Rebel without a pause – An Irishman’s Diary about John Devoy

A professional revolutionary

The Fenian John Devoy

The Fenian John Devoy


In 1865, 150 years ago, the Fenian John Devoy was denounced from the pulpit of Our Lady and St David’s Catholic Church in Naas, Co Kildare. He recalled the incident in his memoir, six decades later.

But a lot of things have changed in Ireland, even since the memoir. And a long chapter of Kildare history will close this weekend when, across the street from the same church, a life-sized statue of the revolutionary is unveiled.

Devoy is somewhat forgotten now, at least in comparison with his contemporary O’Donovan Rossa, who had also sunk into relative obscurity before his well-timed death in 1915 ensured republican immortality. But the Kildare man probably worked harder and longer for Irish freedom than anyone else of his generation, and he was a remarkable man by any standards, whether you liked him or not.

In the words of historian FSL Lyons, he started out as a “romantic nationalist, caught in the dream of an armed insurrection and the establishment of an Irish republic”. And although the romance didn’t last, the dream did.

After the Fenians’ moment passed, unseized, the then young man settled in for a longer struggle, most of it in exile. In the process, as Lyons put it, “he was gradually to change from the enthusiastic amateur of the [1860s] into a bitter, irascible, unforgiving but always intensely professional revolutionary”.

A measure of Devoy’s youthful enthusiasm is that, to learn the soldiering skills he thought his country would need, he joined the French Foreign Legion 1861.

Having completed that crash course – by his own timetable, if not the Legion’s – he then deserted in 1863 and returned to Ireland. There he immersed himself in revolutionary journalism, via the Irish People, a newspaper founded by the veteran radical James Stephens. But by the mid-1860s, he was also engaged in a more direct, and much riskier, form of sedition – recruiting Irishmen from the British army into the newly formed Republican Brotherhood.

At the movement’s height – around the time he was being denounced from the pulpit – Devoy claimed there were 80,000 soldiers ready to fight for the cause and he urged the leadership to strike while they could. Confidence was high among the conspirators that Stephens would soon be head of an Irish republic. But in the event, he never gave the signal Devoy and others awaited, and soon it was too late.

The Irish People was suppressed in September 1865 and most of the leaders, including O’Donovan Rossa, arrested. Stephens eluded the authorities for two months. Then, no sooner was he in jail also than Devoy (who remained at large) sprang him in a daring escape.

This should have strengthened Devoy’s case for action, and indeed, despite his youth (he was still only 23), he had become an influential figure in the movement.

But Stephens hesitated again, and the cause was lost. Devoy was himself arrested in early 1866 and suffered five years of hard labour before joining O’Donovan Rossa and the other leaders in the US.

There, he resumed life as a journalist, with the New York Herald, and as a republican campaigner, with Clan na Gael, but he never forgave what he saw as Stephens’s cowardice.

One of his earliest feats in the US was to orchestrate an even more daring escape. In 1875, he arranged the purchase of a whaling ship, Catalpa, which sailed to Australia and, as well catching whales (that was part of the funding plan), netted six Fenian prisoners from the shores of Fremantle.

In the 1880s, despite his radicalism, he made common cause with Parnell, although he also occasional embarrassed the Irish Party leader with his extreme language. And a generation later, as another republican conspiracy gathered force, Padraig Pearse travelled to the US to meet Devoy, who subsequently worked with Roger Casement to try and secure German arms.

By 1921, the old revolutionary had mellowed sufficiently to support the Treaty and campaign for its acceptance in Irish America. In 1924, on a homecoming visit, he was welcomed as a hero in the new Free State. Like O’Donovan Rossa, he also returned posthumously, having died in New York. But it was 1928 by then, and unlike Rossa’s, his funeral in Glasnevin was hardly a watershed moment.

Devoy’s statue will be unveiled in Poplar Square, Naas, at 2pm on Sunday. Related events include the reissue by Merrion Press of Terry Golway’s 1988 book Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom. Also happening this weekend, after the statue ceremony, will be the launch of the Kildare 1916-2016 commemorative programme.