Source: Image from the cover of Harper's Weekly on January 18, 1868.
About the Artist: The artist of the cover illustration from the January 18, 1868 issue of Harper's Weekly is unknown.
In 1858, in Dublin, Ireland, James Stephens (one of the leaders of an attempted armed insurrection against British rule in 1848) formed the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB). In the same year in New York City, John O'Mahony formed a sister organization called the Fenian Brotherhood, named after the Fianna, a legendary band of third-century Irish warriors.
The IRB and the Fenian Brotherhood pursued parallel aims in the 1860s, and indeed the two organizations were indistinguishable. The goal of both was to create a network of Irish nationalists who would continue to oppose British rule in Ireland, by force and terrorism if necessary. A further goal of the Fenians was to raise United States money and manpower in support of the cause. By 1865, the organization had a quarter million followers, many of them Civil War veterans willing to put their military training to use in the cause of Irish independence.
The Fenian Brotherhood in the United States is best known for its plans to invade and seize Canada, particularly its rail lines. The Fenians assumed that England would trade Irish independence to regain its North American provinces. For its part, the U.S. government under President Andrew Johnson, still rankled by Britain's willingness to construct warships for the Confederacy during the Civil War, initially turned a blind eye to the raids. The first raid took place on April 12, 1866, but was speedily thwarted. A second took place on June 1, when a force of up to 1,500 Fenian raiders seized Fort Erie and actually turned back a company of Canadian militia. Later raids took place in 1870 and 1871, but by this time the U.S. government had become involved and the leader of the raids, John O'Neill, was arrested.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, Irish nationalists continued to advocate rebellion, their ardor fanned by Stephens's journal Irish People, which suggested using violence, until British authorities suppressed it. The Fenian Rising of 1867 targeted an armory in Chester, England. The plot unraveled when one of Stephens's lieutenants turned informer and exposed the plot to British authorities. The leaders were arrested and sentenced to hang, though no one was ever executed.
Unrest continued in September 1867, when two Irish nationalist leaders were arrested in Manchester, England. A week later, Fenians carried out a plot to release the prisoners as they were being transported in a prison van. The arrested leaders escaped, but those who executed the plot were arrested, and several, who came to be known among Irish nationalists as the Manchester Martyrs, were later hanged for murdering one of the prisoners' guards.
Then in November 1867, Richard Burke, one of the masterminds of the September prison-van incident, was in Birmingham, England, attempting to purchase arms for the Fenians when he was arrested and taken to London's Clerkenwell Prison. On December 13, Fenians attempted to rescue him by blowing a hole in the prison wall, but the explosion severely damaged a row of tenement houses across the street. Twelve people were killed, and another 126 were injured.
The following illustration depicts the scene of the Clerkenwell explosion.
See primary source image.
For weeks in late 1867, London had been the scene of demonstrations in support of the Fenians. The day before the bombing, England's Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had banned such demonstrations, though he feared the move would meet with opposition. The bombing at Clerkenwell, however, touched off a wave of support for Disraeli and his Tory government. The public was outraged by the explosion and demanded government action. Disraeli suspend the writ of habeas corpus (the right to be brought before a court before being imprisoned), introduced wide-ranging security measures, and formed a secret police branch to deal with the Fenian threat. Queen Victoria, herself the object of an unsuccessful Fenian assassination plot, said that Irish rebels should not be tried, but lynched on the spot.
A number of men were arrested and tried for the bombing, but only one, Michael Barrett, was condemned to death. On May 26, 1868, he was hanged out-side the walls of Newgate Prison, the last person ever to be publicly executed in England. Barrett maintained his innocence, and many observers believed that he had been convicted on the basis of perjured testimony by an informant, himself a criminal, offered in exchange for a promise by the authorities of safe passage to Australia.
The Clerkenwell incident was a turning point in British-Irish relations, for it focused British attention on what was then known as the Irish question. Opposition leader William Gladstone, just days after the explosion, urged the government to at least consider granting the Irish home rule, saying that the explosion at Clerkenwell changed his mind.
on the side
Lyrics from an Irish folk song or pub song are presented below that lament the fate of Michael Barrett, who was convicted for his part in the 1867 bombing of the Clerkenwell Prison in London. Designed to free fellow Fenian Brothers (members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary organization against British rule in Ireland), the bombing instead killed twelve people and injured more than one hundred. Barrett was hanged in 1868, and was the last person to be executed in public in Britain.
The Ballad of Michael Barrett
Throughout the Kingdom, among high and low,
A great excitement has long been caused,
Of a dreadful crime—horrible to tell
The fatal explosion at Clerkenwell.
Out of the seven they for the crime did try,
One Michael Barrett was condemned to die.
Patrick Mullany was a witness made,
A military tailor, he was by trade;
To save himself, he evidence gave,
Which he his neck has saved.
The informers swore, and others beside,
When the prisoners, all at the bar was tried,
That by Michael Barrett the deed was done,
And from the spot did to Scotland run.
He was taken in Glasgow and to London brought,
He says of the crime he never thought,
He would not be guilty of such a deed,
But he was convicted, as we may read.
Though Michael Barrett is condemned to die,
The dreadful deed he strongly does deny,
There is one above who all secrets know,
He can tell whether Barrett is guilty or no.
We hope all men will a warning take,
And long remember poor Barrett's fate;
We find it difficult throughout the land,
For man to even trust his fellow man.
A dreadful tale we'll have long to tell,
The fatal explosion at Clerkenwell.
Campbell, Christy. Fenian Fire. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Rafferty, Oliver P. The Church, the State and the Fenian Threat, 1861–1875. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives. "Fenian Brotherhood Collection." <http://www.aladin.wrlc.org/gsdl/collect/fenian/fenian.shtml> (accessed May 16, 2005).