Devoy was born near Kill, County Kildare. In 1861 he travelled to France with an introduction from T. D. Sullivan to John Mitchel. Devoy joined the French Foreign Legion and served in Algeria for a year before returning to Ireland to become a Fenian organiser in Naas, County Kildare.
In 1865, when many Fenian leaders were arrested, James Stephens, founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), appointed Devoy Chief Organiser of Fenians in the British Army in Ireland. His duty was to enlist Irishmen in the British Army into the IRB.
In November 1865, Devoy orchestrated Stephens' escape from Richmond Prison, Dublin.
In February 1866, an IRB Council of War called for an immediate uprising, but Stephens refused, much to Devoy's annoyance as he calculated the Fenian force in the British Army to number 80,000. The British got wind of the plan through informers and moved the regiments abroad, replacing them with loyal regiments from Britain. Devoy was arrested in February 1866 and interned in Mountjoy Gaol before being tried for treason and sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude. In Portland Prison, Devoy organised prison strikes and was moved to Millbank Prison.
In January 1871, he was released and exiled to America as one of the "Cuba Five", where he received an address of welcome from the House of Representatives. Devoy became a journalist for the New York Herald and was active in Clan na Gael. Under Devoy's leadership, the Clan na Gael became the most important Irish republican organisation in the United States and Ireland. He aligned the organisation with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1877.
In 1875, Devoy and John Boyle O'Reilly organised the escape of six Fenians from Fremantle Prison in Western Australia aboard the ship Catalpa. In 1879, Devoy returned to Ireland to inspect Fenian centres and met Charles Kickham, John O'Leary and Michael Davitt on route in Paris. It was on this trip that he convinced Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell to co-operate in the "New departure" during the growing Land War.
Devoy's fundraising efforts and work to sway Irish-Americans to support physical force nationalism in World War I included attempts to assist the Easter Rising in 1916. In 1914, Padraig Pearse visited the elderly Devoy in America, and later the same year Roger Casement worked with Devoy in raising money for guns to arm the Irish Volunteers.
At the declaration of war between Britain and Germany on 14 August 1914, Sir Roger Casement and John Devoy arranged a meeting in New York between the Western Hemisphere's top-ranking German diplomat, Count von Bernstorff, and a delegation of Clan-na-Gael men. The Clan delegates proposed a mutually beneficial plan: if Germany would sell guns to the Irish rebels and provide military leaders, the rebels would stage a revolt against Britain, diverting troops and attention from the war with Germany. Von Bernstorff listened with evident sympathy and promised to relay the proposal to Berlin. Devoy decided to communicate directly with Berlin himself . At the time, Britain held control of the seas and furthermore, within days of the start of the war, had cut the transatlantic cable. It would be necessary to send an envoy to deliver the message personally.
John Kenny, president of the New York Clan-na-Gael, was sent. After meeting the German ambassador in Rome and personally presenting Devoy's plan, Kenny met in Germany with Count von Bulow. He then travelled to Dublin where he told Tom Clarke and other members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood of the arrangement, and carried back to Devoy the I.R.B.'s wishlist for guns, money, and military leaders. The details of Kenny's mission were later published in the Gaelic American.
Though he was sceptical of the endeavour, Devoy financed and supported Casement's expedition to Germany to enlist German aid in the struggle to free Ireland from British rule, including Casement's "Irish Brigade". Nervous of Casement's companion Adler Christensen whom he discovered was a fraudster and his decision to put the Irish Brigade at the Germans' disposal in Turkey, Devoy advised Casement to return to the USA, advice which was ignored.
In 1916 he played an important role in the formation of the Clan-dominated Friends of Irish Freedom at the third Irish Race Convention, a propaganda organisation whose membership totalled at one point 275,000. The Friends supported Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1916 because of his policy of American neutrality in the world war. Fearful of accusations of disloyalty for their co-operation with Germans and opposition to the United States' entering the war on the side of Great Britain, the Friends significantly lowered their profile after April 1917 when America entered the war.
With the end of the war, Devoy played a key role in the Friends' advocacy for self-determination for Ireland, in line with Wilson's "Fourteen Points", as distinct from recognition by the United States of the sovereignty of the new Irish Republic. Wilson did not guarantee recognition of the Republic as declared in 1916 and reaffirmed in the popular election in 1918. American-Irish republicans challenged the Friends' refusal to campaign for American recognition of the Irish Republic. Not surprisingly, Devoy and the Friends' Daniel F. Cohalan became the key players in a trans-Atlantic dispute with de facto Irish president Éamon de Valera, touring the United States in 1919 and 1920 in hopes of gaining US recognition of the Republic and American funds. Believing that the Americans should follow Irish policy, de Valera formed the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic in 1920 with help from the Philadelphia Clan na Gael. Diplomatic recognition was not forthcoming and Irish-American groups refused to support Wilson in the United States presidential election, 1920, but $5.5m was raised.
He later supported the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formative Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War, and was an honoured guest of the new state in 1924. Devoy was editor of the Gaelic American from 1903 until his death in New York City on 29 September 1928. His body was returned to Ireland and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. A large memorial to him stands on the road between his native Kill and Johnstown.
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (February 2008)|
- Golway. t 1999 p39
- Golway, T 1999 p52
- Dail comment, July 1924
- Devoy, John. John Devoy's Catalpa Expedition (ISBN 0-8147-2748-4)
- Devoy, John. 1929. Recollections of an Irish rebel. New York: Chase D. Young Company.
- Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom, by Terry Golway, St. Martin's Griffin, 1999 (ISBN 0-312-19903-1).
- Kenny, Kevin. The Irish in America: A History, (New York: Person Education Ltd., 2000), p. 173
- Miller, Kerby. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 542–543