The Fenian Dynamite Campaign and the Irish American Impetus for Dynamite Terror, 1881-1885

By Shane Kenna
2011, Vol. 3 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

"We must take the offensive! Action gives life, action gives health. At present the Irish cause is received with a hiss and a sneer. This is telling against us. A few bold and devoted heroes must spring up and show the world there is still power in Fenianism not only to scare, but to hurt England!" - The Irish World, 4 December 1875.

Terrorism is a war of attrition, seeking to coerce political elites through the intimidation of public opinion, to yield ground on a pervading political grievance. A notable tactic of the terrorist strategy therefore is the attacking of soft rather than hard targets using the bomb as the language of political grievance.

During the Fenian dynamite campaign, between 1881 and 1885, this strategy was undertaken in order to establish a sense of terror by causing widespread and arbitrary destruction in urban centres. Irish-American Fenians undertook a sustained terrorist campaign executing a series of explosions in British urban centres. For the first time in British history the Irish question was not confined to Ireland but instead affected daily life in British cities through the unprecedented experience of political violence.

This dynamite campaign was planned, organised and funded by Irish-Americans using advances in modern science, technology and the increasing globalisation of Victorian society. Fenian bombers had the real ability to transcend national boundaries, and using innovative techniques employing explosive timers and detonators, they revolutionised the concept of terrorism from one of irregular attacks against political elites to a sustained campaign desirous of establishing public terror in order to coerce policy makers.

From January 1881 to January 1885 Fenianism successfully established an air of fear and paranoia amongst the British public, while their choice of targets indicates that their aim was to disrupt the common experience of daily life by introducing fear into the simplest everyday experiences. The purpose of this paper is not to provide a chronological outline of the Fenian dynamite campaign, nor to examine the circumstances of any particular Fenian bombing. Instead, this paper explores the rationale and motivation behind the emergence of the Fenian dynamite campaign as a proactive strategy amongst Irish-American Fenians.

Following the failure of Fenianism in the 1860s, Irish-American Fenianism was perceived as stagnant and lethargic. Furthermore, there was evidently considerable frustration with the Fenian policy of waiting and preparing for future British difficulty as an opportunity to mount an uprising in Ireland. This policy was informed by both a perception that the conditions for Irish revolution were non-existent and the Victorian interpretation of warfare as involving two recognisable armies and a defined code of conduct.

In the debate over the future of Fenian ambitions, many Irish-American Fenians sought a vindication of struggle by undertaking a recognisable terrorist strategy in Britain while the heavier work for rebellion was undertaken in Ireland. This strategy required financial support and many within Irish-American Fenianism endorsed the idea of a revolutionary fund to prepare, equip and perfect a terrorist strategy designed to inspire terror in British cities. In this vein in September 1875 it was suggested in a letter to Patrick Ford, editor of the radical New York Irish World newspaper, that Fenianism should employ a strategy supported by a national fund to mount direct political violence against Britain so as to keep ‘the faith alive.’

This strategy would be underlined by ‘terror, conflagration, and irretrievable destruction’ of British symbolic property, while active work continued preparing for rebellion in Ireland.2 This fund would become known as the Skirmishing Fund and increasingly became a rallying point for ‘a general desire to have more life infused into the Irish national movement’3 on behalf of Irish-American Fenianism.

Support for terrorism amongst Irish-American Fenians was not widely endorsed, however. Those who favoured open and honourable warfare were incensed by the call for incipient terrorism believing it dishonourable. In this regard the founder of Fenianism, James Stephens, recalled the suggestion as ‘the wildest, the lowest and the most wicked conception of the national movement.’4 This opinion was underlined by the Victorian interpretation of warfare believing that terrorism risked bringing Fenianism into international disrepute.

This interpretation, repulsed by the idea of irregular and arbitrary terrorism in Britain, stressed the importance of waiting for British difficulty, drawing attention and resources away from Ireland, facilitating the opportunity for open rather than secretive warfare.5 Inspired by scientific and technological advances, however, Irish-American supporters of terrorism argued that favourable conditions for Irish revolution needed to be fostered by an aggressive campaign justifying the mobilising and symbolic power of violence, rather than waiting for an opportune moment of British difficulty.

A further consideration in the evolution of Fenian terrorism amongst Irish-Americans was the pervading belief in the ability of political violence to coerce British political elites to consider the Irish question. This belief was represented by the veteran Fenian, John Devoy, who at the height of the Fenian dynamite campaign, lamented that no serious consideration of Irish political grievance could be won from Britain unless it was ‘wrung from her fear.’ Similarly Patrick J. Tynan, the notoriously self proclaimed No. 1 of the Fenian Invincible conspiracy insisted that only the threat of force caused ‘more terror and panic to the British heart,’ believing that the Irish question ‘must be decided by force, or else there is the certainty of national death.’ 6

That political violence could coerce the British government to consider Irish grievance was a real possibility, and had graphically been historically represented. In 1867, London Fenians had tried to mount a rescue of an imprisoned leader, Colonel Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, from London’s Clerkenwell Prison. Their plan had been to penetrate the Prison wall with gunpowder explosive enabling Burke’s escape.7 However, using too much gunpowder, they had blown down some sixty yards of prison wall, killing twelve people and injuring over one hundred others.

While the Clerkenwell explosion was not an act of terrorism, but a bungled rescue attempt, contemporaries recalled how ‘terror took possession of society.’8 Against this background of rising terror William Ewart Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, publicly remarked how the explosion had convinced him to address the Irish question by means of his declared mission to pacify Ireland. This would effectively result in the disestablishment of the minority Anglican Church of Ireland and the introduction of Gladstone’s first Land Act.

Importantly, however, it had demonstrated how an act of political violence had forced the government to yield ground on the Irish question, as one commentator lamented how Gladstone had ‘appealed to the most potent power in changing English public opinion – the fear of force. The dread of an Irish war, which might easily spread to England.’9 Recognising how this public admission and the Prime Minister’s gesture of yielding ground to Irish grievance could influence the Fenian belief in the efficacy of political violence, Sir Robert Anderson, a Home Office Fenian expert recalled:

It was their crime... that brought that question within the sphere of practical politics. Even if his estimate of the business had been just, his words respecting it would have been none the less unjustifiable. For they could not fail to encourage Fenians to commit crimes of the same character.10

This pervading belief in the ability of political violence to coerce British political elites ran parallel to a pervading grievance against the place of British rule in Ireland amongst Irish-American Fenians. Many resented leaving Ireland, believing ‘themselves to have been frozen out, of their native land,’11 holding an enflamed vengeance against colonial rule.12 This feeling of antipathy was cross-generational, making its nationalism made more extreme with children reared on stories of tyranny and of a country held by force, deceit and bribery, by acts of unrelenting cruelty and despotism.13

These ‘bitter memories, harboured by Irish-Americans of the Anglo-Irish landlordism and resentment against the British government,’14 were only intensified by contemporary difficulty in Ireland. 1878 and 1879 had seen a poor Irish harvest, the worst on record since the famine, and increasing emigration and eviction not witnessed on a scale since the 1840s.15 In this period Irish-America was strongly reinforced by a wave of new immigrants, many of whom had been forced off the land due to poverty, lack of employment or eviction. These immigrants carried with them new stories for Irish-America to hear, stories often sensationalised by the Irish-American press, strengthening existing Irish-American understanding of British misgovernment.

This further tended to consolidate an inclination towards violent retribution amongst Irish-Americans. These stories were reinforced alongside horrific tales of the earlier famine, illustrating for many the callousness of British hegemony in Ireland. Irish-Americans were particularly interested in burgeoning land agitation in Ireland and the increasing proliferation of tenant defence leagues, concluding landlordism was the corner stone of British rule in Ireland, and should that cornerstone be removed, British Rule would be severely weakened. In this vain one contemporary lamented that the ultimate aim of Irish-American retribution would never be satisfied until ‘the last link which keeps Ireland bound to England’ was destroyed.16

Furthermore, this pervading sense of political grievance was consolidated through the implementation of Irish coercion between 1882-83. Coercion was seen within the narrative of American republicanism as the imposition of tyranny justifying a resort to arms in defence of liberty. Thus during increasing land agitation parallel to Irish coercion, Irish-America concluded that something must be done in solidarity with, and defence of, the wider nation.17

A further consideration in the evolution of Irish-American Fenian terrorism was the contemporary experience of the American Civil War. In this regard it was evident that the American Civil War had redefined the nature of contemporary warfare, particularly regarding the use of new technology and the role of civilians. The Civil War had been defined by the increasing adoption of new technologies, an increasing acceptance of the concept of attrition and a willingness to encompass the loss of civilian life.

In this conflict, both sides had utilised the benefits of technological and scientific developments, believing that the side which forsook the advantages of modern technology risked defeat at the hands of ‘a less morally fastidious opponent.’18 In the aftermath of the Civil War, a culture of terrorism increasingly evolved. This was represented by an escalating proliferation of weapons and explosives used for political advancement and grievance. One contemporary despaired of this terrorist culture recognising ‘a decidedly unpleasant industry for the construction of infernal machines’ in American cities resulting from technological development.19 This was facilitated by the extensive availability of scientific journals cheaply available to the common man facilitating the home manufacture of explosives by individuals rather than chemists and scientists.

Representing this culture of terrorism, Edward Wagner had tried to murder his mother-in-law using a prototype parcel bomb at Philadelphia in 1874. The bomb, filled with gunpowder, contained fifty matches arranged to touch a sliding lid and detonate the explosive.20 In April of the following year, communicants receiving confession discovered a bomb in the vestibule of St. Xavier’s church, Cincinnati, then under construction. The bomb had been hidden under a number of empty sacks, but had been noticed when smoke was smelt and seen to have been rising in the vestibule. Taken by a John Dudley, and thrown outside the Church, it exploded with ‘terrific noise.’21

Two months later an attempt was made upon the lives of the Ladies Temperance Association at Illinois when a bomb was placed under a streetcar.22 While in 1875, as part of a semi-official vendetta against Jessie and Frank James, the notorious James Brothers, their mother’s home was attacked with a bomb thrown through her kitchen window, seriously injuring her and killing their young step-brother.23 On 28 October 1876 a time-delayed bomb exploded in the luggage carriage of the express train from Philadelphia to Jersey City.

Bearing remarkable resemblances to a future Fenian bomb at London’s Victoria Station, the device was arranged with a pistol tied to clockwork which, upon reaching a set time, would discharge the pistol and detonate the bomb. In the following police investigation it was suspected that the bombers had sought to wreck the train and kill its passengers.24

In 1873, the New York City Financial Comptroller, Andrew H. Green, received a prototype parcel bomb. The attack was motivated by Tammany Hall corruption. The bomb, filled with gunpowder and matches and wrapped with glazed paper, with the recipient’s address written from words cut from journals and newspapers, had been posted to Green at City Hall,25 but was intercepted by a colleague in the mailroom who was suspicious of the parcel.26 While no clue could be got as to Green’s would-be assailants, it was speculated that gamblers who had been urging a claim against City Hall and were denied payment, had sought vengeance against the Comptroller.

In a similar attack for a political grievance, Judge Samuel D. Morris, the former District Attorney, and opponent of official corruption, received a bomb at his residence in Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve, 1873. Two men had solicited a young boy to deliver the bomb to Morris’ home, disguised as a box of cigars. The bomb was innovative and intended to kill. Constructed of two compartments connected to a roll of gun cotton, the bomb was designed to detonate by drawing seven matches across a strip of sandpaper when the box was opened. Morris had opened the box, but the explosive had failed to ignite, as the elastic used in the mechanism was not strong enough to force the matches along the sandpaper.27 The bomb was attributed to ‘ballot box stuffers.’28

That the bomb was used regularly in post-Civil War America indicates that this culture of terrorism was inspired by the experience of Civil War and technological development. The bomb had obviously been perceived as a tool of grievance settlement in post-Civil War America. Recognised by Irish-American Fenianism, this culture of terrorism provided disillusioned activists with a contemporary argument as to the efficacy of technological development.

This perceived efficacy in technological development obviously instilled a fresh impetus in place of revolutionary paralysis, operating within the norms of post-Civil War America. It was evident, therefore, that conditioned by this culture of terrorism and inspired by the experiences of the Civil War, terrorism came to be recognised as a viable strategy by Fenianism.

The final and most important influence upon the adoption of Fenian terrorism was modern scientific and technological development. Modern Scientific and technological development, particularly the invention of dynamite, tended to encourage a perception of revolutionary equilibrium with great powers:

Dynamite was being much talked of in the newspapers; and it was said that the anarchists and nihilists of the old world had at last in their hands an implement of destruction sufficient to destroy all the armies and navies in existence... it was referred to in glowing terms as the gift of science to the oppressed children of men, whereby despotism could be overcome and the sunshine of liberty would illuminate forever more.29

Modern scientific and technological development had therefore given the revolutionist, for the first time in history, a tremendous individual and low-cost power and was perceived as a weapon of the weak. Within this perception, modern scientific and technological development offered unbridled destruction and melodrama in a collective revolutionary delusion.30 Such was this recognition of the importance of modern science, parallel to the existence of a culture of terrorism, that Irish-American Fenians showed extensive interest in explosive making.

Initially through the widespread proliferation of scientific journals widely available to the average man, this enthusiasm was further encouraged by lecturing tours throughout Irish hamlets in America praising science as the weapon of the weak. At these lectures, based on articles in widely available journals, manuals for the construction of explosives were distributed throughout Fenian meetings. This facilitated the perceived power of modern science as a weapon of the weak. This perspective was graphically represented by the prominent Irish-American Fenian and Illinois Congressman, John F. Finerty, who declared: ‘in this struggle, this vendetta, which England has now distinctly challenged, SCIENCE… must match itself against STRENGTH… In this our battle for vengeance and for liberty, one skilled scientist is worth an army.’31

As a perceived weapon of the weak, modern science provided the means of constructing explosives in backrooms, kitchens and workshops using cheaply accessed materials common in everyday trade. All that was required therefore was a basic understanding of chemistry, facilitating what one contemporary lamented as ‘the new and mighty enginery of destruction which modern science [had] furnished.’32

The establishment of a Brooklyn dynamite school by the Skirmishers graphically illustrates the importance of modern scientific and technological developments in the Fenian move towards terrorism. In terms of practicality, each student educated in the dynamite school was charged $30 for a month’s course and a share of this money then financed the terrorist strategy. The dynamite school was established as a joint stock company known as a ‘manufacturing and experimental chemical company.’33

A founder of this school, the prominent Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa claimed that this dynamite school was a success as ‘young men have come over from England, Ireland and Scotland for instruction and that several of them have returned sufficiently instructed in the manufacture of the most powerful explosives.’34 By the early 1880s, at least four of these students were in operation in Ireland, Scotland and England, the most remarkable being Timothy Featherstone, John Francis Kearney, Henry Dalton and Thomas J. Mooney.

It was therefore evident that the Dynamite School was intended to train Fenian activists in do-it-yourself explosive manufacturing for use in Britain.35 This new departure meant that explosives could be built cheaply and conveniently in British cities, with graduates sharing their knowledge with Fenians operating in Britain, seeking ‘the destruction of British life and property.’36

In order to give the Dynamite School a semblance of revolutionary credibility, Rossa apparently had entered into a five-year contract with a Russian explosives expert theatrically known as Professor Mezzeroff.37 This indicated that Fenians were influenced by the perceived efficiency and expertise of Russian revolutionaries, establishing a perception that Mezzeroff could provide Fenianism with much feared Russian revolutionary techniques. In this vein, one contemporary contended that the Russian professor was a serious threat to be feared.38

Mezzeroff, however, rather than being a Russian expert, was an Irishman identified variously as either Smith or Rodgers. His employment undoubtedly represented the theatricality inherent in any terrorist strategy, facilitating a perception of greater efficacy than that actually commanded by Fenianism. Underlining this threat, Rossa publicly claimed that the Professor could train any man within a month for action against Britain in a terrorist strategy arbitrarily employing technology to strike symbolic British institutions associated with authority.39

Studying Mezzeroff’s lessons it is apparent that each class was informed by traditional Irish-American grievances and the desire for retribution. The belief that illiberal British policy, as experienced in Ireland, vindicated retaliation against Britain drew on a crude view of history. As Mezzeroff asserted: ‘it is perfectly honourable and just that Ireland, that has been oppressed for seven hundred years, and had been robbed of all her wealth and means of defence, should use secret devices to obtain her rights and achieve her liberty.’40 In this narrative, the driving force behind Irish history was a continuous battle between Britain and Ireland, ‘from the stone hatchet of the savage to the one hundred ton gun, it has been a continuous struggle who could get the most destructive weapons.’41

In this battle, Mezzeroff asserted, Britain always had the upper hand, its huge military resources and wealth guaranteeing the maintenance of its hegemony in Ireland. For the first time the revolutionist had a tremendous individual and low-cost power in his hands, supported by the efficacy of modern science. With science providing an equilibrium between the great power of Britain and the weak resources of Ireland, all that was required was a basic knowledge of chemistry to make British military resources impotent against a war of attrition. As Mezzeroff concluded: ‘if Ireland could conquer her ancient enemy it must be with the aid of science.’42

This perception posed a significant security problem for the British government given that the perceived efficacy of modern science gave individual men a delusion of great power.43 These individuals, given the freely available wealth of information on the home production of explosives and inspired by a pronounced political grievance, could easily embrace terrorism. In this regard, it is evident that the perceived effectiveness of modern science provided ‘an aura of much greater force than the group actually possessed in weapons or numbers.’44

To conclude, the Fenian terrorist strategy was essentially rationally chosen. In response to a perceived revolutionary paralysis following the failures of the previous decade, terrorism provided a practical means for the rejuvenation necessary to instil a fresh impetus within defeated Fenianism. Informed by developments in science and technology, Fenian terrorism did not originate within Ireland but was peculiar to a culture of terrorism inherent to post Civil War America. It was influenced by the pervading Fenian belief in the ability of political violence to coerce British political elites to consider Irish grievance.

This was graphically represented in the aftermath of the Clerkenwell explosion when the Prime Minister was coerced into yielding on the Irish problem. Furthermore, technological development, alongside the escalating proliferation of weapons and explosives used for political advancement and grievance by ordinary Americans, was undoubtedly a key motivation in the Irish-American impetus toward terrorism.

The Fenian dynamite campaign, which began in 1881, came to a swift conclusion in 1885 following three near simultaneous explosions at the Tower of London, Westminster Crypt and the Chamber of the House of Commons. This campaign was possible through the innovative use of technology and an obvious desire to attack symbolic targets in urban centres. Ultimately, the Fenian campaign signified the first time in British history that the Irish question spread beyond Ireland and affected British urban centres, and sensibilities.


  1. The Irish World, 4 December 1875.
  2. The Irish World, 10 October 1874.
  3. The Irish World, 4 December 1875.
  4. Quoted in The Special Commission Act, 1888 – Report of the proceedings before the commissioners appointed by the act, Vol. IV (London, 1890) p. 189 and Davitt papers TCD, MS 9659d
  5. The Irishman, 27 March 1880.
  6. Tynan, Patrick, The Irish National Invincibles and their times (London, 1894) pp. 26 and 32.
  7. Denvir, John, The Irish in Britain from earliest times to the fall and death of Parnell (London, 1892) p. 243.
  8. Anderson, Sir Robert, Sidelights on the Home Rule movement (London, 1906) p. 77.
  9. Tynan, Patrick, The Irish National Invincibles and their times (London, 1894) 25.
  10. Anderson, Sir Robert, Sidelights on the Home Rule movement (London, 1906) p. 79.
  11. Bagenal, Philip, The American Irish and their influence on Irish politics (London, 1882) p. p. 218.
  12. Crenshaw, Martha, ‘the causes of terrorism,’ in Comparative politics 13:4 (July, 1981) p. 394.
  13. Henry, George ‘An American view of Ireland,’ in Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, 12:66 (August, 1882) p. 177.
  14. Draft of John Devoy’s recollections, undated, NLI Ms 18,014.
  15. Moody, T.W., Davitt and the Irish Revolution, (Oxford, 1982) p. 564.
  16. Bagenal, Philip, The American Irish and their influence on Irish politics (London, 1882) p. 201. See also Victor Drummond to the Earl Granville, 12 August 1881 TNA FO 5/1779 and Robert Clipperton to the Earl Granville, 1 November 1881, TNA FO 5/1780.
  17. The Irish World, 4 December 1875.
  18. C.B. Sears quoted in B.M. Linn ‘The American Way of War revisited,’ Journal of Military History, 66/2 (2002) p. 514.
  19. The New York Times, 6 January 1874.
  20. The New York Times, 21 July 1874, & also 23 July 1874.
  21. The New York Times, 22 April 1875.
  22. The Galveston Daily News, 4 June 1874.
  23. The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 2 February 1875.
  24. The New York Times, 28 October 1876.
  25. The Littlerock Daily Republican, 27 November 1873.
  26. The New York Times, 27 November 1873.
  27. The New York Times, 5 January 1874.
  28. The Daily Evening Bulletin, 5 January 1874.
  29. Stephens, James, Fenianism: Past and present [undated], The James Stephens papers NLI Ms 10, 492 [6]
  30. Brown, Terence, Irish American Nationalism (New York, 1966) p. 72.
  31. The Citizen, 22 December 1883 TNA HO 144/1537/1.
  32. Seelye, Julius H. ‘Dynamite as a factor in civilisation,’ in The North American Review, Vol. 137, No. 320 (July, 1883).
  33. Pierrepoint Edwards to the Home Office and Foreign Office, 16 August 1882, NAI Fenian A Files A730.
  34. Robert Clipperton to the Earl Granville, 9 May 1882, NAI Fenian A Files A716. This was indeed correct several of Rossa’s emissaries in Britain were graduates of the dynamite school including John Francis Kearney, Thomas J. Mooney and William Lynch.
  35. Robert Clipperton to the Earl of Granville, 15 February 1882, NAI Fenian A Files A713.
  36. Pierrepoint Edwards to the Home Office and Foreign Office, 16 August 1882 Fenian A Files A730 and see also Robert Clipperton to the Earl Granville, 9 May 1882, Fenian A Files A716, Robert Clipperton to the Earl Granville, 3 April 1883, TNA FO 5/ 1861 & Pierrepoint Edwards to the Home Office and Foreign Office, 16 August 1882 Fenian A Files A730.
  37. The New York Star, December 1881 quoted in O’Luing, Seán, Ó’ Donnabháin Rossa II (Dublin, 1979), p. 97.
  38. The Brooklyn Eagle, 24 January 1886.
  39. The United Irishman, 30 September 1882.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Professor Mezzerhoff, Dynamite against Mr. Gladstone’s resources of civilisation or the Best way to make Ireland free and independent, Undated, TNA FO 5/1861.
  42. The New York Sun, 20 March 1882.
  43. Cooke, Josiah. P., The New Chemistry (New York, 1876), pp 224-5.
  44. Larabee, Ann, ‘A Brief History of Terrorism in the United States,’ in Knowledge, Technology & Policy, Vol. 16, No.1 (March 2003), p. 27.

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