Joseph Devlin

For other people of the same name, see Joe Devlin (disambiguation). For the Australian politician sometimes known as Joseph Devlin, see Jack Devlin.

Joe Devlin

Joseph Devlin, also known as Joe Devlin, (13 February 1871 – 18 January 1934) was an Irish journalist and influential nationalist politician. He was a member of parliament (MP) for the Irish Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and later a Nationalist Party MP in the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

Early years

Born at 10 Hamill Street, in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, he was the fifth child of Charles Devlin (d. 1906) who ran a hackney cab, and his wife Eliza King (d. 1902) who sold groceries from their home. Until he was twelve he attended the nearby St. Mary's Christian Brothers School in Divis Street, where he was educated in a more Irish nationalist and Catholic view of Irish history and culture than offered in the state system.

He showed an early gift for public speaking when he became chairman of a debating society founded in 1886 to commemorate the first Irish nationalist election victory in West Belfast. From 1891–1893 he was a journalist on the Irish News, then on the Freeman's Journal when he became associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which he helped to establish in the 1890s. He became a lifelong opponent of its loyalist counterpart, the Orange Order. He then worked at Samuel Young MP's brewery company, for whom he managed a Belfast pub until 1902.[1]

Skilled politician

During the 1890s he was active as organiser in the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation in eastern Ulster. When William O'Brien founded the United Irish League (UIL) in County Mayo in 1898, Devlin founded the UIL section in Belfast which became his political machine in Ulster. He was elected unopposed[2] as Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) Member of Parliament for Kilkenny North in the February 1902 by-election.[3] His first political assignment came that year when the Party sent him to Irish Americas on the first of several successful fund-raising missions.

It was there that he encountered the power of the Hibernian Orders and on his return set about claiming it for constitutional nationalism, when in 1904 he became lifelong Grandmaster of the AOH in Ireland. Members of his Order, largely composed of earlier members of the Molly Maguires, a militant secret society also known as the Mollies, also became members of the Irish Party, deeply infiltrating it.[4] Already secretary of the London based United Irish League of Great Britain Devlin became General Secretary of O’Brien’s UIL, replacing John O'Donnell, through the initiative of deputy IPP leader John Dillon MP, with whom he held a close alliance and who had fallen under his influence. This "coup" gave them nationwide control of the 1200 UIL branches, the organisational base of the IPP, depriving O'Brien of all authority.

Devlin had risen in the ranks of the League from being a local Nationalist organiser in Belfast to becoming the only newcomer to the parliamentary party who was accepted politically, as an equal by the established leaders. He was devoted to Dillon who had helped him greatly to his rise to prominence, and Dillon in turn relied greatly on him, not alone for both his control of the UIL and the AOH, but also because he was an outstanding representative of Ulster Nationalism.[5]

Immense influence

He became a distinguished parliamentarian and had reached the top by the skilful use of two remarkable talents, his persuasive and very powerful oratory, and secondly, that he was a great organisation man, not merely as General Secretary of the United Irish League, but because he also dominated the Ancient Order of Hibernians.[6] He was the only member of the younger generation to belong to the innermost circle of the IPP leadership and was widely seen as eventual heir-apparent.[7]

For some years Devlin had been in bitter conflict with the bishop’s Catholic Association who wanted politics based on Catholic rights rather than on nationalism. Now in control of the three nationalist political organisations all sides succumbed to Devlin’s influence. The AOH continued the O'Connellite link between Catholicism and nationalism but under a lay controlled organisations. To the Irish party's opponents the AOH was synonymous with Catholic sectarianism, jobbery and patronage.[8][9] Devlin represented the main urban and national business interests, which contrasted with his advocacy of social reforms when he took up labour issues especially working conditions in the linen mills and textile trades.

In the 1906 British general election, Devlin was re-elected to Kilkenny North, and also to Belfast West which he regained from the Unionists by 16 votes. Choosing to retain the Belfast seat, he served as its MP beyond 1918, when his popularity in Belfast and east Ulster survived the downfall of the IPP. Devlin became governor of the nationalist hinterland after his AOH political machinery rapidly saturated the country, acting through the UIL as the militant support organisation of the Irish Party. Devlin could assure John Redmond leader of the IPP, that at Redmond's bid, his organisation could provide full attendance of suitable "supporters" at any meeting, demonstration or convention throughout Ireland,[10] something Redmond and his party often availed of.

The AOH was vehemently opposed by one nationalist organisation, the Munster based All-for-Ireland League (AFIL), an independent party founded by William O'Brien who held Devlin's AOH as being at the root of widespread religious intimidation and sectarianism. He and his followers were attacked at a UIL Convention in Dublin in February 1909 by 400 militant "Mollies" organised by Devlin to silence him and his followers at what became known as the "Baton Convention".[11]

Home Rule compromised

With the involvement of Ireland on the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Devlin sided with Redmond's decision in supporting recruiting[12] for Britain’s and the Allied war effort and voluntary enlistment of National Volunteers in Irish regiments of the New Service Army. Redmond's plan was that, post-war, an intended 'Irish Brigade' and the National Volunteers would provide the basis for an Irish army, capable of enforcing Home Rule on reluctant Ulster Unionists.[13]

After the 1916 Easter Rising Devlin compromised with Northern Nationalists on a temporary six-county exclusion to assist Lloyd George's abortive home rule negotiations, organising a convention which endorsed exclusion by a vote of 475 to 265.[14] On the other hand, during the Irish Convention he sided with the bishops in blocking Redmond's compromise with Southern Unionists on Home Rule.[15] In April 1918 Devlin was signatory to the anti- Conscription Crisis of 1918 pledge. At the end of the war he was elected Nationalist MP for Belfast Falls in the 1918 general election (in which he defeated Éamon de Valera of Sinn Féin), one of the very few Irish Parliamentary Party MPs to retain their seats against the Sinn Féin landslide.

Minority leader

During 1919–1921 his leadership was reduced to six Nationalist MPs. His attempts to achieve a united nationalist front was undermined because of resentment by west Ulster nationalists of his acceptance of temporary partition as the price for a Home Rule settlement in 1916.[16] He avoided any involvement in All-Ireland politics having accepted that the mandate had passed to Sinn Féin. Although, when he tried to bring up the Croke Park killings that occurred on Bloody Sunday at Westminster, he was shouted down and physically attacked by Conservative MP John Elsdale Molson; the Speaker had to suspend the sitting.

In the first election in 1921 for the Northern Ireland House of Commons after the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was enacted, so as not to allow the Ulster Unionists a "walk-over" he agreed a pact with de Valera that Nationalists would not stand against Sinn Féiners; both parties co-operated during the election and won 6 seats each, the Unionists 40. Devlin, who represented a more moderate nationalist view, was elected for both Antrim and Belfast West. He chose to sit for Belfast West although his seat in the seven member Antrim constituency was left vacant for the rest of the Parliament. He continued to sit at Westminster as leader of the Nationalist Party of Northern Ireland, as both small parties did not recognise the Stormont parliament.

Devlin was re-elected in Belfast West in 1925 when he decided to lead his small party out of abstentionism and sat for the first time in the Parliament of Northern Ireland as head of a powerless opposition, but so as to highlight Catholic grievances, especially in relation to education. He was returned for the four member constituency until Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote was abolished for territorial constituencies and single member seats were introduced for the 1929 election.

From 1929 until his death, Joe Devlin was the Northern Ireland MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone. He won amendment to the Northern Ireland Education Act of 1930 which improved the funding of Catholic schools. Otherwise they were years of demoralisation for northern Catholics, and the party abstained after 1932 due to the abolishment of proportional representation, when frustration finally drove him and his followers out of the Belfast parliament again, when his party abstained. [17]

Personal background

"Wee Joe" as he was popularly known, was held in high affection by his constituents for his charming and effervescent personality. He was a fluent and powerful orator. In later years he was comfortably off as director of the Distillery Company and chairman of the Irish News and enjoyed organising summer fêtes – "days of delight" – for Belfast children. His approach in life was 'getting things done'. He lived most of his life in Belfast, though he spent some earlier years in London. He never married. An acknowledged spokesman and leader of Catholic nationalists in Ulster for decades, Devlin died in Belfast on 18 January 1934. He was buried at Milltown Cemetery. His funeral at St. Peter's Pro-Cathedral, Belfast, was attended by leading members of both governments. The AOH hall in Ardboe, County Tyrone, is named after him.[18]


  1. Hepburn, Anthony C.: in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol. 15, Oxford University Press, (2004), p.983
  2. The Constitutional Year Book, 1904, published by Conservative Central Office, page 190 (214 in web page)
  3. The London Gazette: no. 27411. p. 1281. 28 February 1902.
  4. Garvin, Tom: The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics (2005) pp. 107–110: The Rise of the Hibernians ISBN 0-7171-3967-0
  5. Lyons, F. S. L.: John Dillon, Ch. 10, p. 288, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London (1968), SBN 7100 2887 3
  6. Lyons, F. S. L.: p.324
  7. Maume, Patrick: The long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891–1918, p.45, Gill & Macmillan (1999) ISBN 0-7171-2744-3
  8. Miller, David W.: Church, State and Nation in Ireland 1898–1921 pp.208–15, Gill & Macmillan (1973) ISBN 0-7171-0645-4
  9. Hepburn, A.:, Oxford Dictionary p.983
  10. Garvin, T.: p.108
  11. O'Brien, Joseph V.: William O'Brien and the course of Irish Politics, 1881–1918, The All-for-Ireland League p. 187, University of California Press (1976) ISBN 0-520-02886-4
  12. Hepburn, A.: Oxford Dictionary: p.984
  13. Bowman, Timothy: Irish Regiments in the Great War "Raising the Service battalions" p.62 (Note 2: Dooley, T. P. The Irish Sword XVIII, 72, (1991) p. 209) Manchester University Press (2003) ISBN 0-7190-6285-3
  14. Hepburn, A.: Oxford Dictionary p.984
  15. Hepburn, A.: Oxford Dictionary: p.984
  16. Maume, Patrick: “Who’s Who” p.225
  17. Hepburn, A.: Oxford Dictionary p.984
  18. Hepburn, A.: Oxford Dictionary: p.984


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Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Patrick McDermott
Member of Parliament for Kilkenny North
Succeeded by
Michael Meagher
Preceded by
H. O. Arnold-Forster
Member of Parliament for Belfast West
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Belfast Falls
Constituency abolished
Preceded by
James Pringle
Charles Falls
Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and Tyrone
With: Thomas Harbison to 1931
Cahir Healy from 1931
Succeeded by
Joseph Francis Stewart
Cahir Healy
Parliament of Northern Ireland
New constituency Member of Parliament for Belfast Central
Succeeded by
Thomas Joseph Campbell
Party political offices
New title Leader of the Nationalist Party at Stormont
Succeeded by
Thomas Joseph Campbell
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