1 September 2013 Edition
Behind Enemy Lines – The Fenians’ bombing campaign in Victorian Britain
‘People say the Invincibles were an offshoot of the Fenians – they weren’t. They were an assassination committee established within the Fenians’
‘We want a band of men to pioneer the way. Sometimes to skirmish, sometimes to act as a forlorn hope, sometimes to give martyrs and confessors. Always acting, always showing that we will still have amongst us brave men ready to do or dare all that brave men ever did or dare for the salvation of a fallen land’
Patrick Ford on the plan to establish Fenian bomb teams to target Britain
DR SHANE KENNA speaks to An Phoblacht’s MARK MOLONEY about his forthcoming book on how the Fenians brought a new form of warfare to the streets of 1880s Britain
DR SHANE KENNA holds a masters and doctorate in Irish History from Trinity College Dublin. He has also worked in some of Ireland’s most historically important buildings, including Kilmainham Jail museums and archive, Dublin Castle and Castletown House. I met him in August before he headed off for a much-needed break from research and writing.
When I meet him he is still deliberating with his publisher on what front cover to use for his upcoming book: War in the Shadows: The Irish-American Fenians who bombed Victorian Britain. The publication already has people talking.
From 1881 to 1885, the Irish Republican Brotherhood – commonly referred to as ‘the Fenians’ – orchestrated a concentrated bombing campaign against Britain. The campaign was designed to show there was still those in Ireland willing to fight for an Irish republic following the unsuccesful attempt at an uprising in 1867. A letter written in 1876 to the Irish World newspaper spoke of keeping the flame alive and calling for the establishment of a fund to support a revolutionary group to head over to England and conduct a war of attrition against English cities. The idea was that this campaign would niggle away and keep Britain distracted while ‘heavier work’ was underway for a rebellion in Ireland.
• The damage to Scotland Yard police headquarters after it was blasted in a Fenian bomb attack
Shane describes the ‘Fenian Dynamite Campaign’ as the first modern urban bombing campaign in the world.
“It’s a grossly underwritten piece of Irish history,” says Shane. “Generally when you think of the Fenians you don’t think that in the 1880s they led a dynamite campaign against Britain. You don’t think that they had an assassination committee in Dublin called ‘The Invincibles’.” His point that the Invincibles were actually part of the Irish republican Brotherhood rather than a splinter group tweaks my interest. Anything I had read on them claimed they were a sort of breakaway faction.
“The Invincibles are the most misunderstood organisation in Irish history,” he tells me. “People say the Invincibles were an offshoot of the Fenians — they weren’t. Others say they were a dissident group — they weren’t. They were all Fenians. They were an assassination committee established within the Fenians to make history: to assassinate obnoxious individuals from Britain’s Dublin Castle administration. In many respects it was a forerunner to the strategy Michael Collins had in the 1920s: a guerrilla strategy that you make Dublin Castle completely unworkable as an institution by taking out their leading figures until it comes to a point where the Castle government can no longer function.”
Shane goes on to speak about their most famous attack, the Phoenix Park assassinations.
On 6 May 1882, British Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Irish Office Thomas Henry Burke were killed with surgical knives on their way to the residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the Vice-Regal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin).
A previously unknown group called the Irish National Invincibles claimed responsibility. The incident is widely known as ‘The Phoenix Park Murders’.
“I would never go so far as to call them murders,” says Shane. “There was a political reason for it.”
He points out how, at the time, the Protection of Public Property Act essentially banned public protest, curfews were imposed in many areas and creating a campaigning political movement was impossible.
The day before the Phoenix Park incident was ‘The Ballina Massacre’, when several young boys were shot dead by the Royal Irish Constabulary for celebrating the release of nationalist political leader Charles Stewart Parnell from jail.
“That incident has been written out of history. That in itself was murder.”
The thinking among the Fenians was that one could respond to tyranny by any means necessary.
“Does that justify what the Invincibles did?’ Shanes asks. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them murderers.”
He points out that describing the event as a tragedy would be more apt, as seven more people would lose their lives as a result. Five alleged members of the Invincibles would be hanged and buried in Kilmainham Jail. Their bodies are still somewhere in the grounds. One of the group who informed on the others would be shot for his treason, while the man who shot him would also face the gallows.
As well as organising a recent conference on the group, Shane has contacted the Office of Public Works (OPW) to look at the possibility of exhuming the bodies of the five Invincibles buried in Kilmainham Jail and reinterring them in Glasnevin. He has also spoken to the families of the men, who have agreed in principle to the idea.
“As part of this decade of commemorations I would like to see those men buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. Whether you like them or not, I think we can all agree that after 130 years they’ve done their time. Their sentence was that they were to remain in Kilmainham Jail as long as that building was a prison. It’s a tourist attraction now, so they really shouldn’t be in there anymore.”
While assassinations were the preferred method in Ireland, a new revolutionary type of campaign was being launched in England:
“Most people often mistakenly think it was the Russians who developed what in modern times is called ‘terrorism’ but it was the Irish,” the TCD scholar says. “The Fenians’ was the first campaign of sustained bombing attacks. They disguised their bombs in bags and would set up front operations. They also used clockwork devices, which was revolutionary. For the first time it gave the bomber time to disappear and have a viable alibi — that was never done until the Irish came on the scene.”
Shane describes Thomas Clarke, the mastermind behind the 1916 Rising, as a man who “cut his teeth in Irish republican politics”. While living in Dungannon he opened fire on the RIC during a ‘Ladies Day’ parade and fled to America where he was trained in the use of dynamite. Clarke’s subsequent involvement in a bomb team that planned to destroy London’s famous Big Ben clock tower and the House of Commons is an oft-neglected piece of history. He was arrested in possession of two bags of nitro-glycerine explosive and imprisoned in England for 15 years in what Shane describes as “some of the harshest conditions imaginable”.
Clarke would later write of his experiences in ‘Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life’. After his release he continued his revolutionary activities and was one of the military leaders of republican forces during 1916.
“Would successive Irish governments really want to put that in history books?” asks Shane referring to Clarke’s history as a bomber. “They wouldn’t because it doesn’t fit in with the narrative of the state.”
• A New York newspaper reports on Fenian bomb attacks in London on 31 January 1885
He notes the great parallels between the Fenians and the campaign by the IRA in England between the early 1970s and 1990s. In 1885, Fenians launched a simultaneous bombing against the Tower of London and the House of Commons; in 1974, the IRA did the exact same thing.
The Fenians’ campaign resulted in the establishment of Britain’s first-ever Permanent Secret Service based in Dublin Castle called the Assistant Under-Secretary for Police and Crime. Their job was to infiltrate and undermine subversive groups.
“What’s coming through in the research is a noticebale awareness that wherever you find an individual that’s the most militant, the most bloodthirsty within the group, he’s often the spy.”
In 1887, British Intelligence even hatched a bogus plot to assassinate Queen Victoria during her Golden Jubilee as a way of undermining the Home Rule campaign and the Irish Parliamentary Party (shades of the alleged IRA plan to kill Princess Diana in 1984?). “Black ops and dirty ops is the great story of the Fenian dynamite campaign; it’s a plot within a plot within a counter-consipracy,” Shane says.
A recurring question is the issue of morality and the use of spies.
“How far can you let an agent go?” asks Shane, “The idea is you have to commit acts that would be repugnant to your own views. So how far is a handler willing to let things go? You must remember that, in the 1880s, Britain was a remarkably liberal state. Fenianism is a challenge to that. You have a police response to Fenianism and then you have a dirty war undercover response.” The similarities with the situation in the North of Ireland are startling.
• War in the Shadows: The Irish-American Fenians who Bombed Victorian Britain is due for release in late September or early October 2013.