Anne Devlin, Ireland’s Almost Entirely Ignored Hero

Today is not the day Anne Devlin died but September 18th is. Given that the Scottish vote will be the news of that day this year, I thought I would step back for a minute into my favorite subjects. I started this blog because I am incredibly passionate about history in general – and Irish history in specific. I make an effort to highlight Irish women – the rebels, suffragists, and strong women who fought for Ireland just as much as their male counterparts but who rarely get the same credit. The Scottish referendum on Independence is HUGE news but their vote falls on an all too forgotten date in Irish history as well – and to ignore that would be yet another travesty inflicted upon Anne Devlin. Given that she suffered more brutality in her life than most would ever survive, the least I can do is mark the anniversary of her passing and give her the recognition that she deserves – even if I tell my tale of her life and death a day early.

Anne Devlin was born into a very Nationalist family in Rathdrum Co. Wicklow. She was raised with a dream of a free Ireland and a belief that it was possible. After the 1798 rebellion, her home was often raided and many members of her family were arrested. When her father was released from yet another stint in prison, Anne moved to Dublin. It was there that she met the revolutionary Robert Emmet, who would become a shining beacon of platonic love and an almost fanatical ray of hope in her life. On paper she was his housekeeper but that was simply a cover. She was hired to provide an air of authenticity in case authorities were watching the bustling house while he planned a rebellion. Her household position also explained the errands she was seen doing, making her the perfect delivery system for messages and orders that Emmet sent out. As a result, she likely knew the names and locations of every single rebel in the city. She was a believer in the upcoming rebellion against the British and a supporter of the man behind it. They were profound friends.

Unfortunately for them both, Emmet’s rebellion of 1803 failed miserably. Shortly after it devolved into minor clashes and fleeing rebels, her ruse was no longer credible. A group of yeoman descended upon the house in search of the man and found Anne and her sister instead. Anne was tortured for information by the mob. They stabbed her slowly in numerous places with multiple bayonets. They repeatedly hanged her, choking the life almost completely out of her again and again while they interrogated her in an effort to scare her enough to talk. They traumatized her younger sister and threatened to kill them both. Anne endured their torture and said nothing. When the sisters finally made it back to their own home, authorities swooped in and arrested the entire family, including the small children.

Her constant presence in the Emmet house had been brought to the attention of the police. She was alternately offered bribes or torture, she was brutally mistreated and interrogated, and when the police threatened her whole family she still refused to speak. She was taken to Kilmainham Gaol where her daily tortures got worse under the sadistic eye of the prison doctor, Edward Trevor. Eventually 21 members of her family were tossed into jail to be used against her. Her nine year old brother Jimmy died of starvation and neglect while in prison. Whether his demise was intentional or not, it was universally thought that his body would finally break the stubborn woman. She went nearly insane with grief but even that could not force names or information from her lips.

In yet another effort to break her will, the authorities arranged for Anne to see her much loved Robert Emmet before he was executed. They assumed that meeting would give them some leverage during her next interrogation, but again, they were wrong. Anne walked right by him, with no hint of recognition or friendliness. Despite numerous pleas from many people to save herself since Emmet was doomed regardless, the steadfast woman refused to give the authorities any information or satisfaction. When they attempted the same maneuver with other prisoners who may or may not have been involved in the rebellion, each had the same outcome. This made it silently clear to both the rebels and her captors that the information she held in her head would never be revealed, no matter what. From the first time she was tortured to the last, her defiant replies remained the same. “I’ll tell nothing” and “I have nothing to tell” were the only coherent sentences she answered with.

It is a wonder that Anne Devlin survived. She was kept in the dungeons of Kilmainham for over 2 1/2 years. Her captivity was secret and off the books for most of her stay and many employees and guards knew nothing about the woman in the dungeon or the horrors that she was subjected to under their feet. Unfortunately, this means that most records and first hand accounts of her suffering are non-existent as well. The Crown must have contemplated putting her to death, since letting her out after so much torture was a huge risk. In the end, they released her after nearly three years but made sure that she was just as isolated on the outside as she had been in solitary confinement. They watched her every move and took note of anyone she interacted with, causing all who had known her before to stay away from her after her release. She was destined to lose her rebel friends despite the fact that she never betrayed a single one of them. Hers was a lonely life, through no fault of her own and the relative freedom had to taste bitter. Even after the British stopped monitoring her, the people who had been in her life remained wary of her, including the prominent rebels in her own family. Many former acquaintances gossiped about a sordid love affair between her and Robert Emmet – never acknowledging that the massive fortitude and strength of character she had shown could be out of a loyalty to Ireland and not merely an obligation to an illicit lover. It was a particularly cruel and unfounded dismissal of all that she had been through.

For a time after her release, she survived on secret donations from Nationalists and rebels who were trying to repay the sacrifices that she had made for them. Eventually the money dried up and the world moved on – leaving her to a life of poverty and obscurity in the Liberties slum of Dublin. She eventually married and had four children of her own – living quietly and anonymously as Mrs. Campbell for many years. She died of starvation as a poor washer woman in a notorious slum after keeping her secrets for over 40 years. She was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, separated from the grave of her husband and from the plots of her fellow rebels.

Shortly before her death, Dr. Richard Robert Madden sought her out while he was working on a biography of Robert Emmet. He had been told that Mrs. Campbell might have known some of the people involved but at first he did not know who she was. When asked about Emmet, she became incredibly animated. At this point, he began hearing and recording her accounts, even leading her back to Emmet’s house to help her remember details. He printed very little of her incredible story and the little he did was a side plot in the pages of Emmet’s biography. Mostly he used her for her memories of the man he was researching. He forever linked her story to Emmet’s instead of giving her a heroic tale of her very own.

However, her story affected him enough that he made a public appeal on her behalf in the local newspaper but it seems the world had forgotten about Anne Devlin. When he later learned of her death and burial, he had her body exhumed and then reburied in a proper grave closer to the Republican plot with a large stone. On it he inscribed: To the memory of Anne Devlin (Campbell), faithful servant of Robert Emmet, who possessed some rare and noble qualities: who lived in obscurity and poverty, and so died, the 18th day of September,1851, aged 70 years.

While we must thank him for keeping her from vanishing altogether and for preserving her memory, it is unfortunate that he chose those words to immortalize her with. Yes, Anne had been a faithful servant of Robert Emmet, but it would have been more accurate to say that she was his confidante and friend, and without her secret deliveries and constant care, his uprising might never have occurred. An even better description would have been a faithful servant and soldier of Ireland, since her loyalty was not just to the rebel leader but to everyone involved in the fight for her country. In the biography he wrote about Robert Emmet, Dr. Madden diminished her further by describing her as “a poor creature of plebeian origin” and a “lowborn woman”. Other biographies that mention Anne do so as a footnote, using the same condescending voice – focusing on her origins and lowly station, rather than her awful struggle…and most I’ve read do not mention her at all. None honor her for her incredible bravery and strength. This lack of recognition is appalling because Anne Devlin was in my opinion, one of the staunchest warriors in Irish history. Her upbringing and monetary status did not change the fact that she refused all bribes and stood up to the British at great peril to herself and her family when no one else would have. Her humble birth had nothing to do with the fact that she protected her secrets with a fierceness that we should all aspire to. At the very least, her story deserves to be told as her own and not as a brief mention in Emmet’s history. There isn’t a single book about her that I’m aware of, and though there are a few chapters and papers here and there, she is still relatively uncelebrated.

These days there is an annual commemoration ceremony in her honor on the Sunday that falls closest to September 18th but its attendance isn’t great. It is better than nothing and at least there are some in the world who will not forget her noble ordeal. However, upon my visit to Kilmainham at the end of last year, there was not one mention of her by the guide. We saw Robert Emmet’s cell but heard no whisper of Anne. When I asked about her and where she had been kept, he dodged my questions. When others wondered who she was, his reply was that she was a servant who was kept in the dungeon before hurrying us along. He mentioned we could buy a pamphlet in the gift shop if we wanted to know more. His reply was frustrating because it shows a continuing lack of interest in spreading her story and giving her the credit that she is due. On a tour that focuses on Irish Nationalist history and rebel prisoners, you would think she would be included, but she is not. Maybe if more people ask about her, they will eventually include her captivity in their stories of the Gaol. Maybe if enough people share her whole story, she will also finally get validation as a rebel in her own right, who saved many lives by sacrificing much of her own. Her marker is adorned with an Irish Wolfhound – a symbol of unwavering loyalty. She gave that to everyone around her and returning the favor is long overdue. Anne Devlin deserved more in life and she continues to deserve more in death, even 163 years later.

I measc na naomh go raibh síanne

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8 thoughts on “Anne Devlin, Ireland’s Almost Entirely Ignored Hero

  1. Skye says:

    It is still very much a man’s world, and more so outside of the US. Keep up the good work my dear!

  2. Do you know of the 1984 “Anne Devlin” by Pat Murphy? I believe it only exists on 35mm and VHS, and I have never seen it. But there was a poster for it on a wall in the Mahon mansion in Strokestown, as it was filmed there. (and I was informed that I have relatives as extras in the cast!) I wish there was a digital edition somewhere, as I’d love to see this film:
    http://www.ifi.ie/film/anne-devlin-3/

  3. […] been in my head and heart for years and then Scotland took over everything. Between writing about Anne Devlin, one of my passions and heroes, and the heartbreak of Scotland’s no vote, I have felt a […]

  4. Briedhe says:

    The ordeal of Anne Devlin was written in 1963 I think and still some copies out there. I read it in the seventies and was very moved by it.

    • Since writing this, I have found 2 books – that one and “Anne Devlin, Patriot and Heroine”. There’s a pamphlet from Kilmainham about her and some books have a chapters on her, even though most don’t.
      I’m happy that I have found them though. She is a very moving subject for me too – and any new little pieces of information about her I get very excited about. Thanks for reminding me of that one!

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