We still underestimate the crucial role played by veteran Fenians in the United States including O’Donovan Rossa and, in particular, John Devoy.
By Terry Golway
Not long after the great powers of Europe began to mobilise in early August 1914 an aging Irish immigrant emerged from his cheap hotel room in midtown Manhattan. He was headed uptown to the German Club on East 59th Street, where the German ambassador to the US was waiting for him.
The Irishman’s name was John Devoy, a native of county Kildare. In the late summer of 1914, he was nearly 72 years of age, half-deaf, half-blind, and plagued by insomnia.
He had been in the United States since 1871, when, as a convicted Fenian, he accepted the Queen’s amnesty and set sail for New York along with Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and three comrades. All these years later, John Devoy remained the spokesman for Irish revolutionary nationalism in America.
At his meeting with the ambassador, a suave, English-speaking count named Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, Devoy revealed that his allies in Dublin would launch a rebellion at some point in the coming war. They wished to create a formal alliance with Berlin, Devoy explained, and would request German assistance when the time came.
They didn’t want money — Irish Americans would provide that. They wanted arms, ammunition, and German officers.
The ambassador agreed to convey Devoy’s message to Berlin, and soon the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Berlin were communicating with each other through Devoy in New York, setting in motion the conspiracy that would end with the Aud off the Kerry coast, waiting for a signal that never came.
As a longtime leader of an oath-bound society called Clan na Gael, John Devoy was the most influential voice of Irish republicanism in America at the time of the Easter Rising. The Clan served as the IRB’s partner in America, organising propaganda in the States and funneling money to Dublin.
Devoy was a journalist by trade, the publisher and editor of a New York-based weekly called the Gaelic American, which served as the voice of Clan na Gael, and, by extension, the IRB. For several years after the turn of the 20th century, Tom Clarke served as an assistant to Devoy at the paper. By 1914, of course, Clarke was back in Ireland, minding a tobacco shop on Parnell Street and attending to another sort of business while keeping in close contact with his former employer.
Clarke was not the only Easter rebel who was in contact with Devoy as planning began in earnest. Patrick Pearse met with Devoy and Joseph McGarrity, a liquor distributor and native of County Tyrone, in New York in February, 1914.
Devoy gave the two immigrants a document which outlined how Irish America could help in the coming fight. The document’s author was Roger Casement, and soon Casement himself turned up in New York.
Devoy helped provide travel documents and money to Casement when he left New York for Germany in late 1914 to further his scheme to raise an Irish brigade made up of prisoners of war. And he began sending large sums of money to the IRB through a series of couriers, including a future president of Ireland, Sean T O’Kelly. Devoy sent at least $100,000 to Dublin in late 1915, most of it in sums of $5,000 or $10,000.
Devoy became a familiar figure in the German consulate on Wall Street in lower Manhattan. As couriers from Dublin kept him abreast of plans, Devoy sent those plans to Berlin via the consulate.
The communication was not entirely one-way; the Germans told Devoy they wanted James Larkin, who was touring the United States at the time, to help sabotage ships in New York Harbor bound for Britain. He refused, but did agree to stir up labour disputes on the American waterfront to disrupt traffic between the US and the Allied powers.
In September, 1915, Joseph Mary Plunkett arrived in New York after visiting Berlin. He had news: planning for the rebellion was nearly complete, and he had assurances the Germans would cooperate. But those promises remained vague. More definitive word arrived in February, 1916, when an IRB courier told Devoy the rebellion would take place on Easter Sunday.
The following day, Devoy handed his German allies a message to be transmitted to Berlin: “Unless entirely new circumstances arise we must have your arms and ammunition in Limerick between Good Friday and Easter Saturday. We expect German help immediately after beginning action.” The reluctant Germans transmitted the message, but they demanded that Devoy tell his allies in Ireland that they should wait because of “the difficulties in the way of our giving help.”
It is unlikely that Devoy ever passed along that message.
In the meantime, Devoy sent Berlin a long memo assessing the strength of British forces in Ireland. He assured the Germans that the British would have to transfer as many as 500,000 troops from the Western front to Ireland to contend with a rebel force he estimated in the tens of thousands. Devoy was a hard-headed, clear-eye pragmatist, but his memo to Berlin contained more than a trace of wishful thinking.
In early March, with the rebellion just weeks away, Devoy was summoned to the German consulate to receive Berlin’s answer to the Irish request for help.
“It is possible to send two or three small fishing steamers, with about ten machine guns, twenty thousand rifles, ammunition and explosives,” the communiqué read. Devoy was expecting much more, but on behalf of the IRB, he agreed to the plan. He told his friend McGarrity in coded language that “the salary is not as big as I expected, but … I am certain I would get a raise soon.”
But things did not go according to plan. On April 14, Philomena Plunkett, sister of Joseph Mary Plunkett, arrived at Devoy’s newspaper office with an urgent message: The German arms were not to be delivered before Sunday, April 23. Devoy and the Germans had agreed on April 20. It was too late to let the Aud know of the change of plans, for it was already heading to Ireland without wireless communication.
The fate of the German arms shipment, destined for the bottom of Cork harbour when the Aud scuttled itself, is a familiar part of the Rising’s narrative. The role of Devoy and Irish America in arranging for shipment, and more broadly, in financing and supporting the rising and its leader, is less well-known. It is hard to imagine the Rising without Devoy’s enormous influence in Irish America, his access to cash, his credibility with people like Pearse and Plunkett, and his contacts with German diplomats.
It was no wonder that Pearse called him “the greatest of the Fenians.”
Terry Golway is an American journalist, and author of Irish Rebel: John Devoy & America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom, published in a new revised edition by Merrion Press