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Maurice Earls

The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World 1867-1900, by Niall Whelehan, Cambridge University Press, 324pp, £60, ISBN: 978-1107023321

The formidable Daniel O’Connell tried his utmost to win a repeal of Ireland’s union with Britain. Success would have amounted to what was known later in the nineteenth century as Home Rule. Catholic Ireland was energetically united behind O’Connell in this quest, which he pursued by exclusively peaceful means over fifteen years, with a tactical break in the 1830s. The very idea, however, was regarded as preposterous in Westminster and the movement was thwarted and opposed whenever possible; eventually, as the realisation deepened that the British would not concede to the popular will and as exhaustion and the shadow of  famine grew, the campaign fizzled out in dissension, splits and incoherence.

When you lose in politics there is a tendency for others ‑ particularly the young ‑ to question, if not denounce, your tactics. Notwithstanding the impressive list of achievements and concessions won by O’Connell over thirty-odd years, his ending was an example of the dictum that all political careers end in failure; while older activists continued to revere his memory many younger ones were happy to dismiss his moral force politics as ineffective and even pathetic.

In 1848 John Mitchel’s United Irishman published a song reflecting the new mood:

Oh! Do be wise! Leave moral force,
The strength of thought and pen
And all the value of discourse,
To lily-livered men;

The 1848 revolt which followed shortly after O’Connell’s death was barely planned and unsuccessful; it was derided in the British press as the rebellion of “the Widow Mc Cormack’s cabbage patch”. It didn’t exactly show up O’Connell’s inadequacy but it did point towards different possibilities, ones which would be untainted by the long half-century of peaceful agitation that had failed to prevent the disasters of the 1840s.

James Stephens, John O’Mahony and others who saw action at the cabbage patch or in related episodes went on to become involved in establishing the Fenian Brotherhood and the IRB in 1858. The new movement was committed to moving beyond the politics of “moral force” and to adopting instead the politics of “physical force”. This move towards insurrection was not only a question of a new generation; there were also marked social differences between the activists of the O’Connell era and that of the Fenians. The former was characterised by a vibrant and ambitious middle class dominated by professionals, merchants and businessmen. With the Fenians, apart from a minority which included some of the 1848 intellectuals, the trades and lower middle class occupations predominated. These were people who tended to be closer to the pain of the famine decade. As O’Dovovan Rossa commented: “The men of property are not with us.”

Niall Whelehan draws attention to the transnational character of the new Irish political movement. While the O’Connellite campaigns were predominantly rooted in Ireland, the Fenians appeared in America, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and the furthest reaches of the empire. This was in no small measure owing to the mass emigration that set in with the social collapse that had occurred a generation earlier. Many Fenian supporters were Irish emigrants living abroad, including female domestic servants in the US who emigrated under the shadow of the black forties. Many of these women were resolute in their politics and were quite happy to donate funds for dynamite campaigns directed at the British, whom they blamed for the social destruction they experienced in Ireland.

The strategists of the new movement believed in the potential of insurrection and were willing to look beyond Irish experience to that of countries like Russia, France, Italy and elsewhere for insurrectionary ideas that might be applied in Ireland. Whelehan’s scholarly work traces the many continental influences on Fenian strategic thinking. He is particularly good on Italian influences.

Foreigners, of course, were not infallible and that includes the theoretician of rebellion Louis Auguste Blanqui who failed to learn the main lesson of the extensive continental revolts of 1848 which was that governments, when faced with a general revolt, will use their full military resources to ensure its suppression. Under the influence of Blanqui, James Stephens believed that trained militias could take on the military and that the necessary level of secrecy could be achieved. As part of the preparations for rebellion the Fenians hired two experienced soldiers, both of whom declared Stephens utterly incompetent in military matters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when in 1867 the rebellion did take place it was a complete failure, despite the high level of recruitment. The authorities, because they were faced with a paltry insurrection, did not have the opportunity to demonstrate just how ruthless they might be. O’Connell, it might be acknowledged in passing, had in his determined way denied the state the opportunity for the direct confrontation which many in the establishment craved.

Owing to the shambolic character of 1867 it could still be maintained that serious rebellion had never been tried. Notwithstanding this, the lesson seems incontestable: the idea that amateurs, no matter how strongly motivated, could organise a force capable of directly taking on a professional military was fanciful. Indeed it was surprising that this lesson had to be learned once more. In seems that in addition to the rejection of O’Connellism the exotic fog drifting across from the continent obscured what for the Catholic elite at any rate had been recognised as a fundamental truth since the Treaty of Limerick.

Across the Fenian spectrum of later nineteenth century Ireland there was a yawning chasm between military aspirations and the necessary, if impossible, organisational capacity to effect their realisation. Nevertheless, the movement enjoyed a certain indirect success. Lord Mayo, the chief secretary for Ireland, observed in 1868 that in the south of the country the mass of people were “deeply tainted with Fenianism”. It was this fact of widespread sympathy, in conjunction with the propaganda of failed insurrection and bombs exploded in London and elsewhere, that continued to remind the British that Ireland had not been pacified and that something had to be done.

Following the disaster of 1867 Archbishop Leahy of Cashel articulated the traditional position arguing for the abandonment of Fenianism on the grounds that there was no hope of success against “a very large army, fully equipped, highly disciplined, supplemented by an efficient body of constabulary, and capable of being reinforced by a hundred thousand, volunteers and militia men”. “... [T]here could not well be a more unequal match,” he declared. The implication was that there should be a return to O’Connellism. But leaders of O’Connell’s stamp did not crop up every day. Isaac Butt, the leading moral force advocate of the time, was far from inspiring; it is hardly surprising that some Fenians, who more or less accepted Leahy’s argument, sought the third way of guerrilla tactics. The logic seems to have been that such activities would help while waiting until a suitable time for a general insurrection could be identified. The new thinking was reflected in the Irish World newspaper which, with a circulation of 35,000, supported guerrilla tactics but dismissed insurrection as “untimely and unwise”.

Direct actions enjoyed a certain success in that, like the agrarian violence of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they confounded and shocked those in power. Initially, operations were relatively crude such as the shooting of two Dublin policemen in Temple Bar. Later episodes, such as the famous prisoner escape from Australia in the Fenian ship Catalpa, the Phoenix Park murders and the three dynamite bombs exploded at symbolic sites in London on the same day were more impressive. The same can be said of the destruction of the Irish section of the Special Branch in Scotland Yard by dynamite explosion in which many records on the Fenians were lost. “The bomb attacks of the 1880s targeted parliament buildings, town halls, gasworks, bridges, press offices ... London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow were all hit, while Dublin experienced a handful of explosions in the early 1890s.”

Niall Whelehan discusses in illuminating detail not only the international dimension behind skirmishing – as these activities were then called ‑ but also the ideology of the activists and their growing engagement with the concept of imperialism. In a fascinating section, he examines the possibilities skirmishers saw in scientific advances, which extended to investment in the development of a submarine to be used against British naval targets. Whelehan also examines the role of emigrants in the crucial area of funding and of course the state’s response, which included the effective use of informers and agent provocateurs.

The main subject of this fascinating book is the activities, ideology, organisation, funding and support base of those who were unmoved by the world of the moral force movement and who were not in thrall to the aesthetic of noble insurrection. Those involved were essentially a Fenian sub-group. Most Fenians, let alone nationalists, objected to assassination and bombing on moral grounds. The tactics of dynamite bombers were rejected by the majority of nationalists many of whom, like the Poles, were committed to the ideal of honourable insurrection. Nevertheless skirmishing was supported by a significant Fenian tendency, particularly a faction based in the United States.

Whelehan points out that the principal years of the skirmishing campaign, 1881-5, coincided with a period of land agitation and acute coercion. Many moderate nationalists were arrested ‑ including Parnell ‑ which prompted Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa to remark that in the face of such tyranny the appropriate response was to fling a canister of dynamite under Gladstone’s carriage. His views obliquely echoed those of the British authorities, whose agents, with the approval of Lord Salisbury, generated the supposed Fenian plot to assassinate the queen; the purpose being to discredit Parnell, the Irish Parliamentary Party and the IRB.

Skirmishing may not have been as counterproductive as Salisbury’s actions suggest. Perhaps the picture was more complicated. After all, Gladstone admitted that the Clerkenwell bombing, a disaster in which two tenement buildings were demolished with over one hundred and thirty deaths and casualties, helped to hasten the embrace of “the vast importance of Irish controversy”. It seems likely that the bombings kept the Irish question alive and helped convince the British that Home Rule should be considered. Parnellites and pure insurrectionists often maintained a merely formal distance.

Politically, from the 1870s, the heavy lifting was done by the new wave of moral force nationalists led by Charles Stewart Parnell, a figure arguably as formidable as O’Connell. Ultimately it seems skirmishing alone could not deliver substantial political gains. These depended on an efficient political class and the Parnell-led Irish Party was precisely that. All factions within Fenianism appear to have overlooked the crucial requirement for a fully articulated political wing. Skirmishers did not possess the capacity to shape the political agenda. This fell to Parnell who, like O’Connell before him, was quite happy to benefit from the establishment’s fear of political violence. It was only after the Invincibles assassinated the chief secretary of the Dublin Castle administration and his permanent undersecretary that Parnell was obliged to take an unambiguously critical attitude towards violence. Fenianism and the IRB, however, did not disappear; they were to play a crucial role in a later and more successful phase of nationalist assertion.

Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.