The Irish Dynamiters: Eleanor Marx

In the 1880'S the Irish Republican Brotherhood began a bombing campaign of the British mainland killing many civilians. Eleanor wrote this as denunciation of the tactic, but also to highlight the abuses of the British state in its treatment of prisoners. Arguing that it was this brutal treatment that pushed many Fenians to carry out these bloody acts.

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 20, 2016

THOSE who know anything about the real meaning of Socialism will not need to be told that with such attempts as those of the “dynamiters” at Victoria Station, Ludgate Hill, etc., Socialists are not in sympathy. But many do not know what Socialism means, and it may therefore be necessary that I should preface my remarks on the Irish dynamiters by a few words on “outrages” generally.

A great many good Christians think that when they have read a pamphlet or two against Darwin by an unscientific but reverend gentleman, they are quite competent to lecture on or discuss Darwinism and Evolution. In the same way many persons believe that because they have read some shilling primer on Political Economy, or a few books likes Mr. Ely’s (brimful, by the way, of most amusing blunders), they are competent to write or lecture on Socialism. The Christians — judging from their own hearts — think Atheism must mean persecution, injustice, crime; and the bourgeois ignoramus, full of the “wise saws and modern instances” of his primer or penny paper, believes the Socialist to be as one-sided, as unscrupulous, as egotistic as himself, and that his only object is to hang the last landlord by the side of the last capitalist. Truly, the Socialist loves neither priest, nor landlord, nor capitalist; but the Socialist is of necessity an evolutionist, and he makes no individual, even when he must attack him, answerable for his milieu.

To consider the use of physical force as anything very desirable in itself, is what no Socialist dreams of doing — save in the imagination of our scurvy politicians. We know we are engaged in a terrible class-struggle — a struggle not, as so many believe, for the replacing of one class despotism by another, but for the abolition of all class rule.

There are those among us who think this can be brought about by “gradual development” and moral force only. Others of us believe we shall not be allowed to thus bring about a “silent moral revolution.” History teaches us that no great social revolution has ever come about by the use of mere moral force, and history has taught us that no class willingly expropriates itself. In the struggle between king and noble, between noble and bourgeois, something more than moral persuasion was resorted to. It was not quite by “gradual development” that England confiscated the Church lands or that America freed her slaves.

No doubt if all human beings were capable of developing equally, force would never be needed. Had Charles of sainted and headless memory developed so far — even gradually — as to see the error of his ways, the Ironsides would not have had to cut off his bead, and England would have been spared not a little trouble. Had French Louis and his aristocrats and priests evolved to something higher, there would have been no necessity for the revolution. Had the slave-owners voluntarily freed their slaves there would have been no need for the American Civil War. But the reactionary — i.e., undeveloped and unevolvable — class, whatever it is, will make a stand for its vested wrongs. When the time comes, I, for my own part, believe the bourgeoise will resort (as it does now, for the matter of that) to force, and that we shall be driven, by the very circumstance, to fight for our cause — a cause which, as it is that of Humanity, must triumph.

But be this as it may, no Socialist looks on “outrages” as a virtue or thinks that violence can ever be anything but a miserable necessity. When it is not a necessity it is naturally a crime. With the acts of the Irish dynamiters Socialists do not and cannot sympathise — but are we therefore to be unjust to these men? Why should they be called cowards and dastards? Surely they risk their lives for what they foolishly believe to be the good of their unhappy land. No man — no matter what his folly — -is wholly despicable or a “dastard” who is willing to die for what he believes is a good cause. It is positively grotesque to hear the penny-a-liners who come so smug into Fleet Street, and who would not fight with their own quill-armed shadows, brand these men “cowards.” It is grotesque to hear some of our bold shopkeepers, who probably would not have the poor courage to sell the Freethinker, denounce these men as “dastardly wretches.” Wicked as are their acts, foolish and mistaken as are their notions, cowards at least these fanatics are not.

But in speaking of the dynamiters there is another important matter which Englishmen systematically ignore — the long years of torture that many of these men suffered in British bastilles. When Mr. Gladstone assumed an indignant attitude of mind at the treatment of Bomba’s prisoners; when he thundered against the unspeakable Turk or melted over the interesting Greek, England applauded. When Vera Sassulitch shot Trepoff and a jury acquitted her, all the world echoed that acquittal. But neither Bomba’s prisoners, nor Bulgarians, nor even Nihilists, have suffered more than Irishmen in English gaols. Oh! I do not speak of the imprisoned Land Leagers. Things to-day have somewhat changed, and not even a Liberal Government, with Harcourt for its Home Secretary, could dare so ill-use State prisoners. I speak of the Fenian prisoners of 1865 to 1870 — whom Tories and Liberals, with charming impartiality, alike tortured. That my readers may not think I am exaggerating, I shall cite certain cases — from a long list, alas! — not because they are exceptional, but because they are typical, or, as regards O'Donovan Rossa, of especial interest at this moment. Of course there are plenty of good, easy men who will pooh-pooh all these facts. There are people like the Rev. Dr. Lansdell, who think Russian prisons quite too pleasant, and no end of Christians who think Mr. Foote must be very fastidious if he didn’t like Holloway. But let those who doubt read the Parliamentary Debates, the Inquiries, the unanswered evidence of honorable and unimpeachable witnesses; above all, let them remember the number of young, strong men who died in prison or went mad.

The Fenian prisoners were of two classes. The military men who had taken part in the “rising” — men whose nobility of character and heroism wrung admiration even from their judges — and the literary men, condemned to various terms of penal servitude (“for life” to “ten years”) for their contributions to the Irish People. During the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act there was a third class — that of the suspects.

The first case I take is one that will have a special interest for the Freethinking readers of Progress.

Among the prisoners at Mountjoy in 1868 was one old man — John Murphy-between 60 and 70 years of age, who has been condemned as one of the writers in the Irish People. In his medical report the doctor of the gaol, Dr. Robert McDonnell, said that he found Murphy, generally known as “Pagan O'Leary,” in his cell on one of the coldest days of the coldest winters known. He had no bed, no bed-clothes — nothing between himself and the cold floor. He had for covering only a rug of a few ounces weight. He was shivering with the exceeding cold. He had the appearance, said the physician, of a man stricken with Asiatic cholera; his face had the same leaden hue. He complained he was cold — cold to the very bones. And why this torture of an old man of nearly 70 years? For some serious fault, a gross breach of discipline, “brutal assault” on a warder? Not a whit. Merely because the old man had declared he was of “no religion” but a “Pagan"! But, it will be urged, what proof is there of this? The proof is given us by Lord Mayo himself. In the House of Commons on Monday, May 20th, Mr. P. A. Taylor asked the Chief Secretary for Ireland-

“Whether it was the fact that a prisoner in Mountjoy Prison, who declared himself a Unitarian, was ordered by the Governor to select his religion as Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian, and that on his declining to do so he was sentenced to the penal cell, with bread and water diet?

“Lord Mayo said he presumed the question referred to the case of John Murphy, alias Pagan O'Leary, who was received at Mountjoy Prison on the 31st July, 1865, nearly three years ago. The facts of the case were these. The Governor applied for instructions under very peculiar circumstances, in fact the only case of the kind that has ever occurred in Ireland. The convict said he was of no religion, and he never attended any place of worship. On being transferred from one prison to another he said he was a Pagan — (laughter) — and refused to be instructed in religions subjects of any kind. The Director, being a military officer, ordered him to select his religion. (Much laughter.) The prisoner said he did not believe in any religion, and therefore would not select any. (Continued laughter.) The Director ordered him to be put on penal diet for three days. (Renewed laughter and cries of “Oh!”) On the 4th of August, two days afterwards, he was sent to the hospital, where he was kept for five days. After he left he was again kept on penal diet for three days — (“Oh! oh”) — and he then selected the Roman Catholic religion. (Loud laughter.) Penal diet was not bread and water, although it was much lower than the ordinary prison diet.”

And at this infamous tale the British House of Commons uttered no indignant protest, but roared with brutal laughter. If perchance a son of that old man still hears that laughter ringing in his ears and has become a dynamiter, who of us shall dare to blame him? Lord Mayo, in his answer to Mr. Taylor, spoke of “penal” and “ordinary diet.” Let us see for a moment what this diet was. The official diet-table looks terrible enough, but even of this an English gentleman wrote in January, 1870:

“Good God! it one saw the horrible stuff furnished to the prisoners. .... The stuff given for cocoa was, and is, such a compound that they could not touch it all the summer. No human tooth was ever made that could masticate the old mule they got for beef, nor human stomach ever made that could digest it. Besides, the quantity is so small that a child could scarcely live on it; but when you take quantity and quality into account, imagination alone can fix the result. But the worst of all is the horrible cooking and the manner of serving up. [Here follow details too disgusting for publication.] ....They have got untanned skin, with hair, snails, and snail-boxes in their food. It is only under danger of actual starvation that they can eat it. You may judge of the quantity allowed when I tell you that the prisoners eat their soap, candles, and gutta-percha urinals and drinking cups. Two officers have to stand over every man on Saturday evening, when he is oiling his boots, to prevent him from drinking the oil.”

The “soup” mentioned in the table below was “made from the shins of beef of which the fleshy portions have been cut away to a great extent for other purposes, and only of the shreds and bones, etc., which are generally tainted before they are boiled, and which, when cooked, send forth an offensive stench, and in which Mr. Mulcahy has found entrails of fowls, and on one occasion a mouse and other vermin. Suet generally rancid.” The gruel or porridge was a mixture so horrible that “several of the prisoners, from inability to use it, were left for over Two Years to sup on six ounces of bread and a pint of water"! No wonder it was only “under danger of starvation” that the prisoners could eat this food. Some, indeed, could not eat it and died.

So much for the “ordinary food”; now for the extra-ordinary — the penal diet. Many prisoners were for three, seven, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-eight or thirty days at a time on bread and water. Others had “special diet” for one, three, six, and nine months — that is a diet consisting of “20 ounces bread and two pints of porridge and one pound of potatoes (when they were plenty) daily.”

And on this starvation-diet these men had to do the hardest labor. Indeed, the insufficient food was one of the least hardships. To these men — men of culture and education — the greater hardship was in the daily insults to which they were subjected and in their intercourse with the vilest ruffians. These men had to hew stone in bleak quarries during a winter so bitterly cold that the common convicts were allowed to work under sheds; they had to carry — they are often weak and delicate men — heavy slabs of stone in handbarrows or on their bare backs for hundreds of yards through a bog; they were at times yoked to carts, by means of collars fastened round their necks, and forced to draw stones through a dreary moor. While suffering from hemorrhage of the lungs, Denis Mulcahy was forced to hew stones in a quarry; Charles Kickham — one of the gentlest and noblest of men, a poet and a hero — no longer young, nearly blind and wholly deaf, was, when covered with the most terrible boils and sores, brought on by the cold, forced to work hour after hour in the snow; another prisoner, because his hands were one mass of sores and the blood burst from them into the cold water with which he had to clean up the rooms, was for this “offence” placed on penal diet. In the depth of a terribly severe winter, when these men returned from their labor, “limbs aching with cold and blood bursting from their hands,” they had to strip naked in the hall, step into their cells without any clothing, and there remain shivering whilst the warder examined their clothes with the utmost deliberation. Sometimes they had to strip in their icy cells and throw out their clothes, waiting, quite naked, till the warder returned them. This regime killed one prisoner — Lynch — in three months, and many others in longer periods. They had to do the most horrible work in cleansing the prison closets, to wash the shirts, flannels, stockings, even the hospital linen of the criminals with whom they were confined. These men of delicate constitutions and cultivated minds, were subjected to treatment too disgusting to describe. What wonder that Edward Duffy was found dead in his cell — that in the few months between his two trials Denis Mulcahy’s “bright brown head and beautiful young face” was so changed that his own sister did not recognise the “grey-headed and bent man"? What wonder that Richard Burke — witty, brave, chivalrous Burke — was in a few months mad? The only marvel is that, instead of some twenty deaths and half dozen cases of madness, any of these men survived. When any of them wrote and complained of their treatment, the letters were suppressed, and they were, in many cases, kept without letters or visits for twelve and eighteen months, and even two years. Members of Parliament were refused permission to visit them.

Nor was it only the convicted prisoners who were thus treated. Many of the suspects — men innocent in the eyes of the law — were kept without trial for two years, and subjected to such a regime that the doctor of Mountjoy, Dr. Robert McDonnell, in September, 1868, refused to take the responsibility on himself and protested. “I must beg of you,” he wrote to the governor, “to draw Mr. Murray and Captain Barlowe’s attention to the present state of things, which is, in my opinion, becoming serious. Thomas Bourke is showing undoubted symptoms of insanity; Finegan has lately given way to one of those paroxysms brought on by long confinement; Sweeney is very unsettled in his mind; Whyte (lately discharged) was considered unfit for cellular discipline; Barry (also lately discharged) was considered unfit, from his mental state, to go away from prison without someone in charge of him. I have not the slightest doubt that the prolonged confinement and severe discipline is the chief cause of all this. Apart from considerations of humanity, it would be a very grave matter if any of these untried prisoners (particularly anyone like Bourke or Sweeney, the former of whom has been twelve, the latter seventeen months in confinement) should commit suicide. I beg, therefore, to impress on you, as well as the inspector and director, the necessity of advocating a relaxed system of treatment for the untried prisoners.”

And the sole result of Dr. McDonnell’s humanity and courage was his dismissal — after long years of service — from Mountjoy Prison. Yes; Dr Robert McDonnell, M.D. of Trinity, Dublin, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Fellow of the Royal Society, etc., was dismissed for having dared to do his duty!

I have so far confined myself chiefly to a general description of the prison life of the Irish political prisoners. The few details I have given could be indefinitely multiplied by others quite as horrible, but I have said enough, I believe, to allow that these men were treated in a manner that mould have aroused the indignation of all Englishmen had they been Poles, or Italians, or Bulgarians instead of Irish Fenians. Nor should it be forgotten that among these Fenians were men whose “unstained honor and unabashed valor” were admitted by their very judges, and whom their bitterest enemies acknowledged to be “gentlemen and patriots albeit rebels and felons.”

In conclusion, I will take one case — that of O'Donovan Rossa — in greater detail, and I take it because we could find no better example of the brutalising and demoralising effect of the barbarous regime to which these State prisoners were subjected at the hands of English, Conservative and Liberal, governments.

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was condemned in 1865 to life-long penal servitude for that he, together with certain other prisoners, “feloniously and wickedly did compass, imagine, invent, devise and intend to deprive and depose our lady the Queen from the style, honor and royal name of the Imperial crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by divers overt acts and deeds hereinafter mentioned.” The “overt acts and deeds” consisted in his affiliation to the Fenian Brotherhood and his connexion with the Irish People newspaper. Indeed, Rossa and his fellow prisoners were condemned solely for the articles published in the Irish People. Now there is no doubt this paper was “seditious.” It advocated rebellion and the establishment of an “Irish Republic” by force of arms. Put no one reading the incriminating articles, and comparing them with recent utterances of O'Donovan Rossa, can fail to be struck by their absolutely different tone. In the first there is a simple, passionate earnestness, a quiet dignity, an absence of anything like “brag,” that must command the respect of even those most opposed to the doctrines preached. In the most violent of the Irish People articles there is nothing of the criminal nonsense now talked by the “dynamiters,” and it is no exaggeration to say that before his sufferings in English prisons had driven him mad, no one would have shrunk with more disdain than O'Donovan Rossa from the foolish utterances in which he now seems to delight. The one impression Rossa at this time made on those who came in contact with him was of indomitable courage allied to the most ? gentleness. Again and again do prisoners in the few communications that reached the outer world — either in the “regular” way or by such means as only prisoners seem to be able to discover — speak of his “kindness,” his “unvarying good nature and amiability,” his “unselfish cheerfulness and goodness,” his “gentle, kindly nature.” Kickham — a man whose integrity even his enemies never questioned — thus describes his first acquaintance with Rossa: — “As I have spoken of so many of my fellow-laborers at 12 Parliament Street [the office of this paper], I must not forget the most devoted of them all. His name was first brought under my notice in this way: Towards the end of the year 1857 a sketch of the poor Edward Welsh appeared in the Celt..... The poor poet’s story was a sad one, and it was mentioned that his widow was then living in a humble lodging in Ireland, hardly earning her own and her childrens’ bread as a seamstress. This moved some generous-hearted persons to write to her, proffering her pecuniary assistance; but the poet’s widow was proud, and she wished it to be announced in the Celt that she could not accept money. Mrs. Walsh sent me one of the letters she had received, and here it is: ‘Skibbereen, Christmas morning. Dear Madam, — I hoped to spend a happy Christmas Day but before sitting down to breakfast I took up the last number of the Celt, and read the conclusion of the memoir of your husband by some kind writer. I now find I cannot be happy unless you will do me the favor of accepting the enclosed pound note, as a small testimony of my sympathy for the widow of one of our sweetest poets. — I remain, dear Madam, yours very sincerely, J. O'Donovan Rossa.’ I felt a strong desire at the time to know more of this Mr. O'Donovan Rossa. .... and when some months after I saw his name in the list of prisoners arrested on a charge of treason-felony, I was not surprised. The first of these prisoners ....was Daniel O’sullivan, who was convicted and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. But before the trials proceeded further, there was a change of Government. Thomas O'Hagon, now Lord Chancellor, the eloquent advocate of the prisoners, was made Attorney-General. O'Donovan Rossa and the rest were prevailed upon to go through the form of pleading guilty, having first stipulated that D. O’sullivan should he set at liberty. By this false step they relieved the new Attorney General of the awkward duty of becoming the prosecutor of his clients. The prisoners were released on their own recognizance to come up for judgment when called upon. It is needless to say that the fact that he could be at any moment consigned to penal servitude for life, or for any number of years the Government pleased, without even the form of a trial, had no effect whatever upon the political conduct of O'Donovan Rossa. After this I knew his name again as a candidate for the situation of relieving officer to the Skihbereen Union. In his letter to the guardians he said, in his manly way: ‘If you appoint me notwithstanding my political opinions, I shall feel proud. But if you refuse to appoint me on account of my political opinions, I shall feel proud too.’ It is to the credit of the Board of Guardians that he was unanimously elected; and the fact shows, too, the estimation in which the indomitable rebel was held by all who knew him personally, irrespective of class or creed. The scenes of misery with which he was brought in contact while discharging the duties of this office intensified his hatred of foreign misrule. Mr. O'Donovan was the manager of the Irish People, and while on his business tours through Ireland and England, one of its ablest correspondents. He also contributed to its leading columns, and even to the ‘Poet’s Corner.’ I thank God it has been my lot to labor and suffer with such men in such a cause.

After this glimpse of Rossa as he once was, let us see what the treatment must have been that has so warped and brutalised an originally fine nature. The following statement was made by James Douglas, a warder in Chatham Prison: —

“I was specially appointed to look after Burke and Shaw upon their ‘return’ from Millbank,.... and I had occasionally to exercise Rossa, he being handcuffed behind. He was placed in handcuffs every morning about 6.45, and at nine or ten o'clock I have taken the cuffs off to enable him to dress himself for the purpose of taking one hour’s exercise. The cuffs were replaced behind him as soon as he was dressed. After exercising I took off the cuffs, as I had done before, to enable him to take off his cap, stock, braces and shoes, which articles he was not allowed to retain by the rules relating to the separate cells. After this he was handcuffed behind, and remained so till the dinner hour, when the manacles were placed in front, to enable him to eat his food. Dinner over, he was again handcuffed behind, and the same thing went on before and after supper. The fetters were kept on until 7.30 p.m., and then taken off for the night .... the time extending over a period of thirty days.”

And yet “The chaining of Rossa’s hands behind his back,” an English gentleman says —

“Was but a trifle compared with other punishments inflicted on him. He was confined in a cell where they had constructed an open iron privy, without water or other means of cleansing. This emitted such an intolerable stench as to almost suffocate him. Day and night he was kept in this horrible place, fed on bread and water for 28 days at a time.....he was frequently put into a dark cell, without bed or other means of sleeping, except the cold, damp floor.”

Those statements were confirmed by many witnesses; among others, in Sept., 1869, by a discharged prisoner, who said :-

“At Millbank he was put on task work, and on one occasion when he had finished the oakum picking allotted him 15 minutes before the given time, he took up a book, hoping to have a quarter of an hour in peace. For this crime he was reported for ‘idleness.’ Being brought before the Governor, he described how it was he had been found reading, and explained that he had done the required work. That functionary listened, but did not heed the explanation, and Rossa was sentenced to 48 hours’ bread and water, which punishment, being carried out in a cell without a bed, he was obliged to sleep on the bare floor. He refused to go to the dark cells; he refused to strip naked and be submitted to a searching the indecency of which is so abominable and revolting that it would be persisted in his obstinacy, the turnkeys fell upon him, and gave him a long and terrible beating. They next reported him for disobedience of orders. He would not go before the Governor.... but shut himself up in his cell..... For this offence Rossa got four months’ punishment diet and cells. You have no conception of the horrors he endured during this time.”

After stating that the prisoner was handcuffed for 35 days, the witness continues: —

“He was confined in a cell specially constructed...... On being taken out, more dead than alive, he was again placed on penal diet — dry bread, potatoes, stirabout and water.....In all [at Millbank] he had 120 days on 16 ounces bread daily, and 10 months’ penal diet.....The sole article of furniture in his cell was — what do you think? A Bible.”

This and like horrible facts are reported by all the other prisoners. One and all stated that Rossa had been singled out for quite especial ill-usage, and that he was treated with “diabolical cruelty.” The Irish people, to express their sympathy with this man, elected him in Tipperary. Of course Parliament declared the election void. Subsequently the Government of Mr. Gladstone was forced into giving an amnesty. But too late. The ill work was now done. The man whose “gentle and unpresuming manner endeared him to all” came out of his dungeon — as we know him now. The man who could not hear a tale of distress without attempting to relieve it can now brag of abetting acts that endanger the lives of innocent women and children. But whatever Rossa’s crime may be, there is a greater criminal than he — the English Government, that has made him what he is.

Eleanor Marx.