke Luby. In 1866, habeas corpus was suspended in Ireland and there were hundreds more arrests of Fenian activists, among them John Devoy. The rising took place in 1867, but it proved unco-ordinated and fizzled out in a series of skirmishes. When it became apparent that the rising that had been planned was not transpiring, most rebels simply went home.

Sentenced to fifteen years John Devoy served five years until an amnesty in 1871 allowed him to leave for America. With four other pardoned men,Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Henry Mulleda, Charles Underwood O’Connell and John McClure, he received an address of welcome from the US House of Representatives. Devoy became a journalist for the New York Herald and was active in the secret Clan Na Gael (Family of the Irish).  Under Devoy’s leadership, Clan na Gael became the most important Irish republican organisation in the United States and Ireland. He aligned the organisation with the IRB in 1877. Barred from returning to Ireland Devoy travelled to Europe, where he conferred with Charles Stewart Parnell in Boulogne. A basis for the New Departure was reached and at subsequent meetings details were planned and implemented. Devoy and Michael Davitt planned the Land League, which organised rent strikes and agitation on estates throughout the country. By 1880, the New Departure was in full swing: Parnell, Davitt and Devoy rallying Home Rulers, Land Leaguers and Fenians in a united camp.

Devoy lived in New York and had important allies among the Irish-American community. From the moment he woke up in the morning until he slept at night John Devoy worked tirelessly for the cause of Irish freedom. In his offices of the Gaelic American, where he was editor from 1903 to his death, he wrote letters and articles and stoked in every way possible his hatred for England. He organised the Catalpa escape; assisted in fund-raising efforts for the Irish Volunteers and other Irish organisations; and negotiated for arms from Germany for the 1916 Rising. A tough pragmatic man, Devoy argued with Éamon de Valera when he arrived in America in 1919 to secure funding during the Irish War of Independence.

Devoy later supported the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formative Irish Free State. As an honoured guest of the Irish Free State in July 1924, he visited Naas and his birthplace near Kill.John Devoy died in New York City on 29 September 1928, aged eighty-six. His body was returned to Ireland and buried with full honours in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery on 26 June 1929. The Times of London, the voice of the British establishment, unwittingly saluted John Devoy by saying he was ‘the most bitter and persistent, as well as the most dangerous, enemy of this country which Ireland has produced since Wolfe Tone’.