Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

John Devoy - Irish Rebel
by Dr Eoin McKiernan
Most dedicated, ingenious, and successful of the Irish rebels

Lest We Forget

by Dr Eoin McKiernan

Irish America Magazine, June/July 1999, Pg 86

One of the most dedicated, ingenious, and successful of the Irish 
rebels who opposed English rule in Ireland was John Devoy, the 
anniversary of whose birth and death occurs this September (1999).  
	So tenacious a grip had Ireland's cause on him that he 
had no time for marriage or career, wealth or reputation. ln his 
early teens he came under the influence of Fenianism, the 19th 
century continuation of the United Irishmen movement of the 
1790s whose policy was Irish independence from England. 
	At the age of 19, he took the extraordinary step of 
enlisting in the French Foreign Legion to prepare for the coming 
war against England. After a year on the Algerian front he returned 
to Dublin where he undertook the perilous responsibility of 
suborning Irish members of the British Army in Ireland, 
administering to them the oath of the Fenian Brotherhood, an oath 
"to break the connection with England."  
	Over almost five years, he had arranged for approximately 
15,000 soldiers to be sworn in before he was captured in 1866, 
convicted of treason, and sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.  
Five years later, he and several comrades were paroled on the 
condition that they reside outside of Ireland and England. 
	Glad to comply, they embarked for the US. where a new, 
vibrant Irish revolutionary organization, the Clan na Gael, had 
been founded in 1867 in New York City. Here they were given an 
ecstatic welcome, and officially honored by a resolution of the 
House of Representatives, an almost inconceivable partisan gesture.
	The Civil War in the U.S., which ended in 1865, had 
already provided military experience to Irish and Irish-Americans 
soldiers who were willing to employ the, military skills against 
England. Ex-officers were infiltrated into Ireland and England and 
arms shipped. 
	Although the 19th century had a well developed anti-Irish 
animus, America showed a degree of sympathy for any nation 
struggling for liberty. In relation to Ireland, however, this took 
the form of a backhanded interest.  In various cities across the 
U.S., Irish and Irish-Americans paraded with arms, drilled publicly 
raised hands, and, in print
and in open meetings, proclaimed their intention of war against 
the Crown forces in Ireland. Yet the American authorities turned a 
blind eye toward the Fenian maneuvers.
	The rationale governing this violation was a willingness 
on the part of General Ulysses Grant (and to a lesser degree 
President Johnson) to enjoy the discomfiture of Britain who had 
supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.
In all of this preparation to "break the connection with England," 
John Devoy-regarded in England as capable and dangerous - was the 
	Soon after his arrival in America Devoy became a member of 
the Clan na Gael, the secret Irish revolutionary organization which 
came to dominate the struggle for Irish independence. His influence 
in the organization continued from 1871 to the attainment of the 
Irish Free State in 1922. The word Fenian came to be applied 
collectively to cover various groups who shared the goal of an 
independent Ireland to be achieved, if necessary, by a resort to 
arms.  And there were several distinct secret organizations 
included under this umbrella term: the Fenians, founded in New 
York in 1858; the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in Dublin 
in 1858; and the Clan na Gael, founded in New York in 1867. Devoy 
was a significant member of all three. 
	In 1866, losing hope of a revolution in Ireland, and 
overconfident of American toleration of their actions, the 
(American) Fenians launched two attacks upon Canadian objectives, 
one, from Buffalo. New York, the other from Maine, in the 
expectation that success would result in negotiations for an Irish 
Republic. Only the Buffalo expedition had a small degree of success 
but the American government felt obliged to recall the Fenian troops, 
though imposing no penalty upon them. 
	Devoy had been opposed to this diversion of funds, energy, 
and purpose which had little chance of contributing to breaking the 
connection with England.  From this moment on, the Clan ra Gael 
provided the driving force for  revolutionary activity and Devoy's 
influence in it grew accordingly.
	In 1875, in one of the boldest and most imaginative 
exploits in Irish or American history, Devoy conceived of a plan 
to rescue several Fenians imprisoned in Australia.
	With Clan na Gael funding he purchased a 90 foot-long 
ship, outfitted it as a whaler and followed a deceptive route to 
Australia where surreptitious contact was made with six Fenian 
prisoners. Their escepe was perilously made. with the Fenians 
barely aboard before a British naval cutter fired upon the ship 
demanding their surrender. The day was won, however, when Captain 
Anthony ran up the Stars and Stripes, and challenged the cutter to 
fire upon the American flag.
	Months later, on August 16. 1876. The Catalpa hove into New 
York harbor to an ecstatic welcome. At the time hopes for fielding 
armed rebellion against England seemed remote but the success of 
the extraordinary rescue from the British penal colony so many 
thousand miles away proved the capability of Devoy and the Fenian 
movement. A new tactic fun her tested their mettle and Devoy's 
leadership. 	Using the words "New Departure," Devoy promoted a 
melding of [1) the demand for Irish self-government and [2) the 
ownership of the land of Ireland by the Irish, a replacement of 
the landlord system which he saw as a system of helotry. During 
the last quarter of the 19th century these twinned goals kept the 
national spirit alive and prepared the seedbed for the Easter 
rebellion of 1916 and the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922, 
to all of which Devoy contributed importantly. From his youthful 
enlistment in the French Foreign Legion to preparing for his death 
in 1923. Devoy  led a life devoted to the independence of his 
	Though he broke with comrades in accepting the Treaty 
which brought the Irish Free State into being, he nonetheless, 
must be regarded as one of the apostles of modern Ireland. 
Note: This essay was written before the publication of Terry Golway's lrish Rebel: John Devoy and Ameica's Fight for Ireland's Freedom ($15.95, St. Martin's Press), which this writer highly recommends.