Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Atlantic City, New Jersey, 29 September 1928. About an hour after midnight the 86-year old Kildare man asked to be turned on his side. Within minutes arguably the most influential Irish-American in history had passed away.

There would probably have been no Easter Rising without John Devoy. Indeed, one could say that there might have been no Irish Free State without Devoy. Certainly two of this island’s iconic leaders, Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Collins, owed much of their success to the machinations of this extraordinary man.

Devoy’s massive contribution towards Irish independence is to be marked on Sunday 25 October 2015 with the unveiling of his statue at Poplar Square, Naas, near his childhood home in Kill, Co. Kildare. The US Ambassador Kevin F. O’Malley is among those expected to attend. The unveiling coincides with the publication of an updated edition of Terry Golway’s classic biography, ‘Irish Rebel – John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom.’

Some are simply born to rebel. Devoy came to life in a thatched cabin at Greenhills, near Kill, on 3 September 1842. His father William Devoy was a gentle, sober and intensely religious stonebreaker who rented his tiny half-acre plot from the Earl of Mayo. Devoy grew up listening to tales of the 1798 rebellion, in which his family had served, and to his father reading aloud from The Nation. The elder Devoy served as a repeal warden for Daniel O’Connell and was an attendee of the monster meeting at Mullaghmast. There was tragedy during the famine years when cholera claimed the life of his promising eldest brother.

In 1849 William Devoy relocated his family to Dublin where he found work at Watkins Brewery, rising to become a clerk. The family initially lived at Summerhill before moving into the Liberties. Schooled on Marlborough Street, young John’s rebellious streak was manifest by the age of ten when the school superintendent smashed a slate across his head because he refused to sing ‘God Save the Queen.’ He was subsequently expelled for rugby tackling the same superintendent.

By the age of 17 Devoy was working for a firm that sold hops to Watkins but his mind was fixed on rather greater causes. Following his mother’s premature death in 1858, he began attending Irish language classes, fulfilling an ambition to learn a language that many of his contemporaries associated with failure and ruin. Given that this was the year in which both the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Fenian Brotherhood, its American counterpart, were founded, it was inevitable that Devoy became entwined with nationalist circles, as he mastered rebel ballads and pike making with his close friend James J O’Kelly.

In early 1861 Devoy and O’Kelly were sworn into the IRB, prompting a massive row with Devoy’s father, a constitutional nationalist. Devoy was determined to learn how to fight and, side-stepping an opportunity to serve in the US Civil War (which he thought would be over in a few months), he journeyed to Paris where he crossed paths with the legendary nationalist John Mitchell.

By May 1861 he had enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He was posted to an engineering corps serving in Algeria where his ambition was to study infantry warfare. However, this transpired to be a quiet spell for the legion and he appears to have learned little during his year’s service as a legionnaire. After his departure – accounts vary as to whether he was discharged or deserted – he returned to Ireland, fluent in French, five foot six in height, with the same dark-hair and sharp blue eyes, defiant but blurry.

IRB leader James Stephens appointed him the organisation’s head officer for the Naas area; his brief was also to discreetly woo recruits from among Irish soldiers garrisoned locally with the British Army. He simultaneously found work with Watkins Brewery office in the Kildare town.

By 1865 Devoy was drilling and training Fenian recruits in advance of their planned rebellion. He was also courting Eliza Kenny, the pretty daughter of a small farmer from near Naas, to who he became engaged.

However, the Fenians were betrayed and, now a wanted man, Devoy went on the run. He was rumoured to have been recruited as a hit-man to assassinate detectives and informers but he was never linked to any such killings.

When Stephens was imprisoned in Richmond Gaol, Devoy helped plan his escape and he was waiting on the other side of the prison wall when Stephens was duly sprung.

On 22 February 1867, the 23-year-old was captured at a pub on James’s Street, Dublin, and sent via Mountjoy to Kilmaiham Jail to stand trial. Two weeks later the Fenians launched their abortive rising in Cork, Limerick and Dublin. It was crushed within 24 hours leaving twelve dead and hundreds of Fenains under arrest.

Devoy spent the next four years in penal servitude, breaking stones at Millbank (where he tried to escape several times), Portland (where he organised prisoner strikes against bread and water diets) and Chatham (where he was assigned to darn prisoners’ stockings alongside his fellow Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa).[i]

Devoy and O’Donovan Rossa were among the prisoners released as part of an amnesty on 7 January 1871. Together with three other men, they were placed on a trans-Atlantic steamer, the Cuba. Henceforth known as the Cuba Five they sailed for New York to begin a long period in exile. It would be 58 years before he saw his fiancée Eliza Kenny again.

At this time, a whopping 20% of the port city’s one million strong population were Irish born while 37% could claim at least one Irish parent. Devoy’s dream was to harness this massive expatriate population and use them to fulfil his dreams of an independent Ireland. They may have been dirt poor and subject to widespread persecution for their Catholic faith but if he could galvanise support from among these hundreds of thousands of Irish souls, he realised he would hold a very powerful weapon.

As such, he was greatly dismayed when, upon arrival at Staten Island, the Cuba Five – already heroes in the USA – had their debut meeting with New York’s leading Irish American organisations: the Democratic dons of the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall, the Republicans who came armed with a personal greetings from president Ulysses Grant (always eager to ‘twist the British lion’s tail) and the Knights of St. Patrick. All three groups were so determined to be seen as champions of the Cuba Five that the day culminated in a brawl or, as Terry Golway puts it, ‘an impromptu re-enactment of the American Civil War’.

Devoy was disgusted by the manner in which they had been ‘dangling the dollars’ to seduce them. That evening the newly arrived exiles issued a statement declaring it ‘painful … to see so much disunion among our-selves’ and opted to remain on the Cuba overnight. The following day they were escorted into downtown Manhattan next day by 3000 members of New York’s Irish community.

Devoy soon found work as a journalist with the New York Herald. He also swiftly joined Clan na Gael, the spiritual heir of the Fenian Brotherhood, and, always pragmatic, rose through the ranks to become its senior most figure. As Golway puts it, he took on ‘the role of Irish America’s conscience, referee, and most of all, chief organiser.’ One of his early victories was to mastermind the escape of six Fenian prisoners from West Australia.

Among the greatest challenges his leadership faced was what to do with O’Donovan Rossa who, by 1878, was consistently and loudly advocating an arbitrary bombing campaign in Britain. At this time Rossa was secretary to the so-called Skirmishing Fund, which, among other projects, commissioned the inventor John Philip Holland to work on a one-man submarine to attack British battleships at close range. Devoy was unimpressed when Rossa’s dark intentions for terrorism in Britain were publicly in a widely quoted article for The Irish World. [ii]

The situation was further complicated by O’Donovan Rossa’s binge drinking. Devoy lamented ‘he is hopelessly gone’ shortly before discovering the veteran Fenian had misappropriated funds from the national collection, albeit in a state of drunkenness.[iii] O’Donovan Rossa was sent to convalesce in a convent but when he recovered, he immediately began lambasting Devoy for his perceived inactivity. Devoy responded by ousting O’Donovan Rossa from his position as Secretary of the Skirmishing Fund, which he took control of himself. O’Donovan Rossa was subsequently expelled from the Clan while Holland’s submarine, known as the Fenian Ram, ultimately became the casualty of the infighting within the Fenians.[iv]

By 1879 Devoy reckoned the best chance for securing his nationalist ambitions was through a combination of public and private means. He thus sought an alliance with Charles Stewart Parnell of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party, viewing its impact on Westminster as ‘the most viable expression of nationalist sentiment in the country’.[v] He was particularly impressed by Parnell’s active and dynamic personality, which contrasted with the comparatively dormant Fenians. He became convinced that putting the Fenian resources behind Parnell would do much to lift the nationalist agenda.

Hailed as a ‘New Departure’, this was ostensibly a shift away from the physical force of previous years although Devoy privately urged Republican militants not to ‘relax their preparations for active work for one moment; for it is by active aggressive work alone that we can ultimately succeed.’ In other words, for all the carrots Parnell might feed the House of Commons, Devoy felt an aggressive stick would also be vital in the long run. Parnell apparently supported this initiative, which led to the publication of a telegram on 12 October 1878 in which Irish-American nationalists pledged their support for Parnell.[vi]

Devoy believed the time for an Irish parliament in Dublin was fast approaching; ‘there is no use sending men to the British Parliament to beg, but we can send men there to protest before the world against England’s right to govern Ireland, and when all is right we can command our representatives to withdraw from the British parliament and meet in Ireland as an Irish legislature.’

This came on the eve of the Land War, ignited by the worst harvest on record since the Famine and a shocking rise in evictions. Devoy naturally threw his support behind the Land League’s aim to ensure the security of tenant farmers and to replace landlordism with tenant ownership.

While it continued to scoff at O’Donovan Rossa’s plans for a dynamite crusade in Britain, the Clan surreptitiously despatched Captain William Mackey Lomasney to research the possibility of mounting a bombing campaign on their own back. They began stockpiling explosives, as well as smuggling large quantities of arms and ammunition into Ireland to assist the fight against tenant eviction. However, Mackey Lomasney’s findings were that such a campaign would only be feasible if it were followed by a full-scale revolution; otherwise it would simply lead to attacks on Irish immigrants living in Britain. Devoy would later deny he had any knowledge of Mackey Lomasney’s project.

Gladstone’s promise to introduce a Home Rule bill to Ireland inspired Irish-American politicians to move away from radical Fenians like Devoy and to flirt with the Roman Catholic church and Catholic schools instead. Devoy lost his job as a newspaper editor and his significance in the Irish-American community also briefly waned.

With the Parnell split, Devoy back-pedalled, retracting all support of Redmond by 1900 or 1902. In 1914, he would dismiss Bulmer Hobson, the Irish correspondent to the Gaelic American, for giving his support, albeit reluctantly, to Redmond’s takeover of the Irish Volunteers.[vii]

In 1903 he bounced back by launching the Gaelic American in New York, specifically targeting Catholic readers, who had hitherto been subject to a degree of scorn by earlier Fenians. As Devoy was their paymaster, the IRB did likewise in Ireland and the overall attitude of Irish nationalism became more pro-Catholic than it had been for some time.[viii]

In 1908 Devoy – or the ‘Old Man’ as he was increasingly known - gave the IRB a massive boost when he dispatched the veteran Fenian Tom Clarke to oversee its reorganization in Dublin. With Clarke at the helm, the IRB’s Supreme Council was effectively purged of the old guard and replaced by a new generation that included Sean MacDermott and Padraig Pearse.[ix] Minds now focused on planning a major uprising against British rule.

In 1910, Devoy had renewed his friendship with the bed-ridden and dying O’Donovan Rossa who moved him greatly by lifting his enfeebled hand and saying, ‘John, I’m so sorry we ever quarrelled’.[x] It was Devoy’s idea to have O’Donovan Rossa’s body shipped to Ireland for burial, hatched before his old nemesis was even dead. As he predicted, the funeral held at Glasnevin in 1915 did much to reawaken the nationalist spirit in Ireland.[xi]

Clan na Gael was the most influential Irish-American republican organization involved in the Easter Rising. It’s main contribution was to fund the purchase of 20,000 German rifles, including modern Lee Enfields and Mausers, as well as ten light machine guns, 1 million rounds of ammunition and 400 kilogrammes of explosives. The arms purchase was inspired by a meeting between Devoy, Sir Roger Casement and Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the USA and Mexico, and von Papen, later to become Hitler’s puppet Chancellor. [xii] Discussions had centred on the possibility of a rebellion in Ireland supported by Germany, and also led to Casement’s attempt to establish an Irish Brigade from Republican supporters in German prison camps.[xiii]

However, British code breakers intercepted a number of transatlantic missives between Devoy and the German General Staff. With Casement overseeing the arms purchase, the Aud had sailed for Ireland with a plan to deliver the cargo to the Irish Volunteers in County Kerry on the eve of the Rising. Critically, as the British noted, Devoy and Casement had agreed upon an excessively wide three-day window during which the Aud and the Volunteers would unite.[xiv] The Aud was duly cornered and captured in Tralee Bay on Good Friday 1916 and, while the skipper successively scuttled the ship and its cargo at the entrance to Cork Harbour, the loss of so many arms was an enormous blow to the planners of the Rising.

Casement was also captured. Unaware that his own missives had been intercepted, Devoy was convinced Casement had somehow betrayed the cause, intentionally or not, and was reputedly so irate that Casement’s impending execution seemed like a good idea to him.[xv]

After the war, he played a key role in establishing the Friends of Irish Freedom, an organisation that raised $350,000 to assist dependants of those who fought in the Rising.

Tricky waters followed when the Friends supported self-determination for Ireland as opposed to official American recognition of the newly declared Irish Republic. This set Devoy at odds with de Valera during the latter’s fund-raising trip to the USA in 1919 and 1920. Devoy considered de Valera to be ‘a typical Spaniard’ who, backed by itinerant priests, sought to establish a tin-pot South American dictatorship.[xvi] Such an attitude undoubtedly contributed to Devoy being air-brushed from Irish history.

Conversely he aggressively supported Griffith and especially Michael Collins, holding to their defence of the republican principle of parliamentary supremacy above all. He returned to visit Ireland in 1924 and so became the sole veteran of the Fenian Rising to see the flag of the Irish Free State flying peaceably over Dublin although the Ireland of 1924 was by no means the united land he had dreamed of. However, his six-week tour – which included a brief reunion with his fiancée of old, Eliza Kenny – did help to heal the bonds by reminding his fellow Irish of a nationalist objective that stretched back to O’Connell’s day.

Devoy returned to New York to work on the Gaelic American as well as his memoirs. Overtaken by ill-health, he passed away on 29 September 1928. Nearly nine months later, on 16 June 1929, he was interred in the Patriot’s Plot of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.


Devoy, John, Recollections of an Irish Rebel. (New York: Chas. P. Young Company, 1829).

Golway, Terry, ‘Irish Rebel – John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom.’ (Merrion Press, 2015).

Kenna, Shane, ‘Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa’ (Irish Academic Press, 2015)

Lyons, F. S. L., Ireland Since the Famine (Fontana, 1973).

McGee, Owen, ‘Arthur Griffith’ (Irish Academic Press, 2015)

Mitchell, Angus, ’16 Lives: Sir Roger Casement’ (O’Brien, 2013).


[i] O’Donovan Rossa was elected MP for Co. Tipperary at this time and joked to . Devoy that he would appoint him tide waiter when the time came.

[ii] Shane Kenna, p. 130.

[iii] Kenna, p. 134.

[iv] Devoy had little time for O’Donovan Rossa’s subsequent newspaper, the United Irishman, decrying it in his Recollections as ‘the queerest Irish paper ever published’, full of ‘cantankerous’ and ‘grouchy’ editorial. (Kenna, p. 142)

[v] Kenna, p. 137.

[vi] Kenna, p. 137.

[vii] The Gaelic American was censored by the American government for not employing a strictly neutral stance in the war.

[viii] McGee, p. 76.

[ix] Lyons, F. S. L., Ireland Since the Famine, Fontana, 1973, p. 318-319. Devoy had met Pearse when the latter attended a Gaelic League fundraiserin New York in 1911.

[x] Kenna, p. 233. Mary O’Donovan Rossa later wrote to Devoy to say her husband’s ‘face is still wearing the smile of satisfaction that greeted your coming, and he has pleasant food for thought for many days to come.’ When O’Donovan Rossa died, Devoy was the only non-family member to see his body at the wake.

[xi] Arrangements for the funeral were made by Clarke, Devoy’s right hand man in Ireland, while the choreography of the actual funeral fell to IRB member Thomas MacDonagh, hand-picked by Clarke for the task. They had to override a challenge from Redmond’s party, which O’Donovan Rossa loathed, to control the event.

[xii] On 2 August 1914, Devoy had attended a mock funeral in Philadelphia held as a demonstration of solidarity with the victims of the Bacehlor’s Walk shooting in Dublin some days earlier. A photograph was taken in which Roger Casement travelled in the open-carriage alongside him. Casement was rightly fearful that the widespread publication of such a photograph would blow his cover.

[xiii] Judge Patrick Colohan, a close fiend of Devoy, arranged Casement’s passage fro the USA to Germany.

Mimi Plunkett, sister of Joseph, acted as courier for Devoy in the frantic weeks before the Rising but stayed out of the action. Among the messages she appears not to have received was one from Casement in Germany warning Devoy that a rising would be a sacrificial slaughter unless they had the right military support from Germany. (Micthell, p. 258).

[xiv] On 16 February 1916, a code-breaking team at Intelligence Division in London intercepted a number of transatlantic missives between Devoy and the German General Staff, that alerted them to the likelihood of a Rising at Easter, as well as the planned shipment of arms to Ireland. Mitchell, p. 265.

[xv] Spring-Rice, the British Ambassador to Washington, was told that ‘Clan na Gael want Casement executed’. This was seemingly because Devoy believed Casement’s writings had ‘contributed to the betrayal of secret aspects of the Rising’. Mitchell, p. 335. Devoy was also convinced that Casement was a ‘cruising’ homosexual, describing him as ‘an Oscar Widle’. (Vivid Faces, p. 312).

[xvi] ‘Arthur Griffith’, Owen McGee, p. 306.