"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

War in the Shadows

The Irish-American Fenians who bombed Victorian Britain


....While this was taking place, after the trials of the Phoenix Park assassins in Dublin, many Invincibles had fled to America, including P.J. Sheridan, John Walsh, Patrick Egan, Frank Byrne and Patrick Tynan the famed supposed Number 1 of the Invincible conspiracy. Outside British jurisdiction none of these men could be arrested and deportation was unlikely and legally difficult.

Byrne and Walsh had been arrested in France prior to making their way to America. Their arrest had been due to a mandate issued by the British police to their French counterparts, but due to a lack of evidence and a public outcry they were released from custody on 8 and 20 March respectively. Byrne and Patrick Tynan had been spotted in Cannes on foot of a visit by the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and despite Byrne being there to collect his wife, understandably there was an ill-founded belief that they intended to assassinate the Prime Minister. At Harve the British tried to kidnap Byrne: a British agent disguised as a Polish Count tried to get Byrne and his wife aboard his yacht, capture them and sail to Britain. He had been recognised, however, by an associate as a Scotland Yard Detective, and the Byrnes refused to board the ship. Making their way to America the first to publicly greet them was P.J. Sheridan. The British government had tried to extradite the four to no avail. The Invincibles executed at Kilmainham Gaol were seen as martyrs, while those who had escaped the subsequent investigations were considered political exiles from Ireland. Every arrival was treated to a rally in their honour and made a guest of the American nation.

On 2 July a meeting was held in Chicago, presided over by Byrne, Sheridan, Brennan and Member of Congress John F. Finerty, to assist the families of the Invincibles executed at Kilmainham Gaol. Finerty commended Fenian conspiracy and the Invincibles, declaring to loud applause how 'he was not in favour of apologising for any act by Irishmen toward the British government.' O'Donovan Rossa quickly followed suit, describing himself as the Irish John Brown, a reference to the famous American Abolitionist who advocated violence as a means to abolish slavery. Le Caron was in attendance and eagerly jotted down notes for the benefit of his handler in London.

In New York a huge gathering had similarly assembled in the Cooper Union in honour of the executed Invincibles and their families. This meeting was chaired by Byrne, Egan, Sheridan and Brennan, each of whom lauded secret conspiracy, none more so than Sheridan, who announced that:

The Irish were justified in adopting whatever methods of warfare were most effective in driving English power from Ireland. The assassinations in the Phoenix Park and the dynamite explosions had opened the press of England, the world, to Ireland's grievances ... by carrying the war into the heart of England.

It was at this meeting that they resolved to approve any 'weapon nature and science furnished against the oppressor.' Byrne added that he was 'not fastidious to any method by which the cause of liberty may be advanced. I do not say you should alone use dynamite, or the knife or the rifle, or parliamentary agitation, but I hold no Irishman true who will not use all and each method as the opportunity presents itself.'

Later, in May 1883, Le Caron attended a similar meeting with Alexander Sullivan. Thinking him to be a friend, Sullivan outlined his plans for a Clan bombing offensive in Britain. Henri Le Caron listened eagerly as Sullivan candidly explained how the Clan bombing strategy was to be unilateral, with little emphasis toward the opinions of the home organisation, and placed 'entirely in the hands of the revolutionary directory in America.'" Sullivan asserted that he did not trust the IRB as they lacked courage and discipline. The former Clan President believed the Clan na Gael bombing strategy would never be penetrated, as it was shrouded in secrecy. Men who volunteered for active service would not participate in British bombings, as, ironically, Sullivan understood that those who loudly professed their militant tendencies were often intelligence assets.

Sullivan told Le Caron to expect a memorandum calling for Senior Guardians to seek out potential recruits for 'private work of a confidential and dangerous character.' Preferably, those chosen would be young, single men, as they were considered 'more sensitive to new ideas and, more easily learned.' Le Caron had inferred from Sullivan that a select few were to be trained in 'a special course of instruction in the use of explosives.'

At the end of 1882, Le Caron received a confidential circular from the Executive Board stating how its entry into the Fenian dynamite campaign was imminent, and, unlike the dismal skirmishing campaign, it was to be 'unsparing and unceasing. They meant it to be effective ... so that the suffering, bitterness and desolation which followed active measures should be felt in every place.' The spy wasted little time in forwarding this message to Robert Anderson in London, however, he was unable to provide any names, descriptions or intended targets; while the State knew a Clan bombing offensive was imminent, they had scant intelligence on which to act....