Today in London’s rebel past: Dynamite Saturday, 1885

Ay ay, this is starting to look like we are crap, and don’t now our arse from our elbow… possibly true… Turns out this was the 24th, not the 25th  as we stated in the calendar. So we’re posting it up today… We should be checking our facts better. Or maybe put it out to tender.

So, ‘Dynamite Saturday’, 24th January 1885: Three bombs exploded in London, in the House of Commons chamber, in Westminster Hall, and in the Banqueting Room of the Tower of London. Two police officers and four civilians were injured.

Two men were sentenced to penal servitude for life as a result.

These actions were part of an intense bombing campaign by Irish nationalists, known as Fenians, mainly funded by Irish emigrants in the US, looking to end the centuries long colonial rule of Britain over Ireland. The nationalist movement had a long tradition of clandestine organizing, but the superior force of the British state was usually able to defeat it. The Fenians based themselves in the tradition of insurgent republicanism which had given birth to the united Irishmen of 1798, the Young Ireland groups who attempted an uprising against British rule over Ireland in 1848. The widespread starvation in Ireland during the famine of the 1840s, exacerbated by the inactivity of absentee landlords, both stimulated mass emigration to the United States and Britain, and created new impulses of republican sentiment. But attempts to organise rebellions in 1867 in Ireland and in British-controlled Canada failed, and the movement was beset by splits and police spies.

However some among the Fenians believed in the ability of political violence to force the British political establishment to consider the Irish question. As veteran Fenian John Devoy said, at the height of the Fenian dynamite campaign, no serious consideration of Irish political grievance could be won from Britain unless it was ‘wrung from her fear’.

The aftermath of the Clerkenwell explosion was a major factor in their thought here: in 1867, Fenians had tried rescue imprisoned leader Colonel Ricard O’Sullivan Burke from London’s Clerkenwell Prison. “Their plan had been to penetrate the prison wall with gunpowder explosive to enable Burke’s escape. Using too much gunpowder, however, they had blown down some sixty yards of prison wall, killing twelve people and injuring over one hundred others. While the Clerkenwell explosion was not an act of terrorism but a bungled rescue attempt, contemporaries recalled how ‘terror took possession of society’… Against this background of rising terror, Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, had publically remarked how the explosion had convinced him to address the Irish question, by means of his declared mission to pacify Ireland. This would effectively result in the disestablishment of the minority Anglican Church of Ireland and the introduction of Gladstone’s first Land Act.” (Shane Kenna)

From this the Fenians observed how an act of political violence had forced the Government to begin to think about concessions on the “Irish question”.

A new campaign of bombing targets in England, mainly government and other significant buildings, railway stations, gasworks and the like.

“For the first time in history, Fenian bombers had the real ability to transcend national boundaries and, using innovative techniques such as employing explosive timers and detonators – they revolutionised the concept of terrorism, changing it from one of irregular attacks against political elites to a sustained campaign designed to establish public terror in order to coerce policy makers. … It had evidently been influenced by the pervasive Fenian belief in the ability of political violence to coerce British political elites to consider and address Irish grievances. This had been graphically represented in the aftermath of the Clerkenwell explosion when the Prime Minister had been seen to be coerced into yielding ground on the Irish problem…” (Shane Kenna).

The nationalist ideology held the lives of ‘enemy civilians’ in scant regard, of course, as is usually the way… From the Clerkenwell explosion it might have been worth noting how the indiscriminate destruction of surrounding houses and deaths and injuries of residents was an important factor in losing Irish nationalists widespread sympathy in Britain’s working class movement…

The bombing campaign of the 1880s, in the end, failed to terrorise the state effectively (although it did serve to bring into being the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, formed as the Special Irish Branch in 1883, to counter the Fenian threat.); perhaps it did contribute to the Liberal Party’s growing resolution to work out some form of solution to the problem of British occupation and Irish resistance.

The Fenian strand continued, mostly based in the US, and was to contribute to the Irish nationalist movements of the twentieth century, the creation of Sinn Fein, the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

For a good brief account of the motivations, historical background and strategy of the Fenians:



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