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Devoy, Johnlocked

  • R. V. Comerford

John Devoy (1842–1928)

by unknown photographer, 1871 [[Standing, left to right] John Devoy (1842–1928), Harry Mulleda and Captain John McClure; [seated, left to right] Captain Charles Underwood O'Connell and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (bap. 1831, d. 1915)]

Devoy, John (1842–1928), Irish nationalist, was born on 3 September 1842, at Kill, co. Kildare, the son of William Devoy (1807–1880) and Elizabeth Dunne, who were married about 1833 and lived in a cottage on half an acre given by Elizabeth's family. A literate and able man, William came of a family with an inheritance of some self-esteem as tenant farmers and well-placed servants of titled families. He played a prominent local role in the O'Connellite and temperance mobilizations of the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. He took occasional jobs in canal, road, and railway construction, cultivated his little holding intensively, and improved his cabin to accommodate a growing family. However, the famine crisis undermined this economy and in 1849 he moved his household to Dublin, where, through connections, he obtained full-time employment, eventually becoming managing clerk of Watkins's Brewery in Ardee Street. John, who had briefly attended Kill national school, continued his formal education in Dublin at O'Connell's (Christian Brothers) schools, Marlborough Street model school, a small private school off the South Circular Road, and School Street model school. Although at the last-named institution he was a paid monitor from the age of fourteen for two and a half years, his disciplinary record was not unblemished; by his own account he was dismissed from Marlborough Street for kicking a teacher on the shin, and he records a number of other altercations with teachers. After leaving school he obtained an office job.

Devoy soon took up the learning of Irish (a task which he never completed) at evening classes, where he was also introduced to nationalist movements, firstly the national petition campaign of 1859–61, and then the Fenians, into whose organization he was sworn in 1861. His father, conscious of having himself invested too much in patriotic endeavours, put pressure on Devoy to attend to his further education and his prospects in life. The eighteen-year-old responded by leaving home to join the French Foreign Legion. After a year in Algeria he returned to Dublin and then moved to Naas, co. Kildare, to promote the Fenian organization in the town and surrounding area. In September 1865 James Stephens put him in charge of Fenian recruitment among Irishmen in British army regiments. After Stephens himself had been arrested on a charge of treason two months later, Devoy was a key figure in planning and effecting his rescue from Richmond prison, which occurred on 24 November 1865. On 20 and 21 February 1866 Devoy attended a council of war at which Stephens effectively backed away from an immediate rising. Devoy was himself arrested on 22 February 1866 and after a year of detention was formally charged with treason felony. Unlike the line of Fenian leaders who had preceded him into the dock, he pleaded guilty, pragmatically estimating that this might produce a more lenient sentence. In the event he was given fifteen years of penal servitude. He subsequently served almost four years in various English prisons—Millbank, Portland, and Chatham—before being released in January 1871, whereupon he went into exile in the United States.

Finding the Irish-American movement in a chaotic state, Devoy and other released Irish prisoners threw their weight behind a new organization, the Irish Confederation. This proved to be a disappointment and around 1873 Devoy joined Clan na Gael, which dated from 1867. Thanks largely to Devoy it became the premier Irish-American nationalist association; despite explosive internal conflicts it was to be his principal vehicle for fifty years of purposeful endeavour on behalf of Irish independence. Through the Clan he masterminded the rescue of six Fenian prisoners from Western Australia in 1876, a spectacular achievement. The resulting prestige helped Devoy to secure an arrangement with the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) under which Clan na Gael influence over the home movement was copper-fastened and a joint revolutionary directory created. These successes encouraged Devoy to think of taking advantage of the prospective conflict between Britain and Russia over the Balkans: a Clan delegation met the Russian ambassador in Washington in November 1876. Devoy was still planning for an imminent Irish revolution when Michael Davitt, the recently released IRB leader, arrived in New York in August 1878. Following consultations with Davitt, in October 1878 Devoy launched the 'new departure': this was intended to link the IRB and Clan na Gael with the 'obstructionist' section of home-rule MPs supporting Charles Stewart Parnell, in a campaign that would draw on the rising sense of anxiety caused by agricultural depression. In furtherance of his objective, Devoy attended a gathering of the IRB supreme council in Paris in January 1879 and held meetings with Parnell and Davitt in Dublin. The understandings achieved contributed greatly to the emergence of the Land League by October 1879 and to the character of the ensuing land war. Devoy and the Clan contributed massively to the political and financial success of Parnell's triumphant US tour in early 1880. However, the political effect of the land war was to advance constitutional ‘home rule’ nationalism rather than the radical separatism which Devoy wished to promote.

There ensued decades of conflict within and around Clan na Gael as Devoy and others struggled for control of militant Irish nationalism in the USA, and for influence over Irish nationalism at home. But, largely under the influence of Devoy, Clan na Gael was available to support Irish radicals and militants at crucial moments. He gave significant encouragement to the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League. He was a vital supporter of the military council within the IRB, which planned the rising of Easter Week 1916, and he was a key figure behind the Friends of Irish Freedom, an open organization backed by Clan na Gael which by late 1919 had raised a million dollars in support of the independence movement. Relations between the Friends of Irish Freedom and the Sinn Féin leadership subsequently became very sour and very complicated, and Devoy acquired another batch of bitter enemies, this time including Eamon de Valera. With division rampant on both sides of the Atlantic, Devoy gave his support to the Anglo-Irish treaty of December 1921 and to the new Irish Free State. He visited the country in August 1924, when the Tailteann games in Croke Park, Dublin, provided an opportunity for formal public expression of respect and gratitude. He also made sentimental visits to the haunts of his early life. Back in the United States, he gathered together his memoirs in a volume which appeared in 1929 as Recollections of an Irish Rebel. He died on 30 September 1928 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was interred temporarily in New York before final burial in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.

Small and pugnacious, Devoy was the most able, tenacious, and pragmatic individual to devote his life to the cause of Irish separatism. Journalism, and especially the weekly Gaelic American, had been throughout his American career at once a source of income and a means to his political ends; he died unmarried and with little money.


  • J. Devoy, Recollections of an Irish rebel (1929)
  • D. Ryan, The phoenix flame: a study of Fenianism and John Devoy (1937)
  • W. O'Brien and D. Ryan, eds., Devoy's post bag, 1871–1928, 2 vols. (1948–53)
  • M. F. Funchion, Irish American voluntary organizations (1983)
  • R. V. Comerford, The Fenians in context: Irish politics and society, 1848–82 (1985)


  • NL Ire., corresp. and papers


  • group portrait, photograph, 1871, repro. in O'Brien and Ryan, eds., Devoy's post bag [see illus.]
  • S. Keating, charcoal drawing, NG Ire.
  • photograph, repro. in Devoy, Recollections of an Irish rebel, frontispiece
  • photographs, repro. in O'Brien and Ryan, Devoy's post bag