The 1880s are marked in police records as the time when serious political unrest in Ireland resulted in troubles coming to other places. Early in 1882 an organisation called the Ribbon Society was formed in Glasgow. An offshoot of the Fenian Brotherhood in Dublin, whose aim was to overthrow the government of the day, members of the society were mostly natives of Ireland or of Irish extraction and there was involvement of a number of Irish-Americans.
From the time the society was formed, the members met on the first Monday of each month in the back room of Lennox’s public house in the Saltmarket. They also met on Saturdays and Sundays in Jail Square. These meetings took place with unfailing regularity until the spring of 1883. Although the local police beat officers knew of the meetings, the subject appeared to be a secret. The conspirators proposed to disrupt the life of the community by blowing up gas works, railway property, and bridges.
First to be attacked was Tradeston Gas Works in Lilybank Street (now Gourock Street). The day chosen was Saturday, 20th January, 1883. The works closed for the day at 6 p.m., leaving only a watchman on duty. About 10 p.m. there were two loud explosions, followed by sheets of flame from a large gasometer, which was seen to collapse into the tank. The force of the explosion was so great that people walking in the vicinity of Queen’s Park felt the blast. Flames from the burning gasometer spread to a nearby carpet-beating works and to a ropery, both of which were severely damaged. In all, eleven persons were injured, one seriously.
While the police were still busily engaged at the gas works, news came though of an explosion at Buchanan Street railway station.
About two hours later there was a third incident, this time on the stone bridge which carried the Forth and Clyde Canal over Possil Road. A party of young people, including a soldier, named Adam Barr, were making their way homewards when they saw a metal box lying on the parapet of the bridge. It was of the type used by ladies for carrying bonnets and, out of curiosity, the soldier opened the lid. Inside was a quantity of material which he took to be sand, so he put his hand in. Immediately there was a violent explosion. Barr received serious burning injuries, while other members of the party were slightly injured. There is no doubt that the persons responsible had been disturbed while attempting to destroy the bridge. If they had succeeded Possil Road and the city centre would have been flooded.
Tracing the perpetrators of the explosions was no simple task and a reward of £100, later increased to £500, was offered by the magistrates for information. In the background the case became a matter of both national and international co-operation.
Similar outrages had occurred in Liverpool, where a man named Timothy Featherstone and three others had been arrested on charges of conspiracy and treason-felony. During their trial it came to light that Featherstone had purchased large quantities of nitric and sulphuric acid in Glasgow, which he later forwarded to Cork. This clue was followed up by Glasgow detectives and by Chief Constable McCall, who was in constant communication with the Home Office. Information concerning consignments of nitro-glycerine sent to this country for use in London and Glasgow was received from the police of Antwerp, and officers from that city were interviewed by detectives from Scotland Yard and the Glasgow Detective Department.
Perhaps the most vital piece of information was that given by Constable William Porter. Porter’s beat included Saltmarket and Jail Square, and from November, 1882, his curiosity had been aroused by the frequent meetings between Irishmen in Jail Square. All concerned were well known to him and occasionally he had seen them consulting documents, but he was unable to find out the purpose of their meeting.
However, the information he had been seeking came to him in an unexpected fashion. On 4th April, 1883, a fruit hawker named George Hughes complained to Constable Porter that he had been assaulted by one of the Irish group. Then, to Porter’s surprise, the hawker said he knew the names of the men who had blown up the gas works, and that he would give the names of all the conspirators provided his own name was not disclosed.
No spectacular arrests followed. Instead, the movements of every man were carefully watched, a surveillance which went on until 31st August, 1883, when the chief constable ordered the arrest of six men: Terence McDermott, Peter Callaghan, Thomas Devany, Patrick McCabe, Henry McCann, and Patrick Drum. All the suspects lived in different parts of the city and the arrests were carried out simultaneously. A force of police sufficient to cope with any resistance was sent to each house, but none was offered. During the early hours of Sunday, 2nd September, three more men were arrested: James Donnelly, James Kelly, and Patrick Casey.
The trial of the conspirators opened at Edinburgh High Court on 17th December, 1883, before a bench of three judges and a jury. There were now ten accused, a man named James McCulloch having been arrested at Hebburn on Tyne.
The evidence of Hughes the fruit hawker provided the first sensations. Hughes told the court that he had been invited by Callaghan to join the Ribbon Society early in 1882. He then went on to tell of the meetings in Lennox’s public house and in Jail Square. Continuing, Hughes said that he took an oath on joining the society: ‘To stand by each other if any member got into trouble with the government and to keep all the secrets.’ He said he had paid two shillings and six pence (30 pence) entry money, one shilling (5 pence) of which went as toll for drink, while Callaghan collected the remainder. Callaghan, he said, was known as the Grand Master.
Hughes remembered clearly a day in July, 1882, when Callaghan and Drum went to meet two men from America. Two nights later Callaghan asked him to take two or three jars of vitriol to his stable, which he did. One of the men from America was Timothy Featherstone, who instructed members of the society in the manufacture of dynamite. Asked by counsel what the dynamite was for, Hughes replied: ‘For blowing up bridges and suchlike as that.’
The perils to which detective officers were exposed at that time also came to light. Recalling the night of the explosion at the gas works, Hughes said that he was crossing jail Square about midnight when he met Devany, who said: ‘I had a very narrow escape tonight. I laid myself down on the bed to get a sleep after I came home when I heard someone speaking to my wife at the door. I looked out and saw two detectives speaking to her. If they had attempted to take me that night I would have blown them to eternity.’
Five of the accused called members of their family to prove that they were at home on the night of the explosions, but their defence of alibi was not accepted. All were found guilty of treason-felony and conspiracy and five of malicious damage to property with explosives. Callaghan, Devany, McCann, McCulloch and McDermott were each sentenced to penal servitude for life, while Casey, Donnelly, Kelly and McCabe were each sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude.
The city showed its gratitude to the police officers concerned. Three special gold medals, two silver medals and cash awards were presented by the magistrates in recognition of the ‘unusually difficult and dangerous’ services they had rendered.