Kenna's 'War in the Shadows' Highlights U.S.-Based 'Dynamiters'

War in the Shadows: The Irish-American Fenians Who Bombed Victorian...
By Shane Kenna

Merrion Press
Available from

Reviewed By Sandy Boyer

“Now there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach, and within ten days’ sail of our shores.” -- British Home Secretary William Vernon Harcourt 

Shane Kenna has written the definitive history of the bombing campaign by U.S.-based Fenians that produced more than 20 explosions in British cities between 1881 and 1885. It is a fascinating and highly readable account of a too often neglected phase of Irish nationalism in the U.S.

War in the Shadows recounts the parallel history of the Fenians in the United States out to take dynamite to British cities and Britain’s secret intelligence service determined to infiltrate and destroy them. The most devoted students of Fenians may already know at least a little about what Kenna reveals about the U.S.-based dynamite plots but his information about the British secret policing is available for very first time.

Almost a century after the American Fenians, the Provisional IRA launched its own bombing campaign in Britain supported by arms and money from America. But the contrasts between the two campaigns on each side of the Atlantic were at last as important as the similarities.

For the Provos, bombing Britain was an extension of the ongoing war in Ireland. The Fenian bombing campaign was very much made in America.

It was explicitly a substitute for building an organization in Ireland, born out of frustration that the time for action in Ireland never seemed to be right. The men leading the U.S.-forged bombing campaign were often actively hostile to the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland, feeling that it was ineffective and wasting time and money.

Although the IRA’s war received critical arms and money from America, NORAID (Irish Northern Aid) firmly denied that it ever sent money for guns, insisting that all its funds were used to sustain prisoners’ families. When NORAID founder Michael Flannery was tried for gun running, he proudly acknowledged that he had accepted contributions to arm the IRA. But he insisted that these were totally separate from the contributions he received for Irish Northern Aid.

The Irish-American Fenians shouted their intention to wage war against Britain from the rooftops. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa used the pages of The Irish World, the most popular Irish-American newspaper of the time, to launch a “skirmishing fund” to finance action against Britain.

Pledging $20, Thomas J. Kavanagh wrote that “there must be some blood spilt.” “Rory of the Hill” was even more explicit: “In case you at any time soon deem it expedient to fit and equip a detachment of secret service whose object will be by the aid of explosives … for the purpose of blowing up the Parliament in London and some other forts and castles throughout England and Ireland – if such is mediated by you I am at your service.”

For a period of five years that was just what the Irish dynamiters in America set out to do. They bombed the House of Commons, the Tower of London, and the Westminster Crypt on the same day, January 24, 1885. They also set off explosions at Scotland Yard, London Bridge, the London Underground and at police and army barracks. These bombings were carried out by men the American Fenians organized, armed, financed and often dispatched from the U.S.

The British government had a contradictory, perhaps hypocritical, attitude toward secret policing. It was perfectly acceptable to recruit informers and agents provocateur in Ireland. In Britain the Victorians wanted their policing done exclusively by uniformed constables.

'Not a cent for blatherskite but every dollar for dynamite'

The Fenian bombers made that impossible. The government reluctantly set up a secret policing operation reporting to the Home Secretary. Such were the prejudices of the age that the Home Secretary had to maintain what would now be called deniability.

Just as MI5 infiltrated the Provisional IRA in the 20th century, the British Home Office planted informers and agents provocateur at high levels in the Fenian dynamite organization.

'Red' Jim McDermott of Dublin posed as the most militant Fenian dynamiter. He electrified the founding convention of the United Irishmen of America by saying their policy would be “not a cent for blatherskite but every dollar for dynamite.” McDermott was in fact on the British payroll the entire time.

Moving to London and Cork he infiltrated a Fenian cell, providing them with money and nitroglycerin. The men he was supposed to be helping to bomb London were captured and sentenced to penal servitude for life when Red Jim testified against them in secret.  

After he was exposed, the government arranged for McDermott to move first to Germany and then Denmark.  He settled in Paris, married a wealthy woman and lived in luxury, styling himself the Count de Neonlier.

Dr. Henri Le Caron, actually Thomas Breech from Colchester in England, may have been the most successful British agent in the American Fenians. He gained the total confidence of Alexander Sullivan, the leader of the dynamite wing writing that “For a period of twenty years I used this man as my dupe…no man in the whole course of my career in the secret service proved a more valuable, albeit an unconscious, ally than he.”

Le Caron had access to all the Fenian plans and turned them over to the Home Office. The American organization sent him to London and Paris where he successfully infiltrated the Fenian organization and was even introduced to Parnell in the House of Commons.

He wound up testifying in London that Charles Stewart Parnell and the Home Rule Party he led were secret supporters of the Fenian dynamite campaign. He was a key part of a British government effort to libel and politically destroy Parnell.

Before he testified Le Caron made sure that he was well taken care of asking for “either a lump sum of ten thousand pounds or an annuity for life of four hundred pounds a year.” – an immense amount at the time. But Kenna makes it clear that unlike McDermott, a total opportunist, Le Caron (Breech) was never motivated primarily by money -- he was an Englishman serving his country.

Kenna demonstrates that British intelligence “could only contain rather than defeat Fenian conspiracy.” As in the 20th century, an armed campaign could only be ended by a political arrangement. The Fenian dynamite campaign ultimately succumbed to the perception that Parnell was going to deliver home rule, not to Britain’s long campaign of infiltration and disruption.

War in the Shadowsshould be read by everyone with an interest in Fenianism and Irish nationalism in America. The story Kenna has to tell and the characters he introduces make it fascinating in its own right. The many parallels to the history of the Provisional IRA and MI5 make it still more compelling. SB

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Tags: Books, England, London, Reviews, United Kingdom, United States, War


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