Between 1881 and 1885, extreme Irish nationalists waged a campaign of urban terrorism—dubbed the ‘Fenian dynamite campaign’—against targets on the British mainland. Those responsible for these attacks sought to use physical force against Britain to establish an independent Irish state, as had other hardline Irish nationalists that preceded them. However, the ‘dynamiters’ inaugurated a new kind of violence in their decision to focus specifically on urban centers and in the particular emphasis they placed on targets of operational and symbolic significance, including areas frequented by civilians. It’s for this reason that this episode has been seen as the first terrorist campaign in modern history.
“‘To Terrorize the Public Mind’: How the British Press Reported the Fenian Dynamite Campaign, 1881–1885” (Journalism History, Spring 2022), which emerged from my MA dissertation, combines my professional and academic interests. As a journalist who has written and edited breaking news coverage of terrorist attacks and as a scholar focused on 19th century history and the history of terrorism, I was searching for a little-studied moment to explore all those elements in my thesis. I found that in the Fenian dynamite campaign during a summer of research at the British Library in London.
The dynamite campaign often figures as little more than a footnote in wider histories of Irish nationalism. Making matters worse—but also opening a significant space for researchers—these studies tend to dismiss or misconstrue completely what occurred. Graham Davis describes it as a series of “embarrassing explosions” organized by incompetent bombers and claims that the planned attacks were “total failures.” M.J. Kelly writes that the dynamite campaign was solely “against political sites,” seemingly forgetting the attacks on the London railways and other public areas, while John Newsinger’s Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain devotes only one line to the dynamite campaign, calling it a “brief excitement” and inaccurately stating it began in 1883.
The Fenian dynamite campaign was a terrifying moment in 19th century Britain, which was experiencing explosive growth and large-scale urbanization. Yet it is rarely found in books on Irish nationalism or in surveys of British attitudes toward the Irish. Richard English’s Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland leaves out the urban bombing campaign entirely, although he does detail other acts of Fenian perpetuated violence, notably the 1867 Clerkenwell prison explosion and the 1882 Phoenix Park murders where an offshoot of the group, the Invincibles, stabbed the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and his Under-Secretary. In Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, R.F. Foster states that “the real terrorist outrages of the 1880s would be carried out by far more ruthless and unrepresentative offshoots like the Invincibles—at whom Fenians threw up their hands in horror.” This description does not account for the dynamite campaign, however, and Foster’s timeline of significant events from 1600-1972 includes no mention of the bombings from 1881-1885.
Scholars of terrorism and political violence haven’t done much to remedy this distorted image of the dynamite campaign. Alan O’Day has written and edited several of the definitive accounts of Irish terrorism, yet he has consistently focused solely on the twentieth century; in reference to the dynamite campaign, O’Day states merely that it “damaged several public buildings in the 1880s in London.” M.L.R. Smith, meanwhile, writes that the bombing campaign had “little effect” and “the Byzantine nature of republican politics at the time makes it difficult to fathom the precise purpose of the bombings.” Yet Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, an Irish Fenian leader in exile in New York City during the 1880s, wrote in the United Irishman on 23 February 1884 that the dynamiters’ aim was “to scald, to exterminate, to burn, to blow up, or demolish the cruel tyrants which have scourged our people.”
Brian Jenkins is one scholar who has written at length from the perspective that the broader Fenian movement was terrorist in nature, and he particularly emphasizes how Britain as a liberal state sought to manage this threat. However, Jenkins’ research ends in 1874, years before the dynamite campaign began. And in “The Progenitors of Terrorism,” Lindsay Clutterbuck states that Irish nationalists indeed conducted a campaign of terrorism, and further argues that the extreme Irish nationalist movement provided the “blueprint” for modern terrorism with the development of the strategy, tactics, and techniques during the dynamite campaign. However, his work is limited to examining the operational technicalities of the dynamiting movement; it isn’t concerned with British responses—politically, culturally or socially—to the bombings that battered and brought terror to their metropolises.
And that’s where I wanted to bring my readers: right into the heart of 19th century Britain. Right to the newspapers that immediately reported on and responded to these attacks, attempting to illuminate and influence their own readership with speedy, accurate, and, of course, exciting coverage.
With my decision to zero in on these attacks as breaking news events, I sought to co-locate this historical moment within both the history of terrorism and the history of journalism. By examining the newspaper reporting done just after the bomb blasts in urban centers, I found the press framed the campaign as a significant threat to the British people—but one they would overcome, even in the face of a frightening, unpredictable technological innovation that could put civilians in grave danger. The metropolitan newspapers helped to shape how the British people understood the urban terrorist attacks, and how they viewed their own nation.
After assessing and analyzing my own professional and academic interests, I pinpointed a significant gap in the literature that I could contribute to. And so I found myself sitting inside the British Library on a beautiful summer day, scanning for the first time the newspapers published in the days after these terrifying bombings.
About the author: Journalist Mackenzie Weinger is the managing editor of National Journal in Washington, D.C. She has a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London and a B.A. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Featured image: Pall Mall Gazette, 26 January 1885. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).
Clutterbuck, Lindsay. “The Progenitors of Terrorism: Russian Revolutionaries or Extreme Irish Republicans?” Terrorism and Political Violence 16, no. 1 (January 2004): 154–81. doi:10.1080/09546550490457917.
Davis, Graham. The Irish in Britain, 1815-1914. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 1991.
English, Richard. Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland. London: Macmillan, 2006.
Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland: 1600-1972. London: Penguin Books, 1989.
Jenkins, Brian. The Fenian Problem: Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-1874. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009.
Kelly, M.J. The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism, 1882-1916. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006.
Newsinger, John. Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain. London: Pluto Press, 1994.
O’Day, Alan. Dimensions of Irish Terrorism. Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing Company, 1993.
———. “Varieties of Anti-Irish Behaviour in Britain, 1846-1922.” In Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Revised Edition, 26–43. London: Leicester University Press, 1996.
Smith, M.L.R. Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement. London: Routledge, 1995.