A radical way to use the diaspora
Whelehan has a soft spot for dynamiters who “had given many years of their lives to the Fenian movement” and discerns “an ugly picture of errant leaders who neglected and abandoned the dynamiters and their families”. Some readers may feel less charitable about men who destroyed or endangered innocent lives through parcel bombs or attacks on gasworks and railway stations.
He gives a vivid account of the training that many Irish-American dynamiters received in Brooklyn from “Professor Mezzeroff”, otherwise a New Yorker of Russian and Scottish parentage named Richard Rogers. The skirmishers were remarkably well versed in recent innovations in military technology, often stimulated by the American civil war. Regrettably, no plans are reproduced showing the design of the “balloon bombs” and “infernal machines” that they imagined or built, sometimes with lethal effect for their own operatives.
Dynamite had scarcely been patented by Nobel in 1867 before Irish-Americans (and other conspirators) were laying their hands on surprisingly cheap supplies, and building infernal boxes with clockwork timers to house the explosive. As a Brooklyn Fenian remarked, dynamite was “as cheap as soap and common as sugar”. Then, as so often, there was a race between irregular units and regular armies to deploy the latest hardware. With good luck and better management, later Irish-American conspirators might have attacked the Royal Navy with Holland’s first submarine, or outblasted the British army with the first consignment of Thompson’s sub-machine guns.
The Dynamiters offers a fascinating profile of those who subscribed to the Skirmishing Fund and sympathetic newspapers in New York and New Jersey. Though rather haphazardly presented, Whelehan’s statistics show the dominance of fairly recent emigrants from Ireland, rather than second-generation zealots as in the period of de Valera’s American campaign. The typical apostle of dynamite was too young to remember the Famine and had left Ireland voluntarily. Few subscribers were educated or professional men (women were another small minority), and the dominant occupational groups were unskilled labourers, artisans and (predictably) keepers of shops or saloons.
Whelehan is less probing in his brief account of domestic dynamiters, adding little to Leon Ó Broin’s fascinating depiction of Dublin’s “revolutionary underground” of the 1880s and 1890s. Nor does he offer any assessment of the support for urban terrorism among Irish nationalists, beyond admitting that the majority (particularly in Ireland) abhorred Rossa’s strategy of attacking official targets and thus recklessly endangering civilian life and property. The impression remains that this strand of Irish nationalism, though colourful and intriguing (in both senses), was of marginal communal importance.
One reason for its unpopularity was the concerted and increasingly effective opposition to “secret societies” of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution virtually ignored in this book. It is a sign of the times that a scholarly study of 19th-century Irish history can shamelessly sideline the most powerful instrument of social control in both nationalist Ireland and Irish America.
Though not comprehensive and sometimes ponderous (“postbellum attitudes toward warfare unravelled in a bifurcated discourse”), The Dynamiters is an important and spirited contribution to the history of Irish nationalism, particularly in its American and European extensions. By placing Irish history firmly “in the wider world”, as befits a scholar trained at the European University Institute in Florence, Whelehan has broadened our understanding of Ireland’s global history.