Devlin was the leader of constitutional nationalism in the early 20th century
Born on Hamill Street, February 1871, at the Falls Road area of Belfast, Joseph Devlin was an exact contemporary of his Unionist opponent James Craig. Devlin received only primary education from the Christian Brothers and worked as a ‘potboy,’ a glass collector and ‘bottle washer’ in a Belfast pub before finding employment as a journalist for the local nationalist newspaper, the Irish News.
Devlin began a political career as a debater within the Belfast branch of the Young Ireland Society and during the 1890s, was active in the anti-Parnell Irish National Federation. He was elected Home Rule MP for Kilkenny north in 1902 and took west Belfast in 1906. In 1918 he defeated Eamonn De Valera for the Falls constituency and maintained the seat until 1922.
Devlin then represented Fermanagh and Tyrone at Westminster from 1929 to 1934. As well as being a successful electoral campaigner, Devlin was an astute organiser and ‘machine politician’, turning a reinvigorated Ancient Order of Hibernians into a support structure for northern nationalism. He served as National President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians from 1905 until his death in 1934.
Devlin did not enter the Northern Ireland parliament until 1925, but the following years saw him weld the Nationalist opposition in the north into a united, if fundamentally powerless, force. Despite his nationalist and Catholic loyalties, Devlin commanded respect both from the Protestant working class in his native Belfast and from Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, James Craig.
Joseph Devlin died in Belfast in January 1934.
Ireland Since the Famine (1971) by FSL Lyons; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by K Newmann; Northern Nationalism: Nationalist Politics, Partition, and the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland 1890-1940 (1994) by E Phoenix; A Dictionary of Irish Biography (1998) by H Boylan; The Oxford Companion to Irish History (2002) by SJ Connolly.