Sons of the Gael! Men of the Pale!
The Long watched day is breaking;
The serried ranks of Innisfail
Shall set the tyrant quaking.
Our camp fires now are burning low;
See in the east a silvery glow,
Out yonder waits the Saxon foe,
So chant a soldier’s song.1
The Irish Question? Whenever there is trouble in Ireland the emphasis is always on the word Irish as if the question contains its own answer. In other words, the issue defies explanation for it is illogical or Irish. Of course, the chief exponent of this racial slur is the English and it comes about as a result of nigh on a thousand years of beating up on the Irish who won’t lie down. Naturally the Irish have the problem not the English; notwithstanding, English tactics of repression and incarceration. What I propose is that the question be turned upside down and the following asked: Why were the English such a barbarous and fiendish lot when it came to the Irish? More to the point how did they justify their policy of persecution against the Irish people for hundreds of years? In the case of Brian Dillon, why would they lock up an invalid, a cripple, in a damp cell and put him to hard work without adequate food and medicine only to release him so he might have the small mercy of dying in his mother’s arms?
The islands of Great Britain and Ireland were the last refuge of the Celts. Here they continued in their olden ways, flourishing indeed to astounding heights in their arts and culture. This happy breed of people lived in tranquillity following their gods and ancestors in a rhythmic state of harmony and respect for the forces of nature while dutifully praying to their deities. This cultural tranquillity was disturbed by the occupation of Great Britain by the Romans. It would be fair to say that Claudius’ foreign policy impacted most on the area we now know as England with partial or peripheral influence on Ireland. Ireland was never a part of the Roman Empire. During the Roman occupation Christianity enters Great Britain and Ireland. Christianity builds into a significant movement and in Ireland seems to mix easily and fruitfully with the Gaelic underlying culture to mature under St Patrick.
As the Romans fade from England, new incursions appear in the form of Anglo-Saxons who churn and destabilise the community and the culture, having a not inconsiderable impact on the populace. England by now has without question lost its Celtic background and culture. The two peoples have moved apart but remain Catholic under the rule of the Pope. The next invaders were the Vikings who made an impact on England and Ireland; their raids continued for sometime. As this form of sporadic incursion withered, the English by this time existed as a composite kingdom under Edward (known to posterity as Edward the Confessor). An English cultural identity had emerged from the interaction of the Germanic immigrants of the fifth and sixth centuries and the indigenous Romano-British inhabitants. They had a well developed sense of chauvinism considering themselves as civilised, economically prosperous and properly Christian, while the Celtic fringe was considered lazy, barbarous and backward.2 Perhaps the biggest impact of all on the English was the Norman Conquest, which entrenched the English in an ethnocentric narcissism forever and a day, leading to racial hegemony, coupled with delusions of cultural superiority. This is the England we know; it has existed for a thousand years.
With Henry VIII breaking with the Pope, Ireland became not only an opportunity to seize more church land but an opportunity to revenge the Pope by converting all Irish Catholics into good little Protestant reactionaries. English chauvinism perhaps mixed with a good dose of Puritan repression and tinged with the loss of a Celtic heritage turned the English vicious in their dealings with the Irish. While on the other hand, the Irish, contentedly suckled in their mother’s creed, displayed a haughty indifference to all things English and a stubborn clinging to their Gaelic ways, which has perhaps made them insular. As the Gael would say:
Fee Fi Fo Fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he live, or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
Dillon is a family name in Ireland derived from the Breton-Norman root de Leon. The name became “Diolun” in the Irish language and in English “Dillon” (not to be confused with the Welsh name Dylan). It is a long-established Anglo-Norman family name first recorded in Ireland from about 1185. Substantial landholdings were held by Dillons in Meath, Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon. The name is now widespread throughout Ireland.
Brian Dillon’s father and mother were Edward Dillon and Margaret Dillon (nee Dill). He was the eldest surviving son born 1830. The next child was Edward Dillon born 1832. Then followed John baptised 20 January 1838, Richard Patrick born 17 March 1840, Michael born 4 March 1842, Thomas born 18 December 1843, Margaret 28 September 1846 and twins James and Mary baptised 29 March 1849.3
Of Edward Dillon very little is known. On an application for a transfer of a public house licence in 1865, evidence was given that the Dillon’s Cross tavern had been licensed for thirty years. Aldwell’s General Post Office Directory of Cork for the year 1845 records an Edward Dillon as publican of Barrackton Cross.4 The Griffith’s Valuation records for the Parish of St Anne Shandon state that Edward Dillon is the lessor of the properties situated at 16, 15 and 14 Ballyhooly Road who are occupied by Jeremiah Geary, John Lynch and John Cotter respectively. Lang’s Cork Mercantile Directory of 1863 records an Edward Dillon of Ballyhooly Road as a spirit dealer. On 22 June 1866 Letters of Administration were granted in the following terms:
Effects under £183, the personal estate of Edward Dillon late of Dillon’s Cross in the County of the City of Cork Vintner deceased who died on 12 March 1863 at same place were granted at Cork to Margaret Dillon of Dillon’s Cross aforesaid the Widow of the said deceased.
Nevertheless we maybe able to garner some facts or inferences from the few footprints he left behind. Traditional family naming practices in Ireland are usually: first son named after the father’s father, second son named after the mother’s father and the third son named after the father. He named his first born son Brian after his wife’s father, Bryan Dill. If this is the case, does it follow that the Dills made a substantial concession in allowing their daughter to marry Edward Dillon, who has remained stubbornly faceless in the long search for the real Brian Dillon? Does it also suggest that Edward Dillon was trying to conceal his background? His next son was named Edward who was named after him and the third son John was named after his wife’s Uncle John.
This is perhaps the appropriate place to raise the different spelling to be found of Brian Dillon’s Christian or first name. It is found scattered through all sources as either Brian or Bryan. I do not see it as an issue and have simply adopted the conventional spelling of Brian with an “i”. If the source uses the appellation Bryan, then I will leave it as I find it. In reality Brian should be recorded as follows: Brian Dillon also known as Bryan Dillon.
The best description of Brian Dillon we might obtain is from the records of the Gaoler of Cork Prison dated 16 December 1865:
age 35, height 4 foot 9¾ inches, eyes hazel, hair brown, eye brows brown, nose a little crooked, mouth plump, visage oval, complexion fair, back and left arm dislocated, a wart on left side of head, a small mark of the left side of throat, single, education read and write, occupation law clerk, religion Roman Catholic and marks a hunchback.5
The above is a good description of a person on reception at a prison but is it adequate? McGrath says: He was involved in a serious accident, a heavy fall, which resulted in curvature of the spine and general ill-health.6 Brian Dillon in his evidence before the Devon Inquiry said he suffered from curvature of the spine. There is a corroborative letter from the relevant authorities seeking a warrant to transfer Brian Dillon from Pentonville to Woking Invalid Prison on the ground he is of weakly health, spinal curvature and wasting of the arm dated 21/3/1866.7 However, the following exchange between the Devon Inquiry and his treating doctor in Woking Invalid Prison, Dr Campbell MD, suggests he was born with the condition:
- You do not know whether it occurred before he was a prisoner or not? I have reason to believe that the man had curvature of spine for many years, and that it was congenital.
- (Dr Lyons) Has he not the appearance of a man with congenital deformity? Yes; he has that appearance.8
With modern methods of diagnostic assessment one could resolve the issue but because of the confusion in the description of his condition, it seems Brian may have suffered either scoliosis of some type or kyphosis arising, indeed, from untreated or ineffectively treated vertebral fractures.
Turning to the Dill family, the Tithe Applotment Books 1823-37 record the following:
Bryan Dill 24 acres and 2 rods value £34/6/- 1826 Banduff, Rathcooney Cork;
John Dill 11 acres and 2 rods value £16/2/- 1826 Banduff, Rathcooney Cork; and John Dill 33 acres value £41/5/- 1826 Hayward Hill or Arderrow, Rathcooney, Cork.
Furthermore, for the O’Connell tribute of 1843, in Upper Glanmire Bryan Dill made a donation of 2/6 and John Dill made a donation 5/-.9 In the O’Connell tribute of 1845, in the Spring Hill division of the parish Bryan Dill, John Dill and William Dill each made a donation of 5/-.10
Since Edward Dillon, who appears to have no discoverable background, married into the Dill family and the Dills, who have been encamped at Banduff for many years and the domestic records of the Dillons show a substantial dependence on the Dills,11 perhaps a priori one can allege that Brian started his early life in Banduff around the Dill farm. Where he went to school is a mystery and for reasons of dramatic effect one would have hoped he had attended a hedge school on the sunny side of the Blackhills12 where a gifted and talented French refugee schooled in French and English letters filled the wee bairn’s head with thoughts of liberty, equality and fraternity. However, folklore has it that the family moved to the crossroads of Old Youghal Road and Ballyhooly Road and set up a business selling liquor.13 This junction at the time was known as The Barrack Cross. This location may have been chosen because of the proximity of the Barracks further along Old Youghal Road.
With the Stanley Letter in 1831, the National Board of Education was set up creating National Schools in Ireland. St Patrick’s National School, Catholic was built at St Luke’s Cross, Cork City in the year 1841. The school was established to serve the areas of Brickfields, Barrackton, Blackpool and Ballinamought. The school building housed the boys’, girls’ and infants’ schools.14 It is safe to assume Brian Dillon attended this school because he lived in the catchment area and could read and write, although no records exist to support this assertion.
It is said that he joined a firm of solicitors known as Mr WR Copinger, Solicitor, 57 South Mall, Cork City in 1850.15 He then being 20 years of the age. He is described variously as a law clerk, writing clerk16 and conducting clerk.17 I am more inclined to accept the description of writing clerk. Before the advent of typewriters and computers, attorneys and solicitors had the task of producing formal documents for sealing and delivery or for filing in Court. A solicitor might draw and draft a document but his valuable time could not be spent in the painstaking task of producing a deed or Court document in its final form for execution or filing. Writing clerks were employed to engross the document. It is my view that Brian would have been employed in this capacity. As to the question of a conducting clerk, this may mean that he had moved into some form of management role. With his father’s death, it appears he left Copinger and became a publican, took over the tavern; police records and prison records show that Brian’s employment history was recorded as a legal clerk and then as a publican.18
In 1853 Brian Dillon enrolled in The Cork School of Design remaining there until the end of the second term 1859. During that time he was in regular attendance at either the morning classes or the evening classes. His particulars on enrolment were as follows: Brian Dillon, Barrackton,19 writing clerk, 21 years of age. This information is from Brian himself, which strengthens my view that he was probably educated at St Patrick’s National School, St Luke’s Cross, Cork City. In 1856 his enrolment was varied as follows: his address was changed to Dillon’s Cross and he was awarded a bronze medal. As a result of winning this medal his term fees were cut in half. In November 1857, he received an honourable mention for his work. Thomas Dillon was also enrolled commencing on or about December 1857 and paying full fees for his tuition. In 1859 Brian again won a bronze medal for his drawing, he was in stage 8b. This medal was given by way of a bar to his 1856 medal by engraving the year 1859 beside his name on the rim of the medal, which can be clearly seen in the photos of the medal included in this book. His work was also selected to be forwarded to London, there to stand the test of comparison with works from all parts of the United Kingdom for possible selection for a national medal.20 The following is an abridged form of the school’s prospectus:
Cork School of Design
Course of Instruction comprise Free-hand model and elementary drawing, practical geometry, perspective, painting, modeling, Artistic anatomy. Technical instruction in architectural and mechanical drawing, designing, molding and casting in plaster.
Hours and Fees
Morning classes-Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 till 1, ten shillings per term.
Mid-day classes-Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 till 4, ten shillings per term.
Morning and Mid-day together, 15s per term.
Evening classes-Monday, Wednesday and Friday, five shillings per term.
Students holding the Bronze Medal of the Department, half the above rates.21
The emergence of Dillon’s Cross is another one of those mysteries associated with Brian. If the tavern that Mr & Mrs Dillon ran at Barrackton Cross was indeed a hotbed of Fenian intrigue, conspiracies and revolutionaries as McGrath22 says it was and given its relative isolation with the northern side of Cork City, which ended at St Luke’s,23 then it may well have been another Jamaica Inn,24 with stirring renditions by Brian25 of O’Donnell Abu. That side of Cork is often said to be bandit country. So the naming may have arisen out of self-promotion by the Dillons and its popularity with the locals. Slater’s Cork Directory of 1870 records five people who gave their address as Dillon’s Cross. Barrackton Cross could only continue the theme and effect of English oppression. With Queen Victoria’s visit to Cork in 1849, the Barracks were renamed Victoria Barracks. On arrest, Brian’s address was given as his mother’s public house, Dillon’s Cross, St Luke’s. Police indices record him as a publican and active in the Fenians from about 1861 onwards. Judge Keogh in his address to the jury in Brian’s trial refers to a letter from Stephens to O’Leary dated 7 August 1863, which stated: “that if he intended coming to Cork, to call on Bryan Dillon, at Mr Copinger’s, solicitor, South Mall”. The inference that I draw from this is that on his father’s death in 1863 Brian gave up his job with Copinger, took over the tavern and seriously took up the Fenian role of a Cork Centre (of a circle of influence).
Turning now to Brian Dillon’s religious upbringing, Brian was born in Glanmire.26 Living at Dillon’s Cross would have put Brian within the parish of St Patrick’s Church. The building of St Patrick’s Church, Lower Glanmire Road, Cork began in 1832. It was to be a Chapel of Ease to the Cathedral parish and replace the “Brickfield Masshouse”. The exact dates of the design and commencement of construction of the church are unknown. However, a map of Cork dated 1832 clearly shows a Friary on the exact site of St Patrick’s. The new church was first used for Sunday Mass on 11 October 1836 but was not completed for many years later. The priest in charge of its erection from start to finish was a curate of the North Chapel, Patrick W Coffey. He organised collections and meetings and pushed on the completion of the more decorative parts of the work. St Patrick’s was constituted an independent parish in 1848 and included Mayfield and The Glen and extended out to include Ballyvolane.27 This constituted his place of worship and where his family traversed the cycle of birth, marriage and death but how did the overarching influence of church affect him? He saw the election of Pius IX and no doubt he was impressed with the Praedecessores Nostros, a papal encyclical written by Pope Pius IX on 25 March 1847 to address the crisis of the Great Irish Famine but balanced against this would have been Pius’ appointment of the anti-Fenian cleric, Cardinal Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin.
The above has been an attempt to introduce you to Brian and his surroundings, turning now to personal events that may influenced him in someway or other. Of course being the eldest sibling would have allowed him to watch the growth and formation of his family, giving him a special status as the eldest. No doubt the significant trauma he suffered at his “accident” would cause initial and perhaps long-term physical and psychic costs. He doesn’t appear to have suffered post traumatic stress disorder which may support the view he was born a hunchback. The marriage of his brother Edward to Bridget Mary, the daughter of David and Hannah Canavan, on 1 May 1852 in the Catholic Parish of St Patrick, Cork City would once again have driven home his disabilities, although he was one of the witnesses to the marriage together with David Canavan. The birth of Edward’s first child perhaps reinforced his brother’s success in life as opposed to Brian’s lack of progress; circa 1855 whilst Edward and Bridget were still in Cork, Bridget Dillon gave birth to a son, Edward Emmet. He was baptised on 18 July 1855 in the Catholic Parish of St Patrick, Cork City. His sponsors were Brian Dillon and Ann Dill. A matter arising out of the naming of Edward Emmet may shed some light on the political leanings of the family. Edward followed traditional Irish naming practices by naming his first son after his father, Edward snr but added the second name Emmet. On the birth of Edward’s second son, David Tone, he was named after his wife’s father David Canavan and the additional name of Tone was added. Edward’s third son was called Kevin Sarsfield. What is significant is that these three boys carried the names of Irish heroes and revolutionaries. From which one can infer that the family were acutely aware of the historical struggle Irish patriots had made to liberate Ireland from its injustices and torments.
The event that may have impacted on Brian the most was losing his brother Edward and family to immigration. In 1857, Edward, his wife and son left Ireland for Australia. Then in 1863 Brian’s father, Edward snr died, what impact that had is not recorded, like most things about the father. How this unfolded line of events impacted on Brian is difficult to assess let alone giving weight to any one event. He seems to have kept to a straight and steady course except when he gives up his artwork in 1859, which seems mildly inexplicable when Brian is having some success in the art world. It needs to be remembered that there were no cameras at that time and competent drawers and portrait painters were sought after.
The only remaining dimension left is Brian’s personality. From this far-out and with so little written about him compared to the other Fenians who made it to the land of self-promotion and razzmatazz, the USA it seems the going will be tough with slim pickins on the way. We have TC Luby to thank for this observation in trying to resolve a policy dispute between Brian Dillon and Charles Underwood O’Connell:28
Brian, like most deformed people, had a hot temper and Charley a jealous one … Charley sulked a good deal and little Dillon played Hector over him. In good truth, Brian completely silenced his antagonist’s guns; bullied him famously with loud voice and angry gesture. The whole scene was utterly vexatious. Still after listening patiently to a long unprofitable tongue-brawl I managed to patch affairs between the belligerents…29
Luby puts it down to his disability, perhaps a chip on his shoulder (an unfortunate turn of phrase). The other clichéd view is to suggest he suffered from the short man syndrome or the Napoleon Complex and if you believe that he actually took part in drilling and marching the rank and file members in open fields when he held the rank of Colonel and suffered his disabilities, then perhaps his character was one of compensatory aggression. However, after reading his evidence before the Devon Inquiry,30 I would venture to suggest that Brian Dillon had a highly developed sense of righteousness coupled with high intelligence seen through the eyes of a naive and otherworldly person. John O’Leary pans the camera for us so we get a glimpse of another Brian:
Cork has been called the “Athens of Ireland,” and, I think, not without some reason. She has also been christened “Rebel Cork” and, however it may have been with her before or since, at the time of my visit she certainly deserved the name. One day of this visit is still fresh in my memory, when I drove out to Blackrock, Monkstown, or some other place on the route to Queenstown. We dined on the way, or rather, I suppose, on the way back, and, after dinner, mirth and song and wine (or possibly, more literally, whiskey) flowed fast and free, poor Brian Dillon being the most mirthful and tuneful of the throng. The names of the other young men have long since escaped my memory…31
Brian lived through the Famine. Again there is no record of how it affected him or his family; all we have is perhaps the actions of his brother Edward in immigrating with his family to Australia. However, it was a natural catastrophe of devastating consequences. But how did it impact on Brian? I have included this evidence of Michael Sullivan given 10 September 1844 before the Devon Inquiry32 for the purposes of comparing and contrasting Brian’s situation and that of the clichéd image of the bog Irish.
Michael Sullivan, Labourer, Cork
- What quantity of land do you hold? I hold no ground. I am a poor man. I have nothing but my labour.
- Under whom do you hold your house? Under a farmer call Daniel Regan; just a house and an acre of land.
- What do you pay for it? I pay £3; £2 for the acre of ground, and £1 for the house.
- Have you the acre of ground always in the same place? Different acres from time to time. The acre I have this year I cannot have it next year; he will have it himself. I must manure another acre and without friends I could not live; without having some respectable friends who assist me, I would not appear as I am.
- What rate of wage do you get? I get 6d a day every day he calls me; but I am not bound to get employment.
- Have you constant employment? No; but whenever he wishes to call me, he gives me 6d a day and my diet; and then at other times I go down into the county and earn £1 or 30s, according to the wages there.
- Where do you generally go? To the lower part of this county, I may work in the county of Tipperary or Limerick.
- Is that at harvest time? Yes; I went out in harvest time, and work in digging potatoes.
- What family have you? I have five children.
- Are there seven of you to be supported? Yes.
- What age is the eldest child? One of them is twelve years the 6th of last May; the other nine, and so on.
- Are any of the children employed by farmers? Not one.
- How do you manage upon 6d a day to support the family? My landlord has a road making for the use of the farm, and has employed the tenants there and I cannot deny but I have employment at the present hour.
- What is your general food for the family? Nothing at all but dry potatoes.
- Have you fish? Not one, except they may bring a pen’orth home in a month; but it is not one in a month or once in three months. If my poor wife sells her eggs or makes up a skein of thread, in the market, she may take home with her a pen’orth or two pen’orth of something to nourish the children for that night; but in general I do not use 5s of kitchen from one end of the year to the other, except what I may get at Christmas.
- Have you generally milk with your potatoes? Not a drop. I have no means of getting it. I would think myself middling happy if I could give the five children that; and if they were near a National School I could give them schooling. I have an idea of giving them schooling as well as I can. A better labouring man than what I am cannot afford his children any schooling, and even some of the people called farmers do the same place.
- Are there any free schools? Not convenient to that place.
- Are you anxious that your children should be taught to read and write? Yes; and I am striving and without the assistance of my good friends I could not do it?
- What does your wife make by the week from her eggs? I cannot give you the account of that. She may make 2s 6d or 3s now. She may be the means of making up that. That is not regular as it ought. The farmer has a cornfield convenient, and we must keep the fowls from the cornfield.
- Have you not a little garden attached to the house? Yes, for 400 cabbages or so.
- Have you a pig? Yes.
- Have you a pig-house? No.
- Where is he kept? He must be kept in some part of the house, in a corner.
- Have you room for a pig-sty outside? No. I might make room for the pig, if I was sure of the house for a second year, but I do not mean to go to the trouble; and many the same as me do not do so, not being sure of the house for a second year.33
This evidence is the stuff revolutions are made of but I doubt that Brian Dillon, even for one moment, ever cast his mind over or ever sought out the peasant farmer living in a hovel. I suspect Brian was attracted to Young Ireland whose leaders were predominantly intellectuals and journalists: the Protestant poet Thomas Davis; the Catholics Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon. They thought in terms of an independent Irish nation, rather than in terms of Irishmen. Most of Young Ireland could not speak or understand Gaelic, the language spoken by half the Irish population, and saw the repeal struggle very differently from O’Connell. They stressed Irish culture and the differences between England and Ireland in race, religion, language and outlook.34 Given that Cork City was the scene of many of the horrors of the Famine and although Brian was merely a teenager, I suspect the way he endured the Famine is perhaps through his hip pocket; to some extent it meant starvation and disease but for a lot it meant no ready cash. When all around you might be dying of starvation and disease, to the individual who retains his health, lack of ready cash can and often does cause acute anxiety and feelings of insecurity; and if you have an external agent who is the cause of your misery i.e. the English, then it is not hard to culture a grievance against that entity. The prevailing economic theory of the time was one of laissez-faire, which meant no injection of government money but merely the good old Christian values of alms for the poor. The fact that Brian lived on the south-facing northern heights of Cork City may have contributed to his survival as disease was rife in the city at that time. It is said the wealthier merchants and members of the prosperous middle classes left the inner city for Montenotte, Tivoli, Blackrock and other suburbs. By the time the Famine ended Brian was in employment. As O’Leary put it:
The Famine of ’45, in so far as it influenced the ’48 movement and inflamed the minds of men both then and after against England, had, no doubt, some bearing upon Fenianism; and certainly the failure of the tenant-right movement had a very direct bearing upon it.35
I cannot leave the Famine without giving Archbishop Cullen the last word: … the Famine of ’45 was a dispensation of Providence, to drive the Irish abroad to spread the Catholic faith.36
Turning to the wider world, perhaps a thumbnail sketch of English history might fortify the reader with a benchmark to gauge the unfolding events of Brian Dillon’s life. Henry VIII was a Catholic and a merry old wife slayer at that. However, he clashed with the Pope over personal matters pertaining to his ability and prerogative to father male heirs to his Crown and Kingdom. The Pope, being a contumacious, nit-picking, pettifogging hedge of a cleric, would not give Henry the dispensations he sought to implement his solution to the crisis of not having fit and lawful male heirs to his kingdom. Whatever the merits of the grand dispute were, they are now irrelevant. The upshot is that Henry VIII established his own church, the Church of England and then began an intensive legislative and executive programme to destroy the Catholic Church in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; to seize its property, and to disenfranchise and discriminate against those who professed the Catholic faith; that is to say, religious cleansing. This royal policy was re-affirmed by subsequent monarchs with varying degrees of brutality. So effective was the Catholic pogrom that, although they lived within his realms and territories, they were virtually invisible. This can be said without doubt about Ireland where 80% of the population was Catholic. If ever a race of people lived in official pretermission and neglect, the Irish Catholics must be near the top of the list. Over time this has bred in the United Kingdom a type of irrational and delusional form of Protestant theology based on an inability to reconcile the Old Testament and the New Testament thus madly swinging from Paisleyian hysteria of Popish plots to the limp-wristed Anglicanism of women priests and gay clergy.
The difficulty in giving an historical narrative of events leading up to the birth, education and advancement of Brian Dillon is that one can never know what world events, if any, had an influence on him or what version of the event he knew. Cork did have daily newspapers which covered world events. Any historical preamble to his life and times would perhaps for convenience start with the French Revolution 1789-99. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the American War of Independence 1775-83 which pre-dates the French Revolution. In endeavouring to see the world through Brian Dillon’s eyes and how he might have interpreted what he saw and how he acted on it, one must always remember he was born and raised a Cork Catholic and from his words in the dock before sentencing … it did not follow because of my social status that I intended to appropriate the property of others. My belief in the ultimate independence of Ireland is as fixed as my religious beliefs; Brian remained a committed Catholic. Moreover, we have no reliable information as to what schools he attended or what books he read. So the upshot of trying to make an assessment of Brian Dillon’s philosophical and political commitments is well-nigh impossible. However, the above events were world shattering and he must have been aware of them. The American War of Independence would have shown that a colony of the Kingdom of Great Britain could break away and thrive. Whether he understood that the success of the breakaway movement depended on armed insurrection and allies of the status and size of France, Spain and the Dutch is unknown. Since there were few Catholics in the United States of America at that time, perhaps the Church showed little interest in the American War of Independence. Nevertheless, it demonstrated that the underdog or the oppressed can rise up and triumph. The French Revolution was different. It sought to destroy and remove the Catholic Church. Moreover, it degenerated into a bloodbath where the concept of peace, good government and the rule of law no longer held sway. The Directory sent Bonaparte the following instructions.
The Roman religion will always be the irreconcilable enemy of the Republic; first by its essence, and next, because its servants and ministers will never forgive the blows which the Republic has aimed at the fortune and standing of some, and the prejudices and habits of others. The Directory requests you to do all that you deem possible, without rekindling the torch of fanaticism, to destroy the papal Government, either by putting Rome under some other power or by establishing some form of self-government which would render the yoke of the priests odious.37
The Directory was in turn overthrown by Napoleon who restored the Catholic Church in France. However, relations between him and Pius VII were not harmonious. Though Catholics in France prayed and said Masses for the defeat of the English this was of no concern to the Pope. It has been argued that in Ireland the effect of the French Revolution was to cause Protestant settlers to seek some alleviation of their conditions. This led on to the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen which recruited to its ranks Theobald Wolfe Tone. Although a Protestant he realised that the Catholic majority had to be involved in the organisation. The Roman Catholic Relief Act UK of 1791 gave some concessions. In 1792, a town meeting in Belfast saw a declaration in favour of full Catholic emancipation, opposing suggestions for a gradual process. In an attempt to prevent a union of the Catholic Committee and radicalised Protestants, the government during 1792 passed yet more bills repealing laws against Catholics. Despite this, whilst they could appeal for further civil rights, Catholics were to be firmly refused political enfranchisement. This refusal only helped the cause of the union, which the establishment had been seeking to prevent. The British naturally opposed the French Revolution and everything it stood for. Efforts were made to bring about the down fall of the governments arising out of the Revolution by whatever means available.
When a French invasion force turned up on the doorstep of Bantry Bay, this stiffened British resistance to Irish agitation that continued even in the face of what the British saw as substantial concessions to the Irish in general and the Catholics in particular. It has to be remembered that Britain and France were at war, and the activities of the French in Ireland and of the local people constituted not only a threat to British rule but could adequately be described as acts of war against the British. The British carried out a military campaign against the Irish and captured Wolfe Tone. He committed suicide rather than hang from the end of a rope as a common criminal. Thus Wolfe Tone entered the pantheon of Irish heroes.
Balanced against the mix of religion, politics and the Irish desire for some form of liberation the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1891 must take its place on the rostrum of debate. The Dublin United Irishman sold an abbreviated version at one penny and it was distributed free in Cork.38 The Presbyterian moderator, Henry Cooke, before the 1825 Commission of Education said that the works of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, a political work, and Age of Reason, a deistical one, were industriously circulated.39 The Rights of Man was immensely popular and was widely read by all manner of men.
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was a failure. The next step for the British was to abolish the Irish Parliament and introduce the Act of Union of 1800 to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The next Irish patriot to enter the lists was Robert Emmet who led the 1803 uprising. He too paid the ultimate penalty of death by hanging for treason. He also entered the pantheon of Irish heroes. Whatever may have continued to be played out in Ireland, the Napoleonic War (1803-15) ground to an end with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo by an Irishman, Arthur Wesley. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 22 January 1828 to 16 November 1830 and again from 14 November 1834 to 10 December 1834. Moreover, the French king was restored to his throne and for all intents and purposes nothing had changed.
Then out of the Irish mist appeared Daniel O’Connell and his Catholic Association. The local parish church became a shopfront for the O’Connell’s organisation and collected a penny a month from each Catholic after Mass of a Sunday. The organisation and O’Connell became so popular and wealthy (960,000 pennies a month), that he was elected to a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell as a Roman Catholic was forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. The Catholic Relief Act 1829 in Ireland saw the last vestiges of the Test Act 1673 and the remaining penal laws introduced by the Disenfranchising Act of the Irish Parliament of 1728 swept away for ever. The Relief Act allowed members of the Catholic faith to sit in the Parliament at Westminster. However, the Parliamentary Elections (Ireland) Act 1829 which accompanied emancipation and received its Royal Assent on the same day was the payoff; it disenfranchised the minor landholders of Ireland, the so-called Forty Shilling Freeholders and raised fivefold the economic qualification for voting. The Relief Act contained some tiresome provisions such as excluding Catholics from a few of the higher civil and military offices, prohibiting priests from wearing vestments outside their churches and bishops from assuming the titles of their sees. In other respects Catholics were placed on a level with other denominations, and at last were admitted within the pale of the constitution. From that hour O’Connell was the uncrowned king of Ireland. Where he led the people followed. Working within the organisation was shown to have failed as no meaningful advancement for Catholics came out of Westminster. The Repeal of the Union fizzled at the hands of his wretched party, men without capacity or patriotism. His acceptance of offices for his friends and his alliances with the Whigs was perhaps a sign of betrayal, bad faith. Lastly, as he neared the end, he lost the support of Young Ireland, the most vigorous and capable section of his followers. These things embittered his last days and hastened his death in 1847.40
The Irish revolutionary spirit left the decaying corpse of O’Connell’s Repeal party and was reincarnated in Young Ireland who agitated for independence of the Irish nation, for a national parliament with full legislative and executive powers. At its founding, the movement resolved to be based on principles of freedom, tolerance and truth. Young Ireland dissolved into another puddle of failure after a shootout with police at Ballingarry. The spirit, not to be lost on another failure, slipped away to France in the form of James Stephens and John O’Mahony to reappear in the form of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The IRB was established on a military basis, with the first four letters of the alphabet used instead of the ordinary titles: A standing for Colonel, B for Captain, C for Sergeant and D for Private.
I arrived in Dublin next morning, Patrick’s Day. I found James Stephens in his lodgings, and delivered the money and a letter from the Committee. That evening, March 17, 1858, the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood was brought into existence. An obligation was adopted, and each in turn bound himself by it—Stephens first; Luby was second, who declared himself now ready to devote his best efforts to its fulfilment. All the others, Langan, Garret O’Shaughnessy and myself, each took the obligation. We were all supremely joyous and anxious for the work. The form of oath or text which was administered and which Luby drafted was as follows:
I, A B, in the presence of the Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established, and that I will do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and, finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officers. So help me God. Amen.41
Next morning I left for Cork,42 and met Stephens and Luby at the Commercial Hotel. … We had arranged to meet our Cork friends at Carroll’s that evening. When the hour came all were on hand. Among the advanced Nationalists were Carroll, Bryan Dillon, Morty Moynahan and James Mountain. These I remember distinctly. They made a deep impression on me as they were the most advanced men I had up to that time fallen in with. It was an evening well spent and shall never be forgotten. It brought me in touch with men who were abreast of the times, and who by their efforts redeemed the city’s good name, and made it the first on the roll of honour in Ireland.43
We have O’Donovan Rossa to thank for proving Brian Dillon, as early as September 1860, was exercising his authority as a Centre for Cork City. O’Donovan Rossa’s letters can seen in the Chapter Five—Letters.44
This is one chapter from the resolutions of the Irish Congress held in Chicago 1863, Resolutions of the First General Convention of the Fenian Brotherhood. This document was found in the possession of Brian Dillon and was used against him to prove his treason.
Whereas, We feel firmly convinced that the British tyrants could not keep Ireland much longer enthralled if the Irish citizens of the American Republic were closely allied to and cordially cooperating for the redemption of their fatherland with their brethren still living on the Irish soil together with those expatriated Irishmen, who are planted by thousands, like so many hostile garrisons, throughout Great Britain, in the very centre of her manufacturing and commercial wealth, throughout her colonies and even in her imperial capital, driven from their ancestral homes by the fell agencies of the tyrannical laws of England; be it
Resolved, That we, the representatives of the Fenian Brotherhood, labour with all our energies and talents, with stern will, steadfast zeal, and ceaseless exertion, to organize, combine and concentrate those great elements of Irish national power which an all wise Providence has, it would seem for purposes of retributive justice, placed within the reach of the present generation of Irishmen; and that we direct their whole force, moral and material, from all points toward the overthrow of British tyranny in Ireland and the establishment of an independent government in its stead.45
The following statements can be found in The Irish People of 1864 and 1865:
We have insisted, over and over again, that there is but one way in which Irishmen can benefit themselves fundamentally, and that is by regaining their lost independence, and at the same time re-conquering the land for the people.
Our beautiful and fruitful land will become a grazing farm for the foreigners’ cattle, and the remnant of our race wanderers and outcasts all over the world if English rule in Ireland be not struck down. Our only hope is revolution.
The above is a description of the birth of the IRB. What then is Fenianism? It has been interchanged with the IRB and the Fenian Brotherhood without objection. At the end of the day a definition is of little consequence here. The real question is what did Brian Dillon understand Fenianism to mean? Again we are left with a mystery because he left no writings from which we might decipher his understanding of the cause or what he hoped to achieve other than the vague but always easily supported ideal of the removal of the British from the fabric of Irish society; Ireland for the Gael. The letters of Rossa suggest Brian Dillon was a very early member of the IRB, perhaps, right from its inception and he seems to have always been a Centre (The head or centre of a Fenian circle in Cork.). It further appears that he had a great deal of influence and currency with all and sundry, with easy access to the leaders particularly Luby.
The above statements can perhaps fit easily within the ferment of reform that was stirring all across Europe as different nations and peoples sought to overthrow their particular ancient regime. 1848 was a year for revolutions, which ones Brian picked up on is unclear; perhaps as a Catholic he pondered the future of the Papal States and the Italian desire for a unified country. Was he a student of the new political theory of socialism? The Communist Manifesto had been published; had he thought deeply on what it held as a platform from which to launch a dialectic against British rule in Ireland? Among the advanced nationalists were Carroll, Bryan Dillon … does this mean Brian was an advanced scholar of political theory and revolutionary practices or is it a mere acknowledgment that he was a loyal and committed party hack, a yes-man?
Unlike his neo-Young Ireland, educated, middleclass leaders, the average Fenian was, according to Patriotism as Pastime, an eminently clubbable young artisan, with time on his hands, and ‘in need of social and recreational outlets’. For most of its members, argued Comerford, Fenianism was less a revolutionary political organisation than an elaborate male-bonding exercise.46
I accept there is some merit in the above argument to this extent. If you look at Dillon’s dock speech and Luby’s47 dock speech, each accused, after listening to the Crown pounding them to smithereens with their own Fenian ideology and rhetoric concerning their military organisation’s (the IRB’s) intention to overthrow the British government, responded by saying they never really intended to hurt anybody. I submit that some of the leading Fenians were politicians who had no idea of revolutionary political theory. Particularly the type experienced during the twentieth century such as Mao:
Where there is naivety on the question of military power, nothing whatsoever can be achieved. It is very difficult for the labouring people, who have been deceived and intimidated by the reactionary ruling classes for thousands of years, to awaken to the importance of having guns in their own hands.48
This is not the place for me to try and distil Fenian revolutionary theory; my view is that as a group, they had not got much further in their political thinking than the foundering fathers of the American Constitution which was greatly influenced by Paine, who to my mind was a naive, cracker-barrel philosopher, obsessed with ideas of equality. He put forward the idea that man is born with a set of rights that makes him equal to his fellow human being; thus, these rights remain with the individual and can not be forfeited or legislated away by tyrants, dictators or monarchs. If one looks at the Fenian oath above, it says: swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established (meaning it is a foregone conclusion). I take that to mean that at some stage in Ireland’s long history; it was constituted as a republic. Or did the Fenians take a national plebiscite on establishing an Irish republic with the vote taken on the voices and the affirmative results communicated to them by gnosis? Of course, there is not a scrap of empirical evidence to support either of these propositions. But if a Fenian assumed that, (which I think they did) then all one is doing is restoring the status quo. It does not require a revolution because the Irish always had a republic or the majority (of the Irish) always wanted a republic and in either case the British were standing in their way.49
Thus a Fenian would argue in a court of arbitration that all they are seeking is the return of their original government and land: self determination. There is no need for war or bloodshed and the British should have no difficulty in seeing the merits of the case. This is perhaps a simplistic description of post colonial independence policy. However, how can you have a republic without bloodshed as the IRA proved, unless you have a Platonic one, an ideal, something to ponder and debate? Was their virtual republic the product of an American looking glass showing serried ranks with drums and fifes?
There is a third view of the Fenians of 1865 and we have The Spectator to thank for that. It perhaps has some legitimacy being contemporaneous with events. The Spectator acknowledged that the Fenians are made up of ignorant trades’ people:
Its leaders are such mean people, a schoolmaster, a tailor, a news agent, a fifth-rate journalist, and a discharged serjeant. But rather than laugh at such a mean lot as most Englishmen have done to date, one needs to remember the Indian mutiny which was started by ignorant sepoys in circumstances where they had no chance of winning. It is their ignorance that makes them dangerous because they are unpredictable and not amenable to the normal ways of diplomacy or war. If they were men of education, or standing, or wealth, a politician would have some basis for calculation. They can reason, or argue, or concede, or at worst, coerce; with O’Connell, it was possible to deal by compromise. But no man can anticipate even in thought the course these Fenian leaders would adopt. They are capable of rebelling in a county in which they have not a hundred followers, of trying to seize Cork and defeat its garrison with a squad of half-drilled peasants, of hurling their followers barehanded on to men armed with Enfield rifles. Therefore the Fenians are formidable, not indeed to the Empire, but to the peace and good order of certain Irish counties. They are contemptible, their means are trifling, and their organization is ludicrously defective; why arrest fifty or sixty obscure fools for talking treason and drilling with big sticks?50
I give the last word to that great Irish thinker, James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Stephen began to quote: Long pace, fianna! Right incline, fianna! Fianna, by numbers, salute, one, two!
That’s a different question, said Davin. I’m an Irish nationalist, first and foremost. But that’s you all out. You’re a born sneerer, Stevie.
When you make the next rebellion with hurleysticks, said Stephen, and want the indispensable informer, tell me. I can find you a few in this college.
What fired Brian’s imagination; what lit the fire in his belly; what put the sword in his hand? The following observation was made in his obituary by the Cork Examiner:
From his early youth he exhibited national tendencies, and, while yet young, he took an active part in the movement of 1848; in the organisation, set on foot in 1849, by Lalor and worked up and developed by James Stephens. In 1858, Brian Dillon was a prominent member, and for years he laboured with sincerity to forward the interest of the Irish Republican Party.51
The police assessment of Brian was as follows: In 1864 reported a prominent Fenian; in 1865 was Centre for Cork, was a publican, had been an Attorney’s clerk; convicted 14 December 1865 of Treason Felony; sentenced to 10 years; order for conditional release 20 January 1871 and arrived Cork 13 February 1871. I am sure he dreamed of an Ireland ruled by the Irish, free from British dominance. But had he thought it through to the bitter end of how he might deal with the other fellow who would not yield and deliver up to the new Irish republic?