Devenish, John James (c. 1669–1739), military officer, was born to William Devenish of Curraghnegoole, near Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, and his wife Eleanor (née O’Conor Roe) of nearby Cloonfree, near Strokestown. His grandfather was George Devenish, a catholic Dublin merchant who, on being elected mayor of the city in 1616, had refused to take the oath of supremacy and was thereby barred from the office. George then purchased property in Athlone, building a mansion named Court Devenish about 1620, and some of his family settled in the area. After the Cromwellian victory in the civil wars of the 1640s, the Devenishes were deprived of their Athlone patrimony and expelled to a small estate near Strokestown, Co. Roscommon; following the restoration of Charles II they were declared ‘innocent papists’ and recovered much of the town property, while retaining the country estate.
John James Devenish commenced his military career around 1687 and, after a spell in the service of France, he fought in the Great Turkish War for the Habsburg emperor, probably in the Bavarian forces of the elector Max Emmanuel, attaining the rank of captain. Devenish accompanied the Bavarian envoy on a mission to London in 1698, which may have given him the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a widow, Katherine Duraine, a servant to Princess Anne. When Anne became queen in 1702, her first civil list granted a pension of £70 a year to her former servant, who had by that time become Devenish’s wife.
By 1700 he commanded a company in a Bavarian infantry regiment, and he was a lieutenant-colonel by March 1703. After the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702, Bavaria had joined with France and Spain against the ‘Grand Alliance’ of England, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire. His company suffered heavy casualties at the battle of Blenheim on 13 August 1704, when the Allies defeated a Franco–Bavarian army. He was among the Bavarian wounded who were evacuated to Ulm, which was besieged and surrendered to the Allies on 10 September. Wounded members of the defeated garrison were allowed to leave on the promise that they would not serve against the Emperor again.
Devenish received a pass to travel to Strasbourg but detoured to Baden where he communicated with the duke of Marlborough, captain-general of the Alliance on 7 October. Proclaiming his fidelity to Queen Anne, and reminding Marlborough that their wives were acquainted, he explained that he had only served the elector of Bavaria, in the expectation that he would join the Alliance – but as he had now given up that hope he requested the queen’s pardon and a colonelcy with the Allies. English policy sought to encourage Irish catholic soldiers in French service to defect to the Dutch or Imperial forces, though not to the English army due to their religion. On the strength of Marlborough’s assurances, he had resigned his Bavarian commission by January 1705 and travelled to London, where he remained at a loose end for a time. A warrant was issued for his arrest in the city in March 1706, but these suspicions were allayed; he even took the relatively uncommon step, for an Irish catholic, of swearing allegiance to Queen Anne.
His proposal to raise a regiment of Irish infantry in Flanders, which would draw men from the French, was supported by Marlborough. When the English and Dutch jointly took control of Brabant and Flanders after the battle of Ramillies in 1706, they persuaded the reluctant native authorities to fund the establishment of the Irish regiment, albeit only to half its full complement at first, with six companies of fifty-five men each. The regiment was finally passed in review at Brussels in November 1708. While there are no reports of the regiment’s actions in the war, it likely engaged in the battles of Oudenarde (July 1708) and Malplaquet (September 1709) and almost certainly participated in the successful defence of Brussels in November 1708, when it was besieged by Devenish’s former employer, the elector of Bavaria. Devenish was promoted to the rank of brigadier in 1710, against the protests of other colonels who claimed they had longer service.
Following the death of his first wife, Devenish married again in September 1710, to Anne Angéline de Fourneau, the widowed comtesse de Cruquembourg, who brought four children from her previous marriage and gave him three of their own: Leopold in 1711, Marguerite in 1712 and Reine in 1713. Soon after she married Devenish, Angéline claimed she was entitled to a larger share of her first husband’s estate than she had received, a claim disputed by the trustees of the children from her first marriage, who implied that Devenish had put her up to it; the case was eventually settled in 1727.
Negotiations to end the War of the Spanish Succession began at Utrecht in January 1712. Devenish petitioned Queen Anne to ensure that the government of the Southern Netherlands would be required not only to retain his regiment, but to raise it to full strength, while he also sought appointment as the governor of Ostend or Bruges. Although his patron Marlborough had been dismissed, the queen took an interest in him, and the British government made some efforts to meet his requests. The government of the Southern Netherlands demurred, however, complaining that the native nobility was being passed over. He was formally appointed governor of Bruges, but this title remained a dead letter as the government and the city council of Bruges obstructed his installation in the summer of 1713 and again in March 1714. His attempt to act as commissioner of the gens d’armes of Flanders was similarly thwarted by local resistance. His last prospects of promotion perished with the queen in August 1714. To cap his misfortune, his second wife died in August 1715, after only five years of marriage, leaving him with their three young children.
He remained in post as brigadier of his Irish half-regiment, which was retained by the Austrians when they took control of the Southern Netherlands from the Anglo–Dutch junta, being deployed to garrison various towns. In 1718 he directed a ruthless suppression of popular protests in Malines against the new regime. Around this time, he was described in a list of the officers in the Austrian Netherlands regiments as an homme de fortune extraordinaire – an exceptional career soldier who had risen by his merits to senior rank. Devenish’s regiment was disbanded in 1719 as part of a general reorganisation of the Austrian army, by which time Irish soldiers made up less than a third of the total. A place was found for Devenish as governor of Courtrai (Kortrijk), an important city in Flanders.
The new governor made his joyous entry into Courtrai on 5 December 1719, being advanced to the rank of major-general in June 1720. His role as governor was to command the defence of the city, to supervise the garrison and to ensure public order. While deferring to the mayor in civil matters, as the representative of the monarch the governor had influence in the affairs of the city, such as recommending appointments to the magistracy. Devenish soon earned the goodwill of the city council, but in 1726 he arrested a city official who was prosecuting one of his servants for illegally levying tolls on wood entering the city. The governor of the Austrian Netherlands had to intervene by ordering the official’s release and confirming the prohibition on such levies. Devenish’s high-handed behaviour was driven by the fact that his nominally generous emoluments of 4,000 florins a year were all in the form of perquisites other than salary. Though he had an official residence in Courtrai, he kept his family home in Brussels, close to the vice-regal court. Devenish married his third wife, Marie-Louise Helman de Willebroeck, the dowager Baroness de Parcq, in February 1722 – she died in 1725.
He made extended visits to the Imperial court in Vienna in 1730 and 1731, where he received ‘all the honours and marks of friendship imaginable from all the ministers, something quite unusual here in Vienna. The nobles often invite me to their country estates, and I join in all his imperial majesty’s hunting parties.’ (Van Den Bergh archive, 1.10.09, file 2166, Nationaal Archief, The Hague.) In 1732 the emperor granted him a major-general’s salary of 5,500 florins, and promotion to lieutenant-general the next year. His fourth wife, in 1734, the Marquesa de Fontanar y Villarroel, widow of the commander of the defence of Barcelona in 1714, had taken refuge in Brussels after the Catalan defeat. Not wishing that she should lose her title by marrying him, he gallantly petitioned for the title of marquis for himself and was granted letters patent as Marquis Devenish d’Athlone on 17 September 1735.
Following his death in Brussels on 29 October 1739, the funeral was celebrated with pomp at St Catherine’s church, but no monument was erected, as there was no money – his widow and children discovered that he had made no provision for them, having lived expensively. A patron of Irish culture, Devenish was proud of his descent through his mother from the O’Conor kings of Connaught and the O’Brien lords of Thomond. He became one of the most prominent Irishmen in the Austrian Netherlands more by personality, charm and ambition, rather than through outstanding military achievement.