Devoy, or not Devoy? Queensland brewer upstaged by USA Fenian interloper during Irish homecoming
John Moran: Copyright 2019
John N Devoy (the “N” is a bit of a mystery), office boy and eventually managing director and chairman of the XXXX, or Castlemaine Perkins, brewery at Milton, was a popular Queenslander. By any measure, a big shot in the Queensland of his day. He, and his canny wife, Annie Fitzgerald, ended up worth a quid too. In contemporary parlance, definitely a “power couple” around pre-war Brisbane.
During the 1920-30s he acquired the epithet “Grand old man of Queensland business.” When the devout Catholic finally joined the “faithful departed,” from his Bardon home, in Brisbane's north-western suburbs, on Christmas Eve 1942, just three months after Annie’s death, he left an estate valued at £27,143 (AUD$2 million in 2016). Canny Annie’s was worth £63,000 (more than AUD$4 million in 2016).
He was a pioneer resident of Upper Paddington, now Bardon. Moving from the adjoining Ashgrove, after his 1897 marriage, he carried Annie over the threshold of a large house on the Upper Fernberg (now Simpson’s) Rd, between the busy Macgregor Tce intersection (then Stennett’s Corner) and Greer St.
He was instrumental in establishing athletics in Queensland and a champion rower, winning, in the boat Mary, the first race on the Brisbane River in 1873 – “for youths pulling a pair of oars in skiffs.”
As president of the Brisbane Merchants Association, he was also active in founding the University of Queensland, arguing forcefully in 1908 that it “must cater not only for the 20 per cent who could pay their way, but also for the 80 per cent who at present were deprived of the University training. In America the greatest brains were discovered amongst the 80 per cent who while having a University education were also working for their living.”
In short, John Devoy, from the great free State of Queensland, enjoyed plenty of success in his life, received numerous accolades, played a big part in Queensland’s development and had many and varied experiences.
So, when he finally decided to visit the land of his birth – now the new Irish Free State – in 1924 it was big news on the Brisbane social scene. The town’s newspapers were all over it. The weeks leading up to his 25 February departure were a busy schedule of farewell parties and events. The members of his beloved Commercial Rowing Club entertained “their president, Mr J N Devoy and Mrs Devoy, at a farewell regatta” on Saturday, 9 February. The residents of Simpson’s Rd, Upper Paddington, his neighbours, threw a party, as did the Ithaca Progress Association. (The area didn’t officially become Bardon until a year or two later.)
Throughout February “Mrs Devoy” was kept busy with a packed calendar of farewell teas at Clayfield, New Farm, Lennon’s Hotel and various other places in between.
Brisbane’s Scottish community, through the Caledonian Society, Burns Club and Brisbane Pipe Band, threw a combined banquet for the “broadminded Irishman, with a large heart” who helped all and sundry “irrespective of creed, country or politics.” Brisbane’s Scots wished “Mr and Mrs Devoy godspeed and a safe return to sunny Queensland.”
His innumerable liquor trade friends held a “brilliant function” at the National Hotel, Petrie Bight, to attest to “Mr. Devoy's sterling qualities, and wish him a delightful and pleasant voyage to the old land. … It was certainly the most impressive demonstration of approval yet given any member of the trade.”
Last, but not least, his Castlemaine Brewery employees threw a “smoke” evening to farewell their well-liked boss a few days before he sailed. You could be excused for thinking he had a one way ticket and Brisbane was losing him forever.
Cocky, new-world Queenslanders knew how special this guy was – “a good friend, a compassionate master, and a broad-minded, generous-hearted patron.” They were confident the rest of the world would understand too, especially the Irish.
Why would anyone be surprised if the pooh-bahs of the new Irish Free State made a fuss of such an illustrious Irish exile upon his return to the land of his birth? It was only to be expected, really.
So, when Irish politician, General Dick Mulcahy, rose in the Irish parliament, the Dail Eireann, on 24 July and asked President Cosgrove if he was aware “of the intended arrival in this country” of John Devoy, a few Queensland journalists took a close interest in the reply. The president had, indeed, “received notification of Mr Devoy’s return to Ireland and had sent him a message of welcome by wireless.” He had also invited him to be a guest of the State during his stay. The president believed it “the least tribute they could pay to Mr Devoy whose life had been spent in the country’s service.”
The news took a while to filter back to Queensland, but by September Brisbane’s Daily Standard and Truth newspapers proudly announced that John Devoy was the first Queenslander honoured as an official “guest” of the Irish Free State.
Given his longstanding interest and involvement in Irish affairs in Queensland, the Truth writers thought it was “little to be wondered at, therefore, that when he reached his native land, he should be welcomed with open arms, and honoured as one well-fitted amongst the sons of Ireland to be so singled out.”
He was even to “be met at Cobh by the Minister for External Affairs, Mr. Fitzgerald.” This was “singularly fitting, since Mrs. J. N. (Annie) Devoy is a Fitzgerald, sister to that brainy and eloquent Charles Borromeo Fitzgerald, Attorney-General in the first Labor Ministry in Queensland set up by the late Anderson Dawson in 1899, but existing for only one week.” The Daily Standard helped spread the word. Queensland was proud of its man.
It’s true Devoy was a committed Irish Catholic, supporting Church-run institutions and the Irish religious orders, as well as Irish nationalist causes. He was usually at or near the top table and his wallet always open whenever Irish Home Rule or republican leaders, such as Michael Davitt, JT Donovan, Joseph Devlin and the Redmonds, visited Brisbane to raise money and advocate for the British to leave Ireland.
Anyway, how many Irish expatriates of renown, named John Devoy, making a trip “home” in 1924 could there possibly be? It was a no-brainer, surely? Clearly one or two scribes around Brisbane needed an Irish history refresher.
There were, in fact, two John Devoys from Ireland’s County Kildare. One was a voluntary exile who came to Queensland and spent his life fermenting beer, while in his own quiet way doing his bit for Ireland’s independence. The other spent his life fermenting trouble for the English in Ireland and then, as an involuntary exile, the United States. Now, the Irish might be famous for enjoying a beer, but it was actually the old Fenian rebel, not the Queenslander, being welcomed “home” as the Irish Free State’s official guest. Whoops!
While John Devoy from Kill, Country Kildare, was swanning around with Free State officialdom, John N Devoy from Rathstewart, at the other end of the racehorse-mad county, was getting around acquainting himself with the day-to-day and business life of the newly liberated people.
While John Devoy, the elderly Fenian (post potato-famine Irish rebel organisation) from the United States, was, in the opinion of Éamon de Valera, Maud Gonne and other republicans opposed to the 1921-22 Anglo-Irish Treaty, generally behaving like a horse’s backside, John Devoy, the convivial brewer from Queensland, was inspecting equine hindquarters and whatever else at “the world renowned Dublin horse show.”
The Queensland faux pas was all the more extraordinary given “Fenian” Devoy actually had a spectacular link to Australia, albeit one that was nearly 50 years old in 1924. He masterminded the successful 1876 Catalpa “rescue” of Fenian convicts – the Fremantle Six - by USA-based Fenians, from Western Australia’s “British transportation” penal system. The audacious jail-break is the subject of many books and a number of movie/short-film attempts.
A week after its first story in September 1924 the Daily Standard fessed up, acknowledging that “the recent report that Mr J. N. Devoy, of Brisbane, had been the guest of the Irish Free State Government in Dublin, was erroneous, and due to the confusion of names.”
Oh well, what the heck. Brisbane and Queensland still loved him and upon his return the round of welcome-back engagements in November was nearly as exhausting as the farewell program in February.
When the fuss finally subsided John N Devoy settled back into making beer at Milton, at the company he had been with since its foundation in 1887. A few years later word came through that rebel John Devoy had died at Atlantic City in the United States. His body was returned to Ireland for a State funeral and burial at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.
When brewer John N Devoy died at his Bardon home in December 1942, aged 85, there were plenty of XXXXs raised, around Brisbane and the rest of the State, to the popular business leader. Following Requiem Mass at his little parish church of St Mary Magdalene, Bardon, he was buried at Toowong Cemetery. There were no eulogies in the Dail Eireann or retrospectives in Irish newspapers. The Irish tricolours remained high on their Dublin staffs. Even in his adopted Queensland there was no State funeral, no grand cathedrals.
John N Devoy had family, cultural and ethnic links to Ireland, but in the 1860s his parents made a choice that Australia was theirs and his future. After 80 years in Brisbane he was well-and-truly a Queenslander, who had made a big contribution to his adopted land. His one trip back to his native land was probably all the more enjoyable and memorable because he didn’t, unlike his Fenian namesake, end up a show-piece guest of the new Irish Free State and its split geographical and political landscape.
Courier-Mail, 26 December 1942, p.3; Telegraph, 26 December 1942, p.3; Courier-Mail, 10 June 1944, p.4; Truth, 2 May 1943, p.10; Queenslander, 15 Nov 1873, p.3; Brisbane Courier, 8 Oct 1908, p.5; Figaro, 16 Feb 1924, p.4; Telegraph, 6 February 1924; Brisbane Courier, 18 February 1924, p.6; Truth, 24 February 1924, p.6; ibid. 19 January 1924, p.4; Derry Journal 25 July 1924, p.5; Truth, 28 Sept 1924, p.4; Daily Standard, 25 Sept 1924, p.6; Telegraph, 28 October 1924, p.5; Londonderry Sentinel, 29 July 1924, p.6; Daily Standard, 2 Oct 1924, p.10; Telegraph, 26 December 1942, p.6.
Genealogical records in Queensland and Ireland.
Currency conversions were approximated using the Reserve Bank of Australia’s pre-decimal inflation calculator: http://www.rba.gov.au/calculator/annualPreDecimal.html