Book Review: Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom

(First published in 1998) Joseph Gannon's review of Terry Golway's book

Revolution has usually been a young man's game. John Devoy was definitely an exception to this rule; -- a man who lived to a very old age, through times which would have thrown a saint into despair, the fire in his revolutionary soul never flickering. Few outside of the very well read among Irish history enthusiasts know much of the accomplishments of this tireless worker for Irish independence; Terry Golway's eloquent biography of Devoy should help to alleviate that oversight.

Devoy was born in Kill, County Kildare, in 1842, the grandson, through his mother, of a veteran of the '98 Rising. Devoy's father, William, was active in nationalist circles in Kildare. Young John's own convictions evidenced themselves early, causing him to suffer a beating at the hands of his schoolmaster when the 10-year-old decided he would no longer sing "God Save the Queen" in the morning.

 

American Irish Historical Society
Devoy (left) and fellow Fenian John Daly in 1898. Daly's nephew Ned was executed after the Easter Rising.

By the age of 18, John Devoy had joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians), and, in stirring the forces working to win Ireland freedom, he had found his life's work. He would be arrested in 1866 for recruiting British soldiers into the IRB and spend the next few years in prison before being released and deported to the United States in 1871. There he would help organize the revolutionary Clan na Gael.

In this, his first book, Golway, a columnist for the New York Observer newspaper, gives us a picture of a man involved in every aspect of Irish revolutionary politics for over 60 years, one who knew every important figure in that movement from Parnell to de Valera. He would know some triumphs -- such as his personal direction of Clan na Gael's rescue of convicted Fenians from a remote Australian prison, known as the Catalpa Affair -- but these were followed by decades when the Clan struggled against yawning American indifference.

In the 1890s, when the movement almost died, Devoy worked tirelessly for Irish independence, nearly breaking his health and falling into poverty in the process. His sister Kate writes him at that point saying, "... how glad I am that you have got ... new clothes." Golway describes one particularly discouraging night when the middle-aged revolutionary, already suffering from poor sight and hearing, trudged through a snow storm to find himself speaking to a handful of the faithful. In this period, Golway reveals a man of iron will and single-minded determination, who says at one point he, "didn't feel like touching Irish affairs again," but continues to pour his heart, soul and most of his meager income into the cause. Implacable, unwavering, Devoy never yielded to despair nor resignation. When the fires of Irish nationalism had dwindled dangerously low in America, Devoy was one of a handful blowing on those few smoldering coals to keep them alive.

American Irish Historical Society
On top of the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan during de Valera's contentious fund-raising visit. From left, standing: Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, de Valera, Diarmuid Lynch and Dr. Patrick McCartan. Sitting: Devoy

Eventually Devoy's persistence would pay off for Ireland. It would be Devoy's revived Clan na Gael that would largely finance the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. He supported the compromise of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, perhaps influenced by his extreme dislike of de Valera, who visited the United States in 1919 to raise funds and American government's support for the newly proclaimed Irish republic. Devoy thought de Valera a dangerous amateur in American affairs and, worse, an interloper in Devoy's stewardship of the Irish-American lobby. When angry, Devoy could be vindictive. With a dose of "appalling anti-Semitism," says Golway, Devoy wrote of de Valera, "This half-breed Jew has done me more harm in the last two years than the English have been able to do during my whole life."

Devoy had numerous other long running disputes with many other Irish leaders. Golway doesn't shrink from informing us of Devoy's weaknesses -- his stubbornness and egotism that caused or at least exacerbated his numerous fights and feuds with other Irish leaders. Yet for all his fire-breathing, Golway points out that Devoy could be surprisingly pragmatic. His earlier alliance with Charles Stewart Parnell and his embrace of the New Departure presaged Devoy's eventual support of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

National Museum of Ireland
The 'Cuba 5.' From the left: Devoy, Charles Underwood O'Connell, Henry Mulleda, Rossa, and John McClure.

Such accommodations to political realities are easy to neglect in the heat generated by Devoy's often rash -- and intensely personal -- broadsides. But such are the complexities of Devoy's life, ably recreated by Golway, that Devoy can both vilify a political rival while tenderly supporting a mentally troubled brother down on his luck, visiting him often in a New York asylum, "patiently feeding him grapes." His old friend, turned vitriolic enemy, O'Donovan Rossa, who had traveled to the United States with Devoy in 1871 as one of the Cuba Five, wrote Devoy from his deathbed. Rossa wrote: "I am home and in bed every day. 'Tis a lonely kind of life." Devoy then put their many disputes behind him and visited Rossa regularly until Rossa's death.

Devoy's return home to Ireland in 1924 was marred by a speech in Dublin full of the bitterness of too many faction fights within the movement. But his trip also included the most poignant moment in Golway's book, and perhaps in Devoy's life, when he spent an afternoon with his lost love, Eliza Kenny. "John," she asks, "why didn't you write? I waited for you for twelve years."

After a pause Devoy, who had been told years earlier that Eliza was dead, answers, "And I waited for you my whole life." As Golway points out, at that late stage in his life, there in the country of his youth, gazing on the woman he once loved, Devoy must certainly have been thinking of the road not taken and how different his life might have been.

Terry Golway's book gives us a look into the Irish nationalist movement in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period few know much about. He should be commended for helping to honor the memory of John Devoy, as well; but he has also written a well-organized, well-balanced, and interesting account of Devoy's life. It will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in Irish history or anyone who is curious about men who dedicate their lives to a cause.

Devoy (seen at a more advanced age, left) accomplished much of what he had set out to do in life (the compromise of Ireland's partition, not withstanding) and he must surely have taken considerable satisfaction in that, but the dedication to that cause was accompanied by extreme personal sacrifice. And for that, the name of John Devoy deserves a much higher place among the heroes of the Irish nationalist movement. As Terry Golway's says, in summing up Devoy's life, "Unlike Tone and unlike so many of the other patriots who now shared hollow ground with America's greatest Irish rebel, John Devoy was a success, the greatest of Fenians, indeed. By sheer force of personality and determination, he had made Ireland's cause a transatlantic crusade, enlisting American public support on behalf of a small and strategically insignificant island in the North Atlantic. All the while he asked of America only what America demanded of itself: genuine democracy and authentic republicanism."

This book is now out of print, but you can buy a copy from Amazon.com

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Tags: Charles Stewart Parnell, Clan na Gael, Cuba Five, Diaspora History, Fenians, Irish Freedom Struggle, John Devoy, O'Donovan Rossa, Reviews, Terry Golway, More…United States

Comment by Friends Of Irish Freedom Inc. on December 31, 2013 at 12:53pm

FYI:  Included in this Devoy bio is a photo of current Friends Of Irish Freedom National Chairman- Charles McLoughlin as a child with John Devoy, Cumann na mBan member Kathleen Kemmy McLoughlin (mother of Charles), and a member of the 69th Regiment.  The photo was lent to Terry Golway by the McLoughlin Family.  Also, is an historic commemorative post card from 1916 of James Connolly; loaned to Terry Golway by the McLoughlin Family.  John Devoy was a close friend of the Kemmy & McLoughlin Families in New York.

Comment by Friends Of Irish Freedom Inc. on December 31, 2013 at 12:54pm

Comment by Gerry Regan on January 4, 2014 at 12:20pm

Fascinating, FOIF. I'd guess the year about 1925. Am I right? Is the setting Central Park?

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