The Early Years
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. 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. 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 and shortly arrived in New York with four fellow political prisoners aboard the Steamship “The Cuba”. Devoy received an address of welcome from the House of Representatives.