Some died by the glenside, some died mid the strangerDown by the Glenside – Peadar Kearney
And wise men have told us their cause was a failure
But they stood by old Ireland and never feared danger
Glory O, Glory O, to the Bold Fenian Men
The role of the Fenians (a blanket term used to describe both the Irish Republican Brotherhood, established in Ireland in 1858 and its sister organisation, the Fenian Brotherhood, established in America a year later) in the history of Irish Republicanism is a controversial and oft contested one. In many respects, the Fenian movement of the mid-to-late 19th century can be perceived as an abject failure, comprising a series of botched and calamitous insurrections that in many instances, amounted to little more than minor skirmishes. That being said, it is imperative that the legacy of Fenianism and that of its custodians is viewed through the prism of Irish Republicanism and the struggle for Irish freedom as a whole. “If another decade was allowed to pass without an endeavour of some kind or another to shake of the unjust yoke”, wrote IRB founder James Stephens, “the Irish people would sink into a lethargy from which it would be impossible for any patriot to rouse them”. At the funeral of the ‘unrepentant Fenian’, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, Padraig Pearse’s graveside oration mentioned how even in defeat, the endeavours of Rossa and his contemporaries inspired a ‘new generation re-baptised in the Fenian faith’. It was that generation of revolutionaries whose deeds in the years following Rossa’s death ultimately put an end to British rule over much of the island.
Though rooted in Kilkenny, the birthplace of two of the founders of the IRB, Stephens and Michael Doheny, Cork is viewed by many as the real capital of Fenianism. During the 1860’s, IRB membership in Cork vastly surpassed that of other counties and when Stephens embarked on his 3,000km walk of the country in 1856, aimed at gauging the mood of the nation and the appetite for insurrection among the masses, he drew considerable support around Cork city and West Cork. It was on this nationwide tour that Stephens came into contact with Brian Dillon, through the acquaintance of shoe manufacturer, John Mountaine. When Joseph Denieffe, another Kilkenny native jettisoned in America, made a trip to Cork to ‘test the ground’ for future Rising, he too was contented with the desire for revolt in the city. “Among the advanced Nationalists were [William O’] Carroll, Brian Dillon, Morty Moynahan and James Mountaine”, wrote Denieffe, “and they were the most advanced men I had up to that point fallen in with…and who by their efforts redeemed the city’s good name”. Mountaine had the distinction of becoming the first Corkman to take the IRB oath. Dillon soon followed.
Like Mountaine and others of his ilk, Dillon’s revolutionary ideals were borne from the hardship, suffering and prejudice endured by the majority of the Irish populace at the time. Born in 1830 to parents Edward Dillon and Margaret Dill (similarity of surnames coincidental), Dillon arrived into an Ireland that had, through the emancipatory work of Daniel O’Connell, just freed itself from the last of the Penal Laws. While middle-class Catholic families such as Dillon’s may have been the main beneficiaries of such reforms, this did little to quell young Brian’s ardent nationalism. Dillon grew up in a small house on the road leading from Ballyvolane Cross to Rathcooney but moved at an early age with his family to a house at Barrackton Cross, at the junction of Old Youghal Road and Ballyhooley Road. There, his parents opened a tavern and the junction soon became known colloquially as Dillon’s Cross.
Little is known of Dillon’s schooling. However, it can be assumed that he attended Brickfields Male and Female Free School, which operated from the upper storey of two adjoining houses on the nearby Lower Glanmire Road. In 1833, the school was taken in under the National Education system (following the passing of the National Education Act of 1831) but ceased to exist in 1840. The following year, St. Patrick’s National School opened at St. Luke’s Cross, down the road from Barrackton Cross, and it is here that Dillon assumably continued his education. While no records exist of Dillon’s schooling, that he received an education is unquestionable. He could read and write and by the age of eighteen, he would undoubtedly have been following the reports of the Young Irelanders (a precursor to the IRB) and Smith O’Brien’s failed uprising at the Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch. At the age of twenty, Dillon joined W.R Coppinger’s solicitors on 57 South Mall in Cork City, where he began work as a writing clerk, tasked with finalising deeds and documents for filing in court.
It is likely that Dillon, at this time, was a member of one of the many Confederate Clubs, nationalist organisations which sprang up around the country in the lead up to the failed rising in ’48. At their peak, these clubs boasted a combined membership of more than 40,000 people, with thirty-three separate clubs operating out of Cork alone. At this time, Dillon was also a member of the Tuckey St. National Reading Rooms, a society of patriotic Corkmen, whose affiliation at the time included that of Ballymacoda’s own Michael O’Brien, later to be hanged as one of the Manchester Martyrs. In 1863, Dillon’s father Edward died, after which he left his job at Coppinger’s to take over the tavern at Barrackton (Dillon’s) Cross. It is at this point that Dillon’s role in the Fenian movement began to take hold over his life and the tavern became a hotbed of revolutionary meetings and murmurings.
Like all Fenians around the country, the Fenians in Cork was very much a clandestine operation. They secretely drilled and secured arms and waited patiently, and ofttimes frustratingly, for Stephens to give the go ahead for revolt. While little is known of what Dillon’s involvement with the movement entailed, letters sent from O’Donovan Rossa indicate that he was an authoritative figure in the organisation as early as 1860. To maintain secrecy, the Fenians adopted a cell system, comprising colonels (‘A’), captains (‘B’), sergeants (‘C’) and foot-soldiers (‘D’). In theory at least, an IRB leader (‘A’) would set up a ‘circle’ of nine ‘B’s, who each swore in nine ‘C’s, who in turn enlisted nine ‘D’s. Stephens and another of the IRB’s founding members, Thomas Clarke Luby toured the country establishing ‘circles’ and it is believed that Dillon held the rank of colonel over his circle in Cork.
Geary’s public-house on North Main Street, a blacksmith’s forge off Bishop St. and the premises of the Cooper’s Society on Dominick St. provided the principal meeting places for covert discussion and lectures on engineering and military training. Meanwhile, ‘Fair Field’ and ‘the Tawnies’ (near Rathpeacon) acted as a the staging grounds for Dillon’s circle, and it’s there they practiced manoeuvres and exercises in preparation for rebellion. Late in 1864 however, John Warner, a native of Bandon, was accepted into the Fenian ranks in Cork. Warner had previously served as a British soldier during the Crimean War, before he spontaneously ‘became a Catholic’. Despite his background (or perhaps, because of it – very few Fenians would have had any military experience), Warner was welcomed into Dillon’s circle and became a key figure in co-ordinating drilling procedures. The naivety of the Cork Fenians in enlisting such a figure would soon prove costly.
It is probable that Dillon and his men were already under the watchful eye of British intelligence when Warner provided the evidence needed to support suspicions that a Rising was imminent. Warner informed a magistrate that the IRB in Cork were plotting to attack barracks, seize the weapons and kill the Catholic Bishop of Cork, who had opposed Fenianism. Geary’s pub was given as the headquarters for sedition. And on the evening of September 15th 1865, the fateful blow fell. The raids started around midnight and Dillon was one of the first to be arrested, dragged from his home at Dillon’s Cross. Some drawings, incriminating letters and a pair of field glasses were found sewn into the mattress of his bed. Another central figure in Cork, John Lynch was also arrested on Devonshire St. In total, seven men were arrested, although the proprietors of Geary’s were lucky to evade capture, having been forewarned by a sympathetic constable. A second wave of raids saw James Mountaine also detained, while Rossa, Luby and John O’Leary were arrested in Dublin.
On the 17th of December 1865, the special commission travelled to Cork to preside over the trials of Dillon and John Lynch. One newspaper at the time compared the precautions in transporting judges and informers to the ‘headquarters of the Fenians in Munster’ to that of Union generals travelling through the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The following day, Dillon and Lynch were placed together in the dock at Cork Courthouse, to be defended by the renowned Isaac Butt. The official indictment was one of treason felony and of ‘having entered into a conspiracy to depose the Queen and establish a Republic in Ireland’. The traitor Warner identified the two men as being present at drill meetings in Gearys’ pub, but while one newspaper commented that his character ‘is such that testimony should not warrant the hanging of a cat’, seditious documents such as letters written from Dillon to Stephens and Luby were to be his undoing. In total, 33 Fenian arrests were made in Cork from the raids, the highest of any county outside of Dublin (41).
At this juncture, it is worth noting that Dillon could not have constituted a military threat. Having experienced a ‘heavy fall’ as a child, Dillon suffered from a ‘curvature of the spine and general ill-health’ throughout his life. It is probable that such ill-health pertained to scoliosis or kyphosis, arising as a result of ineffectively treated vertebral fractures. As a result, the hunchbacked Dillon grew to a mere 4 ft 9¾ (from Cork Prison records – 16 December 1865). The following newspaper extract from the Nation offers a vivid description of ‘little Dillon’.
“It would be hard to imagine two men differing more widely in appearance than the prisoners who now occupied the dock. Dillon, alleged to be ‘Head Centre’ for Cork city and the fidus achates [devoted follower] of the head conspirator, is surely, of all the members of the organisation, apparently the most ill-suited for the position. It may be, however, that nature has compensated for bodily imperfections by keenness of intellectual and mental vigour. Dillon is about four feet nine inches in height, and belongs as far as outward form goes, to the clans of whom Richard III, is the most recognised embodiment. His face is disproportionately large, his eyes sunken and piercing, the cheek bones large and high, and the chin of sharp outline” – Nation, Dec 23rd 1865
It took less than twenty minutes for the jury to bring a verdict of ‘guilty’ against the two men. Both men then made short statements, Dillon protesting that “with respect to the observations of the Attorney General, which pained me very much, that it was intended to seize property, it does not follow because of my social station that I intended to seize the property of others…my belief in the ultimate independence of Ireland is as fixed as my religious beliefs “. At this point, he was stopped by Judge Keogh, who said he would not listen to such sentiments and continued “you, Brian Dillon, have been from an early period the tried and confidential adherent of Stephens and Luby…we cannot arrive at any other conclusion but that you must be kept in penal servitude for ten years”. With that, Dillon and Lynch were hustled down the steps from the dock to the cells underneath.
Dillon was brought by train from Cork to Dublin, where was kept in Mountjoy. On arrival, he was stripped naked, searched and put into convict clothing. He spent nearly half a month there until in January 1866, he was transferred, via boat and train, to Pentonville in north London. With him on this arduous journey was John Sarsfield Casey, ‘the Galtee Boy’ from Mitchelstown. Casey had been expelled from Christian Brother’s School for his support of the IRB, before his parents apprenticed him to J.J. Geary’s in the hope of distancing him from trouble. Clearly, they knew not of Geary’s Fenian allegiances. At this point, Dillon’s chest and throat were already giving him trouble due to the curvature of his spine. Sleeping proved almost impossible on the wooden board that acted as his bed. Within a month of incarceration at Pentonville, his left leg became almost completely paralysed and by May, Dillon, now seriously ill, was transferred to Woking Invalid Prison in Surrey. This would be his home for the next four and a half years.
That June, Dillon’s close friend and fellow Cork Fenian, John Lynch died. Dillon alerted the governor of Lynch’s last dying wish to be buried in St. Joseph’s cemetery in Cork but his appeal was flippantly and callously denied. Instead, he was buried in the pauper’s plot at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, where he became known as the ‘forgotten Fenian’. Dillon’s long ordeal went on, as did the cruel torture. A number of letters from his mother were torn up and he heard nothing of the Fenian Rising of 1867 – a poorly organised series of revolts that sprang up around the country that unsurprisingly ended in ignominious failure. In September of that year, the IRB attacked a police van in Manchester in an attempt to free a Fenian prisoner. A police officer was accidentally shot dead during the botched rescue. Three months later, the IRB exploded a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison in London in an attempt to free one of their members, killing 12 nearby residents. In the aftermath of the two events, police brutality on Fenian prisoners intensified.
In August 1868, Cork Corporation became the first civic body to plead for a general pardon for Fenian prisoners, a cause that had slowly gained traction in the aftermath of Manchester and Clerkenwell. In later debates, the councillors maintained that the incarceration of men like Dillon was “a disgrace to England”, given their “unselfishness, amazing self-sacrifice and…patriotism”. Most Irish people believed that “the political prisoners have suffered sufficiently to vindicate the power of British law” which was contrary to “the practice of all civilised countries in relation to political offenders”. The widespread interest in the prisoners resulted in the formation of a central amnesty committee and Isaac Butt, Dillon’s defendant in ’65, soon became president of the new movement.
While invalided at Woking, Dillon worked long hours of prison labour. One of his jobs involved hoisting heavy weights of bricks from the ground to a scaffold overhead, while suffering from dysentery. Alongside him was the Tipperary-born Charles Kickham, who too lived in a constant state of excruciating ill-health. On one occasion, a falling brick rendered Dillon unconscious, after which he spent many weeks in hospital. For the remainder of his time in Woking, he lived in severe pain, suffering from shingles, neuralgia, rheumatism and an ever-spreading paralysis. The pressure imposed on British governance by the committee resulted in the Devon Commission, an inquiry tasked with ascertaining whether the health of Fenian prisoners had been treated with “unnecessary severity or harshness” or “subjected to any exceptional treatment in any way”. Through Butt, Dillon provided evidence to the Commission, in which he concluded that “if the faults do not reveal ‘exceptional’ treatment, it cannot be denied that they were eminently calculated to undermine the health of body and mind. I have no doubt that the gradual destruction of the former. The latter calamity I pray Almighty God to avert”.
The Devon report concluded that the Fenians had grounds for complaint concerning diet, medical conditions and disciplinary actions undertaken by prison administration which “exceeded the power and authority entrusted in them”. As a result, the British government ordered that the incarcerated Fenians be exiled until their prison sentences elapsed. However, Dillon rejected this ‘Sham Amnesty’ until eventually, in January 1871, on account of the state of his health and inability to cross the Atlantic to America like the rest of the Fenian prisoners, the government acquiesced. On the 8th of February 1871, Brian Dillons was set free. His torturous ordeal was over.
On the 13th of February, Brian Dillon travelled home by train. Large crowds gathered to cheer his return on the platforms at Kildare, Templemore, Limerick Junction, Kilmallock, Charleville, Mallow and Blarney. At Kilmallock, Dillon was met by John Casey ‘the Galtee Boy’, with whom he had been handcuffed five years previously on that gruelling voyage to Holyhead. The train eventually reached Cork at ten past eight that night, to be met by a buoyant and restless crowd which occupied every inch of the station on the Lower Glanmire Road. From there, Dillon made the short and triumphant journey to his home at Dillons Cross. The following extract from the Cork Examiner details Dillon’s homecoming.
“As the car drove along, the crowds that lined King Street on both sides made the air resound with their cheers and cries of welcome, while city bands played national airs alternately. The bands were succeeded by blazing tar-barrels and torches until they arrived at Scots Church, where they turned up the St. Luke’s Road. The hills on the way were studded with lighted tar-barrels and the houses in the neighbourhood of Ashburton were all illuminated. The crowds were increasing every moment and by the time Mr. Dillon’s house was reached, the whole space opposite the front was a mass of human faces. The enthusiasm of the people knew no bounds and cheer after cheer rang forth in honest welcome…Mr. Dillon, after a few moments, presented himself at one of the windows of the house, and his appearance was the signal for the most deafening cheers. When he could get a hearing, Mr. Dillon, in a few words, thanked his friends for the reception they had given him, but refrained from giving utterance to any expressions that would be likely to compromise in the smallest degree the men who were yet in prison”.
But once the celebrations had subsided, Dillon’s grave ill-health soon became apparent. His aging mother, along with relative and friends, tried in vain to nurse him back to health, while donations came from the Fenians in America to aid his recovery. By the summer of 1872 however, with Dillon’s left side now almost completely paralysed, tuberculosis began to take hold. On Saturday, August 17th 1872, Brian Dillon died at his home in Dillon’s Cross. As the sad news of Dillon’s passing began to reverberate around the city, funeral plans were immediately put in place . It was decided that a vault would be built at the family burial-ground in Rathcooney, not far from where Dillon was born. To allow time for its construction, Dillon’s body was temporarily laid at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Turner’s Cross, where it remained for six days. The funeral took place on Sunday, 25th of August and was the greatest seen in Cork since that of Terence Bellew MacManus, a rebel who took part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1748, whose body was borne through the city ten years previously.
Thousands of people, including trainloads from Limerick and Tipperary, flocked to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, as the procession made its way from Evergreen, through Anglesea Street, the South Mall, Grand Parade, King Street and St. Luke’s. Prayers were then recited for the repose at Dillon’s Cross outside Dillon’s home, before the procession moved through Ballyvolane and up the steep hill towards the graveyard. Col. Rickard Burke, a native of Dunmanway and a former member of the Fenian Brotherhood in America, delivered the funeral oration. “As an Irishman swayed by the broadest and most generous principles, the prominent part he took in the Irish Republican Brotherhood is already widely known…with him, reflection was decision, and decision action; and throwing himself into the ranks of the popular cause with the zeal and earnestness of his nature, we find him in ’59 and ’60 working with a fixity of resolution that justly won the esteem of the national party and soon became the guiding spirit of the South of Ireland…Placing the remians of our dear friend here in a tomb built of stones from the very house where he drew his first breath, we may confidently leave him to the esteem of his friends, to the gratitude of his country, and to the mercy of his God”. And with that, the mortal remains of Brian Dillon were laid to rest.
A Cork Felon – Walter McGrath (1952)
Soldiers of Liberty: A Study of Fenianism 1858 – 1908 – Eva Ó Cathaoir (2006)
Dillon of the Cross – Paul Dillon (2015)
Irish Newspaper Archives (irishnewsarchives.com)