Irish Republican News · April 3, 2006
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
A republican who could not be bought

A historian is aiming to rediscover the story of an Irishwoman whose courage saved the leaders of a rebellion in 1803 - Anne Devlin lost her eight-year-old brother and went partially blind during the years she spent in appalling conditions in Kilmainham Jail.

Michael O Doibhlin, who is writing a biography of Devlin, said she held the lives of at least 50 rebel supporters of Robert Emmet’s abortive uprising against British rule in her hands.

“If Anne Devlin had given in during her two-and-a-half years of hell in Kilmainham and told about the people she knew they would have been arrested and either executed or deported,” he said.

“And a whole level of republicanism would have been removed and we would not have the country we have today.”

Devlin spent her final years in abject poverty in Dublin’s Liberties due to the deaths of her secret supporters and her husband.

“Three days before she died in 1851 [at the age of 70] she pawned the last of her bedclothes to get a little bit of food,” Mr O Doibhlin said.

As he placed flowers on Devlin’s grave in Glasnevin cemetery yesterday to mark Mothers’ Day, Mr O Doibhlin said she had been an inspiration to later rebel leaders like Padraig Pearse.

“Eamon de Valera talked about her and said she should never be forgotten. Unfortunately she has been forgotten,” he said.

Devlin, who grew up near Rathdrum in Co Wicklow, relayed messages between the rebels at great risk to herself and strongly resented being described later as merely Robert Emmet’s “housekeeper in Dublin”.

“Emmet himself on one occasion said ‘She’s one of us’ when people didn’t want to talk in front of her,” Mr O Doibhlin said.

“In other words, she was part of the whole set-up and she was in on the rising.”

When Devlin was jailed she contracted erysipelas, a disease which develops from uncleaned wounds, and went partially blind.

Although there was no physical torture, Mr O Doibhlin said, she was often held in solitary confinement and was put under constant psychological pressure from those working for the British authorities.

“At one stage 22 members of her family, including her mother and father, were imprisoned with her.

“Her young brother Jimmy, who was aged between six and eight, died in prison,” he said.

“The British offered her 500 pounds - the equivalent of more than 30 years’ wages at the time - to give evidence against Robert Emmet.”

Born to a privileged family, Emmet had sought exile in France after the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 before leading the abortive 1803 uprising, which got little further than Dublin Castle.

“She could have lived the rest of her life in comfort, she wouldn’t have had to work. But she didn’t identify him,” Mr O Doibhlin said.

In research for his book, he discovered that, contrary to popular belief, Devlin had four children rather than three.

After discovering the relevant birth record on microfilm in the National Library, he was allowed to photograph the original in St Catherine’s Church in Meath Street, which named Anne Devlin as the mother of the male child.

“It appears he died after his Baptism,” Mr O Doibhlin said.

He said that while Devlin often complained about being ignored in the street by the men she had protected, there was a good reason for this.

“For much of her life, she was being followed by the secret service,” he said.

“Nobody could acknowledge her publicly but they did a lot to help her secretly.”

This included getting her a job as a housekeeper for an elderly lady and possibly arranging her marriage to horse-and-cart driver William Campbell, who was 13 years older than her.

She was later given a job in the laundry at St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin where she was paid three times the going rate.

But she spent her final years wracked with pain from the disease contracted in Kilmainham Jail and struggling to earn a living from her own laundry business.

Robert Emmet was executed for high treason in Dublin on September 20 1803.

The rebel leader’s corpse, to all intents and purposes, disappeared and the whereabouts of his final resting place is one of the abiding mysteries of Irish history.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News