The Fenian Problem: Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-1874

July 9, 2009

The modern history of the "Irish Question" begins with Fenianism, a mid-Victorian organisation that developed and adapted the strategies of militant nationalist activity that would become commonplace in the late 20th century. For readers old enough to have been raised on a depressing diet of news stories about paramilitary violence during the Troubles, the root of such activity must be important.

Yet most of us know little of the Fenians, the group that first planted a bomb in England in the name of Irish freedom. The movement was an amalgam of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (created in Ireland in 1858) and the Irish American Fenians, and created a new modus operandi by taking insurgency and terrorism to "the mainland", just as the IRA did a century later.

Indeed, Brian Jenkins' excellent study recognises parallels between past and present and he draws these out in comparisons of the way in which Fenianism and the IRA stretched the sinews of British liberalism and justice in their different periods.

The tradition of terrorist violence began in 1867 when the Fenians launched an abortive raid on the arsenal at Chester Castle, invaded Canada and indulged in a failed rising in Dublin. In the following year, they killed a number of innocent civilians in a bungled bombing at Clerkenwell House of Detention, whose aim had been to release Fenian prisoners. The sorry event, Jenkins tells us, provided the British state with "ample evidence of a Fenian shift from insurgency to terrorism".

In the same year, a Fenian named Henry O'Farrell tried to assassinate Queen Victoria's son, Alfred, during the Australian leg of the Prince's world tour. Back in Britain, three Irishmen were executed for their part in the rescue of two Fenians from a Manchester prison van, during which a policeman, Sergeant Brett, was shot and killed. Returning to the Antipodes, the Irish in New Zealand organised a mock funeral procession for the men who became known as the Manchester Martyrs.

The Fenians encouraged the evolution of the state apparatus necessary to deal with covert terrorist operations; but the result was never universally brutal or draconian. Techniques of surveillance and information gathering were developed to a high degree, and these matters are described in illuminating fashion by Jenkins, whose book is a neat accompaniment to Bernard Porter's pioneering study, The Origins of the Vigilant State (1987).

Where Porter examined the role of militant Irish nationalist extremism from the early 1880s in the evolution of Special Branch and the secret state, Jenkins takes us back to the earlier period, focusing on the shaping of intelligence systems and information gathering in the fight against Fenianism.

Jenkins strips away the arguments of apologists for Fenianism. He refuses to accept that they were mere insurgents who did not deal in deliberate killings, citing many pieces of evidence in favour of his argument that the Fenians who bombed Clerkenwell, killed informers, plotted to kill politicians and royalty and had intended to ignite "gasometers" were well aware of the prospect of innocent deaths.

Despite this fact, the Victorians granted no special political status to Fenian prisoners, who protested bitterly about it. Fenian prisoners were criminalised as ordinary felons but were never accorded political status. There was no suspension of habeas corpus and civil liberties were retained. The sinews of liberalism were indeed stretched; but they did not snap. The same could not be said for more recent responses to IRA violence.

In developing a thesis that criticises romantic and simplistically sympathetic images of Fenianism, and demonstrates a subtle awareness of the evolution of the state's response, Jenkins' work is both assured and brave.

The Fenian Problem: Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-1874

By Brian Jenkins, Liverpool University Press 456pp, £65.00, ISBN 9781846311758, Published 23 February 2009

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