A talk in Dublin, 25 January


Next Thursday evening (25th Jan) I’ll be talking about Spies, Informers, Invasions, Murder and Graverobbing at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 63 Merrion Square, Dublin. The talk begins at 7.30pm and it’s open to the public.


Prince of Spies

Henri Le Caron and Irish American Republicanism

The story of Henri Le Caron is a story of deception, international espionage, betrayal, patriotism and murder. As an Englishman masquerading as a Frenchman, he pledged his loyalty to an Irish Republic while also serving the British Crown. He plotted invasions of Canada and helped launch a ‘dynamite war’ on Britain, all while diligently reporting his own activities to his handler, Robert Anderson, in London.

During the American Civil War Le Caron was an officer in the US Colored Troops while from 1868 until 1889 he was a window on the secret operations of radical Irish America, where violent republicanism and constitutional nationalism often existed side by side. Le Caron organised (and simultaneously thwarted) two invasions of Canada in the 1870s, he helped foil bomb plots intended to destroy key targets in London (including the Houses of Parliament, Scotland Yard and several Tube stations). Alongside his long career as a spy Le Caron was also a doctor, a pharmacist and a graverobber – allegedly involved in selling hundreds of corpses to medical schools. When arrested (under another assumed name) he feigned illness and escaped from the prison hospital. In his role as a spy he with Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, on a number of occasions. Indeed it was Le Caron who was responsible for exposing the connections between Parnell, the constitutional nationalist, and the men devoted to using violence to secure an Irish republic.

Recruitment poster for colored regiments

US Civil War recruitment poster for colored regiments






Dark Tourism – Marian Finucane Show


It was great to get an opportunity to talk about Dark Tourism in Ireland on the Marian Finucane Show yesterday. There was only time to scratch the surface of the topic, but I’m thinking of patenting my idea for tours of ‘Ireland: The Dark Side’. I’ve already a grand tour planned!

Despite ‘Dark Tourism’ being an subject of academic interest for several decades almost no attention has been paid to Ireland which has a myriad of Dark Tourism sites. A summer of touring and note-taking awaits me!

You can listen to the Dark Tourism part of the show here

(In case anyone thinks RTE has a fancy Green Room for waiting guests – sadly they don’t. There’s a sofa in a corridor, and tea in a paper cup…fierce glamorous!)


View from the sofa!

Nano Nagle’s Georgian Convents

Plate 14

‘”I am building a house”: Nano Nagle’s Georgian Convents’ was written by Jessie Castle and I after completing research for the Heritage Centre at Nano Nagle Place in Cork. It was apparent that very little had been written about the two convents that Nano built in the 1770s for the Ursuline and Presentation Sisters. Given her very close (and enthusiastic) involvement in these projects (and the fact that almost nothing had been written about Irish convent architecture) we decided to write about the convents using information from Nano Nagle’s letters, the Annals and Account Books of both convents alongside the physical evidence from the convent she built in 1771 and other sources including newspapers and photographs. In telling the story of the two convents we’re not just telling a story of bricks and mortar, but one of the determination and resilience of Nano Nagle as she strove to realise her dream of improving life for poor Catholic children in Cork and providing a safe home for both Ursuline and Presentation Sisters. In doing so she defied the Penal Laws, many local Protestants and, at times, even the Catholic hierarchy. Her achievement is really quite exceptional.

The article was published by the Irish Georgian Society in their journal Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies.  The Society kindly gave permission for the Presentation Sisters to make the article publicly accessible as part of the tercentenary of Nano Nagle’s birth and it is available here. (click on the link at the bottom of the Presentation Sisters’ page)

Following on from writing about the convents built in the 1770s Jessie and I are continuing our research and focusing at the moment on the convents that were built in Ireland prior to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 (over time we hope to expand the project to include later convents). We have visited some of the earliest convents, and hope to visit more in the future in order to record the buildings and gardens  – those aspects of Irish architectural and landscape history that have been most overlooked. We are very interested in hearing from anyone who has photos or memories of pre-1830 convents in Ireland as many of these have been demolished, or are no longer in use as convents. We have also realised that Nano Nagle wasn’t the only ‘sister builder’ (a term borrowed from Ellen Skerrett and Rima Lunin Schultz) and other women were involved in the design and building of the convents – for example Sr Magdalen Sargent in Clonmel and Sr Baptist Frayne in Wexford. If anyone knows of other remarkable Sisters who were involved in the building and design of the convents (from any period) we would be very interested in hearing those stories.

I can be contacted by email at g.p.obrien@ljmu.ac.uk or via this website.

The perils of jury service in Chicago

[Last week RTE published this article by me on jury duty in Chicago in the 1880s – the original article can be found here]

"I'm here for that Irish-American murder trial"
“I’m here for that Irish-American murder trial”
Report: an infamous 19th century Irish-American murder trial in Chicago shows that Barack Obama may have a lucky escape when he was not selected for jury service By Gillian O’BrienLiverpool John Moores UniversityLast week, Barack Obama turned up for jury duty at Cook County’s Daley Center courthouse in downtown Chicago. He was, rather unsurprisingly, not selected to serve and was on his way home by noon.

Obama isn’t the first man to be rejected for jury service in Chicago. In 1889, it took almost two months to select the twelve man jury for a murder trial. The victim was an Irish doctor called Dr Patrick Cronin and it was one of the most sensational crimes to take place in 1880s Chicago.


From The History Show on RTÉ Radio One, author Gillian O’Brien talks to Myles Dungan about her book, “Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago” about the murder of Dr Patrick Cronin

The victim was found beaten and naked in a Chicago sewer in May 1889. As rumours abounded as to who had killed him, the press enthusiastically regaled their readers with allegations of corruption and conspiracy. It became clear that Cronin had been murdered as a result of a feud between two sides of the Irish American republican organisation Clan na Gael and by the autumn of 1889, five men stood charged with Cronin’s murder.

For many Americans, the murder was proof that the Irish Catholic population in the United States could never truly assimilate

But by the time the Illinois state attorney was ready to bring the men to trial, it was almost impossible to select a jury because almost everyone in Chicago had already made up their minds about the case. From May to December 1889, thousands of newspaper reports and editorials had been dedicated to the Cronin murder. Every twist and turn of the investigation was closely scrutinised by a press and public who were fascinated and horrified in equal measure.

For many Americans, the murder was proof that the Irish Catholic population in the United States could never truly assimilate and become American as they always had an eye to fight for Irish freedom. While this could be ignored when that fight took place overseas, it could not be tolerated when murders began to take place on US soil.

Newspaper coverage of the case was sufficient to convince many Chicagoans that the accused men were guilty before the trial had even begun. Between August and October, 1,115 men were interviewed as potential jurors. It was, at the time, the largest and longest jury selection process in US history. As the weeks passed, The Times mused that the accused men were “doomed”, for “if they do not die by verdict of jury they are in a fair way of dying of old age before a jury is chosen”.

In its cartoon “The Devolution of a Jury”, potential jurors become more and more simian as supposedly intelligent men are overlooked

The process proved both lengthy and controversial. Potential jurors were asked questions which tried to ascertain if they held prejudices against Catholics or Irishmen, and whether they had already formed an opinion about the case. The defense argued, quite plausibly, that there were few Chicagoans not already intimately acquainted with the case thanks to the intense media coverage.

Thomas Nast was the most influential cartoonist of his generation and he had been drawing anti-Catholic and anti-Irish images from the 1860s. At the time of the Cronin murder, he was based in Chicago working for America and his cartoon, “No Upright Judge”, referenced the much-discussed issue of jury-bribing.

Thomas Ness’ “No Upright Judge” cartoon from America 

It shows a man brandishing a pistol and holding a scroll relating to the Cronin case. His gun is pointed at Justice who stands blindfolded, with her arms raised and her scales of justice and her sword tumbling to the floor. Around her men flee the courtroom. Many of America’s illustrations mocked the jury selection process and the close connection between the Clan and the judiciary.

The Chicago Tribune also took a dim view of the process. In its cartoon “The Devolution of a Jury”, potential jurors become more and more simian as supposedly intelligent men are overlooked in favor of the pliable.

The papers rarely alluded to how comprehensive newspaper coverage made it virtually impossible to find 12 men not already convinced of the guilt of the accused

The issue of reporting on cases before they come to trial is one that is very current today, particularly in relation to social media. It was also an issue in 1889, but the papers rarely alluded to the fact that comprehensive newspaper coverage of the case made it virtually impossible to find 12 men who were not already convinced of the guilt of those accused.

In one article, “How newspaper reports are to be read”, the Tribune defended the press from any charge that newspapers might prejudice the trial. The paper was at pains to point out that the papers had changed their opinions as the evidence changed. “Intelligent men read the newspaper accounts of the Cronin case merely as the best information then at hand, and any opinions formed were subject to any modifications or change which further evidence might prove necessary.” With staggering audacity, the paper concluded that the defendants would get an impartial trial despite the enormous amount of press coverage.

Obama was fortunate: some of the men called for jury duty did not get to return to their normal lives for five months

Eventually on October 22 1889, 12 men were sworn in and the trial opened the following day. Such was the interest in the trial that 5,000 members of the public attempted to gain admission to a courtroom that could accommodate 200.

Perhaps Obama was fortunate. Some of the men called for jury duty in late August 1889 did not get to return to their normal lives for five months as the trial continued until Christmas. Indeed, not all returned to their normal lives as the trial verdict proved controversial and some jurors were so vilified by the public that they were forced to leave Chicago.

Dr Gillian O’Brien is a Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University. She is the author of “Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago”

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A Fictional History: Ireland’s Past in 5 Great Novels

book covers

[I recently wrote this piece for bookwitty (www.bookwitty.com) – a website which helps you find books you might like to read! You can find the original piece here]

A Fictional History: Ireland’s Past in 5 Great Novels

As a historian I’m interested in facts. What really happened? But that’s impossible to know. The information left behind by previous generations is only partial. Depending on the period, we have a myriad of sources – letters, photographs, newspapers, government records. We can see the houses people lived in, the schools they attended, the transportation they used. But how can we ever know how people felt, why they made the decisions they did? What life was really life for those living it? Historians, like detectives, try to reconstruct and understand the past. I think we generally do a good job, but so too do novelists. In many ways the absences, the gaps, the lack of knowledge can be filled in by the fiction writer who understands the past, but isn’t a slave to facts.

In Irish history, some of the best fictional accounts of the past are those that give a flavour of the time in which they are set. These are some of my favourites.


Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Days Without End

Choosing this book is a little bit of a cheat, for it is more about the American past, than it is about the Irish. But then so much of American history intersects with Irish history, particularly from the mid-nineteenth century. Death, be it by war or famine, is always close to hand. Thomas McNulty, the narrator of the story, left famine-ridden Ireland and stowed away on a ship to Canada. Unwelcome there he ends up in the United States, a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War. McNulty’s relationship with John Cole, both personal and as a comrade in arms, is beautifully drawn. In part the book is about acceptance in many different guises. The Irish in America often struggled with dual allegiance, though McNulty doesn’t romanticise his compatriots: ‘Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of the devil or the devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman’. In focussing on one of those who left Ireland, Barry expertly and compellingly tells the story of millions of Irish who created their own history far from Irish shores.

Buy the Book

Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor
Star of the Sea

Another novel focused on that most Irish of tropes – the emigrant experience – Star of the Sea is an epic tale set in the winter of 1847 and straddling the Atlantic Ocean. The Star of the Sea is a ship laden with passengers escaping famine in Ireland for imagined safety (and possibly wealth) in the United States. The ship itself is a microcosm of society, with class struggle being played out across the floors. O’Connor mixes fact and fiction with aplomb and includes snippets from letters, newspaper and cartoons from the period. The result is a complex, compelling story leaving the reader – and the historian – wondering where the imagined ends and the reality begins.

Buy the Book

The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson
The Mill for Grinding Old People Young

Patterson’s book brings nineteenth-century industrial Belfast to life as it roves through the bustling streets of the 1830s. To Gilbert Rice, a young clerk in the Ballast Office, Belfast seems a place where his ambitions could take flight, were it not for the resistance of the decadent and powerful Lord Donegall to a deep-water port. The city of Rice’s youth is one in which the shadows cast by Wolfe Tone and other radicals from the 1790s are long. Through the novel, real and fictitious characters walk the streets side by side (indeed, Rice’s best friend is the real architect John Millar). In many ways the book is a love story about Gilbert Rice and Polish exile, Maria, but it is also a love letter to Patterson’s native city.

Buy the Book

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch
The Red and the Green

Murdoch’s only historical novel is set in Dublin in the week before the Easter Rising of 1916. Within one somewhat fractured family of Kinnards and Dumays, there are Catholics and Protestants, members of the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army and the British Army. Tensions abound. Tragedy is just around the corner, but comedy is evident too. The eccentric Millie Kinnard is a marvellously feisty character, though in some ways her rather complex and scandalous love life overshadows the political and military drama that is brewing. Despite this The Red and the Greenoffers a beautifully written and reflective insight into liberal Anglo-Irish perspectives on Ireland on the eve of the 1916 Rebellion.

Buy the Book
Troubles by J.G. Farrell

First published in 1970, Troubles was awarded the ‘Lost’ Man Booker Prize in 2010 and deservedly so. The book is set in a grand, but down-at-heel hotel in Co. Wicklow during the Irish War of Independence. The protagonist, Major Brendan Archer, is an English veteran of the First World War who comes to Ireland determined to marry Angela Spencer, the daughter of the owner of the Majestic Hotel. The relationship collapses as does Britain’s grip on Ireland. It’s bleak and comic by turns. Despite rarely straying outside the confines of the shambling hotel, Farrell’s novel is a brilliant indirect reflection on a period of immense upheaval in Irish history.

Buy the Book

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Doing time: dark tourism in Ireland

To mark Halloween I’ve been writing about Dark Tourism (again!) This was published on RTE Brainstorm


Doing time: dark tourism in Ireland

Spike Island: "the story of the prison is told alongside stories of the island's other pasts"
Spike Island: “the story of the prison is told alongside stories of the island’s other pasts”
Opinion: Dark tourism is tourism closely associated with death, suffering and the macabre and it’s where the Irish fascination with death comes to the fore

By Gillian O’BrienLiverpool John Moores University

It has often been said that the Irish have a particular fascination with death. Certainly, Ireland has no shortage of sites associated with death or incarceration – and many of them are popular visitor attractions. In Dublin, a morning can be spent in the corridors and cells of Kilmainham Gaol, followed by an afternoon amidst the graves of Glasnevin Cemetery. In Belfast, tourists can hop in Black Taxis and tour sites associated with The Troubles, before stopping off for a trip around Crumlin Road Gaol and completing their day learning about the building and sinking of the Titanic at Titanic Belfast.

The O’Connell Tower at Glasnevin Cemetery

In Cork, you can combine a trip to Spike Island to see the prison and fortress there with a visit to Cork City Gaol. And, if that isn’t enough, around the country there are plenty of other sites that tell dark stories about Ireland’s past: the National Famine Museum in Strokestown, the Battle of the Boyne site near Drogheda and Wicklow’s Historic Gaol to name but a few.  All these sites come under the umbrella of “dark tourism’.

Dark tourism is tourism closely associated with death, suffering and the macabre. While the term itself is relatively new, the phenomenon itself is anything but. For centuries, people have been visiting sites associated with death, suffering, incarceration and execution for their entertainment. Thousands flocked to public executions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Madame Tussaud made a career out of grisly spectacles, opening her first Chamber of Horrors in London in 1802.

Taking a tour of Wicklow Gaol

In the United States, “dime museums” were a mix of educational museum and freak show and attracted customers by advertising exhibitions where the paraphernalia of torture could be seen. Just behind the Four Courts in Dublin the mummified bodies in the vaults in St Michan’s Church Dublin have been attracting visitors since the early nineteenth century. It’s said that one such visitor was Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, and some even claim that the mummies inspired his writing.

Today, dark tourism comes in many shades. Academic Philip Stone distinguishes between “dark” and “darker” tourism: darkest are sites of death and suffering focused primarily on education and historic interpretation, while the lightest of dark tourism are sites with a greater focus on entertainment.


Prison sites are among the darkest of such attractions, yet even here there are varying shades. This partly depends on who owns and runs the sites, and on the commercial pressures associated with the sites. Some are under more pressure to turn a profit than others and among the most commercial prison sites, there is an inevitable temptation to emphasise the sensational elements of the story.

Ghoulish interest might lure many tourists to sites, but most sites make significant efforts to contextualise the history of the prison. While their websites may emphasise gruesome executions, daring escapes and famous prisoners, visitors to the sites get a much more nuanced experience in most cases. After all, there are always other stories to tell, and it is important not to forget that many of those imprisoned were guilty of the crimes they were charged with, and that those crimes had victims.

One of the major attractions of dark tourism sites is that they possess something no purpose-built museum can offer: authenticity.

On Spike Island, the story of the prison is told alongside stories of the island’s other pasts as a monastic settlement, a military fortress, and a home to those who lived in the village. There is also the wider story of the development of Cork Harbour, one of the largest natural harbours in the world.

Kilmainham Gaol occupies an unique, sanctified space in the Irish imagination and identity. It’s a prison which held many Irish nationalist heroes, from key figures associated with the 1798 Rebellion to Young Irelanders and Fenians to Charles Stuart Parnell. Most significantly, as the site of execution of many of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, it cannot be seen to trivialise the hallowed ground on which their deaths took place. Other jails with less famous occupants from the dim and distant past, most of whom were forgotten criminals rather than celebrated revolutionaries, have more licence for a little irreverence.

Inside Kilmainham Gaol

At Kilmainham Gaol, a broad swathe of Irish history is told through a combination of the guided tour and on-site museum. Visitors learn the history of the prison (and of Ireland), from its opening in 1796 to its closure in 1924 and the campaign to restore and reopen the Gaol in the 1960s. The story of the 1916 Rising is a key story of Kilmainham Gaol, and the guided tour ends at the site of the 1916 executions. For many visitors, though, it is the accounts of children imprisoned during the famine for stealing a piece of bread or for begging on the street that have most resonance.

One of the major attractions of dark tourism sites such as prisons is that they possess something no purpose-built museum can offer: authenticity. A story can be told anywhere, but being able to walk the corridors where history took place, stand in the cells, glimpse the sky through the iron bars and see the towering perimeter walls is an experience that cannot truly be replicated elsewhere. Doing (a little) time in these prison museums is definitely time well spent.

Dr Gillian O’Brien is a Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University. Declaration of interest: she was the historical advisor for Phase 1 of the redevelopment of Spike Island and also for the development of Kilmainham Courthouse (which is now part of the Kilmainham Gaol experience).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ

‘Prince of Spies’ – Lecture, 25 October, Liverpool

Prince of Spies

On Wednesday 25 October I’ll be giving a talk about Henri Le Caron in Room 1.27, John Foster Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

The story of Henri le Caron is a story of deception, international espionage, betrayal, patriotism and murder. As an Englishman masquerading as a Frenchman, he pledged his loyalty to an Irish Republic while also serving the British Crown. He plotted invasions of Canada and helped launch a ‘dynamite war’ on Britain, all while diligently reporting his own activities to his handler, Robert Anderson, in London.

From 1868 until 1889 le Caron was a window on the secret operations of radical Irish America, where violent republicanism and constitutional nationalism often existed side by side. Le Caron organised (and simultaneously thwarted) two invasions of Canada in the 1870s, he helped foil bomb plots intended to destroy key targets in London (including the Houses of Parliament, Scotland Yard and several Tube stations). He also targeted parliamentarians and met with Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, on a number of occasions. Indeed it was le Caron who was responsible for exposing the connections between Parnell, the constitutional nationalist, and the men devoted to using violence to secure an Irish republic.

This paper will examine transnational links between Scotland Yard and its spies in the United States and Canada. It will consider why Irish American radicals were considered such a threat to British security and will assess the key roles that Henri le Caron and Robert Anderson played in undermining the plans of secret revolutionary societies such as the Fenians and Clan na Gael.

Spike Island: Ireland’s ‘Alcatraz’ and Dark Tourism

Spike Island: the Irish ‘Alcatraz’ and the growth of dark tourism

File 20171011 9777 qhq1fn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Spike Island.

Gillian O’Brien, Liverpool John Moores University

Spike Island – the former fortress and prison off the coast of County Cork in Ireland – has been named Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards. The island beat off competition from Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Colosseum to win what is described as the “Oscars” of the travel industry. It is a win for the community and also a win for so called “dark tourism”, whereby travellers seek something a tad more macabre than the traditional trip to the seaside.

There is no doubt Spike Island has a fascinating history. Situated in Cork Harbour, one of the largest natural harbours in the world, it has been home to a monastic settlement, a military fortress and a prison. Since the fortress reopened to visitors in June 2016, it has become a popular tourist destination, attracting over 45,000 visitors this year.

Visitors travel by boat from the town of Cobh to the island where they can explore the star-shaped fort which was home to thousands of soldiers and prisoners from the late 18th-century until 2004. There they learn about the history of the island, from its place as a home to early Christian monks, through the key strategic role it played during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Era, to its reincarnation as an island prison in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Interior of the old shell store which tells the story of the transportation of prisoners.
Simon Hill, Author provided

The growth of ‘dark tourism’

Spike Island is one of a growing number of attractions in Ireland that can be called “dark tourism” sites. Dark tourism is closely associated with death, suffering and the macabre. The concept is far from new – Madame Tussaud became famous in Paris during the French Revolution when she cast waxwork death masks of the guillotined and by the 1830s she was exhibiting waxworks of murderers in London.

Sites associated with death and suffering have long been commercialised. In my book, Blood Runs Green, I wrote about the public fascination with death, and particularly brutal death, in Gilded Age America. In Chicago in 1889, thousands of “dark tourists” paid a dime to visit the house where a man had been bludgeoned to death and a further dime to take away souvenir shards of blood-stained wood (no one seemed to notice that far more splinters of wood were sold than had been necessary to build the house).

Academic studies of “dark tourism” have tended to focus on sites associated with the holocaust – particularly concentration camps such as Auschwitz. But some research has been conducted on prison islands, notably Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, which was home to Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years in prison.

Other studies looked at Alcatraz, the famous prison island in San Francisco Bay. Both sites have key dominant stories – the image of Alcatraz is dominated by Hollywood visions of the island prison, while Robben Island is most closely associated with the political prisoners of the apartheid regime. Both sites make efforts to expand the visitor experience beyond these narrow histories, but with limited success in the public perception.

Tourists listening to an audio tour on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, in 2015.

Responsible tourism

Part of my role as the historical advisor for the Spike Island Project was to consider issues associated with representing incarceration, punishment and execution. History should be neither sanitised nor sensationalised. Dark tourist sites are often tempted to provide the gory details of executions, highlight escape attempts and focus on the brutality of jailers. But it is also important to consider the victims of crime and the ways in which their experience might be marginalised when sites focus on the sensational.

Our project identified four key narratives that would allow the social, political and military histories of the island to be told: Cork Harbour, the Island Fortress, the Island Prison and the Island Home. Our intention was not to privilege one theme or story, but to offer visitors a multi-layered experience that revealed a diversity of voices ranging right across the island’s past.

Tourism is a business and commercial realities are a factor in developing any tourist site. Sites need to make money and it is the responsibility of the design team to make the content as accessible and as interesting as possible. Unlike Alcatraz, Spike Island had few famous prisoners and has not been immortalised in Hollywood films. As the historian responsible for researching and writing the island’s story, this was a good thing, as it enabled me to tell the whole story of the island as a place of refuge, defence and of incarceration.

Visitors can wander through the remains of the island village and imagine growing up on an island complete with its own school, church, fortress and prison. They can walk the corridors of the prison and stand in the cold, damp cells. They can patrol the perimeter of the fortress and imagine defending Cork harbour from a flotilla of invading ships. These are the types of experiences that cannot be replicated in a purpose-built museum.

The ConversationThe challenge of telling complex and diverse stories in a compelling and attractive way is a considerable one and involves input from a lot of people. But I believe that Spike Island successfully treads the fine line between education, entertainment and sensation. It is neither exploitative nor does it shy away from its difficult past.

Gillian O’Brien, Reader in Modern Irish History, Liverpool John Moores University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Infernal Machines’ in London

Infernal Machine

The rudimentary bombs used in the 1880s ‘Dynamite War’ were known as ‘infernal machines’. This one is held in the crime museum in London and was found at the scene of the Scotland Yard bombing, May 1884

As a historian working primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries I don’t expect my daily newspapers to regularly publish articles that directly reflect my research. Recently, depressingly, this has begun to happen. A few weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Dynamite War’ of the 1880s and how members of the Fenians and Clan na Gael were being disingenuous when they claimed that setting off bombs in public places was never intended to harm innocent bystanders. This was in response to claims made by Michael Hayes (who was actively involved in the IRA in the 1970s) that the those behind the IRA’s Birmingham bombing in 1974 had never intended to kill anyone.

Yesterday, I read in The Guardian that terrorist incompetence is saving lives. It’s an article prompted by the explosion on a train at Parson’s Green station. And it’s certainly true that there would be a lot more fatalities had would-be bombers been more competent. The article makes references to Chris Morris’ Four Lions film – a comedy about incompetent terrorists.

It’s not just recently that those attempting to launch politically motivated attacks have been foiled by their own incompetence. In the late 1860s and early 1870s the Fenians planned three invasions of Canada from the United States. All three failed because of poor planning, lack of support, lack of arms and ammunition and lack of secrecy. There were some concessions to secrecy in planning with invisible ink and a cipher used by some. However the code was a ridiculously simplistic system in which letters were substituted for the one that came after it alphabetically. ‘Ireland’ became ‘Jsfmboe’, ‘England’ was ‘Fohmboe’ and ‘Revolutionary’ became ‘Sfwpmoujposbsz’. Invisible ink was made from a “weak solution of yellow prussaite of potash” on “rough unglazed paper” with a “quill pen.” The written word would later be revealed by dipping the letter in “a solution of copperas”. Intercepted letters were quickly and easily deciphered.

In August 1884 William Mackey Lomasney, his brother-in-law Peter Mahon and John Fleming sailed to England. They planned to take part in the ‘Dynamite War’ which was a war against British control of Ireland, largely waged by Irish republicans based in the United States. The ‘Dynamite War’ targeted many locations in London – Scotland Yard, London Bridge, Tube stations, the offices of The Times, left-luggage rooms of train stations, Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, the Carlton Club and the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Lomasney’s mission was to blow up London Bridge.

Lomasney, was in many ways the archetypal Irish republican hero. He was born into an Irish republican family in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841. His grandfather had reputedly been a United Irishman who was killed during the failed rebellion of 1798 and Lomasney joined the Fenians as a young man, later becoming a member of the Clan. After serving in the Union Army Lomasney went to Ireland where he was promptly arrested, imprisoned and banished from Britain and Ireland. After a brief spell back in the United States he returned to Ireland in 1867 where he quickly gained fame and notoriety for a series of dramatic and successful raids on coastguard stations and police barracks. He was captured in Cork in February 1868, tried and sentenced to twelve years’ penal servitude. He was released in 1871 and settled in Detroit.

Yet it was not long before he found himself once again involved in Irish republican activity. He joined Clan na Gael and was strongly in favor of Parnell, believing he was “eminently deserving of our support, and that he means to go as far as we do in pushing the business”, but he was unwilling to entirely forgo the prospect of using force against the British if it might bring success. By late 1880 he began to experiment with dynamite. though, as he told John Devoy, “I scarcely think there will be need for what I am preparing for, but it is best to be ready, and none will be better pleased than myself if there never happens to be use for what I am preparing.”  Yet, despite his reservations, when Alexander Sullivan, the leader of Clan na Gael, embarked on the ‘Dynamite War’ Lomasney chose to follow. He claimed that his aim was to “strike terror into the British ruling class” without “hurting a hair on an ordinary Englishman’s head.”


On the night of December 13, close to 6pm, Lomasney, Mahon and Fleming boarded a small boat, rowed out to London Bridge, attached a bomb to iron gratings and lit the fuse. As the men prepared to row away, the bomb exploded prematurely, blowing the men “to atoms”, destroying the boat and shattering windows, but leaving London Bridge largely undamaged. Lomasney and his associates hadn’t hurt “a hair on an ordinary Englishman’s head”, but only because they had failed in their mission. Had the bomb exploded as had been intended there is a very strong chance that many would have been killed or injured.


A reflection on the Dynamite War


This was prompted by Fintan O’Toole’s article ‘Fake Birmingham apology is part of IRA’s twisting of history’. O’Toole’s article was partly in response to an interview Michael Hayes had given the BBC. Hayes, an active member of the IRA, was involved in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974, claimed in the BBC interview that the IRA ‘had no intention of hurting anybody’ This seems disingenuous. As O’Toole points out

‘The first obvious question is: if the IRA had no intention of hurting anybody, what did it intend to do that night? The only other possible goal would be simply to destroy the two pubs. The logical time to do this would be in the dark of night, when the buildings were empty. Instead, the bombers chose a Thursday night – pay night in working-class communities in the 1970s. (Some of the dead could be identified only by the names on their pay packets.) They chose a time, 8.17pm, when the pubs were certain to be packed.’

Hayes claims that the bombers tried to give enough warning so the pubs could be evacuated but one of the payphones they tried was broken, the other was occupied. It defies belief that men who were prepared to blow innocent people up were too polite to use their influence to ensure that phone-call finished in a timely fashion.

Hayes’ excuses reminded me of discussions the surrounded Clan na Gael’s dynamite campaign of the 1880s and of research I’ve been doing which examines both the Dynamite War and American reaction to it. Between 1881 and 1885 Irish American republicans carried out a series of bombings in Britain. The first batch in 1881 and early 1883 were part of the skirmishing campaign, the second, between October 1883 and January 1885 became known as the Dynamite War. Both campaigns were carried out by members of the Fenians and its successor organisation, Clan na Gael. Continue reading

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