Who is there outside England who really knows the repeated and honest efforts made by us to settle the eternal Irish Question and hold the scales fair between rival Irishmen?
Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, XIX.
… the resistless moral force of heroic action.
John O’Connor Power, ‘Edmund Burke and his Abiding Influence’, North American Review, 1897.
Conan Doyle scholars have generally neglected his abiding enthusiasm for the Irish Question, and the many allusions in his writings to the activities of the Fenian movement or, to give it its more formal name, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
For centuries, British misrule in Ireland was periodically challenged by the fighting Irish, but insurrections, faced with the superior weaponry of English armies, inevitably ended in catastrophic failure. Rebels were slaughtered, their homes and villages destroyed, their land, livestock and food stores confiscated.
However, in the 1840s, it was a natural disaster, the failure of the potato, the staple food of the poor, which dealt a near fatal blow to a subject people. Field by field, a devastating blight destroyed the crop. A sweet, sickly smell announced its arrival. Potatoes, when lifted, were sodden and black.
The apocalyptic years of the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, resulted in the deaths of over a million Irishmen. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation. Others were felled by the typhus, cholera and smallpox epidemics, which followed in the famine’s wake. Over a million emigrated, desperately seeking refuge in England, North America and Australia. Their journeys were precarious and many died of hunger and disease. Only the hardiest survived.
Uprooted from their native land, the exiles carried with them a deep hatred of the English and their Empire. A dispersal of a people were the seeds of a worldwide rebellion. The Irish and their descendants regrouped. In 1858, not more than a decade after the ‘Irish holocaust’, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded. A secret, oath-bound society, the IRB’s aim was to free Ireland by force of arms and establish independence. For many its purpose was to wreak vengeance on England and dismantle its Empire.
Conan Doyle was conflicted on Ireland and Fenianism is not always dealt with directly in his stories. Allusions are often oblique, hidden in plain sight. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was intent on the restoration of an Irish Parliament. Doyle, an Imperialist, opposed Home Rule and favoured a local government solution. Professor Moriarty’s appearances in the Sherlock Holmes canon coincide with legislative measures marking significant shifts in Anglo-Irish relations.
In That Irishman, the biography of John O’Connor Power, I identify the member of Parliament for Mayo as an inspiration for the ‘Napoleon of crime,’ Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ ‘intellectual equal’.
The Anglo-Celtic race has always run to individualism, and yet there is none which is capable of carrying out a finer ideal of discipline.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door, XI.
Against the backdrop of the Land War raging in Ireland, Doyle’s ‘That Little Square Box’ (1881) explores and questions the Fenian agenda. With a sense of ‘impending calamity’, the narrator, Hammond, a self-confessed depressive, sets sail from Boston Quay bound for Queenstown Harbour and the land of his forefathers. As he strolls on the decks of the Spartan, a transatlantic steamer, he overhears a conversation and believes himself privy to a plot to blow up the ship. A box, ‘an infernal machine,’ smuggled on board, has a ‘trigger-like arrangement’ on the lid. The suspected conspirators are Flannigan and Muller, ‘The very name “Flannigan” smacked of Fenianism, while “Muller” suggested nothing but socialism and murder.’
The politics of the next ten years will certainly centre around Ireland, as the last ten have, and I must – if I am to do anything in politics – be clear and energetic in my views. So I am – but the time is not yet.
ACD to Mary Doyle, January 20, 1899, Letters.
Fleet Street is largely Irish, and a good deal of what passes for English opinion in the London morning papers is the product of Irish talent.
John O’Connor Power, Fortnightly Review, The Irish in England, 1880
Doyle and Power both wrote for the Daily Chronicle, the leading Liberal newspaper. Doyle supported social reform. His ‘visible leader of men’, John McMurdo, is a Republican, ‘some would say it was war … a war of two classes.’ Power was a leader writer and had ‘a large and useful share in the formation of Chronicle opinion.’ In 1892, Doyle wrote to his mother, ‘I like the Chronicle because it is literary, it is Unionist and it is liberal.’
But the paper’s editor was playing a waiting game. When the Liberals, with the help of the Irish vote, won the 1892 election and promised Home Rule, the Chronicle came off the fence and gave its support. The Prime Minister’s son, Herbert Gladstone, credited O’Connor Power with the change of heart. The following year, the Second Home Rule Bill would pass through the House of Commons. In September, as anticipated, it was rejected by the House of Lords. Doyle, although in favour of a second Chamber, did not wish the Lords to be the preserve of hereditary titles and lawmakers. He wrote to his mother, ‘We want the best men – always the best m the Irish vote as he opposed Home Rule, favouring a gradual devolution. He and his fellow Liberal Unionists wanted social and political reform and believed that local government legislation should have time to be tested. Later, he would write, ‘Perhaps we were wrong.’
In August, 1889, there was a famous dinner in Langham Hotel, when an American publisher commissioned novels from two distinguished guests, Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle. Wilde delivered The Picture of Dorian Gray. Doyle’s short novel, The Sign of the Four, drops Langham Hotel into the narrative. His character, Thaddeus Sholto, surrounded by treasures of the Orient, opines, ‘Nothing is more unaesthetic than a policeman.’ With his ‘great astrakhan collar’, Doyle presents a word portrait of Wilde, ‘Nature had given him a pendulous lip, and a too visible line of yellow and irregular teeth, which he strove feebly to conceal by passing his hand over the lower part of his face.’ Sholto Douglas, the Scottish artist, was a cousin of Bosie, Wilde’s lover. Mary Morstan, the lady in distress, may be a gesture to John O’Connor, aka Sebastian Moran. There is a reference to St Sebastian iconography in Through the Magic Door.