Contributed by Ciaran Wallace
Barry Kennerk’s book deals with the events of October 31st, 1867 when Fenians shot two policemen on Dublin’s Temple Bar. The author uses this as the starting point for an investigation into Dublin’s Victorian underworld. Like the detectives whom he describes, Kennerk delves into the secret world of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), informers, prostitutes and beggars. He goes further however, leading the reader on a fascinating journey through the city’s medical, legal and political establishment.
The central ‘whodunit?’ is followed in painstaking detail, from minute descriptions of attackers, victims and witnesses, to the lighting arrangements in the courtroom. Indeed such is the evident depth of detail that one wonders whether presenting the story as an historical novel would have done greater justice to the extensive research and the writer’s apparent flair for mood and atmosphere.
The streets come alive in many parts of the book. Dublin’s tightly-packed and gossipy citizenry follow the shooting, and ensuing investigation and trial, with enthusiastic interest. Public men like the surgeon, the barristers and civic officials appear as mid-Victorian celebrities. Much of the story seems
quite contemporary. Railways, photography and forensics all played a part in the events described. Newspaper (or perhaps government) ‘spin’ created the public mood surrounding the trial. Officials covered their own mistakes in reports and dispatches, and policy was based on political rather than
administrative necessity. Modern as the 1860s were however, stark differences are clear. Kennerk shows that poverty was more pronounced, sanitation was inadequate and surgery was rudimentary. Perhaps the greatest difference was the level of violence and the easy availability of firearms on the city’s streets. A sense of public fear, stoked up to near hysteria by the press, pervades the chapters on the police investigation.
The authorities faced a challenging task. Apart from a network of sympathisers in Ireland, the IRB had members across the UK. Police and politicians at Dublin Castle feared a swarm of armed and experienced Fenian gunmen returning from the battlefields of the American Civil War. The international dimension also extended to Europe, where the IRB sought arms. Colonial attitudes among senior officials in Dublin and Westminster, trained as governors of the Indian empire, blended with the entrenched assumptions among the permanent officials of the Irish administration. The distance between governors and governed was a hindrance to official anti-terror measures. Senior policemen were much closer to the situation, but they operated in daily fear for their lives. The administration benefitted however, from weaknesses within the republican movement.
The author bravely tackled the complex web of relationships between the American, Irish and British elements of the IRB. Any secret organisation, with a membership of ex-prisoners and men on the run, distributed around discrete cells in multiple jurisdictions, may be expected to suffer from difficulties in internal communications. A blend of informers, infiltrators, individual egos and paranoia hampered the Brotherhood’s activities. Who could be trusted? Who should be supported and who eliminated? Lack of funds was also a serious impediment, leading to aggrieved members living in dire straits, making the network vulnerable to government inducements.
Opening with an author’s note, the book emphasises the reliability of the research. A Dramatis Personae confirms this by listing the thirty-nine most prominent names encountered in the text, along with their official position or arrest date as appropriate. Two appendices also bear out the author’s investigations. One lists the membership of the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s ‘G Division’, giving with each man’s rank, number, place of origin and date of appointment. The other lists members of the IRB suspected of involvement in the Temple Bar shootings. Accompanied by comprehensive footnotes, these elements support the facts in the book, however they point to a profusion of detail. It was a familiar feeling to see so many hours of arduous research displayed on the page – familiar because I too am tempted to include
every interesting or quirky detail when I write a paper. The Temple Bar shootings led to a dramatic chain of event with exciting results; on occasion I felt that the detail got in the way of a great story. Some atmospheric paragraphs and literary twists suggest that the author too might have enjoyed a less academic approach. As it is, I recommend this book as an authoritative insight into a Dickensian Dublin– and a gripping story which is all the more interesting for being true.
Mercier Press, Cork, 2010.