Fenian, John Devoy, whom the London Times called ‘the most dangerous enemy of this country Ireland has produced since Wolfe Tone’.
John Devoy was born in Kill, Co Kildare, on the 3 September 1842. He worked for a short time as a clerk before joining the Fenian organisation.
In 1861 Devoy travelled to France where he enlisted in the Foreign Legion and spent a year in Algeria learning the skills of soldiering. When he returned to Ireland in 1865 the Fenian leader, James Stephens, appointed him Chief Organiser in the British army in Ireland.
In 1866 Devoy was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude for his role in a planned uprising. He was released after five years on condition that he moved abroad. Devoy emigrated to America where he became a journalist with the New York Herald and a leading light in Clan na Gael. For the next thirty years he kept alive the Fenian ideals in his weekly paper, the Gaelic American.
In 1875, Devoy and John Boyle O’Reilly organised the escape of six Fenians from Fremantle Prison in Western Australia aboard the ship Catalpa. In 1879, Devoy 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 cooperate in the “New departure” during the growing Land War.
Devoy’s fundraising efforts and work to sway Irish-Americans to physical force nationalism made possible the Easter Rising in 1916. In 1914, Pádraig 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. Though he was skeptical of the endeavor, he financed and supported Casement’s expedition to Germany to enlist German aid in the struggle to free Ireland from English rule, including Casement’s “Irish Brigade”. Also, before and during World War I, Devoy is also identified closely with the Ghadar Party, and is accepted to have played a major role in supporting Indian Nationalists, as well as playing a key role in the Hindu German Conspiracy which led to the trial that was the longest and most expensive trial in the United States at the time.
In 1916 he played an important role in the formation of the Clan-dominated Friends of Irish Freedom, a propaganda organisation whose membership totaled at one point 275,000. The Friends failed in their efforts to defeat Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1916. Fearful of accusations of disloyalty for their cooperation with Germans and opposition to the United States’ entering the war on the side of Great Britain, the Friends significantly lowered their profile after April 1917. Sinn Féin’s election victories and the British government’s intentions to conscript in Ireland in April 1917 helped to revitalise the Friends.
With the end of the war, Devoy played a key role in the Friends’ advocacy for not the United States’ recognition of the Irish Republic but, in keeping with President Wilson’s war aims, self-determination for Ireland. The latter did not guarantee recognition of the Republic as declared in 1916 and reaffirmed in popular election in 1918. American-Irish republicans challenged the Friends’ refusal to campaign for American recognition of the Irish Republic. Not surprisingly, Devoy and the Friends’ Daniel F. Cohalan became the key players in a trans-Atlantic dispute with de facto Irish president Éamon de Valera, touring the United States in 1919 and 1920 in hopes of gaining U.S. recognition of the Republic and American funds. Believing that the Americans should follow Irish policy, de Valera formed the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic in 1920 with help from the Philadelphia Clan na Gael.
Devoy returned to Ireland and in 1919 addressed Dáil Éireann. He later supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Devoy was editor of the Gaelic American from 1903 until his death.
John Devoy died in Atlantic City, NJ on the 29 September 1828. His remains were brought back to Ireland and he was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. A large memorial to him stands on the road between his native Kill and Johnstown.
The Kildare Association recently announced plans to honour Devoy with a statue in New York where he lived most of his long life. It would surely be a fitting tribute to a great Irish patriot and timely for the 1916 Easter Rising Centenary.