Green: The Fenian Dynamiters


Irish grievances against the British in the nineteenth century were many. The British had garrisoned Ireland with troops, and favoured the industrious Protestant Scots-Irish of the North, because they suspected that its predominantly Roman Catholic inhabitants would rebel with the aid of a foreign foe at the first opportunity. In addition to the Ulster Presbyterians, there was an established, that is privileged, Protestant Church of Ireland, even though most of the population were Catholics. There was a fine Protestant university, Trinity College, Dublin, but none for Catholics. Ireland was part of a global empire, but was often treated as an offshore agricultural colony where labourers and poorer tenant farmers lived in chronic insecurity at the whim of absentee English landlords. Millions had left for the US (and industrialising Britain) where they adopted radical views that were far in advance of those of most people in Ireland itself. Confronted by virulent strains of American Protestantism, they compensated for discrimination by becoming more aggressively Irish, caricaturing the English as latter-day Normans and sentimentalising the old country with its ancient barrows, bogs, castles and mists. That these were historically authentic was partly due to their being noted, from 1824 onwards, on detailed Ordnance Survey maps, while another British intrusion - the national census - ironically contributed to a growth of Irish cultural nationalism. Successive censuses had startling revelations. Whereas in 1845 half the population spoke Irish (or Gaelic), by 1851 this had fallen to 23 per cent, and below 15 per cent forty years later. The Gaelic League was born of a desire for an Irish-Irish patriotic literature at a time when the brightest stars in that firmament were Anglo-Irish Protestant nationalists like J. M. Synge, Sean O’Casey or W. B. Yeats.1

Many complexities about the real, as opposed to imaginary, Ireland were lost in the Atlantic translation as fond hearts filled with hatred. Irish volunteers for the British army, replete with their own Catholic military chaplains, won a disproportionately high number of Victoria Crosses during the Crimean War. English and Irish liberals, led by the High Anglican prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, combined with British nonconformists to disestablish the anomalous Church of Ireland in 1869. Partly due to the disruptive ingenuity of a caucus of Irish MPs in the House of Commons, notably under Charles Stewart Parnell, and endemic rural criminality, Land Acts alleviated the insecurity of the smallest class of tenants. Finally, more and more British politicians, led eventually by Gladstone himself, were persuaded that Ireland’s future lay in some degree of Home Rule, with separate legislatures benefiting both England and Ireland, the two countries joined at a more exalted level for defence or foreign policy by an imperial parliament continuing to sit at Westminster. That prospect, which became real enough on the eve of the First World War, was sufficient for the Protestant majority in Ulster to seek German arms to preserve their membership of a more developed Belfast-Glasgow-Liverpool industrialised axis, if necessary detached from the benighted clerical South.2

Irish terrorism grew out of a venerable insurrectionary tradition that was manifestly failing by the mid-nineteenth century, only to return with a vengeance after an intervening lull in the late 1960s. The older history created many of the myths and martyrs of the more recent Troubles, as well as patterns of behaviour and thought that have survived in armed Irish republicanism within our lifetimes. There were many malign ghosts.

On 17 March 1858 an organisation was founded in Dublin by a railway engineer called James Stephens. It was St Patrick’s Day. Within a few years this mutated into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, although that name was never employed as widely as ‘Fenians’. This referred to a mythical band of pre-Christian Irish warriors, or the Fianna, roughly similar to romantic English legends about the Knights of King Arthur. For the English it meant a dastardly gang of murdering desperadoes. Fenianism encompassed a range of activities, with harmless conviviality and labour activism at the legal end of the spectrum, through to rural disturbances, insurrection and terrorism on the illegal margins. Incubated in the political underworld of Paris, or the rough-and-ready slums of North America’s eastern seaboard, the culture was heavily indebted to that of secret societies, with arcane rituals, masonic oaths and signs, a major reason why the Roman Catholic Church was largely unsympathetic. The general goal was the ‘disenthralment’ of the Irish race and the achievement of an Irish republic through violent struggle, all this within a broader context of Gaelic cultural self-assertion to which there has been some allusion.3

The strategy, ultimately derived from the 1798 Wolfe Tone rebellion, was to transform British imperial difficulties into Irish opportunities. The imperial difficulties included the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the Zulu, Sudan and Boer Wars, as well as crises in British relations with France in the 1850s, with the US in the 1860s, and with Russia in the 1870s, for a war with any of these would enhance the prospects of an independent Irish republic. While the number of Irish heroes in the Crimea seemed to suggest that this strategy had failed, the Fenians took courage from the war’s exposure of Britain’s military deficiencies and the barely concealed rift with its French ally. In addition to trying to arm the Zulus, even the mahdi’s ‘swarthy desert warriors’ became objects of Fenian interest, a trend that would continue into the late twentieth century in the form of Irish Republican Army links with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Libya.4

The Fenians drew upon the wider Irish emigration, whether in mainland Britain or the United States of America. They included refugees from the conditions that had produced the mid-nineteenth-century famine, of which many Irish-Americans had raw memories. Life in the urban Irish ghettos of the US (or industrial Britain) was primitive. The Irish were also heartily disliked by the Protestant aristocracy that dominated the US, a fact which may explain their flight into a vehement Irishness which had much purchase in Boston or ‘New Cork’. The American Civil War marked an important turning point since Britain was perceived to have supported the Confederate South, at a time when 150,000 Irish-Americans were fighting predominantly for the North. The Irish-Americans would inject Fenianism with money and military expertise.

The US government was culpably indulgent towards Fenian terrorism, as it would be for the next hundred years. Despite British government protests, nothing was done by the American authorities to stop the Fenians openly soliciting money in the US for anti-British outrages, notably through the so-called Dynamite Press. The Fenians were even allowed openly to use riverbank yards to develop a submarine whose sole object was to harass British shipping. US authorities rejected all British attempts to extradite Irish fugitives. All of which is to say that the Fenians had discovered an important terrorist tactic, that of using a benign foreign base for fund-raising and launching terrorist operations. British protests to Washington might have been taken more seriously had England, and especially London, not itself been a welcoming haven for every species of foreign radical. The French, who reacted with alacrity in detecting and deporting Paris-based Fenian supporters, chivalrously overlooked the fact that the bombs used by Orsini in his 1857 bid to kill Napoleon III had been manufactured in Birmingham.

Within six years, the Fenians had over fifty thousand supporters in Ireland. There, Fenianism was often little more than an assertive badge of identity and an opportunity for politicised recreation, in which young men joined a parallel society based on military drill, picnics and the adoption of non-deferential American manners towards priests, policemen and squires.5 The movement had its own newspaper, Irish People, and in James Kickham at least one writer of note. Across the Atlantic it enabled demobilised veterans of the Civil War to defer their return to civilian normality and to act on behalf of an Ireland that assumed mythical proportions through greater distance from its complex realities. In February 1867 a Civil War veteran and Fenian, captain Thomas J. Kelly (he promoted himself to colonel when he entered the service of Ireland), ordered a series of risings in Ireland, to be accompanied by diversionary supporting incidents in England, and two invasions of Canada, in the name of the US, which were frustrated by a British secret agent and the US government itself.

One escapade involved the capture of Chester Castle, which contained an arsenal with thirty thousand stands of rifles. The Fenian plan was to commandeer a train to take the arms to the port of Holyhead where a steamer would ship them to Ireland. Telegraph wires would be cut and rail track ripped up in the train’s wake so as to stymie pursuit. Fires in the city and interference with the water works would create even greater chaos, the first manifestations of future co-ordinated terrorist campaigns. The raid on the castle involved a hard core of American veterans, supported by several hundred ruffians who infiltrated themselves into Chester by rail from Liverpool and other northern cities with large Irish minorities.

The raid was halted before it started. Tipped off by spies, and concerned about the convergence of large groups of young Irishmen on Chester, the British authorities poured troops and police into the city, the mere sight of whom led to the dispersal of the Fenians. They dropped their cartridges, clubs and revolvers into the River Dee or the nearest ditch. The rising in Ireland was crushed as a result of the suspension of habeas corpus and the arrest of prominent nationalists; increases in troop numbers; and deployment of ships to watch the Atlantic approaches. It coincided with the worst snowstorm in fifty years, which put paid to national deliverance by Irish-American soldiers on Erin’s Hope. Fifty thousand British troops and police mopped up a few thousand Fenians, although not before they had issued their proclamation:

We therefore declare that, unable to endure the curse of Monarchical government, we aim at founding a republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland in the possession of an oligarchy belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.6

Colonel Kelly, who in the interim had created an assassination unit to deal with agents and informers, and captain Timothy Deasy were initially picked up in Manchester under the Vagrancy Act. News of their arrest spread throughout Manchester’s substantial Irish minority, and eventually reached the ears of two Irish-American officers, Edward O’Meagher Condon and Michael O’Brien. Together they assembled a team of ten to rescue Kelly and Deasy as they were being transferred in a Black María for remand hearings at another city prison. Six policemen rode on top of the horse-drawn box, in which a sergeant Brett sat with the keys to the prisoners’ locked cage. Four more officers followed in a carriage behind. None of the ten policemen was armed.

The carriage was ambushed as it passed beneath a railway bridge. Once shots were fired to kill the off-side horse, the escort ran for cover. The rescuers then fired at the lock on the prison van, contriving to hit sergeant Brett in the head as he peeped apprehensively through the ventilator grille. Kelly and Deasy seized his keys and joined their rescuers, who made a run for it across Manchester’s criss-crossed railway tracks. Neither man was captured - although Deasy in his dark pea jacket, grey trousers, deerstalker and handcuffs might have been thought conspicuous. They resurfaced as heroes in America.

The authorities had more luck in apprehending the rescuers and their penumbra of supporters. Twenty-eight people appeared in the dock of Manchester magistrates’ court, of whom five were then sent for trial by judge and jury for murder, felony and misdemeanour. As an indication of how seriously the government regarded the trial, the prosecution case, which was one of common cause due to uncertainty about which individual had murdered sergeant Brett, was put by the attorney-general, the Crown’s leading law officer. After a five-day hearing, all of the defendants were found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by hanging. The British press managed to have one of the convictions quashed, because the convicted man had a cast-iron alibi, an anomaly that might have affected the sentences handed down on the four found guilty. While The Timesopined that terrorism ‘must be repelled by lawful terrorism’, twenty-five thousand sympathetic working-men demonstrated for royal clemency on Clerkenwell Green in London. Domestic and foreign middle-class radicals drew attention to the paradox whereby the British lionised the Italian radical Garibaldi while treating his Irish equivalents as common or garden murderers, an early manifestation of the claim that yesterday’s terrorist is tomorrow’s statesman. Petitions were drawn up by such progressive celebrities as Charles Bradlaugh, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. Two days before the executions were to be staged, the single American convicted - Condon - was reprieved so as to avoid diplomatic complications with the US.

Meanwhile, a thirty-foot section of the prison wall was dismantled, on which arose a cross-beamed gallows shrouded in black drapery. Next morning, five hundred soldiers and two thousand constables interposed themselves between the gallows and a large crowd of spectators. Other army units took up positions throughout the city. There was dense fog as the three men were led up the thirty-five to forty steps of the scaffold for their rendezvous with William Calcraft, the alcoholic white-haired executioner, whose sinister forte was to leap on the backs of men whose necks had not been instantaneously broken. All three men were hanged together. Allen died instantaneously. Calcraft descended to finish off Larkin, but was prevented by a Catholic priest from performing a similar service for O’Brien, who duly choked to death three-quarters of an hour later.

Friedrich Engels, whose wife was a Fenian, wrote that ‘The only thing the Fenians lacked were martyrs. They have been provided with these.’ Outrage at the executions was evident in America, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, as well as across Europe. In Ireland itself, huge mock funeral processions were held, which suggested that the Catholic hierarchy had modified its earlier condemnations of godless Fenian ‘socialists’ in favour of endorsing the sentimental Irish nationalism often espoused by its priests. The death of Brett was regarded as merely collateral damage in such circles.

The Fenians at large in England resolved to redouble their violence, in anticipation of which they stepped up their arms procurements. Crucial to these endeavours was another Civil War veteran, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, who had fought from Bull Run to Appomattox, before going on to become a Fenian arms procurer in Birmingham, where as ‘Mr Barry’ or ‘Mr Winslow’ he purchased arms allegedly on behalf of the Chilean government. Burke was identified to Scotland Yard detectives while staying in Bloomsbury in central London. After a scuffle he was arrested together with his confederate Joseph Casey in Woburn Square. Burke was remanded to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, one of two prisons in an area favoured by English artisan radicals, Welsh milk suppliers and many Irish, Italian and Swiss immigrants. The area was known for clock-making and printing, as well as demonstrations on its Green. The House of Detention, which included an exercise yard, was ringed by a wall that was three feet thick at the base and twenty-five feet high. Tenement houses ran parallel with the wall along one side of respectively Corporation Lane and Corporation Row.

Aided by sympathetic female visitors, who included his sister, the imprisoned Burke was in contact with Fenians in London with whom he exchanged messages written in invisible ink. He devised his own escape plan. In the yard he had noticed that the outer wall had been weakened by men repairing pipes buried under the road. The escape bid was led by another Civil War veteran, James Murphy, formerly of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, who together with a Fenian from Fermanagh called Michael Barrett misused the proceeds of a collection for a new church to assemble enormous quantities of gunpowder. These purchases alerted the police to what was afoot, although they also had agents within the Fenian conspiracy.

On 12 December 1867 Murphy and two helpers wheeled a tarpaulin-covered barrow through the darkening winter streets of Clerkenwell. Underneath was a thirty-six-gallon kerosene barrel filled with gunpowder. They lobbed a white ball over the wall, the signal for Burke - who was circling the yard on exercise - to halt as if to remove a stone from his boot. Outside, Murphy lit the initiatory fuse, which spluttered and went out. Undertaking one of the most dangerous things to do with gunpowder, whose main drawback as an explosive is that it easily becomes damp, he returned twice more to relight the increasingly short fuse. Eventually the three called it a day and left; inside the walls Burke was returned to his cell.

On Friday the 13th at 3.30 p.m. the barrow and barrel reappeared alongside the prison. Some of the children playing in the street were co-opted into what became a game of fireworks. One of the bombers, dressed in a brown overcoat and black hat, even lit the squib used to ignite the barrel by taking a light from a boy smoking a cigarette. Although a low rather than a high explosive, which creates what experts call a burning event, gunpowder delivers a prolonged and steady propellant push useful for quarrying rocks or expelling projectiles from cannons. When the bomb went off, most of the explosive force hit the tenements opposite rather than the prison wall, although an inverted wedge was blown out of that, sixty feet long at the top and narrower at the wall’s thicker base. The breach in the wall was irrelevant since, as a precautionary measure, the suspicious prison authorities had relocated Burke and Casey to cells in a remote part of the jail. The explosion was heard in suburban Brixton south-east of the Thames, and even, according to a man who wrote to the Standard, some forty miles away. Fifty firemen arrived to pick their way through the rubble, while hundreds of policemen milled around. Guards units took up station in and around the prison. Gas mains were excavated to provide light for rescuers combing through the rubble. Three people were dead, a seven-year-old child called Minnie Abbott, a thirty-six-year-old housewife, Sarah Hodgkinson, and a forty-seven-year-old brass finisher, William Clutton. Terrible injuries were inflicted, many involving fractures to the facial bones, although an eight-year-old girl coming home with a jug of milk sustained terrible lacerations to her knee. An eleven-year-old boy had to have eight fingers amputated. The death toll of local residents rose to twelve over the following weeks, while hundreds more had sustained injuries. Four hundred houses had been damaged. Rumours flew about Fenian plots to blow up the Arsenal at Woolwich, the Tower of London and York Minster. Fifty thousand special constables volunteered to patrol the streets and civil servants went about armed. There was dark talk in the Spectator of the need for bayonets to be deployed, although the magazine had been sympathetic to the demotic nobility of the Fenian uprising in Ireland. More practically, a local clergyman organised a Clerkenwell Explosion Relief Fund that dispensed aid and pensions to the victims and their rescuers.7

Michael Barrett was caught test-firing a revolver while in Glasgow and brought back to London. He and five others went on trial at the Old Bailey in April 1868. The cases against Ann Justice and John O’Keefe were dismissed by the judge, and the jury went on to acquit three other defendants. Barrett alone was found guilty of murder. He spoke at great length before sentence was passed, disputing the evidence and the witnesses brought against him, one of whom he dismissed as a ‘prince of perverts’. He was sentenced to hang. In another trial, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke was sentenced to fourteen years’ penal servitude. Attempts to reprieve Barrett took place at a time when the authorities in Australia and Canada had hanged Fenians who had shot a renegade Fenian (he had since become a Canadian cabinet minister) and wounded the duke of Edinburgh on a tour of the Antipodes. Barrett was taken out from Newgate prison to be executed on a fine May morning, as people who had rented gallows side seats in the Magpie and Stump for up to £10 sang ‘Champagne Charlie’ or ‘Oh My, I’ve Got to Die’. When Barrett appeared the crowd cheered, with boos and hisses for Calcraft. Barrett died instantly, the last man to be executed in public in England. After an interval of an hour, Calcraft appeared - to shouts of ‘Come on, body snatcher!’ - to cut the corpse down. The bells on St Sepulchre’s rang nine times. A martyr had been born. So had the habit of calling the Irish ‘Micks’, because thenceforth the Fenians (and the Irish Guards) were popularly referred to as the ‘Mick Barretts’.

As Barrett assumed his place in Irish martyrology, the sufferings of some eighty imprisoned Fenians became the stuff of legend and the object of complex calculations on the part of the British authorities who, regardless of party, were pursuing a moderate reform agenda in Ireland, with Disraeli’s Tories emollient towards the Catholic Church, and Gladstone seeking land reform and disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland. The majority of Irish nationalists responded with calls for land reform and Home Rule. At the extreme margins of Irish politics, the Fenian prisoners taxed the dispassionate ingenuity of British statesmen. The need to maintain law and order - ultimately through executions and imprisonment - had to be balanced against the spiral of violence this might unleash, and against the wider political repercussions in Ireland and further afield, especially in the US, where politicians were hungry for the Irish-American vote. Did one treat them as criminals or as political prisoners?

While the Fenian convicts were spared the full disciplinary rigours of Victorian jails, those who acted up were kept in solitary confinement or in irons for periods of time that seemed cruel. Tales of the plight of the prisoners swelled the ranks of Fenian activists and sympathisers, for they were the objects of emotive campaigns on their behalf, campaigns which routinely highlighted the sufferings of the prisoners’ innocent wives and children. Everywhere as the cold-blooded facts of terrorist outrages responsible for their conviction faded from memory, the plight of the imprisoned occupied the emotional foreground. Gladstone’s administration eventually opted for the sensible tactic of releasing the small fry, then expatriating the ringleaders, while keeping Fenians who had been members of the armed forces in detention, that being the issue on which queen Victoria refused to be persuaded towards leniency.8

Rage at the ‘injustices’ and ‘indignities’ heaped upon imprisoned Fenians also led to thoughts of retaliation and revenge among their supporters. The enraged included Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who in 1871 had been amnestied by the Gladstone government from a fifteen-year jail sentence on condition he remove himself to America. A dipsomaniac over-fond of whiskey and cigars, Rossa was given to sanguinary bombast, threatening to reduce London to ashes with the aid of a dozen arsonists, who would bring ‘the fires of Hell’ to the imperial capital. The erratic Rossa, known to detractors as O’Dynamite, was only fitfully connected to Clan na Gael, a US-based secret society founded in June 1867 under John Devoy to oppose Irishmen lured into supporting Home Rule.

In 1876 this secret society mounted the daring escape from the Imperial prison at Fremantle in Western Australia of six imprisoned Fenians, who were spirited out to international waters on a US-registered whaler called the Catalpa. Its flag can still be seen in the national museum in Dublin. This propaganda coup fuelled the notion of a skirmishing fund to finance attacks against Britain and its global interests, the first project being an invasion of Canada, which it was hoped the US would take advantage of. This resulted in a few inconsequential border skirmishes. A great deal of Clan money was mercifully squandered on a schoolmaster and inventor called John Holland, the genius who offered to build a Fenian submarine. Ever more elaborate models led to actual boats initially propelled by steam lines from a surface ship, and then, after the successful installation of engines, unaccompanied. Mishaps included a Fenian flying through the air when, having forgotten to tighten a hatch, an air bubble propelled him skywards. Holland’s habit of suing all and sundry eventually led the Clan to steal his boat, which then was left to rust - like a riveted porpoise - while others spirited away its engines. But an idea had been born. In 1900 the same inventor’s USS Holland would become the first submarine purchased by the US Navy.

John Devoy, the Clan’s most intelligent leader, decided on what he called a New Departure in 1878 which supported Charles Parnell’s constitutional form of Irish nationalism, but others in the leadership simultaneously embarked on a campaign of terror, as did O’Donovan Rossa, with whom, to complicate matters, the Clan occasionally cooperated. Much of the rhetoric familiar from more contemporary terrorist movements was evident in embryonic form among these Fenians in the 1880s, although their avoidance of the term terrorism means that more emphasis has been placed on Russian nihilists as the progenitors of the tactic. In fact, what the Russians did, rather than what they said, was more akin to the targeted assassination of key imperial figures, with a view to isolating the government from society, than an attempt to create mass panic so as to influence the political process.9

The early Fenian notion of a people’s army representing the oppressed nation’s will through insurrectionary violence was gradually displaced by that of terror campaigns designed to sap the morale of the more mighty imperial enemy. This change of tactics was because there was no substantial support for the insurrection, a truth that was cleverly concealed within the Fenians’ own analysis: ‘We should oppose a general insurrection in Ireland as untimely and ill-advised. But we believe in action nonetheless. The Irish cause requires Skirmishers. It requires a little band of heroes who will initiate and keep up without intermission guerrilla warfare - men who will fly over land and sea like invisible beings - now striking the enemy in Ireland, now in India, now in England itself as occasion may present.’ The conceit of the enlightened vanguard would become familiar to all manner of modern terrorists.

The preferred weapon was influenced by the Russian nihilist attacks that had culminated in the assassination of tsar Alexander II on 1 March 1881 by terrorists hurling small grenade-like explosives at their target. Nitroglycerine had been invented by Ascanio Sobrero, a Piedmontese chemist, who by mixing glycerine with sulphuric and nitric acids made a yellowish, sweet-smelling liquid with curious properties. A small quantity blew up in his face. Pursuing a different tack, Sobrero tried a trace on a dog, which died in agony, but which was revealed to have hugely distended blood vessels in its heart and brain. British doctors subsequently discovered that nitroglycerine brought relief for the paralysing pain of angina pectoris. In the 1860s the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel discovered how to stabilise nitroglycerine by absorbing it into a solid, using such things as kieselguhr, sawdust or gelatine, the end product being sticks of dynamite with names like Atlas. Nobel also invented gunpowder-based detonators to trigger the dynamite explosion.10

The Fenian terrorist Rossa endeavoured to bask in the remote glow of the Russian nihilist assassins by advertising in his newspaper courses in manufacturing bombs by a Professor Mezzeroff, ‘England’s invisible enemy’. Mezzeroff was a tall, sharp-faced man with curly hair arranged around his pate and a ‘grizzly moustache’. Habitual wearing of black clothes and steely spectacles rounded off the sinister effect of a character straight out of Dostoevsky or Conrad. His origins were mysterious, although he had the accents of an Irishman. His father was Russian, but his mother was said to have been a Highlander and he enjoyed US citizenship. Students were encouraged to pay US$30 for a thirty-day course in making dynamite, although Mezzeroff’s enthusiasm was greater than his knowledge of chemistry. He claimed that dynamite ‘was the best way for oppressed peoples from all countries to get free from tyranny and oppression’. A pound of the stuff contained more force than ‘a million speeches’.11

Instead of initiating a burning event, with pressures up to 6,000 atmospheres in milliseconds, dynamite causes a shock wave with pressures of up to 275,000 atmospheres. In other words, compared with gunpowder, a dynamite explosion is like the difference between being knocked off a bicycle by a car and being hit by an express train. Moreover, unlike cumbersome barrels of gunpowder, lightweight dynamite could be concealed within small containers or included in brass grenades whose fragments would cause death and injury when thrown. Different detonators became available to bombers, beyond the gunpowder-based fuses that had to be lit. They included systems based on acids burning through wads of paper pushed into holes in a series of pipes; percussive mechanisms involving timers and a revolver; or alarm-clock-based ‘infernal machines’ that ticked away to oblivion. These enabled terrorists to minimise personal risk by practising place and leave, although there was considerable risk to anyone who happened along. A weapon of such lethality would inevitably entail collateral civilian casualties, even when it was used to decapitate a state’s leadership or against fixed strategic assets such as arsenals or dockyards. Hence the anticipatory formulation of ethical evasions before the Fenian campaign had even started. Dynamite terrorism was the tactic of the weak in an otherwise impossible conflict. There were no immutable laws of war because evolving technologies tended to make them redundant. In any case, as Ireland was not a sovereign state, Irishmen were absolved of international inter-state conventions. In obeisance to the spirit of the Victorian era, the ultimate rationalisation was that dynamite was the apogee of scientific warfare. Hence the respect accorded to Mezzeroff, later immortalised as the ‘Professor’ by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent.

Both Rossa and the Clan embarked on campaigns of terror, using Irish-American bombers rather than British - or Irish-based Fenian sympathisers who were thought to be too susceptible to penetration by British detectives and secret agents, some of whom like Henri le Caron operated across the Atlantic.12

These were not random attacks against high-profile individual human targets, but campaigns with their own rhythm of multiple successive strikes whose object was to spread fear and panic. Their opening target was chosen for its symbolic value: an army barracks in the town where three Irish martyrs had been hanged. On 14 January 1881 Rossa’s bombers struck in dense fog at Regent Road Barracks in Salford, although the bomb placed in a ventilator shaft in the wall did most damage to a neighbouring butcher’s shop and a rope factory where a seven-year-old boy was slain. Further attacks in February were foiled when police raided a steamer named the SS Malta, with a cargo of cement from New York, in whose hold they found cases containing six bombs fitted with clockwork detonators. Three months later an alert policeman extinguished the burning fuse of a blasting-powder-based bomb placed in a recess below the Egyptian Hall in London’s Mansion House. In May, a crude pipe bomb caused minimal damage to Liverpool’s police headquarters. A month later, two of the bombers were caught after they left a bomb built into a cast-iron gas pipe outside the town hall in the same city. Some brave policemen dragged it down the steps of the town hall just before it exploded. The two Fenian bombers received sentences of life and twelve years’ imprisonment. The sole other success the police enjoyed was to discover a Fenian arms dump in a stables which a Mr Sadgrove had rented from a Swiss watch maker in Clerkenwell. This contained four hundred rifles, with shamrocks embossed on their stocks, sixty revolvers and about seventy-five thousand rounds of ammunition. Sadgrove, or John Walsh as he was called, was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. Although the lethal effects of Rossa’s campaign were minimal, it added to the horror occasioned by the murders in Phoenix Park of lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, senior members of the Dublin administration, who were slashed to death with twelve-inch surgical knives by a gang called the Irish Invincibles, and ensured that the general public were stricken with anxiety and terror. They had good reason because Rossa’s shambolic Skirmishers were about to be augmented by killers with a more professional approach, although the irrepressible Rossa helped fund them. His newspaper the United Irishman openly solicited donations to terrorism, sometimes publishing donor letters: ‘Dear Sir, Inclosed [sic] find $3; $2 for my yearly subscription for “the United Irishman”; and $1 for dynamite. I think it the most consistent remedy for old tyrant England. Wishing you and the “United Irishman” success, I remain, etc. Thos. O’Neill.’

More substantial funds came from the US Clan leader, a Chicago lawyer called Alexander Sullivan, who simply redirected some of the impressive sums which Irish-Americans had given to the Irish Land League’s rural activities. A rock of a fellow, always armed and wearing cowboy boots, Sullivan had earlier killed a man who called his wife ‘a tool of Jesuits’ and had subsequently shot and wounded a political rival in New Mexico. Despite this background, Sullivan reinvented himself as a lawyer with vice-presidential ambitions in any party that would have him. Rossa and Sullivan effectively ran parallel campaigns of terror, although the sources of funding and some of the personnel overlapped.13

Rossa’s men struck first in late January 1883 in Glasgow. Two large bombs destroyed a gasometer in the city gasworks, causing considerable damage to neighbouring industries and injuring eleven people. In the early hours of the following day, late-night revellers happened upon a bomb designed to bring down a stone aqueduct carrying the Forth and Clyde Canal over a road. An off-duty soldier poked around in an oval bonnet box made of tin which erupted in his face. The bombers moved to London.

Seven weeks later, a policeman discovered another bonnet box, this time behind the offices of The Times newspaper in Playhouse Yard. He managed to kick it away, causing the crude lignine bomb to malfunction. Shortly afterwards, just as Big Ben was striking nine, a massive explosion went off amid new government buildings in Parliament Street. These buildings and the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police ‘A’ Division looked as if they had survived a major riot. Gladstone appeared next morning to survey the scene. Policemen were stationed at all key buildings and guarded key public figures. A new Irish Special Branch, under chief inspector ‘Dolly’ Williamson, and dedicated to Fenian terrorism, was established in a small building at the centre of Great Scotland Yard, a warren of narrow streets and courtyards off the east side of Whitehall where the Metropolitan Police still stable horses. On 21 May The Times published a letter from ‘a considerate dynamiter’ warning that ‘thousands, perhaps millions, of your innocent citizens, before another April comes around, will be no more’. Writing from Colorado, the correspondent advised the British to evacuate women and children before the Fenian bombers returned.14

The weakest link in Rossa’s campaign was that his explosives were being smuggled into Britain on American ships bound for Cork or Liverpool, a procedure that gave the watching police their biggest breaks. The next wave of bombers, despatched by Sullivan’s Clan rather than Rossa, resolved to manufacture their bombs in England, to avoid having to run the gauntlet at Irish and British ports where security had been stepped up. Their leader, Dr Thomas Gallagher, visited Britain in the guise of an American tourist in 1882. From a large family of Irish immigrants, Gallagher had worked in a foundry as a teenager, studying medicine in his spare time. He had the natural authority of a healer in his part of Brooklyn, while his studies had also involved the chemistry needed to make bombs.

Gallagher sent one Alfred George Whitehead - or Jemmy Murphy, to give him his real name - to England to establish a cover for a bomb factory. Whitehead rented a shop in the Ladywood district of Birmingham, where he set up a phoney paint and decorating business, with £10 of brushes and wallpaper on display for customers. This cover enabled him to purchase large quantities of chemicals, whose odour would be masked by that of oil and paint. Alert suppliers began to wonder about the quantities of pure glycerine Whitehead was buying, and noted his Irish accent, stained fingernails and acid-bitten clothes. Undercover police officers began to purchase brushes and wallpaper, finally breaking into the shop at night to take samples of the chemicals littered around. They noticed that acids burned holes in their socks. The most ominous clue was a coat with the label Brooks Brothers, Broadway, New York, then and now a famous US clothing firm.

Although they had the bomb master under surveillance, the police had no clue to the identity of the bombers. Gallagher had recruited them the previous year from young men who belonged to New York’s many Fenian clubs, with names like Emerald Club or Napper Tandy. Gallagher himself sailed to Britain, together with his alcoholic brother Bernard, whom he left in steerage. Gallagher was carrying $2,300 and a letter of credit for £600. He and his bombers made trips from London to Birmingham to pick up Whitehead’s explosives. Despite the doctor’s clear instructions, the less bright members of his team imagined that one could pour nitroglycerine into a bag or trunk without the need for rubber bags inside. On one occasion, eighty pounds of nitroglycerine were poured into two fishing waders, which, tied off at the knees, were then taken to London in a portmanteau. Station and hotel porters buckled under the weight, speculating that the case contained gold sovereigns or iron bars. The police followed the bombers from Birmingham to London and then pounced to effect their arrests. Whitehead was detained in his bomb factory. The entire cell were sentenced to life imprisonment. In another triumph for the authorities, some ten Glasgow ‘Ribbonmen’ (violent Catholic nationalists who wore green ribbons) and two of their Irish-American recruiters were convicted in December 1883 of the Glasgow bombing campaign. A more stringent Explosive Substances Act put the onus of proof that possession of certain chemical compounds or actual explosives was entirely innocent upon the person caught with these substances.

These trials took place during the summer as a final bombing campaign, focused on London, geared up for its attacks. The team leader, William Mackey Lomasney, had been born in Ohio, and had been amnestied by the British authorities in 1871 after serving part of a sentence for arms-related offences and attempted murder. From a family with deep roots in Irish insurrectionism - his great-grandfather had died fighting for Wolfe Tone - Lomasney was a slight man with a lisping voice and a face that became instantly unrecognisable through the simple device of growing or shaving off his beard. Lomasney’s team commenced their campaign by bombing the London Underground railways in November 1883. The stations and dark tunnels provided plenty of ways to evade capture, as did the ever present crowds. Bombs in bags were dropped from the front first-class carriages, detonating by the time the third-class carriages passed the spot where the bags had fallen. The first such attack occurred as a Metropolitan Line train pulled out of Praed Street station, the Underground connection with Paddington rail terminus. Seventy-two people in the cheaper carriages were injured by splinters of wood and shards of flying glass. Twenty minutes later, another bomb exploded as a District Line train left Charing Cross on a journey towards Westminster; it caused limited damage to subterranean cables and pipes and to the tunnel itself. The injured included various artisans and shopkeepers as well as two schoolboys visiting the capital for the day from Clacton. Meanwhile, a further Fenian team had brought bomb components over on the boat from France. In February 1884, four bombs with alarm-clock detonators were left in cases deposited at four main railway terminals: Charing Cross, Ludgate Hill, Paddington and Victoria. Three of them failed to detonate, although the bomb at Victoria devastated the left-luggage room when it went off at one in the morning when the station was deserted. The bombers were en route to France before the bombs had even been set to explode. Police surveillance of the ports was stepped up.15

With the help of an informer, the police arrested an Irish-American called John Daly with three brass-encased dynamite bombs. His intention had been to throw them from the Strangers’ Gallery on to the floor of the House of Commons, an outrage that would have killed the government and opposition leaders on the front benches below. A jury took fifteen minutes to find Daly guilty. Meanwhile, Lomasney’s men struck in May 1884 at the Junior Carlton Club, injuring the kitchen staff rather than members, at the home of Sir Watkin Wynn, and most audaciously at the offices of the Irish Special Branch. A bomb was left in a cast-iron urinal of the Rising Sun pub which shared a corner of Great Scotland Yard with the Irish Special Branch. It caused considerable damage to the building and destroyed many of the police records on the Fenians themselves. After a lull during summer and autumn, at six in the evening on 13 December 1884 a bomb exploded at the south-west end of London Bridge, hurling pedestrians to the ground and blowing a hole in the road. The wreckage of a rowing boat, rented earlier by William Mackey Lomasney and two accomplices, drifted out on the ebb tide, indicating that the bombers were no more. Lomasney’s store of dynamite, manufactured in San Francisco, was discovered at a house in Harrow Road a year later.

In the new year, a fresh team of Irish-American terrorists, under James Gilbert Cunningham and Henry Burton, respectively aged twenty-three and thirty-three, successfully smuggled in sixty pounds of Atlas Powder A dynamite as they entered the United Kingdom. Their first bomb exploded on 2 January 1885 on a Metropolitan Line train as it approached Goodge Street station. On Saturday 24 January Burton - with a team mate disguised as a female - tried to explode a diversionary bomb in Westminster’s Crypt, so as to enable the other unmolested to drop a bomb into the chamber of the House of Commons. Virtually simultaneously Cunningham slipped away from a party of sightseers in the Tower of London and placed a bomb behind a gun carriage in the central White Tower. The carriage absorbed much of the blast, although four young sightseers were hurt. Cunningham was caught as he ran through the Tower’s maze of walls and gardens; Burton was apprehended shortly afterwards. Both men were jailed for life for these attacks as well as for bombs at Gower Street and the four London mainline stations. In mid-March 1885, the French authorities rounded up and deported Fenians gathering for an alleged dynamite conference. Their number included James Stephens, the creator of the original organisation who ironically had always opposed terrorist bombings. Fears that the US government might finally be persuaded to follow suit led the Clan to abandon its plans for further campaigns. A final conspiracy by the implacable Rossa and a wing of the Clan to cause explosions during the Queen’s 1887 Golden Jubilee was thwarted because of high-level penetration of the Clan by a British agent.


The Fenians, or Irish Republican Brotherhood, were at the historic core of, and the mythologised model for, what became the Irish Republican Army or IRA. Ironically, the success of the (not entirely) opposed constitutional tradition in getting the British government to concede Irish Home Rule in 1914 had already engendered a blocking Unionist paramilitary response - the formation in 1913 of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Outrageous British government acquiescence in this first paramilitary army - with its links to the Conservative Party and the British armed forces - contributed to the creation in Dublin of the Irish Volunteers, elements of which would fuse with the IRB to become the IRA.16

In line with the established Fenian strategy of capitalising on Britain’s imperial woes, elements within the IRB and Irish Volunteers - both supporters of imperial Germany in the Great War - launched the 1916 Easter Rising, taking over a handful of buildings in Dublin for five days. Involving about a thousand insurgents, this was as much intended to discredit the constitutional pragmatism of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which had achieved the goal of Home Rule (albeit deferred for the war’s duration), as it was directed against a Liberal-dominated British government mired on the Western Front in a war which the Catholic Church and most Irishmen supported. Coldly considered, the Rising was hopelessly ill conceived, commencing before a crucial consignment of German weapons had arrived, let alone an invasion of Britain by Ireland’s gallant ally the Kaiser. About fifteen hundred men took part in the Rising, or about 1 per cent of the number of Irish volunteers simultaneously fighting imperial Germany in the British army. But that was not the point, because this crucifixion had been conceived and choreographed as a form of blood sacrifice witnessing the birth of the nation. It was crushed with relative ease, by Irish soldiers of the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, after it had cost about 450 civilian Irish lives, as well as those of 116 soldiers and sixteen policemen. But the manner of the judicial response became, in republican eyes, the constitutive epiphany in the creation of an armed republican movement with widespread support among those Irish Catholics who had conflated religion and nationalism into one sacral tribal entity while dissimulating their own rabid Catholic sectarianism. They had even managed to assimilate such Protestant and Enlightenment precursors as Wolfe Tone or Robert Emmet into a mythologised Catholic nationalist Emerald Isle story. Coming a day after Easter Sunday, in the eyes of mystical nationalists like Padraig Pearse the Rising was the blood sacrifice necessary for Ireland’s liberation. In a pamphlet entitled Ghostswritten on the eve of the Rising, Pearse wrote: ‘There is only one way to appease a ghost, you must do the thing it asks you. The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things; and they must be appeased at whatever the cost.’ Pearse’s own ghost has been appeased ever since, notably at the animist rites of IRA funerals, but also at the expense of living people who became innocent dead too.17

The judicial consequences of the Rising only succeeded in engendering ‘maximum resentment, minimum fear’. Sixteen of the leaders were sentenced to death, by military courts, with the executions being dragged out for an unconscionably long time, in two cases involving men physically incapable of standing before a firing squad. Whereas the Dublin Rising had hardly elicited widespread support, there was general outrage at the manner of its suppression, as well as at the internment in Britain of hundreds of its participants. Their revolutionary commitment was deepened in Frognoch and Reading jails. Just as the Rising’s leading ideologue, headmaster Padraig Pearse, had traded on memories of martyrs past in his various proclamations of an Irish republic, so he and his fifteen executed comrades became mythological martyrs themselves, inspiring republicans to this day. Even the Marxists among them clutched crucifixes as they died in a hail of bullets, enhancing their posthumous appeal to the majority of their countrymen.

The Rising could well have been relegated to the status of minor might-have-been had the British government not made the mistake of extending to Ireland the principle of conscription for men under fifty-one (it had existed in the rest of the United Kingdom since 1916) to cover the huge losses caused by the March 1918 German offensive on the Western Front. Why should the Irish be exempt from fighting when they benefited from newly introduced old-age pensions and the wartime hike in agricultural prices? Taken together with the stalling of talks between constitutional nationalists, Unionists and the British government, the Military Service Bill dramatically boosted the fortunes of Sinn Féin in the December 1918 general election, in which an enlarged electorate of over two million voted for the first time. The party name meant Ourselves, or Ourselves Alone, depending on how one translates from the Gaelic, and was indicative of both solipsism and the Cosa Nostra.

Originally a non-violent, non-republican nationalist party, with an eccentric enthusiasm for the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy as a model for Britain and Ireland, Sinn Féin won 48 per cent of the vote in the whole of Ireland, but a striking 65 per cent in the southern twenty-six counties that would become the Irish Free State. By that time, the party had been hijacked by surviving leaders of the Rising, with Eamon de Valera - sprung from British captivity - becoming president of the party at the October 1917 ard-fheis convention. In addition to being reconfigured as a republican party, Sinn Féin was formally linked with militant separatism when de Valera was elected president of the Irish Volunteers, who in 1919 became the IRA. They set up an alternative parliament, called the Dáil Éireann, which met on 21 January 1919, when a Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. Three months later de Valera became president of the Council of Ministers, the rebel provisional government in which also sat such luminaries as Michael Collins, W. T. Cosgrave, Arthur Griffith and Constance Markievicz. The ministers operated from flats above shops or private houses to avoid arrest by the British. Sinn Féin supporters quietly set up a parallel system of courts and local government so as to nullify the power of Dublin Castle, the symbol of imperial rule. The IRA embarked on a military campaign combining elements of guerrilla warfare with terrorism.

Although the IRA had a military command structure modelled on that of the British army, this did not efficiently curb the desire of locally based bands to kill representatives of the Crown forces. An IRA unit in Tipperary shot dead two Royal Irish Constabulary officers in January 1919, the first blow in what became an ugly vortex of violence. The IRA carried out a systematic campaign of terror, beginning with attacks on isolated police officers as well as a detective in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. This developed into larger attacks on police barracks, a strategy designed to sever any connection between the police and people, and to establish the IRA as an alternative authority. Enforcing the quarantining of the police, women who had liaisons with them, or who cooked for them, were threatened with death or had their heads shaved. A seventy-year-old woman who informed the police of a planned IRA ambush was shot dead. In an atmosphere paranoid about spies and fifth-columnists, epitomised by Church of Ireland and Methodist churches, Orange lodges and masonic temples, Ireland’s Protestant minority became targets, with about a third of their number being forced out of their homes in these years. This was only partially a response to the British policy of burning down the homes of known rebels, although it did not quite amount to the ethnic cleansing in Smyrna in the 1920s or Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

These were the classic years of the romance of the gunman, a leather-jacketed or trench-coated figure armed with a pistol, rifle or Tommy gun. This last was an American submachine gun with a cylindrical magazine originally designed to be used at close quarters to clear wartime trenches, but, produced too late for the Western Front, adopted as the weapon of choice for Chicago gangsters. It was useless in shootouts across fields. Other aspects of the learning curve included the realisation that a .45 is more useful in close-quarter assassination than a .38. Most of the hundred thousand or so IRA volunteers were young, single Catholic males from urban backgrounds ranging from shop assistants to medical students. Many had served in the British armed forces or had been educated by the Christian Brothers. In addition to small hit teams, there were larger flying columns of mobile guerrillas in the countryside, consisting of full-time paid rebels, released from whatever restraints being part of a family or community may have imposed. The women’s organisation Cumann na mBann provided vital intelligence, nursing, and material and spiritual support during this period.18

Much of the violence had a tit-for-tat character in a society where there were long hatreds. When a police constable was shot dead by the IRA, mystery assassins killed Tomas McCurtain, the lord mayor of Cork and a commandant in the IRA. His successor, Terence MacSwiney, was jailed for IRA activities, and expired on the seventy-fifth day of his hunger strike in London’s Brixton prison. A shopkeeper and his friend refused to share in the general lamentations involving kneeling women praying for the Blessed MacSwiney in front of a bearded Capuchin. These men were both assassinated by the IRA. After shooting most of the Dublin Metropolitan ‘G’ division which dealt with political crime, IRA gunmen - who included future taoiseach Sean Lemass - struck at Britain’s intelligence presence in Ireland, killing twelve army officers (who stuck out like sore thumbs) in their homes on what became known as (the original) Bloody Sunday. Most of the victims were laid out in the morgue still wearing blood-stained pyjamas. These killings were in reprisal for the execution of medical student Kevin Barry for the murder of a soldier younger than himself. Some of the victims had nothing to do with intelligence, unless their cover was veterinary officers come to Dublin to purchase mules. Enraged by this attack, the British struck back at Croke Park, the mecca of Gaelic football, when during a hunt for fleeing IRA men they fired into, or back at, the crowd (for the causes are contentious), killing twelve people including a player from Tipperary who fell dead on the pitch. This was a result of the deployment of thirteen thousand battle-hardened veterans of the recent war as auxiliaries to the Royal Irish Constabulary. These Black ‘n’ Tans, named after their mix-and-match combat garb, brought a certain indiscriminate vigour to the conflict that has passed into Irish folklore and that was condemned at the time by senior British statesmen.

Less well known, about a thousand IRA men were also active in mainland Britain, particularly London, Liverpool and Tyneside. Their wilder schemes included plans to kill Lloyd George, to truck-bomb the House of Commons or to poison the horses in Buckingham Palace. In practice, a hundred IRA men caused extensive damage to Liverpool’s docks, destroying nineteen warehouses. Between February and July 1921 they launched co-ordinated arson attacks on farms around London and Liverpool, in response to British reprisal burnings of farms of IRA sympathisers in Ireland, as well as extensive attacks on telegraph and telephone lines and railway signal boxes. Such attacks caused an estimated £1,000,000 damage. The IRA stalked high-profile military and police targets, notably Basil Thompson, the head of the Special Branch responsible for political criminality. On 22 June 1922, two young IRA men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, shot dead field marshal Sir Henry Wilson as he reached his doorstep after spending the morning unveiling a war memorial at Liverpool Street station. O’Sullivan had a wooden leg after being wounded while serving in the British army in the same war Wilson was commemorating. Wilson had once snubbed Michael Collins at a 10 Downing Street meeting. Despite shooting two policemen and a civilian who pursued them, the two assassins were captured, and in August were tried and executed. The British responded to this campaign by giving about fifty prominent figures armed bodyguards, installing barriers around government buildings and parliament, and from time to time deploying soldiers to guard railway lines and telegraph poles.19

By that time, the IRA had effectively run out of ammunition and weapons, while the British had succeeded in capturing about 5,500 of their estimated 7,500 active personnel. Collins estimated that within about three weeks the IRA would not be in a position to fight. Worse, IRA intelligence told the leadership that the British were thinking of trebling the number of troops in Ireland while imposing martial law. This inclined the IRA, which had long been talking with the British government through clerical back channels, to a political settlement, albeit one that many of them would regard as temporary. A truce in the summer of 1921 led to negotiations in Downing Street which de Valera was shrewd enough to leave in the hands of Collins. Three months of talks resulted in the establishment of the twenty-six-county Irish Free State, its autonomy qualified by various residual links to the British Crown akin to those which connected the Dominions of Canada or South Africa to the motherland. Six, rather than nine, counties of Ulster would remain in the United Kingdom, although Collins hoped that when boundaries were drawn this would be reduced to an unviable, and indubitably Protestant, three. The readiness of the British government to treat with individuals it had recently dismissed as murderers was noteworthy, with the lengthy talks themselves generating all manner of human sympathies among the negotiating parties. Just in case they failed, Lloyd George threatened to wage all-out war with the entire resources of the British empire within three days.

The Treaty was adopted in the Dáil by a narrow majority of 64 to 57, indicating how far the issue served to aggravate pre-existing personal and political animosities. Those who backed the Treaty, including Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, thought that a bird in hand was better than one in the bush, and that full independence could be achieved in due course. In these circles, the Protestants of the six northerly counties were a second-order issue - an inexplicable extension of the industrial civilisation of Glasgow or Manchester in the otherwise Irish pastoral idyll. Opponents were more exercised by the exclusion of the six counties, or by the failure to achieve a fully independent republic based on the renunciation of the symbolic features of union that the Free State still retained through Dominion status. A general election in June 1922 overwhelmingly confirmed the pro-Treaty view. Government structures were based on British exemplars, although significantly there was no Ministry of Education. That was the quid pro quo for endorsement of the Free State by the Catholic Church, which already envisaged it as the Atlantic bastion of anti-modernity that it would remain for the next fifty years. Archbishop Walsh voted Sinn Féin.

Since the purest of the republican pure derived their spiritual legitimacy from the martyrs of 1916 and back beyond to a Catholicised Wolfe Tone in 1798, rather than from democratic elections, they ventured ahead with their military quest for the establishment of an independent republic. Roughly 50 per cent of the IRA merged into the newly formed Irish army, while the remaining half comprised Irregulars or Republicans - the forerunners of the modern IRA. These were the armed temple virgins of the flames of Padraig Pearse.20

In March 1922 IRA men opposed to the Dáil’s decision took over buildings in Dublin, in a symbolic re-run of the Easter Rising. This was hopeless because the Free State’s army was deployed against them, using arms provided by the British. The British army even lent it a couple of cannon. ‘What’s artillery like?’ asked one IRA man of a veteran of 1916. ‘You get used to it, it’s not bad,’ replied his comrade. The Dublin insurgency was easily suppressed, as it was in other cities and towns. The IRA reverted to the sort of rural guerrilla war it and its pro-Treaty foes had recently fought against the British, with one unit happening to ambush and kill Michael Collins on 22 August 1922. Ironically, the Provisional Government resorted to measures indistinguishable from the British to win what had become a civil war - although unlike the British it had the support of the Catholic Church, which eagerly excommunicated the IRA. A special-powers resolution perpetuated the draconian military reprisals that had commenced with the British Restoration of Order in Ireland Act two years before. A spiral of violence recommenced. Some seventy-seven republican captives were executed, regardless of whatever services they had performed on behalf of Irish patriotism. When the Irish authorities shot the fifty-two-year-old republican writer Erskine Childers, the IRA announced that members of the government and its supporters were fair game.

The first victim was Seán Hales, a pro-Treaty deputy to the Dáil. The Provisional Government responded to his killing by executing four republican prisoners, thereby putting a stop to this particular cycle of publicly acknowledged violence. However, it did not stop murderous warfare between the IRA and Free State troops. Some of the latter seem to have killed IRA prisoners by tying them up and exploding mines beneath them. Perhaps as many as four to five thousand people were killed in the civil war, the majority of them IRA personnel, as recorded Free State military losses were about eight hundred. In May 1923 the IRA declared a ceasefire and hid its arms, prompting president William T. Cosgrave to remark that the organisation’s members might need them ‘any time they took it into their heads to interview a bank manager’. Be that as it may, in republican circles the Rising became a foundational myth that one criticised at one’s peril. In 1926 the working-class Protestant playwright Sean O’Casey did just that, in The Plough and the Stars, performed in the national Abbey Theatre a decade after the Rising. The wives and widows of republican martyrs, including the mother of Pearse, created pandemonium on stage as the Irish tricolour was paraded in a pub to the ghostly tones of Pearse proclaiming his republic. O’Casey left Ireland and never returned.21

One inadvertent consequence of the civil war that convulsed the South was that it enabled Ulster Unionists - the secession within the secession - to consolidate partition by forming the state of Northern Ireland. This was accelerated by the quiet decampment of a third of southern Protestants after an IRA campaign of sectarian murder less well known than ugly Unionist riots against Catholics in Belfast. The ambiguities and unsuppressed hopes emitted by the southern Treatyites had unfortunate repercussions in the North. Catholic nationalists abstained from political involvement in the crucial formative years of Northern Ireland, a stance that enabled the Unionist majority to abolish proportional representation and to gerrymander its local government arrangements. This fed a sense of Catholic nationalist grievance that the victims themselves were partly responsible for because of their wish to maintain the provisional character of the new northern polity. This still exists as part of the United Kingdom in the early twenty-first century, with Belfast, but not Dublin, on British television weather maps.22

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