Today at The Rising, we focus on the life of John Devoy (1842-1928), Fenian leader and founder of the Gaelic American newspaper, who was instrumental in organizing the political network that funneled arms, funds, and ideas across the Atlantic in the name of Irish independence. His life reflects the tireless — and often overlooked — contribution of Irish-Americans to the republican struggle in Ireland. His life also illustrates the impact of the legacy of the Fenian movement on the imaginations of the leaders of the Rising, including P.H. Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada and Roger Casement.
Devoy was born in Kill, County Kildare, the son of small farmer and building contractor. He joined the IRB in 1861 and initially served as local organizer for the Kildare. The move caused him to fall out with his father and he joined the French Foreign Legion. Returning from service in North Africa in 1862 he became active in several capacities, including organizing Fenian recruitment in the British Army. Following his arrest in 1866 for participation in the release from prison of James Stephens, Devoy spent six years in various penitentiaries in England. Released under a partial amnesty for Fenian prisoners in 1871, Devoy, along with fellow IRB activists exiled from British territory for the remainder of their sentences, sailed for New York, where they were known as The Cuba Five, after the steamship that carried them across the Atlantic. The group included senior Fenians Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles O’Connell, Henry Mulleda and John McClure.
Devoy joined Clan-na-Gael in New York in 1871 and served as the secretary of its revolutionary directory. From his headquarters in New York, he worked for a public alliance between Clan-na-Gael and Charles Stewart Parnell’s parliamentary nationalists, a move referred to as ‘The New Departure.’ This putative alliance between Devoy’s Fenian-led faction and the Parnellites was tenuous and his leadership of the Clan-na-Gael executive was similarly fractious. After a period of exile from the movement, Devoy returned to the movement in 1900. In 1903, Devoy founded the weekly Gaelic American newspaper, based in New York. Its masthead described it as ‘A journal devoted to the cause of Irish independence, Irish literature, and the interests of the Irish race’. The Gaelic American became synonymous with the militant faction within the IRB at home. The formation of the American Committee for the Volunteers was announced in the paper on 6 June 1914, with Joseph McGarrity (Philadelphia) as chairman, Denis Spellissy (New York) as treasurer, and Patrick J. Griffin (New York) as secretary.
Relations between members of the Clan tended to be fractious and the movement was riven with personal rivalries and massive egos. For example, John Devoy resented Roger Casement, although offered some positive reflections of him in his memoir, Recollections of an Irish Rebel (first published in 1929):
While a highly intellectual man, Casement was very emotional and as trustful as a child. He was also obsessed with the idea that he was a better judge than any of us, at either side of the Atlantic, of what ought to be done (though he was too polite and good natured to say so) and he never hesitated to act on his own responsibility, fully believing that his decisions were in the best interests of Ireland’s cause. This created many difficulties and embarrassments for us.
John Devoy was also vociferously pro-German and blamed British Liberals for failing to counteract conservative elements in the British political and military establishment who were determined to go to war with Germany. After the outbreak of the War, a special committee of the Clan presented ‘Ireland’s case’- as they perceived it – to the German ambassador to the United States in New York, Count von Bernstorff. The Clan explained to the Germans that they intended to fund a rebellion in Ireland and they required ‘a supply of arms and a sufficient number of capable officers to make a good start.’ In his memoir, Devoy later explained: ‘Clan-na-Gael leaders realized in advance that war was coming but regretted that it should take place while Ireland was practically unarmed. They had done their utmost to help to arm the Irish Volunteers but the supply was wholly inadequate to justify an attempt at insurrection without help from outside.’
As the chief financier and publicist for Irish separatism in America, Devoy’s life and work represent touchstones of the international dimensions of and the Irish-American connection to the 1916 Rising. John Devoy died in 1928 and his body was returned to Glasnevin cemetery and interned in the republican plot.