Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Terrorism in Dostoevsky and Conrad – a Response from Irish History

Mark Harkin’s article on Terrorism in Dostoevsky and Conrad, and in particular the reference to terrorists as “Psychopaths, misfits, dropouts and lost souls…” may have a particular resonance in the post 9/11 New York suicide bombings era. Yet for an Irish historian the concept of the guerilla soldier as a mindless terrorist driven solely by existential rage is too narrow a focus.

Certainly in the nineteenth century members of the Fenian movement dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland would fit that pattern. Particularly the group of Fenians who called themselves ‘The Invincibles’. Members of this group killed the British Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and his under-Secretary Thomas Burke in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in May 1882. The killings were particularly gruesome and were carried out with surgical knives. The Fenians were also responsible for a series of bombings in Britain in the 1880’s. This was at a time when democratic politics in Ireland were in the ascendant. The majority of the Irish members of parliament at Westminister were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party under the leadership of Charles Parnell and they sought a form of Irish self-government within the United Kingdom called ‘Home Rule’. This campaign was pursued through peaceful democratic means and the terrorists were very much outsiders.

At the beginning of the twentieth century in 1912 the Irish Parliamentary Party, under its then leader John Redmond, had succeeded in having a Home Rule bill passed at Westminister. This led to a political crisis in Ireland brought about by the formation of the largely Protestant Ulster Volunteers who pledged to oppose Home Rule, followed by the formation of the largely Catholic Irish Volunteers who sought its implementation. Ireland was in a state of incipient civil war and only the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 prevented this. Home Rule was suspended until the end of the war and large numbers of both the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers joined the British Army. However at Easter 1916 a rump of the Irish Volunteers and the socialist Irish Citizen Army together staged an insurrection in Dublin that lasted for over a week and led to many military and civilian deaths. The British defeated the insurrectionists and executed sixteen of the leaders and interned the remainder. The insurrectionists had declared an Irish Republic and both the Irish Volunteer and Irish Citizen Army elements had renamed themselves the Irish Republic Army (IRA). A name that would later have much resonance in modern Irish History.

the guerilla war that was carried out against British rule in Ireland between 1919 and 1921 was very different to the pattern of events described in either Dostoevsky or Conrad.

When the First World War was over at the end of 1918 the British Government called a general election. In Ireland the political tide had shifted largely as a result of hostility to the executions of the 1916 leaders. The republicans’ political party Sinn Féin won the majority of the Irish seats at Westminister and the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond was eliminated. The new MPs refused to attend at Westminister and met in Dublin in January 1919 and declared Ireland to be a republic and formed their own parliament, the Dáil. The IRA was declared to be the army of the Republic and was responsible to the elected parliament. Therefore the guerilla war that was carried out against British rule in Ireland between 1919 and 1921 was very different to the pattern of events described in either Dostoevsky or Conrad. The IRA was formed into divisions and had a command and staff structure that was responsible to a Minister for Defence appointed by the Dáil. Nevertheless the pattern of guerilla tactics used by the IRA against the British forces has become the template for subsequent independence movements in the twentieth century. These consisted of ambushes of police and military patrols, raids for arms, civil disturbances, and a form of urban guerilla warfare that broke down the operation of the British administration in Ireland. The IRA could strike and then melt back into the civilian population where they received support and concealment. The IRA’s best-known member, Michael Collins, was the organizations Director of Intelligence. However, he was also the elected Member of Parliament for Co. Cork. Many other MPs also performed this dual role and it was this political reality that led to the Truce that was declared between the British and the Irish in July 1921.

The Irish delegation that went to Downing Street in 1921 to negotiate for an independent Ireland with the British Government included the leader of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, and the IRA leader Michael Collins. In the post World War Two period of independence movements seeking to end colonial control this pattern of a guerilla movement operating within and drawing its support from the community would be used again, notably in Cyprus and Malaya. Objectively it can be said that all war is a form of terrorism. But not all ‘terrorists’ conform to the same pattern.

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