A baneful tale of intrigue, treachery and deceit

Ruairí Ó Domhnaill reviews Fenian Fire: the British government plot to assassinate Queen Victoria by Christy Campbell. Harper Collins, £18.99 hbk

CHRISTY CAMPBELL’s has produced a well-researched book in which he describes events outside the scope of most histories.

Although Ireland is the focus of the study, and most action takes place in the Americas and Britain, Russia, Afghanistan, Australia, France and Africa are also mentioned.

Crucially, the book claims to identify a vital factor in Gladstone’s conversion to Irish home rule. It also describes the government’s relentless, clandestine offensive against the “ageing Anglicised” leaders of the Irish National Party to implicate them in the Phoenix Park assassinations and Fenian operations.

This offensive culminated in the constitutional Frankenstein, the ‘Special Commission’ of 1888-9. My only major caveat arises from “the empirical support… presented”. Footnotes may well be adequate but the system used here does not facilitate their validation. Paradoxically, the author’s communication skills do not help, as one can get too engaged in the story to ferret for footnotes.

There are also minor points at issue. For example, Victoria did not die at Windsor Castle, “cradled” or otherwise by Kaiser Bill. More importantly, the Parnellites did not hold “the balance of power in parliament”, only in the House of Commons.

This is not ‘nit-picking’. It is of primary importance in the historic and constitutional developments leading to the Parliament Act of 1911 -- and perhaps to the establishment of the sectarian statelet and the Irish Free State.

Among the author’s amusing asides are that Victoria was the most shot-at sovereign in British history, and that Albert designed a chain-mail parasol for her protection. Her assailants were all males, probably gentlemen, as they mostly used single-shot pistols at long-range and when she was a moving target. There’s sportsmanship.

In the main, this is a portrait of alleged incompetents, inebriates, informers, double agents and traitors. Few of the main characters appear reputable. Michael Davitt is an exception. He and his unnamed interceptor of British intelligence, foreshadow the Collins-Broy partnership. Tom Clarke is not mentioned.

Few deeds described are heroic, apart from the Catalpa rescue, and the “poor bloody infantry” of the republican movement suffering betrayal, imprisonment, insanity, disease, death and being branded fools for posterity.

Conversely, ex-generals, sworn Irish republicans, sold everybody and everything to the British, who bought just about everything on offer. Chief traitor was Francis Millen, late of the Mexican Army, whose escapades continued after death. His body was exhumed to be given an up-market Masonic send-off.

Christy Campbell adroitly addresses a period of supra-Machiavellian complexity, when great statesmen soiled their hands with sordid matters; when Moroney was “Melville” but not Melville the policeman; when a minor, tragic character could have four or five pseudonyms. The author also dabbles in this practice, re-designating O’Donovan Rossa, “Rossa”.

But when the nomenclature seems about to unravel the author deftly “tweaks” the warp and weft of the material to restore clarity, a technique which he employs on a thoroughly grand scale in his epilogue.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:24:32.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Connolly Publications Ltd