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  • Skirmishing, The Irish World, and Empire, 1876-86
  • Niall Whelehan (bio)

In 1867, the abortive rising staged by the movement broadly known as Fenianism marked the last attempt at insurrection undertaken by nationalists in Ireland in the nineteenth century. The rising wholly failed in its objectives. Key arrests, due to the work of informers and spies, left the volunteers uncoordinated and without direction.1 It was, in the words of one historian, "a botched, pathetic, farce."2 This episode and the persistent collapse of insurrection in the field led particular Fenians to rethink the physical force tradition in the following years. Changing definitions of propaganda of the deed emerged that recognized the tactical limitations of armed uprising and embraced new forms of action. These new departures in political violence, imagined by Fenians resident in New York, were particularly contentious in that they embraced small-group and individual violence—what Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa labeled "Skirmishing"—along with the use of explosives in targeting symbolic public buildings in Great Britain. [End Page 180]

In 1876, when Rossa and Patrick Ford publicized a Skirmishing Fund in The Irish World, which listed a circulation of 35,000 at the time, it was met with markedly more opposition than enthusiasm among Fenians. A large body of nationalist opinion regarded anything less than open warfare as unjustifiable, barbaric, and plainly criminal. Moreover, many were concerned that any such campaign would stir up dangerous anti-Irish feeling in Britain. In seeking to explain and legitimize these anomic forms of political violence the Skirmishers needed to substantially revise the conventional "physical force tradition" explanation. In the attempt to anticipate criticism of Skirmishing, The Irish World approached the matter by questioning the confused morality of regular or "civilized warfare." In this way, the rhetoric that explained Skirmishing drew significantly from episodes of colonial conflict. Ideas of warfare were challenged through citing the excesses of state violence in the colonies while Skirmishing was framed as a response to British misrule, not only in Ireland, but also throughout the empire.

This essay considers definitions of Skirmishing within the context of imperial violence. Recently, research on the Skirmishing campaign has expanded thanks to significant scholarly interest.3 Christy Campbell's Fenian Fire (2002) examined the alleged "jubilee plot" to assassinate Queen Victoria and role of informers in the American organizations, while Seán McConville's Irish Political Prisoners, 1848–1992 (2003) has added new work on the Skirmisher's severe experiences in British prisons.4 Understanding how the Skirmishers challenged the IRB's traditional physical force nationalism was the central theme of Máirtín Ó Catháin's essay (2003) on Irish republicans in Scotland. Ó Catháin linked Skirmishing with the tradition of Ribbonism in the area and demonstrated how working-class republicans [End Page 181] were alienated by a staid and cautious IRB organization that was middle-class in composition. He closed his essay by calling for further research on the relationship between rural violence and propaganda of the deed not only in Ireland, but also across Europe.5 Lindsey Clutterbuck (2004) has located the Skirmishers within the genesis of twentieth-century terrorism: however, the author acknowledges that she found no occasion, during her research, where Irish Republicans defined themselves as terrorists.6

Current scholarship treating the "home" nationalist organizations has made considerable inroads toward contextualizing the place of the US Fenians within the factionalism that characterized Irish nationalism in the late nineteenth century. M.J. Kelly (2006) and Owen McGee (2005) have provided welcome and diverse additions to existing literature on the various strands of Fenianism. While Kelly viewed the "bankrolling" of the IRB as the principal function of the American organizations, McGee explored the connections between Fenians in Ireland, Britain, and the US. Employing extensive empirical research, McGee highlighted the antagonisms that were generated within the nationalist movement due to the Skirmisher's actions while he underlined how the British administration cynically exploited the dynamite attacks in order to weaken the IRB.7 [End Page 182]

Patrick Ford is a figure who weaves in and out of broader works on Irish-American nationalism but rarely seems to merit specific study. James Rodechko's biography (1976) offered a limited...


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