by ehistoryadmin on November 22, 2014


Memorial for “the greatest of Fenians” restored near Kill

Liam Kenny

He was named “the greatest of Fenians”, a tribute to Kill born John Devoy (1842-1928) from no less a figure than Padraig Pearse who himself lost his life for the Fenian cause in 1916.

Devoy was born at Greenhills, near Kill, and in the mid 1960s a fine memorial was put in place at the side of the main Dublin road with a relief sculpture by Christopher Ryan. Carefully minded by Kildare County Council in the various reconstructions of the Dublln road the monument has a more tranquil, if still distinctive position, in a grassy space on the link road between Kill and Johnstown.

The bright granite stonework has stood well the test of almost five decades but needed some attention to restore its pristine appearance. Local councillor Fintan Brett facilitated a small team which set about some improvements and repairs at the site. Simon Wallace of Kildare County Council Parks Department assisted in the provision of an information board with text provided by local historians Brian McCabe and Martin Egan. A feature of the original design which had succumbed to the years was a tree branch (in metal) representing the growth of a new Ireland from the endeavours of Devoy and like-minded patriots. A new branch was forged by Tom Delaney, of Coole Engineering in Monasterevn.

But what of the man himself? A restoration of this very fine memorial to Devoy is a good time to recap on the story of this life-long rebel. Devoy’s longevity – he lived to 86 years of age – meant that he spanned two eruptions of militant nationalist activity. The first was the Fenian rising of 1865-7 when he was arrested by the British, the second was the 1916 Rising, in which he played a key background role in attempting to organise arms for the rebels.

In the lean years for nationalism in between Devoy kept the Fenian flame alive from across the Atlantic where he was immersed in the Irish nationalist supporters’ networks in the United States. For decades, while nationalism was all but dormant in Ireland, he kept up the fight in the US by raising funds and acting as the “go to” man for the vigorous and well-resourced Fenian community in the States.

Born at Greenhills between Kill and Johnstown, Devoy had begun his formal association with Fenianism when in 1865 he was assigned the role of attempting to recruit Irishmen in the British army into the secret nationalist organisation – the Irish Republican Brotherhood. This was a high-risk role given the intensity of British surveillance and it was not long before he was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy and in prisons in England.

When released he took ship across the Atlantic to the United States where he was to remain for almost all the rest of his long life. Already a legend in republican circles in the US he received an address of welcome from the House of Representatives and soon became leader of Clan na nGael, the pre-eminent nationalist organisation in Irish America. One of his great coups – and a testament to the international links of Fenianism – was his masterminding of the escape of six Fenians who had been imprisoned near Freemantle in western Australia. It is a long way from New York to Australia and yet Devoy – in an era of primitive communications – managed to mastermind the escape and ensure the safe transport of the six on board the whaling ship “Catalpa” back to the US.

In the years that followed Devoy continued to whip up support and funding from Irish America for Irish independence. It was to take longer than he might have anticipated before there was a body of men in Ireland willing to consider militant force as a means of attacking Britain’s hold on the island.

In August 1914 following the outbreak of a world war, Devoy worked on the principle of “England’s distraction is Ireland’s opportunity” and working with Sir Roger Casement arranged a meeting with a German diplomat in New York. The Fenians had a clear cut proposition to put to the Germans: in return for guns and ammunition the Irish would stage a coup in Dublin diverting British resources away from the war with Germany.

The Germans lived up to the bargain but in the chaotic hours before the planned rising in Easter 1916 their arms ship, the Aud ,was intercepted by the Royal Navy and while being escorted to Cork Harbour was scuttled by its German skipper.

The fate of the Aud symbolised the outcome of the Rising generally: an ambitious attempt at rebellion but a military failure for the rebels. However, history is not a simple equation of winners and losers and the execution of the 1916 leaders seemed to trigger a latent outpouring of nationalist identity among the Irish population at large.

Devoy continued to play his part raising funds and forming a support organisation known as the Friends of Irish Freedom. However it was not all smooth going. There were splits in the Irish-American contingent which were rancorous. Some of this hostility was to boil over during Eamonn de Valera’s extended visit to the US in 1920. Devoy and De Valera did not see eye to eye and it was this rivalry which most likely lead to a counter-intuitive stance for Devoy when he supported the 1921Treaty with Britain which accepted the partition of Ireland and the oath to the King.  For somebody who was described as “the most … implacable and incorruptible of all the Fenian leaders” it was extraordinary that he should be identify so strongly with the pro-Treaty side that he was an honoured guest of the Free State Government when he visited Ireland in 1924.

After 86 years of almost daily struggle on behalf of Irish independence, John Devoy died in 1928 in the US. His body was brought back to Ireland and he was given a state funeral and interred with full honours in Glasnevin cemetery. Closer to his boyhood home in Kildare, the restored memorial between Kill and Johnstown is as fine a sculptural representation as any of the father figure of Fenianism whose influence spanned the Atlantic Ocean. Leinster Leader 8 February 2014, Looking Back Series no: 368.

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