Catholic Belfast and nationalist Ireland in the era of Joe Devlin, 1871–1934

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1Catholic Belfast and nationalist Ireland in the era of Joe Devlin, 1871–1934
A. C. Hepburn
(Oxford University Press, £55)
ISBN 9780199298846

To his admirers, ‘Wee’ Joe Devlin was a gifted orator, a powerful defender of Catholic rights and a champion of the working class, while detractors tend to see him as a ‘green Tory’, a sectarian ghetto boss and ‘the Irish Lloyd George’. Love him or loathe him, it is hard to discount the power and influence of the man who held West Belfast/Belfast Falls for the Irish Party for eighteen eventful years. Yet, despite having the credentials and polarising reputation that tend to provide fodder for the historical profession, until very recently F. J. Whitford (1959) was Joe Devlin’s only biographer. The late Professor A. C. Hepburn’s book aims to redress this historiographical gap. For those acquainted with Hepburn’s A past apart (1996), the author’s forays into the spatial and social development of nineteenth-century Belfast will seem familiar, and the book’s lack of consistent attention to its theme makes it less effective as a ‘general reinterpretation of the Irish nationalist strategy’ than as a Devlin-centred history of Catholic and nationalist Belfast.
Although Devlin ordered his own papers destroyed, through his careful reconstruction of the John Dillon–T. P. O’Connor–John Redmond correspondence Hepburn has given his readers an opportunity to learn what made Devlin tick, while exposing the insecurities, impulsiveness and self-doubt of a man whose public persona usually exuded so much confidence and ambition. Thus in this volume Hepburn presents his subject as a seemingly uncomplicated man who is ‘permeated by paradox’ when the layers are peeled back. Accordingly, Devlin is described as a man who was shaped by both the factionalism that incapacitated the Irish Party during the 1890s and his related feud with Bishop Henry over political organisation in Belfast. It took ten years for Devlin to bring down the bishop, and for his trouble Wee Joe gained a reputation as a ‘priest-hunter’ and ‘a young man in a hurry’. As Hepburn argued, these experiences led Devlin to develop a ‘penchant for loyalty and tight organisation’, and left him keen to ‘avoid the slightest hint of anti-clericalism’. This, Hepburn tells us, helps to explain what attracted Devlin to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).
In an ironic twist, Devlin’s 30-year association with the AOH had the effect of transforming his image from that of a priest-hunter into that of a sectarian ghetto boss—a charge that A. C. Hepburn dismisses. Rather he maintains that, for Devlin, the AOH was ‘less about sectarianism than about secular leadership’, as it presented an opportunity for lay leadership on Catholic concerns. Thus the author concludes that Devlin’s anti-sectarian appeals, which so many commentators cynically discount, may have been naïve and optimistic responses to Irish political realities, but they were sincere nonetheless.
Devlin’s skill as an orator and his ability as a political organiser catapulted him into the national spotlight between 1905 and 1916, and this would be the high point in his career. Here we are told of the key role he played in the Irish Party’s efforts to bring about Home Rule, especially after the opposition of English and Irish unionism transformed the Home Rule debate into one over temporarily excluding part of Ulster from the legislation. The emergence of militant republicanism forced Devlin to rethink his objections to exclusion and, in what initially seemed to be his ultimate triumph as a politician, he was able to convince Ulster nationalists to accept exclusion as a temporary expedient in 1916. But this démarche collapsed when it became clear that Ulster unionists had been promised permanent partition rather than temporary exclusion.
In the wake of the exclusion débâcle, Joe Devlin’s political capital gradually diminished and, according to Hepburn, it was at this juncture that he began to suffer frequent bouts of depression and ill health, which left him incapacitated. As one of six Irish Party MPs at Westminster after Sinn Fein’s election triumph of 1918, Devlin lacked the influence to prevent the partition of Ireland in 1920–1, and he lost his Westminster seat to redistricting in 1922. While he had been elected to the first Northern Ireland parliament in 1921, an agreement with Sinn Féin bound all anti-partitionist MPs to abstentionism, leaving him without a parliamentary platform. Devlin’s role in the preparations for the Boundary Commission was limited, but after it collapsed amidst controversy in 1925 he and Sinn Féiner Cahir Healy set to work organising anti-partitionists within Northern Ireland as the National League of the North. Yet, despite experiencing something of a political resurgence during this period, according to Hepburn these final years of Devlin’s life were filled with more disillusionment than achievement.
While this book is generally well written and thorough, the repetitiveness caused by its thematic organisation may leave some readers clamouring for a strict chronological approach. Nonetheless, it is a welcome addition to the historiography of the Home Rule and revolutionary era, as well as a fitting companion to Eamon Phoenix’s (1994) authoritative history of Ulster nationalism. Given the dearth of manuscript sources at his disposal, Hepburn can scarcely be blamed if the reader is left wanting to know more about this enigmatic man.

James Cousins holds a Ph.D from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.

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