The digital age


Posted on: 7th March, 2017

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Pcitured above: James G. Cunningham from Schull who deposited a dynamite bomb in the Tower of London’s armory room while posing as a tourist in 1885.

While having a cup of tea on a particularly cold wintry night a few weeks ago, I decided to have a scroll through the increasingly cantankerous political forum that my facebook timeline has seemed to become in recent months. Day by day, it is ripe with a slew of articles and political opinions from all sides of the political divides in Ireland, the States and beyond. Of particular note on this occasion was a jarring image of the aftermath of a truck bomb in London’s financial district which had been detonated during the Provisional IRA’s prolonged bombing campaign of the English mainland. The post was accompanied by a brief subtitle, which alluded to Donald Trump’s recent attempt at a ‘Muslim Ban’, before noting that in the aftermath of such attacks, no such action was taken against ‘Irish people or Catholics’.

Let’s think back for a moment to the assertions of the renowned sociologist Benedict Anderson, that print culture, and more specifically daily newspapers, were an avenue by which individuals across broad geographical realms could gain a sense of collective identity through the act of simultaneously reading and digesting whatever happened to be reported in the news on any given day. The digital age has complicated this process. On social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, anyone with access to a working smart phone or computer can now contribute in real-time to the community’s narrative and understanding of current events, while simultaneously reaching audiences far and wide. The implications of this shift in news consumption has become increasingly evident in what has been deemed the ‘post truth era’. As such, accusations of ‘fake news’ have run rampant although, in fairness, most examples in recent weeks have come from ‘The Donald’ and his cronies over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who sling the term indiscriminately at any news outlet willing to challenge their actions or stances. However, fears of mass manipulation of majority opinions via the flow of information waft heavily throughout the political air far beyond Washington, often blurring journalistic lines and providing increased power to the many ‘alternative’ news sources that are projected out onto the internet to suit the views of a particular political or social stripe. Yet, especially where historical parallels are involved (such as the example above), the propensity for oversimplification of the facts is all too common, but often accepted without question.

That being said, it’s worth a look at the historical validity of the parallel alluded to by the aforementioned online poster that sought to conflate Trump’s recent attempted immigration ban with the aftermath of Irish republican attacks on the English mainland. Owing to its status as the origin of modern terrorism, a more apt starting place for looking at this comparison is the root of Irish republican attacks in England; the ill-fated Fenian ‘Dynamite Campaign’ of the 1880s.

Early in February 1885, Schull was abuzz as members of the Royal Irish Constabulary flocked to the small home of an elderly woman, seeking information about her son, one James G. Cunningham. A week earlier, the twenty-two-year-old Cunningham, who had emigrated to America five years earlier where he had become radicalised by the likes of fellow West Corkonian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, deposited a dynamite bomb in the Tower of London’s armory room while posing as a tourist. The actions of Cunningham, which were coordinated with a similar attack on the British House of Commons, became collectively known as ‘Dynamite Saturday’. Cunningham was immediately detained and, along with one of his accomplices, stood trial for, and was subsequently found guilty of High Treason. Throughout the course of the high- profile trial, papers in Ireland, America, and Britain speculated about Cunningham’s background. Such reports ranged from heart wrenching details of his family’s dispossession from their West Cork farm when he was of an early age, to the conditions of his emigration. The latter tales varied widely, with some noting that he had made a quick flight from Ireland after killing a constable and a wealthy local landlord, to the more probable case of economic chain migration, in which he had followed his older siblings across the Atlantic to find work. While Cunningham’s story is fascinating, in this context, it is more important to consider the implications that his actions had for the Irish living in England at the time.

Far from the retrospectively utopian Britain depicted in the twittersphere, the reaction against the Irish-Catholic population was swift and devastating; this despite their overwhelming denouncement of the dynamiters’ actions. Much like the modern Troubles referenced in the online post, the discrimination might not have been legitimised by a governmental sanction or ban, but was nonetheless felt throughout the society. The Freeman’s Journal noted at the time, “Under the influence of panic, English employers of labor are playing into the hands of the dynamiters. In various parts of England loss of work has been brought on unoffending Irishmen by the explosions. In Leeds and Sheffield some firms are discharging their Irish employees wholesale. In London, wherever any considerable body of Irishmen are employed, detectives watch the premises. On Saturday, owing to this irritating system of espionage, one of the largest publishing firms in London dismissed every Irishman in its employment.” A similar report in the Pall Mall Gazette made note of one particularly busy building quarter in London, in which 1,500 Irish laborers were dismissed on the grounds that their fellow workers remarked to the foreman that they would “…not work shoulder to shoulder with men who may have dynamite about them”. A total freeze on hiring Irish labourers soon followed. The report concluded that the discrimination was not restricted to the urban environs, but also felt in the countryside, where one employer had remarked, “some Irishmen are dynamitards. They should all suffer. It serves them right!” Noel Gallagher, of Oasis-fame, recalled a similar scene while growing up in Manchester during the height of the modern-IRA bombing campaign. Speaking in 2011, he noted, “The ’70s and being first generation Irish in a big city wasn’t always welcoming. I didn’t really suffer too much personally – but my parents (Peggy and dad Thomas, from Cos. Mayo and Meath) would only go to Irish clubs because of the ‘f**king Paddies’ thing, which followed the IRA blowing up Manchester city centre. There wasn’t a group of vigilantes, going round, beating up Irish people, but if you had a certain name or accent you were treated with suspicion.”

With such historical perspective, one may look with some hope upon the bleak international political climate, particularly the attempted executive order by Donald Trump, which is predicated upon fears of terrorism and ‘lone wolf’ attacks. Hope you say? Well, perhaps not the order itself, but rather its aftermath. Instead of hurling abuse or ostracising refugees and immigrants from the seven majority Muslim countries, as they tried to gain entry to the United States, crowds assembled en masse to show their support and solidarity. In the days that followed, Starbucks unveiled plans to hire over 10,000 refugee workers, immigration lawyers set up impromptu offices in airport corridors, and ultimately, the majority of people showed that this act of systemic discrimination would not be tolerated in their name. Foremost amongst those standing in solidarity with those affected by the executive order were mayor Marty Walsh and the people of Boston. Walsh, a son of Irish-speaking immigrants from Connemara, defiantly noted that as a last resort, anyone affected by Trump’s policies could seek shelter in his own City Hall office. Such is particularly significant, given the fact that during his campaign, Trump often cited the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as the prime example of why his radical immigration reform was needed. Likewise, on the same weekend that Trump settled into his new digs in Washington, a few million people took to the streets in cities across the globe, from Melbourne to Manhattan, to voice their displeasure with his sexist remarks and stances on women’s rights. So, while it is all too easy to be disheartened at the current state of global politics, one has to take solace in the fact that, in many cases, we are now witness to increasingly politically attuned citizenries coming together, whose propensities for compassion and understanding of the various groups and individuals affected by such policies far exceed those of the past.

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