Karl Marx in L’Internationale 1870

The English Government and
the Fenian Prisoners

Source: Marx and Engels on Ireland, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971;
First Published: in French in L’Internationale, February 27 and March 6, 1870;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

This article was sent by Marx to the organ of the Belgian sections of the International Working Men’s Association, the weekly L’Internationale, which appeared between 1869 and 1873 in Brussels. It was sent as a private letter to the editor Cesar De Paepe. Marx expected that the letter would be edited by De Paepe before it was printed. The editors, however, printed it almost without changes, only adding some explanations in brackets and dividing it into two parts. A small editorial comment was appended, whichis not published in this edition.

London, February 21, 1870


The silence which is observed in the European press concerning the disgraceful acts committed by this oligarchical bourgeois government is due to a variety of reasons. Firstly, the English Government is rich and the press, as you know, is immaculate. Moreover, the English Government is the model government, recognised as such by the landlords, by the capitalists on the Continent and even by Garibaldi (see his book[168]): consequently we should not revile this ideal, government. Finally, the French Republicans are narrowminded and selfish enough to reserve all their anger for the Empire. It would be an insult to free speech to inform their fellow countrymen that in the land of bourgeois freedom sentences of 20 years hard labour are given for offences which are punished by 6 months in prison in the land of barracks. The following information on the treatment of Fenian prisoners has been taken from English journals:

Mulcahy, sub-editor of the newspaper The Irish People,[169] sentenced for taking part in the Fenian conspiracy, was harnessed to a cart loaded with stones with a metal band round his neck at Dartmoor.

O'Donovan Rossa, owner of The Irish People, was shut up for 35 days in a pitch-black dungeon with his hands tied behind his back day and night. They were not even untied to allow him to eat the miserable slops which were left for him on the earthen floor.

Kickham, one of the editors of The Irish People, although he was unable to use his right arm because of an abscess, was forced to sit with his fellow prisoners on a heap of rubble in the November cold and fog and break up stones and bricks with his left hand. He returned to his cell at night and had nothing to eat but 6 ounces of bread and a pint of hot water.

O'Leary, an old man of sixty or seventy who was sent to prison, was put on bread and water for three weeks because he would not renounce paganism (this, apparently, is what a jailer called free thinking) and become either Papist, Protestant, Presbyterian or even Quaker, or take up one of the many religions which the prison governor offered to the heathen Irish.

Martin H. Carey is incarcerated in a lunatic asylum at Millbank. The silence and the other bad treatment which he has received have made him lose his reason.

Colonel Richard Burke is in no better condition. One of his friends writes that his mind is affected, he has lost his memory and his behaviour, manners and speech are those of a madman.

The political prisoners are dragged from one prison to the next as if they were wild animals. They are forced to keep company with the vilest knaves; they are obliged to clean the pans used by these wretches, to wear the shirts and flannels which have previously been worn by these criminals, many of whom are suffering from the foulest diseases, and to wash in the same water. Before the arrival of the Fenians at Portland all the criminals were allowed to talk with their visitors. A visiting cage was installed for the Fenian prisoners. It consists of three compartments divided by partitions of thick iron bars; the jailer occupies the central compartment and the prisoner and his friends can only see each other through this double row of bars.

In the docks you can find prisoners who eat all sorts of slugs, and frogs are considered dainties at Chatham. General Thomas Burke said he was not surprised to find a dead mouse floating in the soup. The convicts say that it was a bad day for them when the Fenians were sent to the prisons. (The prison regime has become much more severe.)

* * *

I should like to add a few words to these extracts.

Last year Mr. Bruce, the Home Secretary, a great liberal, great policeman and great mine owner in Wales who cruelly exploits his workers, was questioned on the bad treatment of Fenian prisoners and O'Donovan Rossa in particular. At first he denied everything, but was later compelled to confess. Following this Mr. Moore, an Irish member in the House of Commons, demanded an enquiry into the facts. This was flatly refused by the radical ministry of which the head is that demigod Mr. Gladstone (he has been compared to Jesus Christ publicly) and that old bourgeois demagogue, John Bright, is one of the most influential members.

The recent wave of reports concerning the bad treatment of the Fenians led several members of Parliament to request Mr. Bruce for permission to visit the prisoners in order to be able to verify the falseness of these rumours. Mr. Bruce refused this permission on the grounds that the prison governors were afraid that the prisoners would be too excited by visits of this kind.

Last week the Home Secretary was again submitted to questioning. He was asked whether it was true that O'Donovan Rossa received corporal punishment (i.e., whipping) after his election to Parliament as the member for Tipperary. The Minister confirmed that he had not received such treatment since 1868 (which is tantamount to saying that the political prisoner had been given the whip over a period of two to three years).

I am also sending you extracts (which we are going to publish in our next issue) concerning the case of Michael Terbert, a Fenian sentenced as such to forced labour, who was serving his sentence at Spike Island Convict Prison in the county of Cork, Ireland. You will see that the coroner himself attributes this man’s death to the torture which was inflicted on him. This investigation was held last week.

In the course of two years more than twenty Fenian workers have died or gone insane thanks to the philanthropic natures of these honest bourgeois souls, backed by the honest landlords.

You are probably aware that the English press professes a chaste distaste for the dreadful general security laws which grace ‘'la belle France.” With the exception of a few short intervals, it is security laws which formed the Irish Charter. Since 1793 the English Government has taken advantage of any pretext to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act (which guarantees the liberty of the individual)[171] regularly and periodically, in fact all laws, except that of brute force. In this way thousands of people have been arrested in Ireland on being suspected of Fenianism without ever having been tried, brought before a judge or court, or even charged. Not content with depriving them of their liberty, the English Government has had them tortured in the most savage way imaginable. The following is but one example.

One of the prisons where persons suspected of being Fenians were buried alive is Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. The prison inspector, Murray, is a despicable brute who maltreated the prisoners so cruelly that some of them went mad. The prison doctor, an excellent man called M'Donnell (who also played a creditable part in the enquiry into Michael Terbert’s death), spent several months writing letters of protest which he addressed in the first instance to Murray himself. When Murray did not reply he sent accusing letters to higher authorities, but being an expert jailer Murray intercepted these letters.

Finally M'Donnell wrote directly to Lord Mayo who was then Viceroy of Ireland. This was during the period when the Tories were in power (Derby and Disraeli). What effect did his actions have? The documents relating to the case were published by order of Parliament and ... Dr. M'Donnell was dismissed from his post!!! Whereas Murray retained his.

Then the so-called radical government of Gladstone came to power, the warm-hearted, unctuous, magnanimous Gladstone who had wept so passionately and so sincerely before the eyes of the whole of Europe over the fate of Poerio and other members of the bourgeoisie who were badly treated by King Bomba.[172] What did this idol of the progressive bourgeoisie do? While insulting the Irish by his insolent replies to their demands for an amnesty, he not only confirmed the monster Murray in his post, but endowed the position of chief jailer with a nice fat sinecure as a token of his personal satisfaction! There’s the apostle of the philanthropic bourgeoisie for you!

But something had to be done to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. It was essential to appear to be doing something for Ireland, and the Irish Land Bill[173] was proclaimed with a great song and dance. All this is nothing but a pose with the ultimate aim of deceiving Europe, winning over the Irish judges and advocates with the prospect of endless disputes between landlords and farmers, conciliating the landlords with the promise of financial aid from the state and deluding the more prosperous farmers with a few mild concessions.

In the long introduction to his grandiloquent and confused speech Gladstone admits that even the “benevolent” laws which liberal England bestowed on Ireland over the last hundred years have always led to the country’s further decline.[174] And after this naive confession the same man persists in torturing those who want to put an end to this harmful and stupid legislation.


The following is an account taken from an English newspaper of the results of an enquiry into the death of Michael Terbert, a Fenian prisoner who died at Spike Island Prison due to the bad treatment which he had received.

“On Thursday last Mr. John Moore, Coroner of the Middleton district, held an inquest at Spike Island Convict Prison, on the body of a convict ... named Michael Terbert, who had died in hospital.

“Peter Hay, governor of the prison, was called first. He deposed ‘The deceased, Michael Terbert, came to this prison in June, 1866; I can’t say how his health was at the time; he had been convicted on the 12th of January, 1866, and his sentence was seven years’ penal servitude; he appeared delicate for some time past, as will appear from one of the prison books, which states that he was removed on the recommendation of medical officers, as being unfit for cellular discipline.’ Witness then went into a detail of the frequent punishments inflicted on the deceased for breach of discipline, many of them for the use ‘of disrespectful language to the medical officer’.

“Jeremiah Hubert Kelly deposed — ‘I remember when Michael Terbert came here from Mountjoy Prison; it was then stated that he was unfit for cellular discipline — that means being always confined to a cell; certificate to the effect was signed by Dr. M'Donnell; ... I found him, however, to be in good health, and I sent him to work; I find by the record that he was in hospital from the 31st January, 1869, until the 6th February, 1869; he suffered then from increased affection of the heart, and from that time he did not work on the public works, but in-doors, at oakum; from the 19th March, 1869, until the 24th March, 1869, he was in hospital, suffering from the same affection of heart; from the 24th April till the 5th May he was also in hospital from spitting of blood; from the 19th May till the 1st June he was in hospital for heart disease; from the 21st June till the 22nd June he was under hospital treatment for the same; he was also in hospital from the 22nd July till the 15th August, for the same — from 9th November till the 13th December for debility, and from 20th December to the 8th February, when he died from acute dropsy; on the 13th November he first appeared to suffer from dropsy, and it was then dissipated; I visit the cells every day, and I must have seen him when under punishment from time to time; it is my duty to remit, by recommendation, that punishment, if I consider the prisoner is not fit to bear it; I think I did so twice in his case.’

“‘As a medical man, did you consider that five days on bread and water per day was excessive punishment for him, notwithstanding his state of health in Mountjoy and here?’ — ‘I did not; the deceased had a good appetite; I don’t think that the treatment induced acute dropsy, of which he died’ ...

“Martin O'Connell, resident apothecary of Spike Island, was next examined — Witness mentioned to Dr. Kelly last July that while the deceased was labouring under heart disease, he should not have been punished; ... he was of opinion that such punishment as the deceased got was prejudicial to his health, considering that he was an invalid for the past twelve months ... he could not say that invalids were so punished, as he only attended cells in Dr. Kelly’s absence; he was certain, considering the state of the deceased man’s health, that five days continuously in cells would be injurious to his health; ... The Coroner then ... dealt forcibly with the treatment which the prisoner had received ... alternating between the hospital and the punishment cell.

“The jury returned the following verdict: ‘We find that Michael Terbert died in hospital at Spike Island Convict Prison, on the 8th of February, 1870, of dropsy; he was twenty-five years of age, and unmarried. We have also to express in the strongest terms our total disapproval of the frequent punishment he suffered in cells on bread and water for several days in succession during his imprisonment in Spike Island, where he had been sent in June, 1866, from Mountjoy Prison, for the reason that in Dr. M'Donnell’s opinion he was unfit for cellular discipline at Mountjoy; and we express our condemnation of such treatment.’ ”[175]


168. The reference is to the book: Garibaldi, The Rule of the Monk, or Rome in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1870.

169. The Irish People — an Irish weekly, the main organ of the Fenians, appearing in Dublin between 1863 and 1865. It was banned by the English Government, the members of its editorial board were arrested and sentenced to long terms of hard labour. O'Donovan Rossa, its publisher, was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

171. Habeas Corpus Act was adopted by the English Parliament in 1679; it was a guarantee against police arbitrariness, for it required that the authorities should state reasons for taking persons into custody and release them if they were not brought before a court within a limited period. However, Parliament was entitled to suspend the Act, and the English ruling classes constantly abused it in Ireland.

172. A reference to Gladstone’s pamphlet Two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen on the State Persecution of the Neapolitan Government, published in London in 1851, in which Gladstone exposed the cruel treatment by the Government of the Neapolitan King Ferdinand II (nicknamed “Bomba” for the bombardment of Messina in 1848) of political prisoners arrested for their part in the 1848-49 revolutionary movement.

173. The Land Bill for Ireland was discussed in the English Parliament in the first half of 1870. Submitted by Gladstone on behalf of the English Government on the pretext of assisting Irish tenants, it contained so many provisos and restrictions that it actually left the basis of big landownership by the English landlords in Ireland intact. It also preserved their right to raise rents and to drive tenants off the land, stipulating only that the landlords pay a compensation to the tenants for land improvement, and instituting a definite judicial procedure for this. The Land Act was passed in August 1870. The landlords sabotaged the implementation of the Act in every way and found various ways round it. The Act greatly promoted the concentration of farms in Ireland into big estates and the ruination of small Irish tenants.

174. Marx is referring to Gladstone’s speech in the House of Commons on February 15, 1870, which was published in The Times on February 16, 1870.

175. The report on the coroner’s inquest on the body of Michael Terbert was published in The Irishman on February 19, 1870.