Savage, John (1828–88), nationalist and writer, was born 13 December 1828 in Dublin. Little is known of his background except that he came from a nationalist family: his father was a repealer and his grandfather a United Irishman. He attended school in Harold's Cross, Dublin. In 1844 he enrolled at the RDS art school, and over the next three years was awarded four prizes for his watercolour and oil paintings. In March 1848 he helped to form a republican students’ club in Dublin and became its secretary. The following month he issued his own controversial publication, the Patriot, which was immediately suppressed by Dublin Castle and resulted in his expulsion from the RDS. Following the suppression of John Mitchel's (qv) United Irishman in May 1848, Savage helped found another radical paper, the Irish Tribune, to which he contributed several nationalist ballads. When it was suppressed in July 1848 he fled to the countryside and tried to organise a rebellion. In September, together with John O'Mahony (qv), he led a failed attack on the police barracks in Portlaw, Co. Waterford. He then fled to America, arriving in New York 7 November 1848. His family followed him shortly afterwards. Employed as proofreader for the New York Tribune, he also wrote poetry, his first volume, Lays of the fatherland (1850), consisting mostly of Irish nationalist ballads. During the early 1850s he worked as a freelance journalist and contributed articles on art and literature to many different publications, including the Democratic Review and the American Review. He also edited and wrote historical chapters for Speeches on Ireland (1853) by T. F. Meagher (qv). In August 1854 he married Louise Gouverneur, daughter of Capt. S. C. Reid, who had distinguished himself in the 1812 war against Britain and designed the modern version of the US flag. After working as the literary editor of John Mitchel's Citizen (1854–5) he published a history of Irish republicanism entitled ’98 and ’48 (1856) which was reprinted several times in the US.
In 1857 he moved to Washington, DC, and was appointed the leading editorial writer of the States. In the same year he wrote a tragedy, ‘Sybil’, which was performed the following year to some critical acclaim. In 1860 he wrote Our leading representative men, a book about the American presidential election. In the same year he was appointed assistant editor of the Irish News, a short-lived paper in New York. Upon the outbreak of the American civil war he was invited to move the States newspaper, which he had purchased, to the South. He was also invited to join the confederate army. Instead he sold the paper and joined the 69th Regiment of the federal army's Irish Brigade, commanded by T. F. Meagher. In the early stages of the war he wrote several patriotic ballads which were popular among the union soldiers, most notably the ‘Starry flag’. These were published in his second volume of poetry, Faith and fancy (1863), which also included his best-known Irish nationalist ballad, ‘Shane's head’, a lament for Shane O'Neill (qv). He left the army in early 1862 after being offered a position with the federal government's revenue service. In June 1864 he resigned to become editor of the New Orleans Times, founded by his brother-in-law Joseph Brenan (qv), and held this position for nearly three years. In 1866 he published a sympathetic biography of the American president, The life and public services of Andrew Johnson.
In March 1867, when he heard of the rising in Ireland, he contacted the Fenian Brotherhood in New York. Although he had no prior connection with the movement, he was persuaded by his old friend John O'Mahony to take his place as its president in the hope that a new leader would help heal its divisions. Sworn in as president on 22 August 1867, in December he appealed, in vain, to the American ambassador in Britain to issue a protest against the execution of the ‘Manchester martyrs’. In 1868 he published Fenian heroes and martyrs, which contained a brief history of the movement and many biographical accounts of its leaders. That year, despite the fact that he was publicly known to be president of the Fenian Brotherhood, he was nominated by President Johnson as American consul in Leeds, but his nomination was rejected by the American senate. That summer, while in Paris, he attempted to improve relations between the IRB and the Fenian Brotherhood. He also corresponded with the new American president, Ulysses Grant, and succeeded in winning greater American support for the amnesty cause in Ireland. Despite declining health he toured the US extensively and raised large sums for the movement. Re-elected president of the faction-ridden Fenian Brotherhood three times (1868–70), he failed to reunite the movement, and stepped down as president in February 1871. Thereafter, he distanced himself from Fenianism and focused on his literary activities.
A collected edition of his poems, published in 1867, was reprinted in 1870 as Poems lyrical, dramatic and romantic. Included in this edition was the text of his play ‘Sybil’, first published in 1865, and ‘Eva’, a goblin romance in verse (1866). Another of his earlier works was a comedy entitled ‘Under the rose’. During the 1870s he lectured on literature in catholic colleges and fraternal organisations. In 1878 he edited Picturesque Ireland. For his services to American literature he was awarded an honorary doctorate by St John's College, Fordham, New York (1879). He was clerk of the city court in New York (1877–84), and retired in late 1884 and moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. He died 9 October 1888 at his summer home near Spragueville, Pennsylvania, survived by his wife and adopted daughter. Shortly before his death he wrote to the Irish press to express his admiration for C. S. Parnell (qv) and sent information to John O'Leary (qv) to assist him in writing his recollections.