‘The Clerkenwell Outrage’ – December 13, 1867

The Clerkenwell explosion, also known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, was a bombing in London on 13 December 1867. The Irish Republican Brotherhood exploded a bomb to try to free one of their members being held at Clerkenwell Prison.

Irish nationalist terrorism predates the IRA-led ‘Troubles’. It goes back, way back.

If you walk in downtown Ottawa, one block south of Parliament Hill, you come across a very modest plaque that marks a murder. This particular murder occurred on April 7, 1868: not even one year after Canada became an independent nation. The victim was Thomas Darcy McGee, a ‘father’ of Confederation. He was shot and killed while returning to his boarding room after having participated in a debate in Parliament.

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The plaque commemorating the assassination placed on a building near the corner of Queen and Metcalfe Streets in Ottawa (Photo: By Lusilier – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The killer was Patrick Whelan, a Fenian sympathiser and a Catholic. He was accused, tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime on 11 February 1869 in Ottawa. Mr. McGee received a state funeral: the funeral procession in Montreal drew an estimated crowd of 80,000 (out of a total city population at the time of 105,000). This was Canada’s first act of terrorism and pointed to the threat from the Fenians.

Wait! Who were the Fenians?

‘Fenian’ is sometimes used as an umbrella term for the ‘Fenian Brotherhood’ and the ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’, organisations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The word itself is derived from fianna – a group of warrior bands in Irish mythology led by Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The strongest Fenian movements were actually in North America – Canada and the US. Upwards of 10,000 US Civil War veterans got together to discuss plans to attack the British in Canada to put pressure on the UK to move on the Irish independence front. Some actually crossed into Canada in 1866 and engaged British troops in what is called the ‘Battle of Ridgeway’ (near Niagara Falls). Success was fleeting, however, and the raiding party went back to the US. By 1871 the movement was essentially defunct in Canada and the US.

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Depiction of the Battle of Ridgeway (Image: Canadian Encyclopedia)
1867 Clerkenwell Outrage

On this day in 1867 the so-called ‘Clerkenwell Outrage’ occurred. An attempt by Fenian extremists to rescue two members being held in the Clerkenwell House of Detention in London was launched, through the use of a barrel bomb. After an initial failed detonation a second bomb went off outside the walls of the prison. The resulting explosion was heard all over London, destroying part the prison wall as well as the front of a row of houses across the street, in all killing 12 people and injuring another 120.

Britain’s ‘first terrorist attack’

This was called ‘Britain’s first terrorist attack’ (what about the 1605 Gunpowder Plot?) and immediately led to much fear and hysteria. Further strikes were expected and it was reported that ‘ twenty babies were killed in the womb by the blast’. It was not, however, the harbinger of a wave of atrocities in the name of Irish nationalism in the UK, at least not for another century.

Terrorism is not a post 9/11 phenomenon: it has been part of us for a very, very long time.

What this incident illustrates is that terrorism is not a post 9/11 phenomenon: it has been part of us for a very, very long time. Wherever there is a cause there are those willing to use violence to achieve their goals.

For my country it also shows that we were born as an independent nation at a time of political violence. Canada is a generally peaceful land but it is not immune from terrorism, driven either by internal or external circumstances. As will forever be the case.

As an aside my three children went to Thomas Darcy McGee elementary school. How’s that for karma?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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