‘A Secret, Melodramatic Sort of Conspiracy': The Disreputable Legacies of Fenian Violence in Nineteenth-Century London

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A secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy’: The disreputable legacies of
Fenian violence in nineteenth-century London. This essay assesses the cultural
and historical legacy of the ‘Dynamite war’, a campaign waged predominantly
in London by Irish-American Republicans organised under the banners of
Clan-na-Gael and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s Skirmishers from 1881 to
1885. The war was, and, to a degree, remains, a contentious event in Irish
history principally because its instigators were willing to use extreme violence
against civilian targets, and so demonstrated a disposition to transgress codes
of martial honour which had previously been regarded as largely sacrosanct.
While the history of the campaign, the degree to which it was innovative in
its methods as a precursor for urban terrorism, and the manner in which
the war has been represented in popular culture and literature have been
the subjects of compelling recent research, the extent to which the campaign
has been understood within the context of Irish London and its problematic
status within narratives of nineteenth-century Irish political insurgency more
broadly have been less fully considered. This paper considers these aspects
in greater detail, highlighting the disreputable status of the campaign and,
subsequently, the manner in which allusions to it are often deeply embedded
in Irish literary and cultural texts. The essay concludes with a discussion of
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a work which uses fictionalised autobiography
to locate the war in the wider history of nineteenth-century Irish nationalism.
In so doing Joyce acknowledges the ethical complexity of the campaign in a
manner which becomes both an intervention in historiography and an experiment in literary aesthetics.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Number of pages14
JournalThe London Journal
Issue number2
Early online date12 Aug 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Aug 2019


  • Clan na Gael
  • Dynamite War
  • Fenian
  • James Joyce
  • London
  • Thomas Clarke


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