Anne Devlin - Ireland's Hero and First Female Political Prisoner

As requested, here an account of the life of Anne Devlin, assistant to Robert Emmet.

In the church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Dublin’s Liberties, on 21/5/1838, 24-year-old Catherine Campbell married William Maginnis. Present at the wedding were Catherine’s proud mother Anne and father William.

But the marriage was not to last – by 1846 William Maginnis was dead as the Great Famine took hold of the country, leaving a widow and a year-old baby, William.

Once again Catherine’s mother Anne must have felt that the fates were conspiring against her, for she had buried her own husband – Catherine’s father – on January 12th that year, and her life was taking its final, tragic turn.

Anne had married William Campbell in St. Catherine’s Church in Meath Street on April 14th, 1811 and was to spend almost 35 years with this ‘good man’ as she later described him. It was a good marriage, as marriages went in 19th Century Dublin Liberties. The newlyweds moved into a mews at the back of 2 Mullinahack – John’s Lane - where they lived in relative comfort. There was stabling for William’s horse there, and the dwelling could be entered from either the main house or directly from John’s Lane.

Anne took in washing (William could collect and deliver it for her with his horse and dray) and they had, according to Anne ‘a competence sufficient unto our needs’.

The Campbells had four children – Catherine (1812), John (1813), William (1816) and MaryAnne (1822). But all was not well. John may have died in late childhood, while William was so weak and ill all his life that, even though he eventually moved out of the family home to try to make his own way in the world, he frequently had to return to his mother to be nursed through one of his many illnesses. Daughter MaryAnne became a drug addict, addicted to the medicines of the day (possibly painkillers prescribed to Anne herself) and eventually died before her thirtieth birthday in a lunatic asylum in New York from a fatal overdose of someone else’s medication.

When Anne’s husband died in 1846, she lost much of her income – not just William’s earnings, but much of her own for now she could not carry laundry any distance – either to collect or deliver, and her fortunes declined. By late 1850, as the Great Famine was finally receding, Anne had to move from her mews to a garret in 2 Little Elbow Lane (where Reginald Street now is) – soon to be acknowledged as the worst slum in Europe.

But even at this stage Anne was not alone – she was, in fact, never alone now and had not been since she was released from prison in Dublin Castle in 1806. Always in the background, everywhere she went, was a policeman noting what she did, who she spoke to, who greeted her. Anyone who appeared to know her was marked as a potential enemy of the State and could be arrested or questioned without warning.

For Anne Campbell was a dangerous woman. Better known as Anne Devlin, she had been born into a comfortable Catholic tenant farming family near Rathdrum in County Wicklow in 1881. Following the failed United Irish Rebellion of 1798 Anne's family moved to Rathfarnham in Co. Dublin to escape persecution by Crown Forces.

In 1802 Anne volunteered to help Robert Emmet organise his abortive rebellion of 23 July 1803. Anne was Emmet’s unpaid assistant and confidant, privy to all his plans. She knew at least fifty of the leading businessmen in Dublin who had subscribed about £75,000 (€15,000,000 or $93,840,000 today) to fund this rebellion, and had been in charge of Emmet’s headquarters on the day of the rebellion itself. She had berated Emmet when he returned after his failure for abandoning her cousins and brothers who had joined him in his venture but was, over the next 2½ years, to see her family decimated as she remained loyal to Emmet’s democratic ideals.

 In the aftermath of the rebellion Anne and her family were arrested at their home in Rathfarnham and marched to Dublin Castle. Here they were interrogated and then sent to Kilmainham Gaol. Anne, her sisters, father, mother and brothers were now in the hands of the evil Dr. Edward Trevor – medical inspector of the Gaol … and paid British spy.

While Anne’s family were released over the coming months (though her father Bryan was not released until 1806) Anne was coming in for very special attention from Dr. Trevor. While in Dublin Castle she had been offered £500 (c. €1,000,000 or $1,251,185 today) for the names of the men who had financed Emmet’s rebellion, but had refused it out of hand. There could have been a reward of up to £500 for each of these men if their names had been known (£25,000 then or a total of €50,000,000 now!) and Trevor wanted it. For 2½ years he tortured Anne, keeping her in the worst imaginable conditions in prison – solitary confinement, total darkness, etc. So awful were the conditions that she developed erysipelas – a usually fatal disease contracted from filthy living conditions and which killed one out of every three who contracted it, usually painfully and swiftly – within a matter of days. Even today there is no sure cure for this.

In prison Anne met Robert Emmet who advised her to tell what she knew of his rebellion and save herself, but she refused to become an informer, continuing to endure the worst that Trevor and the British Crown could do to her.

(When Robert was first captured he was brought to Kilmainham Gaol on August 26th to await trial. Anne came to the Gaol on September 3.

Robert was allowed exercise in the yards alone, Dr. Edward Trevor and Chief of Police Town-Major Sirr arranged for Anne to be "accidentally" allowed into the same yard while they surreptitiously watched from a prison window to see if Anne and Robert would acknowledge each other but Anne saw them and realised their plan so she refused to appear to know Emmet.

Surreptitiously the two exchanged words while Robert continued to hit a ball against a wall with a paddle or racquet. He told Anne to save herself, to tell what she knew of him but she refused.

Frustrated, Trevor ordered Anne brought back to her dungeon cell and she never saw Robert again after that).

We do not know the date of this meeting, but it appears to have been some time after Anne entered the Gaol. If it was, say, 2 weeks after, then it would be about September 17, which would make sense as, with Emmet's trial approaching on the 19th, the Crown would be looking desperately for evidence that would convict him.

After his trial Robert Emmet had been brought to Kilmainham Gaol in the middle of the night, under heavy guard and manacled. The Head Gaoler, (there was no Governor of the Gaol until 1820) ordered the chains to be removed and put Robert into the condemned cell, where he spent the time writing until about midday on the 20 September when he was taken to Thomas Street to be executed. Anne was not given the opportunity to meet Robert at this time.

She even saw her youngest brother Jimmy die in her arms in jail at the age of just 11 from gaol fever, but would not yield.

Released eventually in 1806 following the intervention of Mrs. Hanlon, wife of the brutal head gaoler of Dublin Castle where she had been transferred by Trevor in an attempt to hide her from the authorities who were by this time beginning to release untried prisoners from Kilmainham, Anne found her father on his deathbed and her family ruined.

Over the next few years she suffered the loss of much of her immediate family. Not one of those she had protected came to her assistance save only the Hammonds – former friends of the Emmets - who gave her a position as Lady’s Companion to the aged Mrs. Hammond.

Shortly after Mrs. Hammond’s death in 1810 Anne married William Campbell from the Dublin Liberties.

Apart from being followed everywhere now by police, Anne was also suffering badly from the ongoing effects of erysipelas which frequently left her bloated (looking “more like a cow than a woman” she once recorded). At times her eyes were squeezed so tightly shut she could not see across the road and had to be helped. And still she worked, and had children, and kept house, and never informed on anyone.

Imagine, then, her final years. Alone, in a virtual open prison, deserted by those she had protected, penniless, gradually sinking further into oblivion until she was found dead of starvation in her slum garret on September 18th, 1851 at the age of 71, dressed in rags, her furniture and everything of value pawned for food.

But she had not betrayed those who had helped Emmet, ever, despite the awful cost to her and her family. Had she done so, a wealthy and powerful layer of nationalist leadership would have been wiped out, the spinal chord of Nationalism severed, and the country we have today would not exist.

It is no idle claim to say that we owe our freedoms and liberties today directly to Ireland’s first female political prisoner, Anne Devlin – a true lady of the Dublin Liberties.

Ar dheis Dé go rabh a anam. May she rest in peace, in the arms of God.

P.S. For a fuller account of Anne's live read "Anne Devlin - bravest of the brave" available by post from my publishing house, Kilmainham Tales Teo.

Views: 1794

Tags: Dublin, History of Ireland, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, Women

Comment by Bit Devine on October 6, 2014 at 11:55am

Go raibh mile maith agat, Micheal... Quite the force was she...and now through your writings, more people will celebrate that force...

Comment by Micheal O Doibhilin on October 6, 2014 at 12:18pm
Thanks, Bit. That's my intention
Comment by mary mc ginnis on October 7, 2014 at 12:32am

Ireland has lots of great stories like this.

Comment by Micheal O Doibhilin on October 7, 2014 at 6:07am

Yes Mary, that's true, but they're all going to be forgotten if History is removed as a subject in our schools. See what Cllr. Mary Hanafin had to say on this subject recently - The move to remove History as a core subject in Irish schools is a disgrace and must be resisted.


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