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The Clerkenwell explosion, and why the Fenians mattered

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One hundred and fifty years ago, Irish revolutionaries carried out the largest terrorist attack in 19th century Britain. Simon Basketter looks at the crisis behind it
Issue 2583
Part of a mass, illegal protest in support of the Fenians in London’s Hyde Park in 1872
Part of a mass, illegal protest in support of the Fenians in London’s Hyde Park in 1872

Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli banned all political demonstrations in London on 13 December 1867.

It was an attempt to stop weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of an Irish liberation movement—the Fenians.

At 4pm the next day the Fenians tried to rescue one of their jailed members by blowing a hole in a prison wall while inmates were exercising in the yard.

Gunpowder was placed in a wheelbarrow, and it was leaned up against Clerkenwell prison in London and the fuse was lit.

The houses opposite, on what is now Corporation Row but was then Corporation Lane, were tenements housing the poor. Twelve people were killed and another 50 injured.

The Irish Times condemned the attack as a “diabolical Fenian outrage”.

The explosion had a deeply damaging effect on British working class opinion. Karl Marx supported the fight for Irish liberation as key for revolution in Ireland and Britain. He wrote after Clerkenwell, “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government.

“One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”

The context for all this was Britain’s colonial domination of Ireland. The Great Famine of Ireland in the 1840s saw two million Irish men, women and children either emigrate or die—around a quarter of the population. Britain oversaw the destruction of the country.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was a revolutionary organisation committed to a separate Irish republic achieved by armed rebellion. The establishment of the IRB in 1858 and the emergence of the Fenian movement was dismissed by some—not least because of its strength among the “lower orders”.

Despite being based on a clandestine secret society, the Fenians grew into a mass democratic working class organisation.

The Times newspaper in 1865 said, “Once, the only allies to be expected on the side of order were the members of one privileged class; now, we can rely upon every class in Ireland above the lowest.

“When Irish disaffection has dwindled to Fenianism, there is good reason for supposing that it is dying out altogether and must be very near its end.”

Not for the first time the snobbery of the English establishment was wrong. The very features of Fenianism that were mocked also made it an enduring political force in Ireland.

According to historian John Newsinger, the movement’s membership was overwhelmingly working class and its leadership in the main came from the lower middle class.

Some 1,100 men were arrested between 1866 and 1868 under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act—the anti-terror law of its day. 

Of these 47.8 percent were artisans or skilled workers, 6.4 percent town labourers and 5.3 percent farm labourers, while 9.1 percent were clerks or schoolteachers and 3.6 percent were shop assistants.

Building in the working classes radicalised the movement and gave it some protection—though not enough—from spies. The focus on democratic change for the people pushed the movement towards workers and away from the middle classes and the church.

Despite being based on a clandestine secret society, the Fenians grew into a mass democratic working class organisation.

The Spectator was closer to British ruling class thinking by 1868, saying Fenianism presented “the gravest danger ahead for Liberal statesmanship, a large revolutionary party, with vague and restless cravings for national independence, and without faith in constitutional reforms or Parliamentary agitation.”

A racist anti-Irish cartoon
A racist anti-Irish cartoon

And Fenianism came at a time when the ruling class was under pressure from other movements, including mass agitation for the vote.

Forced emigration provided some advantages. The Fenians grew in strength and influence in Britain as well as Ireland.

They had tried, with some initial success, to infiltrate the British army. The movement importantly grew in urban areas. By one estimate, the Fenians organised up to 50,000 men in Ireland by the mid-1860s.

The IRB declared in 1866 “Fenianism seems to be sprouting up everywhere”, adding, “England is loosening her iron grasp on Ireland”.

Fenianism also had an important American dimension. General Philip Sheridan, a Union commander in the American Civil War, was not untypical in thinking that, “I’m American by birth, I love liberty; an Irishman by descent, I hate oppression; and if I were in Ireland, I should be a Fenian.”

The Fenians had intended to hold an uprising in 1865. But the government struck first and managed to suppress the IRB paper, the Irish People, and arrest key leaders.

The Fenians constituted a revolutionary threat in Britain, let alone Ireland

In 1867 the Fenians rose again. There were military efforts in England and Ireland in February. Early in the following month a more significant attempt was initiated.

But again the leaders had been rounded up. American aid and guns came too little and too late. Clerical denunciation, as always, had not helped, nor had networks of informers.

In honour of their role in putting down the rebellion, the Irish Constabulary was awarded the prefix “Royal.” It was organised along military lines, often made use of suspension of normal law, and was explicitly political.

In September 1867 a police officer was shot dead in Manchester as Fenians attacked a police van in order to free Irish Republicans inside.

Senior Republican arms dealer to the Fenians, Richard O’Sulivan-Burke, had planned the escape. The public execution of the “Manchester Martyrs” who were framed for the killing caused a great wave of sympathy for the Fenians to sweep over Ireland.

According to Friedrick Engels, the executions “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs. They have been provided with these.”

The Fenians constituted a revolutionary threat in Britain, let alone Ireland.

In mid-October 1867 the Home Office had been worried by information that a large party of Fenians planned to kidnap queen Victoria at Balmoral, and despatched a large force of police and troops to strengthen her protection.

By the end of November the police warned the Cabinet that the Fenians were arming themselves in Britain and that, in the event of an outbreak, the police would be unable to cope.

An execution notice for Michael Barrett

An execution notice for Michael Barrett

In November 1867 O’Sulivan-Burke was arrested for his role in the Manchester prison van escape. He was sent to Clerkenwell Prison, London. The Clerkenwell bomb was meant to get him out. 

The man charged with causing the explosion was 27 year old Irish republican Michael Barrett. Witnesses testified that he had been in Scotland on the date of the incident. But co-accused Patrick Mullany told the court that Barrett had said he carried out the explosion.

Mullany, who had lied in other trials, was given free passage to Australia. Of the other six defendants, one was a police spy. After two hours the jury pronounced Barrett guilty.

He was hanged on Tuesday 26 May 1868 outside Newgate Prison. Some two thousand people turned up to watch. They booed, jeered and sang Rule Britannia as Barrett was hanged. It was the last public execution in Britain. 

The Times noted, “The crowd was most unusually orderly, but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.” The Times didn’t like poor people, British or Irish.

After the Clerkenwell explosion, Disraeli advocated the suspension of Habeas Corpus in Britain, as was already the case in Ireland. He was supported by queen Victoria.

By 7 February 1868 there were 53,113 special constables enrolled in London alone and another 70,561 eslewhere.

The Fenian movement retreated. But the mood in Britain was far from static.

Queen Victoria was so outraged that only one man was executed, she “urged that in future, instead of being brought to trial, Irish suspects should be ‘lynch-lawed’ and on the spot”.

In contrast in 1872, on the initiation of the Socialist First International, an illegal demonstration was held in Hyde Park in support of the Fenians. Over 30,000 marched. Marx was there and wrote, “The English and Irish sections of our population have united in friendship.

“These two elements of the working class, whose enmity towards each other was so much in the interests of the government and wealthy classes, are now offering one another the hand of friendship.”


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