Moriarty Unmasked: Conan Doyle and an Anglo-Irish Quarrel


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’. Conan Doyle’s creation, Moriarty, is the head of a world-wide conspiracy, the evil genius at ‘the centre of the web.’  The master criminal is a man of mystery, known to Holmes and second-hand to Dr Watson, the companion and chronicler of the fictional detective. O’Connor Power and Moriarty shared an invisibility, a cloak of impenetrable respectability, concealing a counter-imperial intent. Any challenge to their reputations was to be met by a robust threat of legal action, ‘in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law …’

There appears to be no documentary or oral evidence that Conan Doyle and O’Connor Power ever met. An investigation must, therefore, be conducted in the Holmesian manner: observation, conjecture and deduction. Knowledge, in The Sign of the Four, is added to this list and a signal for an immersion course in Doyle’s life and writings: collect, consider, docket and cross reference relevant data, assemble a casebook and, like Holmes, ‘reason back to the bigger picture.’ Retracing the paths of the two subjects, I will mark the intersections, identify mutual friends and acquaintances and arrive at a ‘logical synthesis’.



Thus it came about that two separate lines of Irish wanderers came together under one roof.  Memories and Adventures, I.


Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, of Irish stock, was born in 1859 and grew up in Edinburgh where Scottish prejudice against the Irish, and particularly the Roman Catholic Irish, was harsh and persistent. This backdrop to his early years, questioning his identity, made Arthur deeply conscious and proud of his Celtic roots. He was, he said, an Anglo-Celt, a vigorous product of the mingling of the two races, ‘the Anglo-Celtic race has always run to individualism.’ With his Scottish burr, he was confident of his standing in the British Empire, which he believed to be a significant force for civilisation. His was an Imperial identity, seeking reconciliation with its blood heritage.

Robert Graves, twentieth century poet, author and critic, and a son of Irish poet and songwriter Alfred Perceval Graves, grew up in London surrounded by his father’s Nationalist friends, absorbing a dual identity. He wrote of the clash of his mixed inheritance, an ‘Anglo-Irish quarrel’, a phrase borrowed from family friend O’Connor Power’s pamphlet on Home Rule, The Anglo-Irish Quarrel: a Plea for Peace.

Under the Penal Laws, the Doyles were stripped of their estates in Ireland when those who refused to renounce their Catholic faith had their property confiscated. Nor could Catholics enter the professions or stand for Parliament. Severe restrictions were imposed on Irish trade. Until Catholic Emancipation in 1828 and the Easement of Burial Act, Catholics had no designated burial grounds. Prior to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Catholics paid tithes to the church of the ruling class.

Conan Doyle’s grandfather, John Doyle, was born in Dublin in 1797. Finding advancement thwarted on every side, he moved to London with his wife, Marianne Conan, the daughter of a Dublin tailor. He remained staunchly Irish and Catholic, a pillar of his church. A gifted artist, he started out as a miniaturist and went on to become the leading political cartoonist of the Regency period. Initially, to preserve anonymity, he used the cipher, HB, signifying his initials, two Js and two Ds. Conan Doyle makes a gesture to HB in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’.

John’s sons were distinguished artists and proudly Irish and Catholic, in the ‘faith and freedom’ tradition. A hands-on father, he encouraged their innate aptitudes. He taught them draughtsmanship and concentrated observation, a drawing out of character and location. They were a happy family, at ease in English society, and they entertained in style. Disraeli, Dickens, Thackeray and Thomas Moore  were among the illustrious guests at their parties. The second son, Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle, designed the cover of Punch and resigned from the magazine when, in 1850, it took a belligerent stand against his friend, Archbishop Wiseman, and the newly re-established Roman Catholic hierarchy. Richard, a violin player, was known as ‘dickie bird’ and his drawings carry a logo of a tiny bird. On one occasion, he took the young Conan Doyle to Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum in Baker Street.

Another son, Henry Edward, maintaining the Irish link, was a director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Conan Doyle’s father, Charles Altamont, the youngest, worked as a draughtsman in the Office of Public Works in Edinburgh. As a sideline, he sketched criminal trials for newspapers and magazines, a steady source of income in good times. His son claimed he was the greatest artist in the family and asked him to illustrate his first novel, A Study in Scarlet.  Sherlock Holmes took a family name, Altamont, for his foray into First World War espionage, ‘His Last Bow’.

Charles met his wife, Mary Foley, when he was lodging in her family home in Edinburgh. Mary’s father, a doctor, died young, and her mother took in paying guests, the accepted, respectable solution to financial survival for a widow. The Foleys were landlords, prosperous and Catholic, and Mary was born in their home in Ballygally House, Lismore, County Waterford. ‘With her vivacious Celtic ways,’ Mary was the storyteller in the family. It was at her knee her son learned to weave a tale, create narrative tension and resolve a plot. She took a great interest in genealogy and heraldry and, like many Irish men and women, traced her lineage to the High Kings of Ireland. The Ulster King of Arms was a cousin and helped her build a family tree tracing her ancestry over five hundred years. Of sound stock, nostalgic for the past glories of the Big House, the Doyles had their genealogy and arms registered with Ulster’s Office.

‘By descent and parentage a southern Irishman,’ Conan Doyle spent many summer holidays in Ireland. In 1866, on a visit to cousins in King’s County, now County Offaly, he recorded the sighting of a Fenian unit striding past the family barn.  In 1881, he was in Waterford on holidays at the height of the agrarian revolution, the Land War. His cousin was not in sympathy with the rebels, ‘Dick stalked into a great Land League meeting which was held here, with his big sea boots on, and informed the president that he wished the whole league had one neck and he had his foot on it … I wish they would try some of their midnight business on us.’

In 1885, he honeymooned in Ireland with his first wife, Louise. He peppers his stories with Irish surnames. In ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, Sherlock Holmes, believed dead, travelled under the name of Sigerson, a Norwegian explorer, ‘You may have heard of the explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson …’ George Sigerson was a neurologist and a leader of the Irish Revival movement. Holmes enjoyed ‘a good Dublin clay pipe.’

At nine years of age, Doyle was sent to school in Lancashire. In North West England, as the crow flies not far from Ireland, Lancashire was a stronghold of Old Catholic families who survived the pogroms of the Reformation. Faithful to the old religion, they intermarried, closely guarding their spiritual inheritance. The county’s largest city, Manchester, was the heart of the industrial revolution. One third of its workforce was Irish born and many more of Irish descent. The influx of Irish Catholics swelled the ranks of the faithful as the Church steadily rebuilt its British base. Fenianism, named for the legendary warriors, Fianna Éireann, who answered Ireland’s call in time of need, was rampant and centred in Lancashire.

Doyle enjoyed two years at Hodder, a Jesuit preparatory school, before moving to Stonyhurst, where he received a Spartan Catholic education. Life at English public schools might be a calvary for students. Author Anthony Trollope was utterly miserable at Harrow and only came to full enjoyment of life when he moved to Ireland. Doyle, like James Joyce, another Jesuit educated author, who renounced his religion, lost his faith at school. Many of his teachers were English converts, with a more rigid commitment to dogma than cradle Catholics, those born into the faith. Doyle disliked this authoritarian approach and the insistence on the acceptance of the doctrines of Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception. He later wrote of ’emasculation’ – ‘the fate of every nation which comes under the rule of a priesthood.’

The Church was open in its intentions and, for centuries, Catholics  prayed for the Conversion of England. Its call to arms, ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, was sung with great fervour on all solemn occasions, ‘we will be true to thee to death.’ Doyle was horrified by ‘a great fierce Irish priest,’ Father Murphy, who, on a visit to Stonyhurst, preached certain damnation for all those outside the Catholic faith. The fissure went deep. As a young doctor, attempting to set up practice in Southsea, he was prepared to fail, rather than take advantage of the Catholic Church’s extensive network. In his early story set in Ireland, ‘The Heiress of Glenmaholey’, a character declares, ‘I desire to die, as I have lived, without clerical interference.’

School life was difficult. Money was tight, and his extended family paid the fees. He gained a reputation as a storyteller, earning cash and treats, with his ability to spin a yarn. The college building is the inspiration for Baskerville Hall. Stonyhurst’s Dark Walk transmutes into the Baskerville Yew Alley.

Following in his maternal grandfather’s footsteps, he decided to study medicine.  Edinburgh University had a  medical school with an international reputation. He was an indifferent student but his college years were not misspent. One of the leading candidates as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes was Professor Joseph Bell, who taught his students to observe a patient closely for evidence of history, vocation and mobility. Up until recently, before blood tests, a doctor would examine a patient’s eyes, his tongue, throat and skin for guidance. A history of bowel movements, regularity and consistency, would be discussed. As the child of a family of great cartoonists and illustrators, Doyle had inherited an eye for detail and a photographic memory. His son, Adrian, said his father could learn a great deal about someone by just looking at them.

The Doyle family lived on the edge of poverty and was always hard pressed for cash. To finance his studies, Doyle spent two long periods at sea. While still a student, he worked for seven months as a surgeon on the whaler Hope and experienced life at sea at its most harrowing. On qualifying in 1881, he was appointed ship’s doctor on a passenger steamer, SS Mayumba, bound for the west coast of Africa. In Lagos, he contracted malaria and was dangerously ill for several days. He was alarmed by the savagery of African life and ceded an appreciative nod to the civilising influence of missionaries. His exploits are recorded in Memories and Adventures.

His efforts to make a living in general practice in Southsea were unsuccessful and he wrote short stories to pay his creditors. With the encouragement of a friend, he studied opthalmology in Vienna for six months. He acquired no diplomas but, returning to England, he set up practice in a fashionable part of London. He had not a single patient. Recovering from a virulent influenza, he decided, in a moment of clarity, to sell his optical instruments and abandon medicine for a writer’s life.

Every experience makes a part of the whole, and he drew heavily on his years as a physician. In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, the villain, Dr Grimesby Roylett, has ‘bile-shot eyes’, ‘when a doctor does go wrong, he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.’ It was widely suspected that Jack the Ripper, with his fine surgical instruments, Weiss knives, and his knowledge of anatomy, was a medical man gone wrong. Hubert Foveaux Weiss, an heir to the Weiss fortune, died in 1892. ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’, published the same year, employs a Weiss knife to lame a race horse and forward the plot, ‘an ivory-handled knife with a very inflexible blade marked Weiss & Co London.’ Dr Watson identifies it as a cataract knife. The following year, O’Connor Power married Hubert’s widow, Avis. Sir William Gregory, member of Parliament for Dublin, Governor of Ceylon and patron of the arts, died in 1892 and lends his name to the inspector in the story. Sir William was an avid racegoer and lost a large fortune at the track, ‘See the value of imagination,’ said Holmes, It is the one quality which Gregory lacks.’

Conan Doyle was married twice. His first wife, Louise Hawkins, affectionately known as Touie, contracted tuberculosis and had a long and lingering death. He took care of her needs but managed to lead a bachelor lifestyle. A gifted and enthusiastic amateur, he participated and excelled in various sports – cricket, boxing, skiing, fencing, tennis, golf and billiards. He dined out often and took advantage of the social amenities of London life, first nights at the theatre and gatherings at the many societies and clubs. Like Sherlock Holmes and the knights of his tales of chivalry, he enjoyed the Turkish baths.

Doyle found history lessons at school ‘abhorrent’ and, spending long days in the British museum, he assembled material for his novels. His range was great and he moved with accomplished ease from the chivalrous adventures and ‘merry skirmishes’ of medieval Europe to the court of Louis XIV and his domestic arrangements. In The Refugees, the Huguenots flee inhospitable France and sail to Canada, a newly emerging nation. He depicts the heroism of the Iroquois, the native Indians, defending their homeland and the fearless Jesuits, promoting their god. In Rodney Stone, he displays his familiarity with the world of the pugilist and an insider’s intimacy with the admiralty and its navy. He believed his historical works, a burgeoning panorama of a millenium, full of fascinating facts, were significant. The Holmes stories were a distraction. They were bestsellers but not, he believed of literary significance, ‘If I had not killed Sherlock Holmes, I verily believe that he would have killed me.’

His second wife, Jean Leckie, was a direct descendant of Scottish hero, Rob Roy, and at home in the social whirl of British society. He writes of his wives and family with affection and regard. His mother,’Ma’am’, remained close to him and they corresponded almost daily. His approach to women was protective and appreciative. Like his creation, Sherlock Holmes, he shared the view, ‘I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner.’ He was not a supporter of woman suffrage but he did campaign for divorce law reform and was President of the Divorce Reform Association. He glides urbanely over the facts of his life, but one is nagged by an uneasy feeling that, as a psychiatrist might say, he was well-defended. Self-revelatory, he remarks of Dr Johnson’s biographer, ‘One would like to get behind Boswell’s account.’ Just as we, his fan club, might attempt to penetrate Doyle’s accounts and the ‘darkling figures’ of his poem, ‘The Inner Room’.

Both Doyle and O’Connor Power came from the school of hard knocks. They inherited family responsibilities at a young age and were workaholics. Like his foil, O’Connor Power, Conan Doyle lost the support of his father early in life. Power’s parents died in the years of the Great Famine and its pestilential aftermath – starvation, typhus, cholera, smallpox, mass emigration and catastrophic social disruption. Doyle’s father was a hapless alcoholic, and taking his place, his son was his mother’s companion and confidant, the head of the family. His three sisters became governesses in Catholic families in Italy and Portugal. Annette died far from home. When Doyle established himself as a successful writer and a leading man in public life, he brought his sisters back to England and took care of them. Connie typed for him. He dictated his work to Lotte, doubling his output.

1893 was a defining year. His father, Charles Doyle, died in an asylum in Dunfries, where he had been a long-term resident. Conan Doyle did not go to the funeral. It was the year, Louise, his wife, was diagnosed with TB. He made the decision to end the Sherlock Holmes series, a proven money spinner. ‘The Final Problem’, two-storied, marks the Second Home Rule Bill. Mycroft, Holmes’ older brother, appears for the first time in ‘The Greek Interpreter’. Here he drives the plot onwards. Omniscient, he will later acquire many Gladstonian qualities, ‘Occasionally, he is the British government.’  Gladstone introduced the Bill in the the House of Commons on O’Connor Power’s birthday, 13th February. Moriarty complains to Holmes, ‘by the middle of February I was seriously inconvenienced by you.’ The detective and the arch-villain plunge to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. The Home Rule Bill failed to pass through the House of Lords and the final problem remained unsolved. Doyle scribbled in his notebook, ‘Killed Holmes’.

It was also the year Doyle made a formal commitment to spiritualism and joined the Psychical Research Society, ‘Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.’

The triumphs of National Freedom and of International Peace have been my day-dreams for half a century.

John O’Connor Power in a letter to William O’Brien, May 20th 1915.

The youngest of three sons, John O’Connor Power was born Friday 13 February 1846, the first year of the Great Famine. Patrick, his father, was from Ballinasloe on the borders of Counties Galway and Roscommon. Patrick worked in the town and his second son, Thomas, always gave his birthplace on official documents as Ballinasloe. On the old Connacht road, the town was the gateway for trade between the west of Ireland and the markets of Dublin and London. Its natural geographic advantages were strengthened by the extension of the Grand Canal network (1828), and later by the advent of the railway (1853).

The earls of Clancarty, the local landlords, were very much involved in the life and well-being of their estate and its environs and Ballinasloe was a model, prosperous town. Its structures secure, it survived the horrors of the dark years. Religious groups worked together and tended to the needs of the many thousands who arrived seeking food and shelter  The workhouse, built to accommodate 400, gave shelter at the height of the famine to 4,000. The Catholic community built a church, creating work for several hundred labourers and craftsmen. In 1858, Cardinal Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster, who had spent part of his childhood in County Waterford, visited the parish and consecrated St Michael’s. He was the first cardinal since the Reformation to set foot in Ireland.

John Power’s early years were stark. He was witness to the terrible events and consequences of the Famine. Hunger, disease, enforced emigration almost halved the population of Ireland. Falling victim to smallpox, he spent some time in the infirmary attached to Ballinasloe workhouse. He lost his parents and was taken in by his mother’s sister, Catherine O’Connor Duffield, who had a shop and bakery in Society Street. His father’s brothers, tenant farmers in Ballygill, a townland outside of Ballinasloe, were part of his supportive extended family network. Ties of kinship were sacred, ‘to speak of the holy love of kindred for which the Irish are remarkable, no matter how far apart the cruel vicissitudes of fortune may have scattered the members of the family.’

John, according to his entry in the UK 1911 census, was born in Clashaganny, Tulsk, County Roscommon, close to his mother, Mary O’Connor’s home. Tulsk was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, the O’Conor Dons. In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce references the ‘O’Conner Dan’  in his lines on the ‘O’Colonel Power’: 

And three’s here for the repeat of the union! Place the scaurs wore on your groot big bailey bill, he apullajibed, the O’Colonel Power, latterly distented from the O’Conner Dan, so promonitory himself that he was obliffious of the headth of the hosth that rose before him.

‘Colonel’ was the designation for a Fenian leader, a Head Centre in a cellular structure. The combination of O’Connor and Power had a deep resonance in the consciousness of the people of Connacht. At monster rallies, ‘O Connor Power’, repeated by the crowd, delivered a mantra-style message. ‘When often in O’Connor’s van’, a line in Connacht’s anthem, ‘The West’s Awake’, stirred heroic memories.  A man labelled by his enemies as illegitimate, a bastard, perhaps might claim a ‘latterly’ descent from the High Kings. Ancestral ties, proven or not, gave impetus to the derring-do accounts of his adventures. A dynastic history was created.

His parents both came from Roscommon townlands. Ballygill outside Ballinasloe, and Carns, eight miles from Roscommon town, were well-known meets for local hunts. A favoured tryst, close to Carns, was named, for a time, O’Connor Power hill. Ballinasloe’s October horse fair has been internationally famous for over two centuries. Patrick Power may have been a house painter or a stonemason, but it was usual for a healthy, energetic man to hold down several jobs, combining a trade with work on the land at harvest time and with horses. Was Patrick a horse whisperer and his son’s magnetic charm and his ability to cross nineteenth century class barriers an inherited gift: ‘there’s a wonderful sympathy and freemasonry among horsey men. Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know.’ In Ireland the hunt was open to all classes and creeds, and post office surveyor and author Anthony Trollope’s familiarity  with the field certainly enhanced his professional and literary life.

Power’s education was excellent. The Catholic Church recognised and nurtured clever boys. Priests and teachers were eager to promote early promise. He probably attended the local National school. Despite large classes, academic standards were high. A two-tiered system was in place and the able older boys instructed the younger children. It was in a nineteenth century classroom that John Power acquired a natural authority and a gift for teaching which served him well throughout his life. Strong and of good build, 5ft 9in, he was  in manhood capable of nurturing relationships and maintaining friendships. Well prepared, he left school at fourteen.

In 1860, Ireland again experienced a deep agricultural depression, and the Power boys emigrated. The eldest, Robert, went to Liverpool and worked on the docks, eventually sailing to America to fight with the Confederates in the American Civil War. Thomas, the second son, joined the British Army, serving in India and Afghanistan. In 1884, he returned to Ireland and settled, as Barrack Warden, with his large family in Galway City. Doyle, using opposing and adjacent qualities, describes Professor Moriarty’s younger brother, Colonel James Moriarty, as ‘unmarried … a station master in the west of England.’ Colonel, a military title, is the rank of a Fenian Head Centre.

Barely fifteen years of age, John Power left Ireland. He had relations in Rochdale, Lancashire, who were house painters and he worked with them for a time. An organiser and recruiter for the Fenian movement, he travelled across the North of England, ‘… and there are scores of Irishmen today, who can tell how they were, in years gone by, led into the National fold by his teachings.’

In 1867, Power organised a raid on Chester Castle’s arsenal. Irishmen from across the north of England marched on Chester, ostensibly to attend a prize fight. An informer betrayed the rebels and an ordered withdrawal took place. They marched back to the ‘little Irelands’ of the North, singing, ‘When Johnny comes marching home’. Bishop Moriarty of County Kerry famously condemned the rebels, cursing them with ‘God’s heaviest curse, his withering, blasting, blighting curse.’ Conan Doyle would later borrow the bishop’s name to cryptically signal Fenian content in his monstrous creation. Professor Moriarty would have made a ‘grand meenister’ (The Valley of Fear). The casual ‘grand’ is in frequent use in Ireland and often suggests ambivalence.

In September, Power was present at the Manchester Rescue, an attempt to free Fenian officers from a prison van. In October, he travelled to the United States to discuss re-organisation with the American Brotherhood. Early in January, 1868, he was in Mayo to set up Fenian units across the county. On his 22nd birthday, 13 February, he was elected to the Supreme Council, the governing body of the IRB, as the representative for Connacht. A few days later, he was arrested, without charge, and spent five and a half months in Kilmainham Jail.

On his release, he returned to Mayo and campaigned for Catholic landlord George Henry Moore’s successful bid for a Westminster seat. Constitutional and revolutionary Nationalists had collaborated. A motion on Home Government was tabled at Westminster.

On Moore’s sudden death, Power enrolled at St Jarlath’s College in Tuam, County Galway to prepare for the next election. In his final year he lectured in history. His fictional shadow, Professor Moriarty, held a ‘mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities,’ and was, like Power, an army coach. In 1874, with the introduction of the secret ballot, Power, ‘the recognised head of the Fenians in this country,’ ran for the Mayo seat and was elected as a Home Ruler. ‘Powerism’, a word coined by the American Fenian, John Devoy, was a new departure, physical force and constitutional Nationalists, the secret and the open movements, would work in tandem. Their goals were land reform, amnesty for Fenian prisoners and an independent parliament in Dublin, the Empire’s second city. The strategy of obstruction of parliamentary business at Westminster, a formidable weapon,  took the Fenian quarrel to the heart of government. A leading cartoonist, Leslie Ward, ‘Spy’, captioned his portrait of O’Connor Power, ‘the brains of Obstruction’.

Power was close to John Lawlor, a prominent London-based Irish sculptor. Lawlor, born in Dublin, but with roots in County Roscommon, kept a safe house for his Nationalist friends. Documents, guns and ammunition were hidden and transported in sculpture.

Lawlor’s nephews  were Aloysius and James Joseph O’Kelly. Aloysius was a successful artist. His well-known picture, ‘Mass in a Connemara Cabin’, depicting a comfortable cottage, reverent participation and colourful Sunday-best shawls, reflects a maturing nation on the cusp of self-determination. A red petticoat becomes a symbol of Celtic imagination and vigour.  In his early novel, The Snake’s Pass, Dubliner Bram Stoker touches on all aspects of the Irish Question. Resolving the plot, he depicts the daughter of an Irish tenant farmer rescuing her wealthy English lover from the shifting bog with a rope fashioned from her red petticoat. It is the beautiful Irish girl, with a siren’s voice, who saves the honest but unimaginative Englishman.

James O’Kelly, a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council, was a soldier of fortune and a well-travelled newspaperman. In New York, he worked for the New York Herald, while running a gallery and dealing in pictures. In 1879, at the height of the Land War, he returned to London. Elected a member of Parliament for Roscommon, he was affectionately known as the Fenian Whig.

John Lawlor was, like his nephews and O’Connor Power, a man about town, gregarious and genial. Roscommon O’Connors and O’Kellys, they were, all for one, one for all, fighting to secure Ireland’s freedom. In 1881, he created bronze busts of O’Connor Power M.P. and James O’Kelly M.P..


Ireland always at the back of Conan Doyle’s mind, sometimes rose to the surface as in his talks the year before on Irish literature and the brigade of Irish exiles in France’s army in the eighteenth century.  

Letters, 402

I play the game for the game’s own sake.

Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, 1908

Doyle and Power, taking on responsibilities at a young age, fit the profile of outlier. Gifted outsiders, they battled their way to success and influence. The British might be hidebound by their class system, but it was second nature to an Irish temperament to challenge and overturn authority. Adventurers, intolerant of obstacles, they pursued their objectives with a boundless, infectious enthusiasm. Men of their era, they were acutely aware of their own mortality. Death of loved ones, debilitating, incurable diseases, random and targeted acts of violence were every day occurrences. Stout of heart, they used their allotted time with tenacity and energy.

Doyle’s novels often deal with the medieval notion of chivalry, the protection of women and the weak, the celebration of physical prowess and intellectual vigour in pursuit of a higher purpose. The Sherlock Holmes Adventures resonate with aventures, the quests of medieval knights.  Doyle, a man’s man, was 6ft 4in. Many sources refer to his great strength and agility. Power ‘suggested not only massive physical strength but intellectuality also.’ In Memories and Adventures, Doyle describes Michael Conan, his ‘volcanic’ maternal uncle, a journalist based in Paris. He was, ‘a man of distinction, an intellectual Irishman of the type which originally founded the Sinn Fein movement … I am built rather on his lines of body and mind than on any of the Doyles.’

They had phenomenal memories. Doyle, like Sherlock Holmes, had a ‘mind palace’, a mnemonic device developed by the Greeks. An exceptional visual memory was inherited from his father’s family. He spent a lot of time reading, as the spirit guided him, in the British Museum. The nineteenth century encyclopedia, with its alphabetical index, was the forerunner of the internet, and Doyle’s encyclopedic mind was a storage facility with easy access and associative interconnectivity. The unofficial consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, has an extensive filing system and an appropriate reference book on his shelves.

Power, too, had a formidable memory, remembering people, dates and events with great clarity. Recognised as one of the outstanding orators of the late nineteenth century, he retained and relayed long speeches on the platform and in the House of Commons. His early alias was ‘John Webster’, a reference to Webster’s dictionary. Phrenology and craniology were in vogue and men spoke of ‘Websterian’ heads – large, with high foreheads. A high forehead (note Moriarty’s domed brow) was believed to be indicative of great knowledge. Sir Charles Baskerville’s head is ‘half Gaelic and half Ivernian.’ However, Moriarty, displays ‘hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind.’ O’Connor Power writes in his article, ‘The Irish in England’, ‘ … the Irish differ from the English, not only in race and religion, but in national character, in feeling, in temperament, in modes of thought, in habits and prejudices …’

Good company, stimulating conversation, fine literature and worthy causes engaged them. Challenges attracted them, they were ever eager to pick up a gauntlet.  It was not material advancement that drove them but the stimulation of the chase, ‘The game’s afoot’. Doyle inherited an Irish consciousness, but in Edinburgh he had met many students from the colonies and he admired the multiracial richness of the Empire. Power lived and breathed the Irish cause, successfully harnessing the influence of the Irish in the Empire and the Americas to achieve his dream of an independent Irish nation. In 1892, for the first time, an Indian, Dudubloy Naoroji, was elected member of Parliament for Finsbury Central. India had, at last, a voice in the British legislature. Edward Blake, an Irish Canadian lawyer, a former leader of the Canadian Liberal party, won a seat in South Longford.

Doyle didn’t have a grasp of mathematics, ‘mathematics of every sort I detest and abhor.’ Describing Holmes’ equal, Professor Moriarty, as a professor of mathematics, ‘a man of mathematical celebrity’, he is indicating Power’s gift for numbers. In The Valley of Fear, Power’s fictional shadow, John McMurdo, is a book keeper. Is it an intimate in-joke? Power, a formidable political strategist, a number cruncher, manipulated and counted the votes. Promoting land reform, Power provided British governments with statistics and costings. In February 1881, Prime Minister Gladstone, in the House of Commons, asked the Irish members to produce a plan for self-government. Power noted the ‘open invitation was without precedent in parliamentary history’ and went on to prepare and present his plans for Home Rule, with estimates and timelines.

Conan Doyle’s extraordinary gifts belonged to the realm of the imagination. O’Connor Power, an impresario, directed the real world. In 1885, Power failed to win a seat – he didn’t have time to nurse a constituency’ – but, as an ‘ex-MP’, he continued to advise British governments. He was interviewed as the anonymous ‘X’ in Barry O’Brien’s biography of Parnell and was affectionately referred to as X by his close associates. Doyle writes of the ‘ex-professor Moriarty’.

Doyle and Power were ‘clubbable’ men and invited to gatherings at London’s many societies. On the evening of 13 February 1897, at a meeting of the Irish Literary Society, Dr. A Conan Doyle took the chair and his topic was ‘The Irish Brigade’. He chose to speak of the 18th century wild geese and Irish literature. That year Charles Lever’s 37 novels were republished in library editions. Lever, an Irish physician and author, was, in his time, as popular as Dickens. He was a favourite of Doyle’s and frequently finds mention in his work. Power loved Lever’s ‘rollicking humour’.

1897 marked the centennial of the birth of John Doyle, his grandfather,  who was born in Dublin on the eve of the 1798 United Irishmen’s Rising. French troops, led by General Humbert, landed in the west of Ireland, supplying troops for the Irish rebellion. The insurrection was swiftly quashed by British troops, the Irish Parliament was dismantled and Ireland, under the Union, was governed with military efficiency from Dublin Castle. In Through the Magic Door, Doyle reflects on the Rising, ‘We know what Humbert did with only a few men in Ireland … Humbert failed and the consequences, with the loss of an independent legislature, were disastrous for the country.’

February 13 1897 was Power’s fifty-first birthday and he always celebrated in style. His close friends, Alfred Perceval Graves, Barry O’Brien, Michael MacDonagh and Lord Russell of Killowen, an ‘Irish Brigade’, were founding members of the Irish Literary Society. Did they arrange the talk? In June, O’Connor Power was present at a ‘Sheridan Night’ and gave the vote of thanks. 1897 was the centennial year of Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s death. Power marked his birthday, 12 January, with a talk to 70 Nationalists. In the 1700s, Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith (all members of Dr Johnson’s Literary Club) were the Irish Brigade of their day, men of light and leading, fighting for liberal causes with panache and steely resolve.

In 1897, ‘The Fiend of the Cooperage’ was published. Two men, isolated in the jungle, have only each other for company. They talk politics, ‘ [Dr]Severall is a rank Radical, and I am a good stiff Unionist, and we talk Home Rule for two solid hours every evening.’ Severall is an obsolete spelling of several. Is this a man like Power, leading many lives? Dr Doyle, a Unionist, uses the word ‘singular’ frequently. Dr Severall is an inversion.

In 1897, Gerald Balfour, Tory Chief Secretary for Ireland, in an attempt to derail plans for Home Rule, introduced far reaching local government legislation, ‘killing Home Rule with kindness.’  In 1898, the Local Government (Ireland) Act dovetailed with the centennial  commemorations of the 1798 Rising and underpinned the establishment of a new political party, the United Irish League. Doyle wrote to his mother in August 1898, ‘I am playing my own game and I know what I want. There is a third party rising in Ireland, and I might be the head of it.’



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.’

Hammond’s suspicions strengthen as he misreads the unfolding events. At the Captain’s table there is mention of ‘a mysterious agency’. ‘May I ask Captain what you think of the Fenian manifestoes?’ Flannigan believes it is a privilege to die in the service of a cause, ‘It is not murder but war.’

There is talk of the loss in April 1881 of HMS Doterel. An explosion on the ship, with the loss of 143 lives, was initially thought to have been a Fenian act of terrorism. Flannigan claims he met men in America who believed ‘there was a coal torpedo aboard that vessel.’ If Flannigan is not a Fenian, he is a fellow traveller. Muller hails from Lowell, Massachussetts, a town with a strong history of IRB activity.

But the box is not a bomb and contains two grey carrier pigeons. On release, they race for home. It appears innocent but might such winged messengers be later employed as agents of war?

Moriarty does not make an appearance in 1886, the year of the First Home Rule Bill, but ‘Touch and Go: A Midshipman’s Story’ marks the occasion. Doyle, the Liberal Unionist, opposed Home Rule, yet presents a positive portrait of the IRB leader, James Stephens, a knight errant.

Set in 1868, a year of Fenian turmoil, three young people, one a midshipman, sail from the banks of the Clyde. A violent storm sweeps the boat into the Irish Sea. The craft is about to capsize when they are rescued by a steam launch, carrying the chivalrous James Stephens, the IRB leader, to the friendly shores of France. ‘The Fenian head-centre’ is a middle-aged man in dark clothes and a grey overcoat. He is fleeing from the British authorities and, as he sets the midshipman and his two companions safely ashore on the Isle of Man, he asks for their silence.

The sympathetic depiction of James Stephens contrasts with Doyle’s condemnation of Clan na Gael’s Triangle dynamite campaign in Britain. Clan na Gael was the American wing of the Fenian Brotherhood and promoted a physical force solution. The Triangle was a select group of freedom fighters. But the campaign was ineffective and managed to alienate many friends of Ireland. John O’Leary, the Fenian leader, condemned the ‘dynamitards’. The Quaker John Bright, Gladstone’s adviser on Ireland and long-time champion of Irish causes, withdrew his support for Home Rule in 1886, partly because of the threat to the Protestants of Ulster, but largely because of the unstructured bellicosity of the Irish party at Westminster and its dependence for funding from the ‘avowed enemies  of England.’

‘The Green Flag’ (1896) is set against the backdrop of the Irish Land War. ‘It was the darkest hour of the land struggle, when one side came out with the crowbar and the battering- ram during the day, and the other with mask and shotgun by night.’ By day, agents of the landlords evicted tenants and demolished dwellings. By night, the rebel fighters, ‘moonlighters’, faces blackened by bog mould, terrorised the countryside.

When his twin brother, Jack, the ‘Rory of the Hills Inner Circle,’ is shot by Sergeant Murdoch of the Constabulary, Dennis Conolly determines to leave his native land. Unable to find the fare for passage to America, he joins the British army. ‘His hot Celtic blood seethed with hatred against Britain and all things British,’ but, nevertheless, he joins the First Battalion of the Royal Mallows. In Company C, manned by Celts, Catholics and the tenant class, he is at the ‘centre of all disaffection.’ ‘Sore and savage to the soul,’ Dennis was not the only moonlighter in the ranks of Company C. The men were ‘dry-rotted with treason, cherishing a bitter hatred for those whom they served.’

The senior officers, Colonel Flanagan, ‘a fine old Celtic warrior,’ and Captain Foley, fighting in foreign fields, were of Irish extraction. Posted to the Nubian Desert, to fight in the Mahdist war, Captain Foley urges his men to battle, ‘Steady Mallows. We have the honour of Ireland to guard this day.’ But the rebel, Dennis Conolly, incites to mutiny, ‘A black curse on the Impire for evictions and killings … What has the Impire done for us?’ The mood changes as battle is joined, ‘Bhoys will you stand for this?’ The Green Flag, with the harp, becomes the rallying point for the combative, but doomed Irish.

Doyle was in Cairo in 1896 and, as a correspondent for the Westminster Gazette, reported on General Kitchener’s bid to retake the Sudan. The 2nd Battalion of the Connaught Rangers, recruited in the West of Ireland and with its headquarters in Renmore Barracks, County Galway, served under his command. Its regimental song, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was a favourite of the British army, with its large number of serving Irishmen.

The Green Flag foreshadows the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, ‘The Devil’s Own’. In  1920, the First Battalion was stationed in India when news of the Black and Tan atrocities in Ireland came through. In protest, five men in C Company mutinied. In 1922, with the foundation of the Irish state, the Connaught Rangers regiment was disbanded. A large number of its officers and men enlisted in the Irish National Army.

In 1903, a major stepping stone, the Wyndham Land Purchase Act, a reconciliation of landlords and tenants, was fuelled by a massive injection of funds, £100,000,000, the equivalent of many billions in today’s money. It was only the beginning, and successive land acts gave Irish tenants greater rights than tenant farmers in Britain. Conference, Conciliation and Consent would be the objectives of William O’Brien’s parliamentary party, the All-for-Ireland League, and its programme to conciliate landlords and Unionists.

In ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter’ (1903), originally published in the Strand, Doyle references the ‘illustrious Moriarty’, a man of ‘energy and ability.’ The plot takes shape in Trinity College, Cambridge, alma mater to Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister and his brother, Gerald, a Chief Secretary of Ireland. Is Trinity a meeting place to discuss the affairs of Ireland?  It is a February morning and takes place ‘six or seven years earlier.’  In this puzzle narrative, the rugby player, the missing three-quarter is Godfrey Staunton. Again Doyle uses symbolic names. The surname Staunton, although of Anglo-Saxon origin, is widespread in Connacht. Godfrey of the First Crusade was ‘the perfect soldier and leader.’ Through the Magic Door II.

A distinguished character in the ‘The Missing Three Quarter’, is Dr Leslie Armstrong, ‘strong arm’.  Obliquely referencing Strongbow, Armstrong is ‘certainly a man of energy and character … I have not seen a man who, if he turned his talents that way, was more calculated to fill the gap left by the illustrious Moriarty…’  Strongbow, Governor of Ireland and 2nd Earl of Pembroke, in an Anglo-Irish alliance, married the daughter of the King of Leinster in 1170. Earlier Doyle describes Dr Armstrong, ‘the square massive face, the brooding eyes under the thatched brows, and the granite moulding of the inflexible jaws. A man of deep character, a man of alert mind, grim, ascetic, self-contained, formidable.’ The portrait is a fit for O’Connor Power.

In October 1903, ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ heralded the return of Sherlock Holmes. After years of absence, believed dead, he reveals himself to Dr Watson.

Ronald Adair, the second son of the Earl of Maynooth, was murdered after he returned from a card game at his club. He had been in the company of a card shark, Colonel Sebastian Moran, who, after Moriarty, Holmes believed, was ‘the second most dangerous man in London.’ Moriarty, a man of ‘inexorable purpose’, ‘had one of the great brains of the century.’

Colonel Sebastian Moran brings to mind John O’Connor, a prominent member of the IRB’s Supreme Council. Colonel was the rank of a Fenian Head Centre. Sebastian is the patron saint of soldiers and single men. Moran is an Irish surname and a nod to the Gaelic Mór, meaning big. ‘Long John, six foot six of treason felony’ John O’Connor (1850-1928) was an Irish speaker from Mallow, County Cork. He started life as a commercial traveller, a convenient front for a recruitment agent. Imprisoned on several occasions, he entered Parliament in 1885. In 1893, he was called to the English Bar.

‘The long gentleman’ O’Connor was a man about town and his Irish charm and ‘courtly manner’ opened doors. He had a close friendship with the Liberal Lord Chancellor, Lord Loreburn, who believed it was impossible ‘to reconcile imperialism with the Liberal creed.’ O’Connor, a witty speaker, was a prior of the Johnson Club. In 1919, at the age of 70, he was appointed a King’s Counsel.

The Earl of Maynooth may be a reference to Charles Russell, a prominent Irish Catholic, who would later become England’s Lord Chief Justice. Russell’s uncle was a President of Maynooth, the foremost Catholic seminary in Ireland. His son, Charles, also a lawyer, was a member of the Johnson Club. ‘The Empty House’ is Ireland, deserted by its absentee landlords.

In October 1903, T.P’s Weekly published an article, ‘Sherlock Holmes as seen by Scotland Yard’ by Sir Robert Anderson,  Intelligence supremo Anderson’s assessment of Conan Doyle’s detective was not flattering. In response, ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder’, published in November 1903, prefaces the story with a reference to Moriarty, ‘From the point of view of the criminal expert,’ said Mr Sherlock Holmes, ‘London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Professor Moriarty.’

Doyle lived for a time in South Norwood and knew that Henri Le Caron, superspy and state witness at the Special Commission on Parnell and Crime, a de facto trial of Irish Nationalism, was buried in Norwood. For twenty years, using his assumed name, Le Caron worked for British Intelligence, reporting to Robert Anderson. In 1888, O’Connor Power travelled extensively in North America, ostensibly to promote Home Rule, but also to uncover the weaknesses in the Fenian network. In Doyle’s story, Oldacre, the Norwood builder, has, like Le Caron, led a double life. Vengefully setting up an innocent young man for a crime, he stages his own murder. Holmes lures Oldacre, presumed dead, out of his hiding place behind a false wall. For the purpose of the Special Commission (1888-1889) Power forced Le Caron and other British agents out into the open.


The triumph of faction means the defeat of freedom.

John O’Connor Power, Freeman’s Journal, 20 October, 1877.

Conan Doyle’s fourth and final Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, researched in America, marks the Third Home Rule Bill. This time the bill passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. On 18 September, 1914, the Government of Ireland Act was on the Statute Book.

In May 1914, Doyle arrived in New York on the SS Olympic. He told a New York audience that England would soon be at war with Germany. He loved America, he said, and hoped for a union of English speaking nations. He now supported Home Rule, believing a contented Ireland would not turn to Germany for help.

Returning to England, just before the outbreak of war, he wrote to his mother, ‘Entre nous, if I want a baronetcy after this I could, I fancy.’  A possible baronetcy in the offing indicates that he has been robustly arguing the case for American involvement in the imminent conflict in Europe. Irish Americans, Irish pressmen and politicians, were reluctant to support the war. His Irish protagonist in The Valley of Fear, operating under several identities, marries a German girl who has previously been courted by a physical force Nationalist.

The novel, with a prologue and an epilogue, has been divided into two main sections and the action takes place in 1875 and 1888, the years O’Connor Power crisscrossed North America promoting Home Rule and reinforcing the IRB network.

Sherlock Holmes has been invited to solve a murder committed in the English countryside. The curtain rises and falls with Professor Moriarty, who, demonstrating the reach of the IRB, ‘the long arm of the Freemen’, stage-manages events as they unfold across large distances. With its dramatic structure, the novel has been adapted for stage and screen.

The prologue introduces the reader to Professor Moriarty, with ‘a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations,’ at home in his study. Above his desk, ‘He’ – there is only one he – has a Greuze painting. It depicts a young girl, her head on her hands, ‘geeking at you sideways.’ French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze painted young women with small animals and the Wallace Collection in London has such examples of his work. Did Power’s wife possess a Greuze, acquired by her first husband, a wealthy surgeon? And, following the thread: Greuze painted the 11th Earl of Pembroke. The 14th Earl of Pembroke was President of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Doyle, a keen cricketer, was a member of the MCC.

Moriarty, the Professor of Mathematics – ‘rarefied heights of pure mathematics’, ‘That’s genius’ – is the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid. O’Connor Power, an orator with a worldwide reputation, published the bestseller, The Making of an Orator, in 1906. Dynamics and Asteroid assemble shards for a mosaic: orates, star, small planet, the making of a nation.

We learn that ‘Moriarty rules with a rod of iron over his people. His discipline is tremendous.’ Like Power, he has a voice, ‘altogether mellow and pleasing’. He is ‘admirable in his management and self-effacement.’ Inspector MacDonald describes him as outwardly respectable and learned, ‘He’d have made a grand meenister with his thin face and his grey hair and solemn-like way of talking. When he put his hand on my shoulder as we were parting it was like a father’s blessing before you go out into the cold, cruel world.’

Sherlock Holmes has received a warning, too late, and a murder has been committed in the Manor House in the ancient village of Birlstone in the heart of the English countryside. Fenianism, alien to the order of Empire, has, despite a moat and a drawbridge, penetrated a house, where, like Inspector Morse’s settings, all seems deceptively secure. The dead man has transatlantic connections and Birlstone, a spinning stone, denotes a circle, ‘Everything comes in circles, even Professor Moriarty.’ The victim’s arm is branded with a triangle within a circle. Fenians operated in circles and The Triangle was the physical force wing of the American Brotherhood. There is a calling card on the body, Vv 341, Vermissa Valley, the valley of fear. On the third finger of the dead man is a twisted snake ring.

Jack Douglas, the intended victim, has ‘a remarkable face, bold grey eyes, a strong, short-clipped mustache, a square projecting chin and a humorous mouth.’ He is a cigar smoker. But, tables turned, the man who lies dead is Ted Baldwin, who is of similar height,’five foot nine’ and build. Baldwin had travelled from Vermissa to execute a man who had broken his oath and betrayed his chief.

Part 2, the story within the story, predates the Birlstone murder by many years. We are introduced to ‘The Man’, John McMurdo, as he journeys by train across America on the 4th February, 1875. He is on his way to Vermissa, a town possibly inspired by Butte, Montana, with its coal mining, iron works and ‘bare crown mountains’. Butte was the most Irish town in the United States, and, with its grim industrial landscape, the antithesis of middle England Birlstone.  O’Connor Power visited Butte in 1875 and received a testimonial from the Robert Emmet Literary Association, a branch of Clan na Gael.

It is with this man that we are concerned. Take a good luck at him for he is worth it.

He is a fresh-complexioned, middle-sized young man, not far, one would guess, from his thirtieth year. He has large, shrewd, humorous grey eyes which twinkle inquiringly from time to time as he looks round through his spectacles at the people about him. It is easy to see that he is of a sociable and possibly simple disposition, anxious to be friendly to all men. Anyone can pick him at once as gregarious in his habits and communicative in his nature, with a quick wit and a ready smile. And yet the man who studied him more closely might discern a certain firmness of jaw and grim tightness about the lips which would warn him that there were depths beyond, and that this pleasant, brown-haired young Irishman might conceivably leave his mark for good or evil upon any society to which he was introduced.

McMurdo’s age, build and appearance are an approximate match for Power.

McMurdo has been sent to infiltrate the Scourers, an Irish secret society based on the notorious Mollie Maguires of Pennsylvania.  Their leader, Boss McGinty, a local councillor, makes his money from drink and politics. He terrorises the townspeople of Vermissa, exacting annual contributions and protection money from local businesses. His organisation has a centre, McGinty, a Secretary and a Treasurer, reflecting Doyle’s familiarity with the structure of a Fenian cell.

Brother John McMurdo, who left Ireland as a young man, supports the Eminent Order of Freemen (the Ancient Order of Hibernians) and their benevolent associations, which are committed to charity and good fellowship.  He is ‘a visible leader of men’ and his Gaelic surname is evocative. In The Sign of the Four, McMurdo, the porter, an ex-prize fighter, opens the door. Doyle had an encyclopedic knowledge of the British navy and its officers, which he displays in his historical novel, Rodney Stone, the adventures of a boxer. Vice-Admiral Archibald McMurdo died in 1875. He led expeditions to the South Pole and McMurdo Sound is named for him.

McMurdo, an agent of Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, is determined to break up the Scourers and bring them to justice. He exerts all his Irish wit and charm, ‘his joke was always the readiest, his conversation the brightest and his song the best.’ He ‘magnetism’ drew ‘good humour from all about him.’ He was also seen to have a darker side, ‘a capacity for sudden, fierce anger which compelled the respect and even the fear of those who met him.’

Working undercover, he traps the leaders, delivers them into the hands of the law and reveals his true purpose and his real name, Birdie Edwards. Captain Marvin of the Coal and Iron Police, who had been in on the conspiracy, arrests the men. The head of England’s Special Irish Branch was Spymaster William Melville from Sneem, County Kerry, the son of a local publican. In 1904, Conan Doyle was on a committee to oversee a testimonial fund for Melville on his retirement. In 1908, Melville, ‘a retired brewer’, is a peripheral character in ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’, a tale of international espionage.

Birdie may be a Doyle inversion. O’Connor Power’s wife was Avis, the Latin for bird. Power’s niece, Mary, with a beautiful singing voice, was known as Birdie and Doyle may have met her on his trips to Ireland. McMurdo/Edwards/Douglas had ‘a remarkably rich tenor voice.’ He was married twice. His first wife, a German girl, was Ettie and Ivy was the name of his second wife. In Wilkie Collins’ Blind Love, the Irish rebel’s English wife is Iris.

In the Epilogue the narrative reverts to England. Jack Douglas has spent five years in Birlstone but his cover has been blown. Holmes advises Ivy, his wife, that he must leave England and find a place of safety. Douglas sets sail with his wife, Ivy, for South Africa. Two months later Sherlock Holmes receives an enigmatic note, ‘Dear me, Mr Holmes! Dear me!’ He immediately understands its significance and his fears are confirmed that evening when he learns that Jack Douglas was lost overboard in a storm, ‘I’ve no doubt it was well stage-managed … There is a masterhand here … you can tell an old master by the sweep of his brush. I can tell a Moriarty when I see one.’

The finale echoes the fate of Fenian James Carey. An Invincible, he took part in the assassination  of British officials in the Phoenix Park in 1882. He turned informer and, on his evidence, his partners in crime were executed. Under assumed names, he and his wife sailed to South Africa but a fellow passenger, Patrick O’Donnell, recognised and shot him. Patrick O’Donnell had spent time in Pennsylvania with his Molly Maguire cousins. Peter Carey, brother of James, is remembered in ‘The Adventure of Black Peter’ (1904) when the retired seaman, Peter Carey, an unpleasant character, is the murdered victim.

Professor Moriarty, Birdie Edwards/John McMurdo/Jack Douglas, and the physical force ‘boy’, Ted Baldwin, reflect the many faces of the Irish struggle for independence.

In April 1917, Doyle breakfasted with Prime Minister Lloyd George in Downing Street. It is the year he first had signs of a heart condition and, in September, he brings Sherlock Holmes out of retirement. In ‘His Last Bow’, the  Foreign Minister, and later the Premier, visit him on his small farm on the South Downs. They have a counter-espionage mission for the famous detective. The story is subtitled ‘An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’ and is regarded as a propaganda piece intended to raise the morale of the beleaguered British public.

The scene is set in early August 1914. For four years, England has been harbouring a spymaster. Von Bork, a German aristocrat, an agent of the Kaiser, has lived in style with his family on the South coast of England. A popular figure in the sporting world and in social circles, he has an insider’s access to the main players in the coming conflict. Von Bork has a visitor, Baron Von Herling, Chief Secretary at the German Legation.  He tells his guest that the English are a ‘docile, simple folk’ who are not in readiness for war. The Baron agrees, ‘How can England come on, especially when we have stirred her up such a devil’s brew of Irish civil war  … and window-breaking furies.’

The prospect of civil war in Ireland, so eagerly hoped for by Germany and anticipated by prominent members of the American Brotherhood, leads Holmes to take on the guise of a bitter Irish-American to lull his prey, Von Bork, into a false security. He takes the name Altamont – Doyle’s father was Charles Altamont Doyle – and is due that evening to deliver secret Naval Signals to the German master spy and close the deal. For two years, in preparation for his role, Holmes/Altamont studied his part in Chicago, in Buffalo, as a member of a secret Irish society, and in Skibbereen, County Cork, as a hot-blooded patriot.

Von Bork, about to return to Berlin, relaxes his guard and shows Altamont his safe and its double combination lock and code, a word and a set of numbers: August 1914. Four years earlier, he had confidently predicted the onset of the conflict. In February 1913, Doyle’s article, ‘Great Britain and the Next War’ appeared in the Fortnightly Review.

Holmes overpowers the German and throws off his disguise. He tells Von Bork he has thwarted him for months, planting disinformation and identifying five of his agents who are now in prison. The Von Bork family’s elderly housekeeper, old Martha, has been in his employ. Dr Watson, in the role of chauffeur, like many other veterans, has been brought out of retirement. Altamont, Holmes tells his prisoner, was ‘a concoction, a myth, an isolated strand from my bundle of personalities. I used him and he is gone.’

Von Bork threatens revenge but is reminded by Holmes, the Baker Street detective, that revenge is sweet but he has vanquished more powerful foes: ‘The Old Sweet Song’ said Holmes. How often have I heard it in the days gone by. It was a favourite of the late lamented Professor Moriarty. Colonel Sebastian Moran has also been known to warble it.’

The popular lament identifies Professor Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran as Irishmen. ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’ appeared in 1884. The opening lines, ‘Once in the dear, dead days beyond recall … out of the dreams that rose in happy throng’, perhaps hark back to the old time and the shades of the Fianna. James Lynam Molloy was the composer. His brother, Bernard Charles Molloy, MP for Birr, Middle Temple barrister and penal reformer, was best man at O’Connor Power’s wedding.

The Crown Diamond: an Evening with Sherlock Holmes, a one act play, was first performed publicly in May 1921. An adaptation was published as a short story in the Strand on October 1921. Colonel Sebastian Moran, an ‘intellectual criminal’, features in the play but the name of the ‘master criminal’ is changed in the story. In both versions the words ‘the robbery in the train deluxe to the Riviera February 13th 1892’ appear.  The Riviera was a hospitable refuge for Irish patriots. The diamond, Ireland, was  stolen from the crown of Empire

On February 13th 1893 Gladstone introduced the Second Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons.  William O’Brien M.P. pointed out the Bill was ‘passed through all its stages by a British House of Commons in a hundred deliberate votes on principles and details. That is a fact which can no more be blotted out of the constitutional history of England than the Petition of Rights.’ Power marked the occasion with a jubilant article in the Speaker, ‘FEBRUARY 13TH 1893’.

William Melville 1850-1916 was born in Sneem, County Kerry. He joined the Metropolitan Police and helped set up the Special Irish Branch, later Special Branch, to deal with the Fenian dynamitards who were bombing London in the 1880s. Like his Fenians counterparts he frequented race courses in pursuit of informers and information. Melville reputedly foiled the Jubilee Plot, an attempt to to sabotage the celebration of Queen Victoria’s fifty years on the throne. Irish Nationalists believed the plot was a British Intelligence fabrication, an imaginative scenario, created to blacken the Irish and make the Special Branch look effective. Melville, a Roman Catholic, was the first ‘M’ of MI5.

‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client’, 1924, begins September 3rd 1902. The ‘late Professor Moriarty’ and the ‘living Colonel Sebastian Moran’ are mentioned. A Corkman, Colonel Sir James Damery, initiates a Holmes challenge, ‘Frankness shone from his grey Irish eyes and good humour played round his mobile, smiling lips.’ Sir James represents an illustrious client, a senior member of the Royal family, probably Edward VII.

Holmes’ task is to discredit the fiancé of Violet de Merville, the headstrong daughter of a distinguished soldier, General de Merville. Change the consonant, replace the ‘r’ with an ‘l’, and we have Melville. Violet is engaged to a wicked Austrian, Baron Adelbert Gruner. Gruner brings us to Grüner, the German for greener, shades of the fighting Irish. The baron’s address is Vernon Lodge, Kingston. In 1902, O’Connor Power’s family home was in Liverpool Road, Kingston, across the road from verdant Richmond Park.

There is a second story lurking behind the text. In November 1902, O’Connor Power wrote to the editor of the Manchester Guardian, C P Scott, ‘I hear on good authority that the government contemplate important changes in their Irish policy, administrative and legislative.’ The following month, December 1902, Lord Dunraven of Adare, County Limerick, presided over a Land Conference, which led to an agreement between tenants and moderate landlords. William O’Brien MP, land warrior and founder of the United Irish League, saw it as Conference, Conciliation and Consent. The Wyndham Land Purchase Act 1903 led to a radical reform of the feudal Irish land laws. The scheme received a massive injection of cash from the British exchequer.

In a later story, ‘The Three Garridebs’, Holmes refuses a knighthood in June 1902, ‘for services which may some day be described.’ To please his mother, Conan Doyle accepted a knighthood from Edward VII that same year, and, on the recommendation of the War Office, was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey.

Professor Robert Moriarty acquires a first name in Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts, 1897. Did Doyle meet Power’s eldest brother, the swashbuckling Robert, in London or on a visit to Galway?  In the Second Act, Moriarty’s elusive doorkeeper, ‘Enter John’ is seen in the ‘half-darkness’, ‘John is in the dark.’  Follow the thread: McMurdo is the porter in The Sign of the Four and John McMurdo is the central character in The Valley of Fear. The action is set in 1892 and predates ‘The Final Problem’ and Moriarty’s death at the Reichenbach Falls. When Moriarty is taken into custody, he warns Holmes he will meet him on the continent.

Robert Power worked for many years as a painter and decorator in Lowell, Massachussetts, a Fenian stronghold and was probably a leading figure in Clann na Gael. ‘Manning is gone’ also sets the date of the play’s narrative. Cardinal Manning died in 1892.



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.

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


Conan Doyle’s parents were Irish Nationalists but for many years he opposed Home Rule. He feared civil war in Ireland and damage to the integrity of the Empire. In 1886, the First Home Rule Bill split the Liberal party. The Liberal Unionists, as they were known, believed Ireland was not prepared for an independent parliament. The country was in a state of turmoil. The Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster was funded by Britain’s ‘avowed enemies’, the physical force Nationalists, and, threatening stability, IPP members remained silent on the dynamite campaign in England.

Ulster seemed an insurmountable block to a united Ireland. Non-Conformists in the Liberal party feared the Catholic Church would take control of the country. Ireland’s struggles were inextricably linked to its relationship with the Church. The Irish in Britain and the Empire would not favour an acrimonious break with England. The Irish had established power bases in the colonies. Canada had its own parliament but it was bound to the mother country by its need for immigrants and finance. Many Canadians were descendants of Empire Loyalists, who, in 1782, migrated from the United States to maintain the ties with England.

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 men.’

Power warned of the threat to the state and the Empire if the House of Lords continued to block legislative measures. The supremacy of the representative, the elected branch of the legislature must be asserted. The House of Commons had a heavy workload and local government reform would ease its burden. Devolution was in England’s interests. In November 1884, he addressed a meeting of Bath Young Men’s Liberal Association. His lecture, ‘The Safety of the State is at Stake’, pointed out that the Commons might, on the same day, debate important foreign policy and the merits of a turnpike bill. He reminded his audience, ‘Two hundred years ago, the Monarch came into collision with the representative branch of the legislature, with fatal consequences.’ Doyle alludes to Charles I in several of his stories, and refers to the English Civil war, when the parliamentary system broke down and the monarch, Charles I, was beheaded. Was this argument common currency? And urgently endorsed by Power in his promotion of a democratic concept of Empire?

In 1900, the Chronicle’s publisher backed the unpopular Boer War and attempted to muzzle his editor, H W Massingham. Massingham resigned along with many of his colleagues, including O’Connor Power. The previous year, W T Stead, one of the most influential newspapermen of his generation, had formed the Stop the War Committee and had fallen out with Conan Doyle who supported the the government. C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, vehemently opposed the war. As did a leading Welsh Liberal, Lloyd George, who felt money would be better spent on social reform.

Doyle’s mother, Ma’am, took a strong position against the war and ‘Rhodes &  Co.’ She wrote to him, ‘That awful gold is really at the root of the matter.’ Cecil Rhodes was a South African politician, mining magnate and white supremacist. There were anti-war demonstrations across Ireland and money was raised for the widows and orphans of Boer soldiers. Irish volunteers fought with the Boers. Power advised Irish voters in England to register their disapproval of the war in the election, ‘[his] views on the war are pronounced and [his] advice may have important consequences in regard to the relations between the Irish and Liberal party during the election.’ The divisions put the Home Rule agenda on the back burner for a decade.

Doyle, champion of Empire, enlisted in the medical corps. He spent three months in South Africa and his propaganda publications, The Great Boer War and The War in South Africa: its Causes and Conduct, defended the government’s stance. He was rewarded with a knighthood – Sherlock Holmes refused the honour. He returned home in June and, in the autumn, he stood as a Liberal candidate for the Edinburgh Central Division seat. He had grown up in the constituency, it was a Liberal stronghold and he had high hopes of success. He could not court 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.’

On the day before the vote, the constituency was placarded with posters declaring that Doyle was a Roman Catholic and an agent of the Jesuits. He was beaten by a few hundred votes. He ran and lost again in  Hawick Burghs in 1906, the year of the Liberal landslide.


Through the Magic Door (1906), a review of Doyle’s bookshelves and his favourite authors, reveals his life-long passion for the written word. As a young student, he often spent his lunch money at the bookseller’s ‘three penny tub’ and went hungry. He admired the Scottish authors, Walter Scott, ‘a manly man’, and the historian Macauley. Robert Louis Stevenson, a contemporary, impressed him with his story telling and his word portraits. There was an exchange of letters but they never met.

John Buchan’s espionage thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was published shortly after The Valley of Fear. The German menace permeates the first person narrativeBuchan, a fellow Scot, mentions Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Like Doyle and Kipling, he had a firm belief in the Imperial ideal. Their stories were to educate the public and stimulate national pride. In a veiled but pointed critique, Buchan’s hero on the run, Richard Hanney, unlike Holmes, does not resort to theatrical make-up, the external surface, for his multiple identities, but, chameleon-like, works with imagination and intuition from within.

Doyle moved, as did O’Connor Power, in literary circles. He was at home with his fellow Celts and had many Irish comrades of letters. He collaborated with Bram Stoker, a distant relative, on theatre projects. Stoker, the author of Dracula, was a guest at Doyle’s wedding to Jean Leckie. Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Picture of Dorian Gray, although with settings in England, are outstanding examples of Irish Gothic literature.

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.

In 1897, Doyle moved to his new home in Undershaw. Dubliner George Bernard Shaw, a leading Radical and a successful playwright, was Doyle’s querulous new neighbour. When W H Smith & Son, the booksellers, refused to stock Irish novelist George Moore’s Esther Waters on grounds of immorality – the eponymous ‘fallen heroine’, unforgivably, survives her setbacks – Doyle, in a public display of comradeship, objected to the censorship.

Doyle gives space in his review of books to Dr Johnson and fellow Scot, James Boswell, who was born and reared in Edinburgh and an alumnus of Edinburgh University.