Devlin, Denis (1908–59), diplomat and poet, was born 15 April 1908 in Greenock, Scotland, oldest of nine children of Liam Devlin (1895–1964), of Derry, and Margaret Devlin (née McDermot; 1890–1972) of Moville, Co. Donegal. Liam had begun in the wine and spirit business in 1905 and met Margaret on visits to her father's farm; they joined Liam's stepfather in the hotel business in Scotland after their marriage in 1906. The family returned to Dublin at the end of the first world war, when Liam bought a large public house on Parnell St. and became involved with the intelligence service of the IRA. He became quartermaster-general after the signing of the treaty but afterwards withdrew from politics to concentrate on business interests (including confectionery manufacture and the Irish Sugar Board). The family moved to ‘Westbury’, Stillorgan, in 1922–3, and then to a house in Upper Mount St. in 1930. Denis Devlin went from the CBS in Richmond St. to Belvedere College in 1923, where he was contemporary with Mervyn Wall (qv) and Niall Montgomery (qv).
When Devlin left Belvedere in 1926, he attended the diocesan seminary, All Hallows’ College, Clonliffe, from which he enrolled at UCD with a view to taking a degree in modern languages. He left Clonliffe in 1927 to enrol full-time at UCD, where he participated widely in undergraduate life and literary and dramatic activities. He graduated with first-class honours in English and French in 1929; he was enrolled as a law student at King's Inns in 1928–9. After graduation he remained at UCD to work on an MA in French. He travelled in Europe during 1930–31 and was awarded his MA degree in 1931 with a dissertation, ‘Montaigne intime’. Thereafter, during 1931–3, he continued his studies at the Sorbonne, with the degree of Docteur ès Lettres in mind, visiting Spain in 1932 in the company of the American journalist Sam Pope Brewer. He was appointed to one of four newly created junior positions (demonstratorships) in English at UCD in 1934, from which he resigned in 1935 to enter the Department of External Affairs as a cadet. ‘I know the academic life is a superior one,’ he told Mervyn Wall at the time, ‘but I admit that the diplomatic life attracts me.’
Devlin's professional career advanced quickly thereafter. He became secretary to the Irish delegation that negotiated the settlement of the economic war with Britain in January–March 1938, and later in the same year was posted to Rome as first secretary in the legation to Italy. He accompanied Éamon de Valera (qv) to the League of Nations at Geneva and to an eye specialist in Zurich. In 1939 he was appointed consul at the consulate general in New York, and in 1940 first secretary in the legation to Washington. He returned to the high commission in London in 1947 and then to headquarters in Dublin in 1949, in both instances as counsellor. In 1950 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Italy, and in 1951 accredited as minister plenipotentiary to Turkey. When the Irish legation in Rome was raised to the status of embassy in 1958, Devlin was named ambassador to Italy, a position he held till his death the following year.
Devlin's career as a poet was equally distinguished. His first volume, entitled Poems, was published jointly with Brian Coffey (qv) in September 1930. He extended his circle of literary friendships in Paris – through Coffey, Thomas MacGreevy (qv), Gaston Bonheur, and others – and by 1934 Samuel Beckett (qv) could describe him as one of ‘the most interesting of the younger generation of Irish poets’. He published poems, translations, and reviews in English, Irish, and Paris-based literary magazines throughout the 1930s, and a representative collection, Intercessions, appeared in 1937. The move to New York and Washington situated him in different literary circles which included Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren and the temporarily exiled St John Perse. He published original poetry and translations in a variety of American magazines, and his collection Lough Derg and other poems (1946) was widely noticed. The more extended poems he wrote after he returned to Europe were published – sometimes in parts – in American, Irish, and Italian magazines, though he did not bring out another collection in his lifetime.
Devlin's writing is notably independent. From the beginning, it drew on several backgrounds – American as well as European, older as well as contemporary authors – to contribute to a new kind of Irish poetry. His writing during the 1930s is characterised by experiment and a dialogue with surrealism; there is evidence of considerable concentration of literary purpose during the early 1940s; the writing of his last decade turns towards more comprehensive, ambitious statement. Recognition of his achievement has been, and will probably remain, select.
Devlin married (1946) Marie Caren Radon, a French national whose family had moved to Washington on the death of her father, a banker, and who had been working on classified war-work. A son, Stephen, was born in August 1953. Devlin died 21 August 1959 from leukaemia at St Vincent's Nursing Home in Dublin; and Caren later married Count Adelberto di Gropello, dying in Florence in October 1964.
Devlin left few private papers or personal memorials but, instead, an unusually complete archive of working drafts and copies of poems (NLI, MSS 33747–33810). His poems were collected after his death by Brian Coffey (Collected poems, 1963/4; The heavenly foreigner, 1967), who also published several valuable biographical-critical essays. The poems are in process of being reedited with more detailed editorial apparatus: previously published poems, edited by J. C. C. Mays (1989); translations into English, edited by Roger Little (1992); translations into Irish, edited by Eoghan Ó hAnluain (forthcoming); and unpublished poems, edited by Alex Davis (forthcoming).