Behind Every Great Man - John Devoy and Alice Comiskey
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Many years ago, I had a class assignment to write a report on a biographical book. When I arrived home with a biography of the renowned human rights campaigner, Roger Casement, my father suggested I call my great aunt, Alice Carragher Comiskey. While this puzzled me, I made the call. Her very emotional initial response to the call was "poor Roger." Roger was the British diplomat of Irish ancestry executed in England for his role in trying to transport German weapons to Ireland for the 1916 Rising. Although I do not remember all the details, she told me about her associa - tion with Roger Casement, which was primar - ily through her long-term connection with a gentleman named John Devoy. At the time, I did not realize the significant roles these individuals played in Irish and Irish American his - tory, or the related role of my aunt. What I did quickly realize was the personal importance they had to my aunt.
Over the next twenty-five years of her life I gained a greater appreciation of her dedication to the cause of a free and united Ireland. Unfortunately, I never took the opportunity to learn more of the details of her remarkable life and her connection with John Devoy. Recent celebrations of the centennial of the 1916 Rising, and the many ceremonies, documen - taries, and dedications related to John Devoy inspired me to do some more digging into my aunt's story. Luckily, my genealogy background and involvement with an Irish genealogy orga-nization provided me access to a wealth of available resources. I was able to attain a much more complete knowledge of Alice's life, her involvement in Irish activities, her role in Irish independence, and her relationship with John Devoy. irish in new york Alice Carragher was born in 1887 in Castleblaney, County Monaghan, the eleventh of twelve children of Francis and Margaret Carragher. Her widowed mother arrived in New York in 1898 with her four younger children, including Alice. They were met by several older sisters who had previously emigrated. The family settled in Greenwich Village, setting up a boarding house for other Irish immigrants at 59 Downing Street and later at 293 West Eleventh Street.
In Alice's younger years she became involved in the Gaelic Revival, which had started in Ireland and rapidly spread to the Irish in the United States. The Carragher family's connection with the County Monaghan Men's Association facilitated her interest in Ireland's ancient games, language, music, Behind Every Great Man: John Devoy and Alice Comiskey Mary Ann O'Neill Kane is a retired New York City teach - er with a B.S. from St. John's University and an M.S. from Hofstra University. She is currently an amateur genealogist and a member/ director of the Irish Family History Forum. ©2017. Published with permission of Mary Ann O'Neill Kane.
Photo (left): A lice Carragher Comiskey at the wedding of her nephew, Frank O'Neill, in 1939. Her life revolved around Ireland, church, and family. She immigrated to New York with her widowed mother and three siblings in 1898, settling in Irish enclaves in Greenwich Village. Courtesy of Mary Ann O'Neill Kane.
Illustration (opposite) : A n excerpt from the Irish American Weekly for April 22, 1911, which mentions Alice's involvement in one of many Irish cultural activities. Courtesy of Mary Ann O'Neill Kane.
NYIHR_P03_Kane_V30_2R.indd 38/28/17 12:32 PM Vol. 30, 2016 dancing, and history. I was able to find information on the Carraghers' Irish activities in numerous online newspaper archives including the Gaelic American and the Irish American Weekly. Alice's name appears frequently as does that of another young woman, her friend Sarah McKelvey, who was also from Monaghan. They were both engaged for many years in the promotion of Irish culture and freedom. In 1905 Sarah was awarded first prize and Alice second prize in an Irish history con - test (Gaelic American: 1). In 1907 Sarah and Alice had lead roles in an Irish language play presented in Lyric Hall on Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street by the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Monaghan Men's Association (Irish American Weekly: 2). a business career & cumann na mban In June, 1912, Alice married Harry Comiskey, a native of Monaghan and a chief engineer in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Her wedding announcement pointed out that she was very active in the Gaelic League. Alice and Harry took a wedding trip to Ireland, travel-ing first class. Seven months later, in January, 1913, Harry was part of the crew of the El Dorado steamship which was lost at sea. Alice never remarried and lived with her sister, Lily Carragher, from that time on. She worked her way up to a partnership in a real-estate devel - opment and investment company. In addition to achieving a successful business career, she devoted the rest of her life to family and to Ireland. She and her sister Lily were founding members of Cumann na mBan of New York, the Irish women's organization with the primary function of raising funds to advance the cause of Irish independence. Alice was the treasurer until 1921. Her old friend, Sarah McKelvey, was president (Conlon: 4). They collected money on Sunday mornings outside the church ( Irish Independent : 5). "They were prominently associated with the big bazaar held in Madison Square Garden after the Insurrection of Easter Week, and continued to collect money in many other Illustration: An excerpt from the Witness Statement of Frank Robbins, a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army and husband of Alice Comiskey's niece, Mary Ward. It testifies to the importance of Cumann na mBan, and members like Alice, in supporting the fight for independence in Ireland. Courtesy of Bureau of Military History (Ireland). NYIHR_P03_Kane_V30_2R.indd 48/28/17 12:32 PM ways such as holding céilís, concerts, and meetings" (Robbins: 6). In addition to their fund raising activities, they "...were also called upon for the more dangerously law provoking task of distributing leaflets in John Devoy's paper protests against what seemed to him injustices in Ireland" ( Irish Independent: 5). a request from clan na gael In 1920 Alice and Lily agreed to a request from leaders of Clan na Gael to take the then aging John Devoy into their home as a boarder. Devoy was, of course, a leading member of the Irish Fenian movement who was exiled to New York in 1871 and who had devoted most of his life to the cause of Irish freedom. He was the owner and publisher of the Gaelic American newspaper and the leader of Clan na Gael, the main Irish Republican organization in the United States and the major source of financing for the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. John Devoy is widely recognized as the primary figure in the Irish American support for the Rising.
Moving to larger quarters, Alice and Lily declined Clan na Gael's offers of compensation and insisted on paying the amount of their rent as before with Clan na Gael paying only the additional cost of the added space. John Devoy lived with them until his death in 1928. living with john devoy In 1969, Alice was a guest of the John Devoy Memorial Committee in Naas, County Kildare. While there, she was interviewed by Ita Mallon, whose article in the Irish Independent (see endnote 5) truly captured Alice's personality and her interactions with John Devoy. I have relied on her article for many details that follow.
During the years Devoy spent with them, Alice continued working and Lily handled most housekeeping chores. On weekends Alice would pitch in or take over. Mallon's interview with Alice colorfully describes Devoy's incessant need to write, Alice and Lily's encourage - ment to have him properly dress for various appearances, and his commentary on Alice's bossiness and poor housekeeping skills. In the interview with Ita Mallon, Alice, speaking of Devoy, said that "In his waking hours the pen was never far from his hand." When he tired in the evening he would sometimes knock on their sitting room door and wait for an invita-tion to join them. Alice also reported that she had to bully him into wearing his best clothes for court appearances related to his writings in the Gaelic American with the result of him telling her sister Lily, "She's a boss." When Alice took over weekend household duties, he described her as "...no housekeeper" (Irish Independent: 5). Devoy had an on-and-off relationship with the Catholic Church. He was a Catholic, but felt strongly that the Church should not be involved in state matters (Dooley: 7). During a confession in prison in 1866 he replied to a chaplain's question regarding his Fenian oath that he did not discuss politics while on his knees (Golway: 8). This was reportedly his last confession for sixty years. However, during his later years he did attend Mass, and when too feeble to attend, the neighboring priests heard his confession and administered sacraments at home. According to my cousin, and Alice's grandnephew, Frank MacGabhann: Devoy had stayed away from the Church since his days as a Fenian. Some sons of Fenians had become priests and from time to time had tried to "bring him back," in Aunt Alice's words. He would tell them to go away saying, "I had you on my knee." Finally, Devoy agreed to see an old Capuchin priest from Ireland. This priest visited him in my aunts' apartment and heard his confession, his first in nearly sixty years. At the next meeting of the Clan, Cohalan remarked, "Mr. Devoy. I hear that you're back in the state of grace." To which Devoy shot back, "Bad news travels fast" ( MacGabhann: 9). devoy's death and funeral The cares and duties of Alice and Lily did not end with John Devoy's death on September 29, 1928. They were involved in funeral arrangements at the Church of the Ascension, Vol. 30, 2016 NYIHR_P03_Kane_V30_2R.indd 58/28/17 12:32 PM Vol. 30, 2016 after which his remains were temporarily placed in a vault in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Alice and Lily then accompanied his body back to Dublin for a state funeral and burial in Glasnevin Cemetery.
John Devoy's remains were returned to Ireland in June 1929 aboard the President Harding . Alice Comiskey and Lily Carragher were part of the American delegation that accompa - nied his remains, first to Cobh, where there was a requiem Mass at the Cathedral, and then by train to Dublin for the state funeral. In Dublin they joined John Devoy's niece and nephews as chief mourners in the funeral procession and burial with full military honors in Glasnevin Cemetery. devoy's bequest & valuable asset Devoy was apparently never interested in accumulating wealth. His will left an estimated estate of less than five thousand dollars. It specified that one thousand dollars each should go to Alice and Lily and it included a statement describing them as his good friends and expressing his appreciation "of the extraordinary care and attention which I have received at their kindly hands" (Devoy: 10). Alice and Lily formally renounced the receipt of his bequest in a document filed in the New York Surrogates Court, citing their happiness in having contributed to his comfort and happiness. They specifically mentioned their "... deep respect for Mr. Devoy and for the principles to the advancement of which he devoted his life's work." They further stated that as they "...came to know Mr. Devoy better and to have more knowledge of his unceasing work for human liberty generally, and for Irish Freedom in particular, our appreciation of Mr.Devoy increased and we felt it an honor and a privilege to enjoy his friendship and to hear his personal assurances of comfort" (Comiskey: 11). John Devoy's will also addressed his most cherished and valuable asset, the papers and manuscripts which he meticulously maintained throughout his life. The collection contains over 3200 items and includes letters from nearly every Irish leader in America and Ireland. These papers were bequeathed and trusted to Alice, and may be considered to be the basis of her single most Photo: The arrival of John Devoy's body in Cobh in June, 1929. Alice Comiskey and her sister, Lily Carragher, were part of the delegation that accompanied the body across the Atlantic to Ireland. Devoy was given a state funeral in Dublin and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. Courtesy of Eugene Smith. NYIHR_P03_Kane_V30_2R.indd 68/28/17 12:32 PM Vol. 30, 2016 important role in caring for John Devoy and her contribution to Irish and Irish-American history. Through her efforts and the efforts of her nephew-in-law, Frank Robbins, the Devoy papers were transcribed and deciphered, and two volumes of selections were published under the title Devoy's Post Bag . In 1954 the collection was donated to the National Library of Ireland, now one of their most significant holdings. The Devoy papers are indexed online but most can be viewed only through a visit to the Library (National Library: 12). alice's later days Alice never stopped working for a United Ireland. In 1947 she was very involved in arranging the Irish Race Convention in New York ( Irish Press: 13). In 1954 she was the assistant treasurer of the American League for an Undivided Ireland, and in 1956 she was the associate treasurer (The Advocate: 14). In the late 1960s or early 1970s, when she learned that I was out demonstrating with some Irish groups, she told me, "That's good Dear, but what they really need is money." postscript Lily Carragher died in 1966, and Alice Carragher Comiskey in 1979. I still regret not having spent more time with Alice, learning about her life and role in Irish American his - tory. However, I was pleased that I was able to put my genealogy experience to use to find so much that was documented in newspapers Illustration: A page from the will of John Devoy demonstrates his appreciation of the "extraordinary care and attention" that he received from Alice Comiskey and Lily Carragher during his later years. In their renunciation of his bequest, they stated that their support grew from their deep respect for Devoy and for the principles to which he devoted his life. Courtesy of Frank MacGabhann. NYIHR_P03_Kane_V30_2R.indd 78/28/17 12:32 PM Vol. 30, 2016 and municipal records. I was also delighted to find related information on Alice's mother (my great grandmother), my grandfather, my grandmother (Alice's sister), and several other family members. They all had great interest in Irish freedom. My grandmother and grandfather were recently featured in a PBS documentary produced by Kevin Ferguson about East Durham and the Catskill mountains, "The Irish Catskills: Dancing at the Crossroads" . But these are all stories for another day.
Endnotes "An Irish-Ireland Event" in Gaelic American: 2 December 1905, p.4. "Gave Irish Play ," in Irish American Weekly: 11 May 1907, p.4. "Doings In The Irish Societies," in Irish American Weekly: 22 April 1911, p.2. Lil Conlon, Cumann na mBan and The Women of Ireland. Kilkenny: Kilkenny People Ltd., 1969. p.236. " Autumn of a Fenian," in Irish Independent: 17 June 1969, p.11. Frank Robbins, "Bureau of Military History 1913-21" . See WS Ref#585; BMH-WSO585.pdf, p.138.) Terence Dooley, The Greatest of the Fenians, John Devoy and Ireland. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 2003, p.93. Terry Golway, Irish Rebel, John Devoy and America's Fight for Irish Freedom . Dublin: Merrion Press, 2015, p.54. Interview with Frank MacGabhann, grandnephew of Alice Comiskey.
John Devoy, Last Will and Testament, Sept. 3, 1928. Alice Comiskey and Lily Carragher, Waiver, Surrogate's Court, County of New York, Nov. 12, 1928. National Library of Ireland, Devoy Papers: ( ) or ( and enter "Devoy Papers.") "4,000 For Irish Race Convention," Irish Press : Nov. 20, 1947 p.4. "American Anti-Partition League Certifies Books," The Advocate: April 3, 1954 p.2. See also "American League for an Undivided Ireland," The Advocate : March 3, 1956, p.4. Illustration: One side of Alice's prayer card. She died in 1979. Courtesy of Mary Ann O'Neill Kane.
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