Why Write About Dynamite?

When The Dynamiter was published in 1885, a transnational group advocating for an independent Irish republic called the Fenians was on the tail end a four year bombing campaign on densely-populated and highly symbolic areas in Great Britain. In a precursor to the contemporary globalized terrorist strategy of unleashing mass violence in urban areas frequented by civilians, the dynamiter campaign successfully sewed the first seeds of fear in Britain over the gravity and power of Irish nationalists.

Public Domain

N.Y. : Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1885 February 4. Public Domain

The height of the campaign’s success was from 1883-1885, and began in Glasgow, where the Fenians successfully damaged a gasworks, coal shed, and twelve bystanders.1 The campaign then moved to London, where bombs went off at Whitehall and The Times offices, injuring no one but causing damage to both buildings.2 This was enough to attract the serious attention of the British government. “There can be no doubt we are in the midst of a large and well organised and fully equipped band who are prepared to commit outrages all over the country on an immense scale,” a liberal and influential member of parliament wrote to Prime Minister William Gladstone.3

For the next two years, the Fenians managed to detonate explosions at Victoria Station, St. James Square, Scotland Yard, the Chamber of the House of Commons, the stairs outside the crypt in Westminster Hall, the Tower of London, and three tube stations.4

For all the success these detonations and declarations might seem to represent, and all the fear the bombers may have managed to instill, the Fenians still had more mishaps than successes, and failed to cause anywhere near the destruction they intended; only one hundred citizens were injured in the entirety of the four-year campaign.5

In fact, many of the Fenians’ attempts to dynamite their way to independence were rather hapless. Many of the bombs that went off injured no one, and many more were found before they could be detonated. The elaborate network of domestic secret agents the Fenians constructed often delivered public humiliation rather than intended results. A historian writing twenty years after the event described the case of an ‘“exceedingly pretty” young woman who tried to marshal support for a dynamite plot a double agent had convinced her would go off at a hotel in Dublin in 1884. The young woman was exposed, and made a mockery of in the press.6 One of the movement’s leaders, John Daly, was betrayed by an informant in the British police and arrested carrying a briefcase of dynamite as he boarded a train from Birmingham to London.7

A particularly acute failure was the Fenians’ attempt to blow up London Bridge — the only casualties in the explosion were the three would-be bombers, and the Bridge escaped from the incident unscathed.8

Indeed, many of the dynamiters described in the Stevensons’ The Dynamiter are comically inept. “A chief difficulty with which we have to deal,” an architect of the campaign confesses in one chapter, “is a certain nervousness in the subaltern branches of the corps; as the hour of some design draws near, these chicken-souled conspirators appear to suffer some revulsion of intent; and frequently despatch to the authorities, not indeed specific denunciations, but vague anonymous warnings.” In this case, the “subaltern,” or underling, is a man named M’Guire, who is defined by his haplessness. Dispatched to detonate a bomb in a briefcase under the Shakespeare statue in Leicester Square, a last-minute change of heart leads to an increasingly absurd and ineffectual attempt to separate himself from the briefcase before the bomb detonates.9

As his 1888 essay “Confessions of a Unionist” (which Robert Louis Stevenson submitted to Scribner’s) made quite clear, Robert Louis was no supporter of Irish independence and was indeed disgusted by the dynamiters’ methods and their American support.10 The essay was judged to be so inflammatory that it was not published until 1921, well after the campaign was over and all but Northern Ireland had successfully (and violently) won independence from Britain. The disgust Robert Louis had for the dynamiters seeps into descriptions of them in The Dynamiter, and made the book highly political for its time, rather than the comical succession of tales it might seem to the contemporary reader unaware of its political context.

This was not the only instance of Robert Louis Stevenson producing a politically charged work: though The Dynamiter may have been the most obviously related to current events, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) also went through a period of social relevance beyond what the writer could have imagined. Apart from playing on fears of the era such as the separation of medicine and shamanism, the nature of personality and the subconscious, and issues of ethics, morality, and discipline, there were more immediate concerns about the titular character(s). The 1888 stage production of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde opened during the height of the Whitechapel murders by the notorious Jack the Ripper. The leading man, and celebrated performer, Richard Mansfield, was so convincing in his portrayal of the split good and evil nature of humankind that he was immediately suspected of being behind the murders. While nothing ever came of the accusations, the show’s popularity certainly had something to do with the public obsession with Jack the Ripper and his odious crimes. In the end, Robert Louis was a writer who cared deeply about what was happening in the world around him, and it’s no surprise that his work became closely tied to his social and political milieu.

  1. Porter, Bernard. The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Special Police Special Branch Before the First World War. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987. Print. 27.
  2. Bernard, Vigilant State, 27.
  3. Bernard, Vigilant State, 27-28.
  4. Bernard, Vigilant State, 27-28.
  5. Bernard, Vigilant State, 28.
  6. Whelehan, Niall. The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print. 126.
  7. McGee, Owen. The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood from The Land League to Sinn Féin. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Print. 121.
  8. Bernard, Vigilant State, 28.
  9. Stevenson, Fanny Van de Grift and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Dynamiter. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1903. Print. 128.
  10. Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Confessions of a Unionist.” Galley proof. Robert Louis Stevenson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library. 1888.