The Brotherhood in Birmingham: The Sparkbrook Dynamite Plot

“We’ll bow our heads in sorrow, with rage

their hearts we’ll harrow

And cause a brighter morrow with dreaded


To right those wrongs we’re banded, though

 rebels we are branded

We’ll face them single handed with a charge of

 dynamite.” [1]

Figure 1: Shrapnel from an unexploded Fenian bomb found at Paddington Station, 1884 (Photo: Museum of London)

On the afternoon of 11 April 1883, a middle aged man walked slowly towards Birkenhead train station. He was in the process of purchasing a ticket to Birmingham Snow Hill station via Wolverhampton, when he was surrounded by plain clothes English police and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who quickly snatched the parcels he was carrying under his arm, and whisked him away from the station and the prying eyes of the curious Liverpudlians. The middle aged passenger prisoner was John Daly (Seán Ó Dálaigh) and it was not his first brush with the law.

Born in Limerick city on 18 October 1845, Daly’s father was employed at the James Harvey & Son’s Timber Yard[2], and at age sixteen, his son joined him working as a lathe splitter. Like many young Irish men of the period, Daly was deeply troubled by the British rule of Ireland, and also deeply disenchanted. Three years after Daly’s birth in 1848, and with most of Ireland still suffering from being ravaged by famine, despite the frequent exports of viable grain and cattle under armed British escort, the Young Irelanders which had been established in the early part of the 1840s, turned from agitation concerning the repeal of British rule, to open armed rebellion. On 28 July 1848, in South Tipperary, in the small town of Ballingarry, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Doheny had given a speech on the town commons calling for revolt against the occupying forces of the British and the establishment of home rule throughout Ireland. All three were impassioned and experienced speakers, and they soon gathered enthusiastic support from the local population of miners, tradesmen and small tenant farmers. Doheny and Meagher moved on from the commons to spread the rising, but O’Brien lingered and assisted in the locals in construction of barricades to repel the police, and the inevitable military intervention. Seeing an agitated and combative crowd that was in no mood for compromise, and formidable barricades when they arrived on 29 July 1848, a detachment of forty six police from the town of Callan in County Kilkenny, led by a Sub-Inspector Trant, veered off the approach to the barricades and made their way to a defensible position of a nearby two storey farmhouse, the crowd hot on the heels[3].

The farmhouse in question belonged to a local woman Margaret McCormack who was in an out building when the police arrived and did not have time to intervene before the police had blocked the doors. Unfortunately the five children of Margaret McCormack were still in the house along with the agitated and scared police who took them hostage. As the crowd led by O’Brien reached the farmhouse, they were approached by the now understandably hysterical Margaret McCormack who told them that as well as the police in the house, so too were her children. O’Brien approached the house with the distraught mother in tow, and attempted to broach a peaceable solution, even going so far as to shake hands with some of the police through the window. Without provocation, and with no warning, a shot rang out from inside the farmhouse and mayhem broke loose. Wounded in the fire fight that ensued, O’Brien had to be dragged out of the line of fire by his supporters who were also wounded by stray bullets. Although the Young Irelanders and the police exchanged bullets, it gradually became clear that the farmhouse was a heavily defensible position, and when reinforcements arrived led by Sub-Inspector Cox although the crowd tried to repel them using what little ammunition they had left, eventually under heavy fire they were forced to withdraw. When the dust and cordite settled, O’Brien was arrested and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered for the crime of high treason. After receiving a petition for clemency signed by 70,000 Irish citizens, and 10,000 Europeans, the British legal authorities finally conceded and commuted his sentence to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Although this sentence too was eventually commuted and O’Brien was to receive a pardon in 1856, his arrest, the brutal suppression that followed the Battle of Ballingarry, and many leaders of the Young Irelanders being forced to flee abroad led to the failure of the 1848 rising.

The Case of Daly and Egan

Figure 2: Flag of the Irish Republican Brotherhood

From the ashes of the Young Irelanders, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed.  The IRB was a secret fraternal organisation that sought to establish an independent democratic republic in Ireland free from British rule. Along with their US based sister organisation and financiers , Clan na Gael, the IRB launched a devastating dynamite campaign on British shores in 1881, particularly focused on governmental and infrastructure targets. Many of the attacks were focused on London however both Liverpool, and indeed Birmingham were hotspots. In 1883, John Daly moved from America where he had been in exile following the ill-fated Fenian Rising of 1867 to Birmingham to share the lodgings of a fellow Limerick man, and inactive member of the IRB, James Francis Egan. Events were subsequently to unfold that illustrated “the truly dark side of what the British authorities were capable of” [4]. In his youth James Egan had been an enthusiastic supporter of Irish home rule, but had moved to Wolverhampton in pursuit of employment. Initially he found work as a clerk. In 1879, Egan became the licensee of the Lamp on Froysell Street, Willenhall, Walsall [5]. Egan gave up his license to operate a public house in 1883, to resume employment in the quieter role of a clerk again, and he moved with his wife to a new home with their lodger, a Mrs. Treherne [6]. The house on Kyotts Lake Road in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, was soon also home to his childhood friend Daly, who used the alias Denman, suspecting that he was under surveillance by the authorities, and not wishing to drag his mostly apolitical childhood friend into the fray. As the events that were to transpire began to unfold, Daly was right to be wary.

Daly was under tight surveillance before he even got off the boat. The Royal Irish Constabulary and Major Nicholas Gosselin of the newly minted Special Irish Branch, who was responsible for an intelligence network that stretched across Northern England, contacted Birmingham Chief Constable Joseph Farndale to inform him of the arrival of Daly. Although Farndale was aware that he presided over a detective branch that was “the most corrupt and unreliable force in the country” [7]  he had some experience with the dynamite threat thanks to events earlier in April that occurred in Ladywood where police found a dynamite factory in the house next to the unused shop inhabited by Alfred George Whitehead (although the case of Daly and Egan is often conflated with this discovery, they were separate events and probably not indicative of a wider plot). Gosselin was one of the proponents of secret surveillance of Irish Republicans and also frequently employed a network of informants and agent provocateurs. One such was a Liverpudlian publican by the name of Daniel O’Neill. O’Neill was a long standing contact of Daly and a known Fenian who had been recruited by Gosselin. He was also in receipt of correspondence to and from Daly acting as an intermediary between him and contacts in the United States, in case of his arrest. For the nascent Special Irish Branch he was to prove an excellently placed mole. It was at the request by telegram from O’Neill that Daly travelled from Birmingham to Liverpool.

After traveling from Snow Hill station to Birkenhead via Wolverhampton on 9 April 1883, Daly met the known Irish nationalist, Patrick Fitzgerald [8] and then moved on to spend a few days with his long standing acquaintance, O’Neill. Daly was still under active police surveillance, by the RIC and the Special Irish Branch on his arrival in Liverpool. On the morning of his departure back to Birmingham, O’Neill asked Daly to carry four small parcels back with him. They were to be collected later, and Daly did not enquire as to their contents. Unfortunately for Daly, they were collected far earlier than he could have anticipated, by members of the RIC that affected his arrest and to the surprise possibly only of Daly found to contain explosives. One the same day as the arrest of Daly, a telegram was issued to Chief Constable Farndale to commence a raid against the house in Sparkbrook occupied by Egan. Farndale jumped at the chance, chafing perhaps that an arrest of an Irish radical had been affected in Wolverhampton by the RIC and not by the legal authorities he commanded, and accompanied by a number of detectives and inspectors under his command and members of the RIC swooped on the property in Sparkbrook.

The search of the house in Sparkbrook resulted in a find of a bundle of letters and catalogues and communications to and from a Birmingham publican, William McDonnell which dated back to 1875 and was a one-time IRB member.  As police moved to arrest McDonnell at the Royal Oak pub in Wednesbury [9], and after finding nothing more in Egans’ rooms they turned their attentions to the rear garden of the property. That first day of the search, the police recovered another stash of letters buried in a small metal box, and decided to bring in a gardener to help with their unusual excavations. As the police now aided by a local gardener continued to dig through Egans’ back yard, they discovered a small glass bottle filled with a mysterious liquid. This was quickly sent to Colonel Sir Vivian Dering Majendie who was the Chief Inspector of Explosives to Queen Victoria and one of the first British bomb disposal experts who soon confirmed that the liquid in the bottle was highly concentrated nitroglycerin, an active ingredient in the manufacture of dynamite. The discovery was made the day after the police and the local gardener had already cleared that patch of the garden, which it was decided for seemingly arbitrary reasons to double check. MacDonnell, Egan and Daly were soon languishing in Winson Green prison awaiting their day in court.

The Trials of Justice

Figure 3: The Dynamite Plot: Examination of John F. Egan at the Birmingham Police Court (The Graphic, 3 May 1884 © Alamy)

Initially the plan for the trial of the three prisoners was to conduct it in Birmingham however this was soon discounted as an option. The Victorian legal authorities lived in dread of an attack by Irish nationalist ‘dynamitards’ in an effort to spring their associates, and Birmingham posed too many risks. The venue was moved to the Warwick assizes, and had armed police at every entrance and exit, as well as barricades on the surrounding streets. As it was, the trial commenced on the morning on 30 July 1884 with no incident or much feared attack being enacted. To prevent such, the prisoners were transported under heavy guard, and several decoy vans were used to frustrate any potential rescue. Following the successful transportation of the prisoners, and a brief prosecution and a defence that had to be led by the defendants themselves being as they were unrepresented, the jury retired to chambers for all of fifteen minutes [10]. All three defendants were found guilty following this brief consideration of their fates. John Daly was sentenced to penal servitude for life, and James Egan (who Daly vocally and vigorously denied was involved in any capacity during the trial) for twenty years. McDonnell faired best of all the defendants and was bound over on past charges for the sum of £50. When it transpired that he could not pay he was quietly released on the recommendation of the court. Somewhat unusually the defendants were not tried with possession of explosive materials which would have been a Treason Felony, but rather with their involvement in the IRB. And here the story of the would-be bombers would have ended, were it not for revelations that were to follow.

On Wednesday, 24 September 1890 [11], The Times published an article that was to prove just as explosive as any of the materials that were found in the rear garden of Egans’ property in Sparkbrook. This article referenced a swirl of controversy that had blighted the prosecution since 1886. Daly had always claimed that he did not know what was in the parcels that the RIC informer O’Neill asked him to transport, and that the explosive materials recovered from the garden in Sparkbrook had been placed there by over eager members of the police. This appears as if it may have held a kernel of truth. Following the conviction of Daly and Egan, Chief Constable Farndale gave a statement to the Birmingham Watch Committee in which he implied that a man employed by the RIC had given Daly the bombs in Birkenhead. As was to be proved subsequently, O’Neill was indeed an RIC agent. The Birmingham Lord Mayor, Alderman Manton although not present when Farndale gave his statement, was so troubled by it that he took the opportunity to write to the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, raising his concerns that the prosecutions may have been based around tainted evidence, and even going so far as to state that Daly and Egan had suffered “wrongs inflicted as a result of a vile conspiracy” [12].

The letter from the Chief Constable became the basis for a strong amnesty campaign for the two prisoners, and was further supported by press reports such as that in The Times which reported that Egan was beginning to lose not only his health but his sight [13].  The Irish Parliamentary Party also began to call for an inquiry into the circumstances of the arrest of Egan and Daly. This wave of public sympathy however may have been misplaced. Farndales’ statement arguably concerned not the justice of the conviction against Daly, but rather the methods of his arrest and the fact it was enacted by the RIC. For the government of the day the case was an embarrassment, and many suspected that extra-legal measures had been implemented against the prisoners, and evidence planted. Daly was finally released from prison on 16 August 1896, with Egan preceding his childhood friend to freedom on 21 January 1893. In 1901 Daly was to become the Mayor of Limerick City, and both he and his onetime co-accused remained active in Irish Republican politics until their deaths.

Whether Daly was guilt of any other charge rather than being in favour of Irish nationalism will perhaps never be known. Birmingham during the period, like much of the rest of the United Kingdom was cowed by fear of the Irish dynamiters, and indeed had been the subject of a largely concurrent dynamite plot in Ladywood and indeed elsewhere through the UK. Legal authorities were overstretched, and there was a reliance on secret policing which often had recourse to extra-legal measures such as the use of paid informants, and agent provocateurs. Record keeping was scant, and transparency was at best an afterthought. In such an environment it is perhaps not an overstatement to consider that the RIC and their local counterparts may have resorted to whatever mechanisms they could to reduce the threat posed by Republicans. The truth of the Sparkbrook dynamite plot and the involvement of Daly and Egan will perhaps never be known in full, much of it being lost to history. It remains however, a “sensational story” [14] from Victorian Birmingham that illustrates that the challenges of combatting terrorism are however, not unique to our own fractured and fraught age. One thing that is known is that the incident in Sparkbrook was part of a much larger campaign by the IRB within the UK which involved another plot in Birmingham which will be discussed in an additional article later.


[1] Anonymous, England Beware, Dynamite Monthly, May 1884

[2] Helen Litton, Edward Daly: 16 Lives, The O’Brien Press, 2013, Pg. 6

[3] The events of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, are discussed in detail in Laurence Fenton, Young Ireland Rebellion and Limerick, Mercier Press, 2006 and Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848: The Road to Ballingarry, Four Courts Press Ltd, 2000

[4] Joseph McKenna, The Irish-American Dynamite Campaign: A History, 1881–1896, McFarland, 2012, Pg. 72

[5] Tony Hitchmough, Hitchmough’s Black Country Pubs: Willenhall, Longpull, 2016, Pg. 281

[6] The Dynamite Plots, The Investigation in Birmingham, Birmingham Daily Post, April 21 1884, Pg. 5

[7] Bernard Potter, The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch Before the First World War, The Boydell Press, 1987, Pg. 73

[8] The Nation, Volume 38, J.H. Richards New York, The Nation Company, 1884, Pg. 332

[9] McKenna, Pg. 76

[10] Sean Mcconville, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-1922: Theatres of War, Routledge, 2002, Pg. 352

[11] The Conviction of Daly, The Times, 24 September 1890, Pg. 4; Issue 33125

[12] Hansard, HC Deb 03 August 1891 vol 356 cc1141-93,

[13] The Birmingham Dynamite Case, The Times, 15 November 1884, Pg. 10; Issue 31292

[14] Shane Kenna, War in the Shadows: The Irish-American Fenians Who Bombed Victorian Britain, Merrion, 2013