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


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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)


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The Homosexuality Trial of Oscar Wilde

The trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of homosexuality, then considered a crime, begins at the Old Bailey on April 26, 1895.

With a warrant for Wilde’s arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency having been issued, Robbie Ross finds Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge, with Reginald Turner. Both men advise Wilde to go at once to Dover and try to get a boat to France. His mother advises him to stay and fight. Wilde, lapsing into inaction, can only say, “The train has gone. It’s too late.” Wilde is arrested for “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, a term meaning homosexual acts not amounting to buggery, an offence under a separate statute. At Wilde’s instruction, Ross and Wilde’s butler force their way into the bedroom and library of 16 Tite Street, packing some personal effects, manuscripts, and letters. Wilde is then imprisoned on remand at HM Prison Holloway where he receives daily visits from his partner, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Events move quickly and his prosecution opens on April 26, 1895. Wilde pleads not guilty. He has already begged Douglas to leave London for Paris, but Douglas complains bitterly, even wanting to give evidence. He is pressed to go and soon flees to the Hotel du Monde. Fearing persecution, Ross and many others also leave the United Kingdom during this time.

Under cross examination by Charles Gill, Wilde is at first hesitant, but then eloquently responds to Gill’s question about the meaning of “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde replies, “‘The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

Wilde’s response is counter-productive in a legal sense as it only serves to reinforce the charges of homosexual behaviour. The trial ends with the jury unable to reach a verdict. Wilde’s counsel, Sir Edward Clarke, is finally able to get a magistrate to allow Wilde and his friends to post bail. The Reverend Stewart Headlam puts up most of the £5,000 surety required by the court, having disagreed with Wilde’s treatment by the press and the courts. Wilde is freed from Holloway and, shunning attention, goes into hiding at the house of Ernest and Ada Leverson, two of his firm friends. Edward Carson approaches Frank Lockwood QC, the Solicitor General and asks, “Can we not let up on the fellow now?” Lockwood answers that he would like to do so, but fears that the case has become too politicised to be dropped.

The final trial is presided over by Alfred Wills. On May 25, 1895 Wilde and Alfred Taylor are convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The judge describes the sentence, the maximum allowed, as “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and that the case is “the worst case I have ever tried.” Wilde responds, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” but it is drowned out by cries of “Shame” in the courtroom.

Oscar Wilde enters prison on May 25, 1895 and is released on May 18, 1897.

(Pictured: Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas)