seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of James Bronterre O’Brien, Chartist Leader, Reformer & Journalist

James Bronterre O’Brien, Irish Chartist leader, reformer and journalist, dies of complications from bronchitis on December 23, 1684.

O’Brien is born near Granard, County Longford, in 1804 or 1805. He goes to a local church school, where one of his teachers recognises his intellectual abilities and arranges for him to be educated at the progressive Lovell Edgeworth School. In 1822 he proceeds to Trinity College, Dublin, where he wins several academic prizes including the Science Gold Medal. After studying law at King’s Inns, he moves to England in 1829 with the intention of becoming a lawyer in London.

In London he joins the Radical Reform Association where he meets Henry Hunt, William Cobbett, Henry Hetherington and other leaders of the struggle for universal suffrage. In 1836 he joins the London Working Men’s Association.

O’Brien begins contributing articles to Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian. He signs these articles with the pseudonym ‘Bronterre’ and he eventually adopts it as his middle name. He works very closely with Hetherington and when he is imprisoned for publishing an unstamped newspaper, O’Brien takes over the editorship of Poor Man’s Guardian. He and Hetherington also collaborate on other unstamped newspapers such as The Destructive and the London Dispatch. In 1837 he begins publishing Bronterre’s National Reformer. In an attempt to avoid paying stamp duty, the journal includes essays rather than ‘news items.’ During this period, he and Hetherington lead the struggle against the stamp duty and are consistent in their arguments that working people need cheap newspapers that contain political information.

O’Brien is influenced by the socialist writer François-Noël Babeuf, who had been executed during the French Revolution. In 1836 he begins publishing translations of Babeuf’s work in the Poor Man’s Guardian. He also includes Filippo Buonarroti‘s account of Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals. He becomes fascinated with the history of radicalism and begins work on books on Maximilien Robespierre, the French Revolution and the English Commonwealth. However, the authorities raid his house in 1838 and seize his manuscripts and the projects are never completed.

In 1838 O’Brien adds his support for a more militant approach to winning the vote that is being advocated by Feargus O’Connor and George Julian Harney through the London Democratic Association. However, he, unlike O’Connor, refuses to support the use of violence to achieve universal suffrage. He argues that the Chartists should adopt a policy that is midway between the petitioning supported by William Lovett and the Moral Force Chartists, and the violence being threatened by O’Connor’s Physical Force group.

After Bronterre’s National Reformer ceases publication, O’Brien works for O’Connor’s Northern Star. His articles play an important role in increasing the circulation of what had become the most important of the radical newspapers. As well as writing for the Northern Star, he also finds time to publish his own newspaper, The Operative.

O’Brien continues to be active in the Chartist movement and in 1840 he is arrested and charged with making a seditious speech in Manchester. He is convicted of sedition and sentenced to eighteen months in Lancaster Prison. When he is released from prison he finds it difficult to continue working with Feargus O’Connor. The two men disagree over the issue of physical force. Another source of dispute concerns parliamentary elections. O’Brien favours the idea of putting up Chartist candidates whereas O’Connor prefers the tactic of putting pressure on the Whig government by threatening to vote for Tory candidates. He is involved in standing Chartist candidates against Government Ministers in key seats, particularly in standing against Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston in Tiverton.

O’Brien finally breaks with O’Connor when, along with Henry Vincent and Robert George Gammage, he joins the Complete Suffrage Union. He continues to publish newspapers. He joins with his old friend Henry Hetherington to revive the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1843 and this is followed by the National Reformer in 1844. These newspapers are not a financial success and by May 1847, both papers cease publication.

After the failure of these two newspapers, O’Brien concentrates on writing for other publications such as Reynold’s Weekly Newspaper and the Glasgow Sentinel. He also gives public lectures and in 1851 he opens the Eclectic Institute in Denmark Street, Soho, London, where adult education classes are offered in English, French, science and mathematics.

By the 1850s O’Brien’s poverty begins to damage his health. He suffers from bronchitis and his Chartist friends attempt to raise money in recognition of the great sacrifices that he had made in the struggle to win universal suffrage and the freedom of the press. However, the damage to his health is so bad that he spends his last years bed-ridden. He dies on December 23, 1864, and is buried in Abney Park Cemetery.


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The Clerkenwell Explosion

The Clerkenwell explosion, also known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, is a bombing that takes place in London on December 13, 1867. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), nicknamed the “Fenians“, explode a bomb to try to free one of their members being held on remand at Clerkenwell Prison. The explosion damages nearby houses, kills 12 people and causes 120 injuries. None of the prisoners escape.

The whole of Ireland has been under British rule since the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1603. The Irish Republican Brotherhood is founded on March 17, 1858 with the aim of establishing an independent democratic republic in Ireland, and the Fenian Brotherhood, ostensibly the American wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, is founded in New York City in 1859.

On November 20, 1867, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and his companion Joseph Casey are arrested in Woburn Square in London. Burke had purchased weapons for the Fenians in Birmingham. Burke is charged with treason and Casey with assaulting a constable. They are remanded in custody pending trial, and imprisoned at the Middlesex House of Detention, also known as Clerkenwell Prison.

Burke’s IRB colleagues try to free him on Thursday, December 12, without success. They try to blow a hole in the prison wall while the prisoners are exercising in the prison yard but their bomb fails to explode. They try again at about 3:45 PM the following day, December 13, using a barrel of gunpowder concealed on a costermonger‘s barrow. The explosion demolishes a 60-foot section of the wall, but no one escapes. The prison authorities had been forewarned and the prisoners were exercised earlier in the day, so they are locked in their cells when the bomb explodes. The blast also damages several nearby tenement houses on Corporation Lane on the opposite side of the road, killing 12 people and causing many injuries, with estimates ranging from around 30 to over 120.

Charges are laid against eight, but two turn Queen’s evidence. Michael Barrett and five others are tried at the Old Bailey in April 1868. Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn and Baron George Bramwell preside with a jury. The prosecution is led by the Attorney General Sir John Karslake and the Solicitor General Sir William Baliol Brett supported by Hardinge Giffard QC and two junior counsel. Defence barristers included Montagu Williams and Edward Clarke.

Barrett, a native of County Fermanagh, protests his innocence, and some witnesses testify that he was in Scotland on December 13, but another identifies him as being present at the scene. Two defendants are acquitted on the instructions of the presiding judges in the course of the trial, leaving four before the jury. Following deliberations, three of the defendants are acquitted, but Barrett is convicted of murder on April 27 and sentenced to death. Barrett is hanged by William Calcraft on the morning of Tuesday, May 26, 1868 outside Newgate Prison. He is the last man to be publicly hanged in England, with the practice being ended from May 29, 1868 by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868.

The trial of Burke and Casey, and a third defendant, Henry Shaw, begains on April 28, all charged with treason. The prosecution claims that Burke had been involved in finding arms for the Fenians in Birmingham in late 1865 and early 1866, where he was using the name “Edward C Winslow.” The case against Casey is ultimately withdrawn, but Burke and Shaw are found guilty of treason on April 30 and sentenced to 15 years and 7 years of penal servitude respectively.

The bombing enrages the British public, souring relations between England and Ireland and causing a panic over the Fenian threat. The radical, Charles Bradlaugh, condemns the incident in his newspaper, the National Reformer, as an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes.” The Metropolitan Police form a Special Irish Branch at Scotland Yard in March 1883, initially as a small section of the Criminal Investigation Department, to monitor Fenian activity.

In April 1867, the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood condemns the Clerkenwell Outrage as a “dreadful and deplorable event,” but the organisation returns to bombings in Britain in 1881 to 1885, with the Fenian dynamite campaign.

(Pictured: The House of Detention in Clerkenwell after the bombing as seen from within the prison yard)