While the Fenian Brotherhood in American was on its last legs, Clan na Gael and other, slightly less outwardly violent, organisations were active and planning for resistance to British rule in Ireland. One of the men at the heart of what we will discuss today was someone who straddled the line between several of these entities, and steps back into major focus with his direction and support for one of the most troubling and ethically dubious activities that Irish nationalists undertook in the 19th century.
We last mentioned Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa seriously in terms of the preparations for the 1867 rebellion and his subsequent arrest, before his emigration to the United States in 1870. Since then, O’Donovan Rossa had spent a decade working with the Fenian Brotherhood and Clan na Gael. During this time he founded his own publication in New York, the United Irishman, to support the cause of Irish independence. In the pages of this paper, O’Donovan Rossa advocated for continuing violent resistance to British rule, specifically pushing for the use of bombings as a means of achieving this. Part of the papers workings was establishing a “Resources For Civilisation” fund, a thin cover for a financial drive with the aim of buying bomb-making materials. At the same time, a man named Alexander Sullivan planned a similar campaign from within Clan na Gael.
O’Donovan Rossa’s activities were divisive, as most of the Clan were still committed to the New Departure, and in 1880 he was suspended from the organisation. In response, he started his own breakaway group, the United Irishmen, and continued to organise a school in Boston where Irish nationalists were taught how best to make dynamite bombs, dynamite itself being a relatively new substance, whose explosive potential made it seem like some kind of wonder weapon.
The resort to terrorism – and that is what this was – is an interesting one, seemingly flying in the face of “honourable” conventional tactics hitherto employed by Irish nationalists. Many in both the reduced Fenian Brotherhood and the Clan balked at the idea of planting dynamite on British buildings, especially when the possibility of civilian casualties was considered. But in the wider context of this period, political terrorism was becoming more and more prevalent. Russian Tsar Alexander II would be assassinated by a bomb attack in 1881, while US President James A. Garfield would be shot dead that same year. Numerous other world leaders would be shot at or targeted with explosives in the same period. And, of course, during the coming dynamite campaign, the Phoenix Park Murders would bring political assassination to the forefront of the topics of the day. Major events like these provided copious amounts of inspiration, and the continuing Land War, combined with a perception of political ineffectiveness from those following the New Departure, did the rest. O’Donovan Rossa and others provided the space to learn and the finances to cross the ocean to Britain, where various teams of agents would construct bombs and attempt to make the biggest impact possible.
The first bomb went off in Salford, Manchester, at a British Army barracks in the early hours of January 14th 1881: the bomb was planted inside the brickwork of the armoury, which was completely destroyed, and a young boy who happened to be nearby fatally wounded. Three months later, Rossa’s agents attempted to blow up the Mansion House in London, the residence of the Lord Mayor, but the bomb was spotted and defused by a quick-witted policeman who was patrolling near where it had been left.
The bombings attracted the requisite notice of the press and the authorities, not to mention those elements of Irish nationalism opposed to such tactics. Despite the fact that the bombings were mere pinpricks in terms of damage inflicted and lives lost, they signalled the deadly intent of the bombers, and influenced the passing of the Explosives Act, which clarified criminal behaviour associated with dynamite. The attacks lessened in 1882, barring another attempt at the Mansion House, but then roared back into life in 1883 when Glasgow and London were both hit. In January of that year numerous targets in the Scottish city were targeted, and dozens injured, before two bombs on the London Underground injured up to 70 people in October.
The lack of deaths speaks to the ineffectiveness of the bombs, which in turn speaks to the lack of understanding many of the bombers had about dynamite’s handling, proper use and implementation. But they still caused plenty of terror and numerous investigations from British authorities, with the setting up and expansion of a special Irish branch of the police coming from the extension of the dynamite campaign. Tip offs and informers still worked in their favour, and numerous bombing plots were uncovered and stopped before the attacks could be carried out: one team of bombers was arrested and stopped in Birmingham in April 1883 after an extensive police surveillance operation. They included among their number a 25 year old Tyrone Fenian named Thomas Clarke, who would spend the next 15 years in prison.
1884 saw the dynamite campaign reach new heights. After a coordinated three bomb attack on the London Underground in February ended with just one going off and no casualties, bombers were able to win greater success in May, when three bombs were successfully detonated on the 30th at three different points in London: outside the home of a Conservative MP, in the basement of a gentleman’s club frequented by Conservatives and, most importantly, inside the HQ of the Special Irish Branch of the CID, the bomb hidden inside a toilet. A fourth bomb, at Nelson’s Pillar failed to detonate. Nobody died, but it showed that, with ingenuity and luck, the dynamiters could penetrate to the core of their enemies’ structure.
But, this spectacular “outrage” was really the beginning of the end. In December of 1884 three Fenians were killed when the bomb they planned to plant on London Bridge exploded early. In 1885, on “Dynamite Saturday”, the seat of government in Britain was targeted, with bombs successfully planted near the House Of Commons and elsewhere in Westminster. But Parliament was not sitting, and only a few policeman were injured. Indeed, the bombings appear to have attracted little notice among the British political elite, with Parliamentary debates afterwards not even mentioning the attacks.
Therein lies the contradiction of the dynamite campaign, which fizzled out in the aftermath of this last great effort. The bombing campaigns of the IRA in Britain during the second half of the 20th century are justly condemned today as the criminal acts of a illegitimate organisation, yet the dynamite campaign of the Fenians and Clan na Gael is barely remembered. Men like O’Donovan Rossa are better known for the graveside orations during their funerals, and men like Clarke are better known as the near-mythic heads of doomed rebellions to come. Yet they were at the heart of what we would today describe as despicable and cowardly, using explosives on civilian targets to inspire fear and terror. That it was being carried out in the name of Irish freedom seems to excuse, insofar as the dynamite campaign is mostly forgotten outside of historical circles, a mere footnote in the larger history of the Land War, the Home Rule movement and Irish nationalism.
The dynamite campaign failed, and those in the Fenian Brotherhood backing it were seeing the last days of their organisations history. But the 1880s would still throw up some surprising Fenian activities, not least their exploration of submarine warfare.
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