A radical way to use the diaspora


HISTORY: The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900, By Niall Whelehan, Cambridge University Press, 340pp, £60

Often derided as insular and narrow-minded, Irish nationalism has long been profoundly international in outlook. The United Irishmen looked for inspiration and practical assistance to revolutionary France. Young Ireland militants imitated Garibaldi’s and Mazzini’s Young Italy, doing their modest best to extend the European frenzy of 1848 to Ireland. Éamon de Valera and Harry Boland tried to win Irish freedom via the US, forming alliances with Bolshevik fundraisers as well as exiled Egyptian and Indian revolutionaries. The modern IRA and its front organisations have collaborated profitably with myriad foreign terrorist groups, most recently in the surprising role of consultant peacemakers and conflict-resolvers. Likewise, advocates of nonviolent nationalism, from O’Connell onwards, have drawn moral sustenance and political support from contacts with anti-imperialist and other “progressive” movements abroad.

While most nationalist movements cultivate affinities with foreign counterparts, two factors intensified internationalism in the Irish case. In order to overcome the inherent weakness of a small country subject to the economic and cultural dominance of its larger neighbour, Irish nationalists have had to look beyond “the British Isles” for allies, protectors and sponsors. Their success in doing so is mainly explained by relentless emigration, which created an Irish diaspora richer, more powerful and eventually more numerous than the home population. More than in most European countries, Irish nationalists relied on emigrants and their descendants to inspire and fund their enterprises. This made them beholden to allies who were free to be less prudent and more radical, even wild, than those at home.

The Dynamiters explores some of the murkier nooks and crannies of the convoluted history of Irish international nationalism. The melodrama of O’Donovan Rossa’s “skirmishing campaign” in Britain, and its overflow into Ireland, is already familiar from many biographical and historical studies of American and Irish Fenianism. Niall Whelehan offers an intricate and densely documented chronicle of monumental ambition, intrigue, betrayal, and incompetence on the part of mainly Irish-American plotters. Like most conspirators, they were riven by factional disputes, often arising from misappropriation of funds and sometimes ending in murder.

As in Chesterton’s classic fantasy about anarchism in Edwardian London, The Man Who Was Thursday, the reader sometimes suspects that the entire conspiracy to blow up buildings and kill officials in Britain was a diabolical fabrication by over-ingenious informers, detectives and spooks. Certainly, both police and revolutionary sources suggest the ubiquity of double agents and agents provocateurs aiming to precipitate attacks on civilian targets in order to discredit Irish nationalism.

Yet Whelehan maintains that the extremists associated with Rossa and Patrick Ford, proprietor of the Irish World, instigated “arguably the first urban bombing campaign in history” in order to destabilise the British (and Irish) state. Proud to be a postrevisionist, Whelehan avoids the emotive word “terrorism”, preferring a flat euphemism (“political violence”). His focus and tone differ sharply from those of Jonathan Gantt’s Irish Terrorism in the Atlantic Community, 1865-1922 (2010), which interprets skirmishing as one of the challenges “that laid the foundation” for “counterterrorism strategies” codified during the Cold War.

More interested in terrorism than counterterrorism, Whelehan concludes that the techniques of skirmishing, developed in the US after 1874 and practised in Britain until 1885, were an essential model for modern guerrilla tactics: “The 1916 Rising was a step backward, an action that strayed from the strategical progression evident in the path from skirmishing to the War of Independence.” By extension, those who bombed Belfast, Omagh, and Enniskillen were distant beneficiaries of the legacy of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

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.