Cellular Structures, Boundaries, and Networks: Tracing the Fenian Rebellion



In tracking the proliferation of the concept-metaphor of the “cell,” this chapter examines events leading to the Fenian Rebellion, including the Great Hunger of the 1840s and the increasing impoverishment of rural Ireland. It then turns to the rebellion itself and the repercussions of such revolt, including the Fenian “terrorist” activities of the 1880s and echoes of those activities during the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 and the Troubles of 1968–1998 in Northern Ireland. Although the biological cell form was first discovered in the seventeenth century, cell theory was subsequently developed during the nineteenth century when the “cell” centrally framed conceptions of Ireland, which was often constructed in biological terms: while British colonial discourses cast the supposed fecundity of the Irish as a problem to be solved, British legislative policies and colonial practices sought the benefits of Ireland’s fertile lands for imperial capitalist profit. Fenian resistance and its aftermath formed a key site at which colonial and nationalist discourses constructed and deconstructed the intertwining of the Irish “race,” Irish blood, Irish earth, and Irish labor, as seen through a reading of Tom Murphy’s play “Famine” (1968) and Sean O’Casey’s play “The Plough and the Stars” (1926). I next explore an understanding of the “cell” as political philosophy. Extrapolating from Roberto Esposito’s Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, I read the prison cell as a strategy of containment by the state to protect the political body through both containment (the quarantine of a virus or contaminant) and purging (the elimination of the same). A study of the early photograph of Fenian prisoners, Fenian O’Donovan Rossa’s prison memoir Irish Rebels in English Prisons (1880), and the imprisoned IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands’s writings from the late 1970s and early 1980s illustrates that immunization within an internal colony, whether Ireland during the nineteenth century or Northern Ireland during the twentieth century, might not only impede the state’s expansion, as theorized by Esposito, but also inadvertently abet its contraction. The chapter ends with a study of the “cell” in Tom Greer’s speculative fiction novel A Modern Daedalus (1885) and George Birmingham’s satirical novel The Red Hand of Ulster (1912). I argue that both novels illustrate how terrorism comes into being in and through the movement of industrial capital, just as industrial capital breeds terrorism as its mutated, and thus seemingly repulsive, clone.

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© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishHoward UniversityWashington, DCUSA

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