In 1871, John Devoy arrived in New York. He and four other prisoners, including Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, had been released early, thanks to public outrage over their brutal treatment in prison. As “ticket-of-leave” men they were forbidden to enter Ireland until their original prison terms had run out, and had decided to go to New York. Devoy and Rossa joined the Clan na Gael. John Devoy and John Kenny would work closely together for Irish freedom over the next fifty years.
When Kenny and Devoy joined the Clan na Gael, the organization was a mere shadow of its former self. A once-strong force in American politics, it had dissipated much of its power and membership on a poorly-planned invasion of Canada, as a way to attack Britain. But under the tireless work of its members and the strong direction of John Devoy, the Clan na Gael was gradually built into a force that would, decades later, alter the course of Irish history.
In 1871, New York City was on the brink of a new era. Wall Street and Broadway were lit by the new incandescent light, replacing the old-fashioned gas lamps. The first telephone lines were being installed in Manhattan. Seventy percent of the country’s imports and exports passed through New York harbor, coming from the mid-West on the new Erie Canal. New elevated rail lines stood ready to haul the goods to and from the piers swiftly – and noisily – over the heads of the New Yorkers.
Plans were being made to build a bridge that would connect Manhattan and Brooklyn, changing the social and economic map of the city by allowing thousands to work in Manhattan but live in the greener environs of Brooklyn. Museums of natural history and of art had just opened, as well as the two million dollar Metropolitan Opera House. Its patrons enjoyed the first performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore while downtown, PT Barnum’s Three Ring Circus entertained the masses.
John’s career was taking off. The textile industry in the United States had been destroyed by the Civil War, and Mills & Gibb were meeting the growing demand for textiles by importing them. By 1872, John had met a fellow Irish immigrant named Annie Morris, from County Carlow. Annie and her sisters had come to America, like so many Irish girls, to serve as live-in nannies for the children of the wealthy, and were living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
John and Annie were married on July 6, 1873, at the Church of St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They moved to 450 West Canal Street in Manhattan, a comfortable middle-class neighborhood not far from the elegant neighborhoods that Edith Wharton and Henry James were living in. Their new home was a comfortable distance from the destitute and dangerous Five Points section (of “The Gangs of New York”) in the Lower East Side, packed poor Irish immigrants. Their family grew quickly – Christopher, born in 1874, Ellen (Nellie), followed by Joseph, Mary, Margaret, Annie, and Josephine, born in 1888. On September 28, 1876, John became a United States citizen. Despite the responsibilities of career and family, John rose steadily within the ranks of the Clan na Gael.
In 1876, the Clan na Gael pulled off a close-to-impossible mission against the British Empire which won them world-wide acclaim. It was, as one newspaper described it later, a feat of “wild mad chivalry and unparalleled bravery.” John played, as his obituary would later state, a “prominent role” in what became known as “The Catalpa Rescue.”
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