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Devlin, Joe

  • Home Town / City of Deceased: Belfast
  • Listed: April 27, 2012 7:32 pm
Devlin, Joe
Devlin, Joe - Image 1






It is with feelings of the most profound sorrow that we record the death of Mr Joseph Devlin, M.P, who passed away in St John’s Private Nursing Home at 9.45 yesterday morning. This has ended the career of one of Ireland’s noblest sons, and the news will send a pang of sorrow through the hearts of Irish men and women in all parts of the civilised world. The late Mr Devlin had been in failing health for almost a year, but following a sojourn at an English resort he was apparently making a good recovery, and his thousands of friends and admirers were hopeful that he would soon be restored to his old time vigour. He had been back in Belfast for some weeks and was well enough to attend the funeral of his friend, Mr Vincent Devoto, on Wednesday morning of last week. Unfortunately, however, he had a severe relapse on Friday, and was removed to the Nursing Home. His condition during that night gave cause for grave anxiety, but there was some improvement during Saturday and Sunday, and hopes of his recovery were raised. He had, unhappily, a serious turn for the worse during Sunday night, and the constant attention of his medical advisers and the tender nursing of the Sisters of Mercy and the nursing staff failed to bring about an improvement during the succeeding days. There seemed to be again a very slight change for the better on Wednesday when he slept very well. He had a comfortable night, but during the morning he took a sudden turn for the worse and passed peacefully away in the arms of one of his oldest friends, Father George Galbraith, of Cardonald, Glasgow. Joseph Devlin throughout his career could advocate the cause of the people with authority because he belonged to the people. The Devlin clan came from one of the old Celtic sects who clung to their homeland around the shores of Lough Neagh through centuries of strife and hardship, and whose representatives are still to be found today in Antrim, Armagh and Tyrone. He had much of the tenacity of character which their history indicates. His own people, like many others, were driven from the country by the conditions of the times into the growing city of Belfast, and lived in humble circumstances in the West Division. A little household typical of thousands where life was a daily struggle to avert poverty, and where the youngest were expected to do their share, was the home of his early years. He was brought into touch with realities of the Belfast workers’ life at a tender age, and the impressions then, created were never effaced. The greater part of his political endeavour and that of which he was most proud lay in the direction of improving the lot of those workers amongst whom his boyhood was spent. No one sympathised with them more thoroughly or better appreciated their good qualities, and his early training fitted him admirably for the part he was destined to play as the champion of the democracy of his native city.


Born at 41 Alexander Street West in 1872, the son of Charles and Elizabeth Devlin, he entered the Christian Brothers’ School (St Mary’s) in Divis Street at the age of 6 years. A precocious boy by reason of the influence of his surroundings acting on quick intelligence, he proved an apt pupil, and made rapid progress through the primary division of the school as well as developing an inordinate love of reading. This found its chief satisfaction in the study of Irish history at an age when the compulsory and often painful perusal of black letter primers is with most boys the only literary variant to the joys of spinning tops and marbles. At the ‘mature’ age of eleven he had qualified to sit for the Intermediate Examination, Junior Grade, and passed with honours in English and natural philosophy. His old master – Brother O’Farrell – took a natural pride in the achievements of his young pupil, and was spared to watch with close interest and sympathy the subsequent progress of one whose early training he had presided over.

Like the majority of the Catholic youth of Belfast at that period, he left school early to take his part in the battle of life, but, unlike many others, he did not regard his education as completed once he relinquished school for a minor position in a business house. On the contrary, he was very keen for self-improvement, not so much in vogue then as now, and, in addition to extending the scope of his reading, he became an enthusiast for elocution, classes and debating societies. The Sexton Debating Society, founded under the patronage of Mr Thomas Sexton (whose return for West Belfast in 1886 with a majority of 103 roused Nationalist enthusiasm in Belfast to a high pitch) had in the youth, Joseph Devlin, one of its most active members. Possibly its establishment and the arduous campaigns of that memorable election represent the first contact with Irish politics of this practical Belfast lad – a practical idealist, if one may use the paradoxical phrase – whose destiny it was to play such a large part in the public life of his country. It was a modest organisation, holding its meetings in rooms near Smithfield. Judging from the records of its proceedings which are still extant, if it was not an ostentatious body, it was an exceedingly virile one and the weekly debates were not allowed to degenerate into academic dullness. Indeed liveliness and vigor of retort would appear to have been essential qualities for any participant in the proceedings, and the fact that young Devlin (then aged between 13 and 14 and earning his own living) was elected its chairman is an early tribute to the possession of powers afterwards to be displayed in a wider arena. He inspired a number of his companions with the same zeal for knowledge as he himself possessed and they attached themselves to elocution classes which were then being conducted in St. Mary’s Hall. So, his first essays in the art wherein he excelled were made within that very building whose walls resounded to his eloquence on many historic occasions in later years.


As the Sexton Debating Society was an important feature in the early life and training of the future Irish leader it will not be out of place to introduce a more detailed reference to it here. It was founded on November 21st, 1885, and its motto was “Educate that you may be free,” while its objects were declared to be “the creation of a national taste for Irish literature among the youth of the city of Belfast and the fostering of a healthy spirit of educated criticism among its members.” Its patron was the Right Hon. Thomas Sexton, M.P., Lord Mayor of Dublin, and its president, Joseph Devlin, and the latter’s energy and example made it a very live, effective society for a numberof years. The work which he then performed for Nationalism, in which he was so intense a believer, was more fitted for a man of mature years than for a boy, and the Sexton Debating Society will always hold an honoured place in the history of Belfast Nationalism as the cradle of those remarkable abilities which were afterwards devoted to the service of the nation. The minute book of the Society gives us glimpses into the things that moulded the boyhood of Mr Devlin and laid the ground work of the great career that was to follow. The debates revealed that remarkable gift of oratory which made Mr Devlin’s name famous the world over.

He was little more than a boy when Thomas Sexton, then the most brilliant orator in the Irish Parliamentary Party, was chosen by Parnell to contest West Belfast at the General Election of 1885. Although opposed by a formidable local opponent in the person of Mr J. H. (later Sir James) Haslett, Mr Sexton put up a glorious fight, being defeated by only 35 votes. Now encouraged, the Nationalists redoubled their efforts, and in the following year (1886) Mr Sexton wrested the seat from the Tories for the first time, defeating Mr Haslett by 3,832 to 3,729 – a majority of 103. The Nationalist victory greatly incensed the Orangemen and fierce rioting followed. Their triumphs at the polls however, gave a new impetus to Nationalist enthusiasm. The little band, under their leader Joe, found a new element of vitality and permanence and purpose in the winning of West Belfast. The embryo organisation already referred to became the Sexton Debating Society in honour of the new M.P. The Sexton Society was merged into the Young Ireland Society, which in 1886 awarded Mr Devlin a silver medal for elocution. Mr Sexton honoured the Society with his patronage and attended one of the meetings to receive an address.

It was a red letter day in the life of Mr Devlin. His boyish speech, with its freshness, its sincerity, its passion and eloquence for one so young quite captivated the great orator and in the course of a glowing tribute to the boy Mr Sexton, addressing him, said “I regret the rule which obliges all members of the House of Commons to be at least twenty one years of age, for your eloquence entitles you to a place among its members.” It was a unique tribute and almost prophetic in its language. Mr Devlin went to the Irish News in 1891, and was appointed assistant sub editor. He left the Irish News in 1893 to become Belfast correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal. When a Belfast contingent made the journey to Kilkenny in 1891 in support of the candidature of Sir John Pope Hennessy, Mr Devlin was one of their number. That was the first political campaign in which he took part, except when as a lad he volunteered in the famous contest in 1886, when, as stated, Mr Thomas Sexton, whom he was destined to succeed in its representation, won the day. Unfortunately in 1892, Mr H Arnold-Forster defeated Mr Sexton by 839, and was returned unopposed in the subsequent elections of 1896 and 1900. The next attempt to recapture the seat was made by the late Mr Patrick Dempsey in 1905, but Mr Arnold-Foster defeated him by 241.


In 1892, when he was becoming more prominent in Irish politics, Mr Devlin was elected by the Belfast Central Branch of the Irish National federation to attend the Executive Council of the Federation in Dublin. About 1893 or ‘94 Mr Devlin, who had by that time made a name for himself as a debater, accepted the secretaryship of the Belfast Young Ireland Society. He was a most active secretary of that organisation and brought a wonderful lot of able lecturers on the platform. He gathered around him a talented body of young enthusiastic men for several years. A great Convention was held in Dublin in 1897, under the presidency of the Most Rev. Dr. O’Donnell, Bishop of Raphoe, and afterwards Cardinal-Primate of All Ireland. Mr Devlin was present, and was paid a tribute by the Lord Bishop. His remarks were perfectly justified because Mr Devlin’s powers of oratory were exhibited in a very striking way at the Convention. Several of his speeches inspired the audience – vast in numbers and representative of the whole country – to unbounded enthusiasm, and he became immediately a national figure in Irish politics.


It was at this convention that Mr Devlin really came prominently before the whole Irish public. Those sterling qualities which, up to that period, were known only to Belfast Nationalists, came to be recognised then by the representatives of Irish Nationalism as a whole. Indeed it became evident that in Mr Devlin Ireland had found a leader – young in years, no doubt – but wise and courageous as befitted a man upon whom must fall the mantle of eminent predecessors. “Wise in the council, fearless in the fray,” was the description aptly applied to Mr Devlin by Mr Michael McCartan M.P., then one of the most loved and thoughtful members of the gallant band of Nationalists who were fighting the cause of this country on the floor of the British House of Commons.


Mr Devlin’s widespread popularity was manifested in the decision of the Irish Party to send him with Mr W. Redmond as ambassadors in 1902 to organise the United Ireland League in the United States of America. It was on the 27th of January of that year that Mr Devlin left his native city for that important mission. The occasion was marked by scenes of enthusiasm rarely equalled even in those days of spirited National pride. At Donegall Quay a presentation was made by Mr Devlin, acknowledging which, Mr Devlin said he regarded his inclusion on that mission as a special honour because he felt it was a tribute to the public worth and services of the Nationalist men and women of Belfast. There were thrilling scenes as the boat cast off her moorings.

On the 28th of January Mr Devlin and Mr William Redmond were entertained to a complimentary dinner by the Irish Party in the House of Commons. The attendance was larger than any other social gathering of the Party since the days of Parnell. Mr John Redmond presided and spoke of the qualities of Mr Devlin that fitted him as an emissary of the nation to America. No finer tribute could be paid to any colleague than that which the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party gave to Mr Devlin. Speaking of him, Mr John Redmond M.P., said: “Mr Devlin’s career has been a proud one for Ireland. It has been more than that – it has been a hopeful one for Ireland. Few public careers in the last century have been so rapid as the career of Mr Devlin. He today holds a foremost position in the public life of our country, and if I were asked to explain the reason, in my opinion, for the rapidity and success of his career, I would say that its success and rapidity have been due to the combination of several great qualities – superb debating power and dauntless courage, combined with a cautious mind and a cool judgment; transparent honesty and enthusiasm combined with an absolutely untiring industry; perfect loyalty to his leader for the time being, to his comrades, and to his Party – combined, let me say, with a modest and lovable disposition.

The tour of the Irish ambassadors was everywhere characterised by that fervour and enthusiasm which the Irish exiles have always shown to the members of their race who try to achieve the best results for the land of their birth. In Washington, the centre of American independence, Mr Devlin spoke to a huge concourse, and in his address he said: No apologist for England can say that Ireland cannot do better for Ireland than England has done for her. We, representatives of the people, have never failed to raise our voices in Parliament and elsewhere in the cause of liberty. Amid scenes that almost baffled description Mr Devlin returned to Belfast on the 2nd of July of the same year. He was met by a huge procession with bands and torchlight. The horses were unyoked from the carriage in which Mr Devlin was seated, and drawn by sturdy young men through the principal thoroughfares of the city to Smithfield Square, where Mr Devlin spoke of the unity of the Irish race in America, and their love for the cradle land of their birth. The occasion of the reception was saddened by the fact that his mother died on the 30th March during his absence.


While Mr Devlin was absent in America the Nationalists of North Kilkenny unanimously chose him to represent them in Parliament. He was returned without opposition. His unopposed return for Kilkenny was made the occasion of a thrilling demonstration through the constituency of West Belfast. A number of prominent citizens who were then fighting side by side with Mr Devlin for the liberation of their country said that the selection was worthy of all Ireland, for North Kilkenny had in Mr Joseph Devlin one of the bravest sons of Ireland and the Irish Party one of the most gifted and promising colleagues. In the middle of the year 1905 he went to Australia with Mr John Donovan and Mr R. Hazelton, as a delegate from the Irish Party. The success of that mission was assured from the outset, and everywhere the delegation went through the Land of the Southern Cross they were received with unbound enthusiasm.

Mr Devlin was the first General Secretary of the United Irish League. His unique gift for organisation manifested itself in the establishment of branches of the organisation in practically all parts of the country with the National branch in Belfast.


As stated Mr Sexton lost West Belfast in 1892, but the Nationalist cause triumphed 14 years later, when at the General Election of 1906 Mr Devlin was elected by a majority of 16, the voting being:-

There was an indescribable outburst of enthusiasm when the figures were announced. Angered by the rout of the Tory, a mob of Unionists, who had been expecting the defeat of Mr Devlin and had come to the Courthouse on the Crumlin Road, where the votes were counted, with drums, bands and banners to celebrate the event, gave full expression in the usual manner to their chagrin. As Mr Devlin, M.P., was descending the steps of the Courthouse, surrounded by his friends, a police inspector advised him not to leave that way. Mr Devlin’s response was characteristic. “I am not going to sneak out by the back way.” He then proceeded down the steps in face of the mob, and one of the police, realising his undaunted courage, shouted for fair play for Mr Devlin. The West was truly awake that night; it was Belfast’s night of jubilation, in which old and young came out to expression to the joy they felt at the triumph of their fellow citizen – a man who later was destined to plead their cause all over the civilised world. The historic division that night was ablaze with bonfires and illuminations, and the dawn had broken before the people retired to rest.


In the succeeding years the voice of Mr Devlin was raised on behalf of a people in Belfast and elsewhere whose plight in the industrial world constituted a stigma on the fair name of the North. Night after night during the historic Irish debates at St Stephen’s, the member for West Belfast, in speeches replete with convincing facts and figures exposed to the world the dreadful conditions under which the poor workers in the mills and factories of Belfast and other centres of the linen industry were being drained of their very lifeblood. Supported by his colleagues in the Irish Party Mr Devlin, in face of the unrelenting opposition of the Tories, especially the Ulster brand, appealed to the Government for an investigation into the conditions appertaining in the industry. He succeeded after a herculean struggle in having the unhappy lot of the workers improved. The sweating system that had obtained up to that time not only for mature workers but for the poor little ‘half timers’ was swept away and a state of affairs more in conformity with Christian ethics was set up.

He was the pioneer in bring about the passing of the Trade Board Act, which brought to a close that system of sweating. Large profit accrued to the employers as the results of the wretched wages paid to thousands of those who were employed in mills and factories, and more particularly those who did factory work such as embroidery and sprigging in their own homes. His revelations, based on the report of the Medical Superintendent of Health, were simply appalling, showing as they did that women and girls had to work for long, weary hours for a few miserable coppers. These terrible conditions played havoc with the health of of the unfortunate victims, and thousands fell a prey to the dreaded white scourge. Mr Devlin revolted against this shocking state of affairs, and he was unceasing in his efforts until he secured reasonable hours of working and at least a living wage for a class in whom he had all his life taken an abiding interest, and whose welfare he ever had at heart. This fact was never forgotten by the toiling masses. His most loyal supporters were the mill and factory hands, and subsequently their children who stood by him through all the vicissitudes and changes that occurred in Irish political life.

If Mr Devlin had done nothing else in his long and glorious public career than this noble work, he has earned the undying gratitude of all who are interested in human welfare. Let it be here said that many people not holding the political views of Mr Devlin courageously acknowledged that his efforts for the common people had been fraught with unbounded blessings for the entire city, of which Mr Devlin, no matter in what company he happened to be, was proud to boast of his citizenship. Mr Devlin’s political career of course continued through the Home Rule crises, the First World War, the Easter Rising, the partition of Ireland and the conflict in Belfast which followed. It was during this time that Mr Devlin lost one of his closest friends when Owen McMahon were slaughtered in their home in March 1922. Mr Devlin’s political career at this period still cause controversy to this day and for more reading into this see Eamon Phoenix’s book ‘Northern Nationalism.’


Belfast Telegraph Saturday, 20th January, 1934 The funeral of Mr Joseph Devlin, M.P., whose remains were interred in Milltown Cemetery today, was a remarkable expression of public sorrow. To give an adequate idea of its magnitude would be a difficult task. There were miles of people wedged in a solid mass; the streets were black in the most literal sense of the term. Those who could not find a place in the traffic pressure climbed on walls and gates and windowsills to watch the cortege pass. It was noteworthy, too, in its cosmopolitanism, it was a mixed concourse mourning a common loss, units in a sorrowing pageant. Westminster was represented largely by the Unionist members who were Mr Devlin’s colleagues in the Imperial House, who came to do honour to their departed comrade. Scotland sent over its ambassadors from the Ancient Order of Hibernians and from other political bodies to participate in the solemn escort, and so did the Free State. Rich and poor mingled side by side, but it is safe to assume, without detracting from the homage of the others, that the most heartbroken people in the cortege were the women and children who wept for their benefactor, the man who brought them all to the seaside year after year, and who was to them a Santa Claus in all season.


The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, whose message of sympathy touched the whole community, could not attend, but he was represented by the Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Mr R. Gransden. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Captain Harry Mulholland was absent through illness, and Mr W. Gibson, Librarian in the Northern parliament deputised him. The Free State Executive Council was represented by Mr Vivian De Valera (son of the President); Mr Sean McEntee, Minister of Finance and Mr T Derrig , Minister of Education. Others from the South included Mr William Cosgrave, ex-President; General O’Duffy and General Mulcahy.

Since the transfer of the body from the nursing home to the Pro-Catherdral the church was almost continuously crowded by worshippers who filed past the coffin and touched it on their way, carrying with them the sad thought that they had seen the last of their political friend and champion. This morning the Cathedral was filled to over flowing from an early hour and thousands had to remain outside. The High Alter draped in the trappings of mourning radiated its own message. On a catafalque in the centre aisle lay all that was mortal of Joseph Devlin. The coffin of white oak, hand polished and waxed, had Egyptian bronze mountings,

and bore the simple inscription:-


Died January 18, 1934
There were hundreds of wreaths, but only one had a place on the coffin. It was from Mr Devlin’s sister, Mrs Montgomery, and her son. Solemn Requiem Mass (Coram Pontifice) was celebrated at 10am. His Eminence Cardinal MacRory presided, assisted by the Most Rev. Dr Mageean, Bishop of Down and Connor. The celebrant of the Mass was the Rev. J. O’Neill assisted by the Rev. J. McBride. Priests were present not only from Ulster but from every part of Ireland. The visiting clergy from a distance included the Rev. George Galbraith who travelled specially from Glasgow, and who was with Mr Devlin when he died.


The chanters were the Rev. Vincent Davey (St Patrick’s) and the Rev. J. Walls (Holy Family). After the Mass the absolutions were pronounced by the Lord Bishop. A feature of the ceremony was the impressive music beautifully harmonised under the direction of Mr T. Picton (organist), who played with sensitive understanding the ‘Dead March in Saul’, as the remains were borne down the centre aisle to the waiting four horse hearse which brought them to their last resting place. The hearse itself was a symbol of Mr Devlin’s innate simplicity. The order of the funeral procession was as follows. Clergy Senior pupils of Christian Brothers Schools Hearse Chief mourners – Mrs Teresa Montgomery (sister), Master Joseph Montgomery (nephew), Miss. M. Mullan (niece), Mrs O’Connell (niece), Mr D. O’Connell (nephew-in-law), Mr & Mrs J McArdle (Bangor), Mr & Mrs R. Parker, Mary Mullan, John and William (relatives) Members and representatives of the Governments of Northern Ireland and the Free State. Members of both Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland and the Free State. Lord Mayors and members of Belfast and Dublin Corporations. Representatives of other public bodies in Northern Ireland and Free State. Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Members of the Irish National Foresters. Members of other organisations and the general public.


It would be impossible to mention the names of all who were present. They represented every public body in the city; they represented every section of the community irrespective of creed or class. They came from far and near. Every aspect of social life had a place in the vast throng. Special arrangements were made for motorists and for marshalling the enormous contingents who invaded the Falls. The motors formed a line of vehicles which seemed to be without end and thanks to a fine scene of discipline there was an absence of confusion. The crowds poured in to the neighbourhood of St Peter’s from everywhere. All the way from Messers Hughes Dickson’s Mill to Andersonstown was a thoroughfare of mourners. Every house holder in the locality contributed to invest the occasion with a note of individual grief. The houses were closed, blinds were drawn, and everything was done to publicly express the feelings of the populace. Progress to the graveyard was necessarily slow, because of the congestion.

In the course of the pilgrimage many sotto voce words breathed an eloquence of their own in relation to the deceased. One overheard such remarks as “I knew wee Joe when he was almost a lad.” “I remembered him in the early days when he was speaking at meetings all over the Province.” “I remember him when he entered Parliament.” “I remember his missions to the Antipodes and America.” “I remember his fighting speeches and how he earned the title of the ‘Pocket Demosthenes.” “He was the kindest of souls, and we shall never look upon his like again,” and many burst into tears. Such scenes of sorrow were but punctuating marks in universal mourning, during which political antagonisms were forgotten. At the graveside the coffin, after the last rites of the Church, was lowered to earth.





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