Frederick James Allan (1861-1937), Fenian & civil servant

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Volume 10

Frederick James Allan (1861-1937), Fenian & civil servant 1Despite his long and significant political career Frederick James ,Allan, usually known simply as Fred Allan, is a relatively forgotten figure in the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland. During the Parnell era, he was one of the most powerful men in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), commonly known as the Fenian movement, and served as manager of the Freeman’s Journal and subsequently the Irish Daily Independent, two of Ireland’s leading national newspapers. After playing a leading role in organising the 1798 centenary celebrations in Dublin, he became active in municipal politics, promoting the use of electricity in the city and establishing Fairview Park. A self-professed life-long republican, during the War of Independence (1919-21) he was imprisoned for fourteen months due to his Sinn Féin activities. During the 1920s he was a founder member of Cumann na nGaedhael, a prominent official in the Department of Industry and Commerce and played a significant role in the setting up of the Shannon Electricity Supply Scheme.

Early life

He was a most unusual figure to have played such an active role in ‘advanced nationalist’ politics. Born in Dublin on 15 June 1861, he belonged to a Methodist and Anglo-Irish family of unionist sympathies. When Fred was born, his father, William Gartley Allan, was a bookkeeper with the Board of Works at the Customs House and he later worked as secretary of the Asylum for the Lunatic Poor at Dublin Castle. After attending school at the Central Model Schools on Marlborough Street, Fred worked as a clerk with the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and as a freelance journalist before joining the commercial department of the Freeman’s Journal in 1882. During this early stage of his career he enjoyed taking part in debating societies and became fascinated with radical political literature, in particular Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and John Mitchel’s Jail Journal. After reading Marx, in the apt words of one contemporary, he ‘at once became a rebel against the accepted tenets of the Victorian age’. Meanwhile reading John Mitchel prompted him to despise his initial unionist sympathies and converted him to Irish nationalism and republicanism.

Joins the IRB

A self-professed ‘disciple of John Mitchel’, Fred Allan joined the IRB in 1880 and rose to prominence in that organisation very quickly owing to his natural intelligence. By 1883 he was elected secretary or ‘deputy leader’ of the IRB in Leinster and in this capacity worked to distribute arms, co-ordinate the activities and manage the funds of the IRB in that province. Although prominent in Dublin Fenian circles, he had very little in common with those extremists that had either perpetrated or supported the Phoenix Park murders in 1882, which Allan and the IRB Supreme Council denounced. Instead he focused largely upon increasing IRB influence over the Young Ireland Society, a nationalist literary and debating society established in Dublin in March 1881. Although its members were, in general, not opposed to the Irish Parliamentary Party, by 1883 a tension developed in the society between Allan’s clique and the supporters of Parnell. The tone of its political debates and lectures became increasingly radical, prompting several members who supported Parnell to resign. Between 1882 and 1884 Allan, as secretary and later vice-president of the society, gave lectures to the society on socialism, the Russian revolutionary movement, the Manchester martyrs and women’s rights, such as the right to receive higher education. Meanwhile in September 1883, together with his supporters in the Young Ireland Society, he founded the National Monuments Committee (NMC), which continued to exist (under various names) until the 1920s and was responsible for the erection of monuments over the graves of deceased republicans and attending to their upkeep. During the 1880s the NMC also helped to organise Manchester Martyrs anniversary demonstrations in Dublin every November, at which Allan was often an enthusiastic participant.

After reading Marx, Allan ‘at once became a rebel against the accepted tenets of the Victorian age’.

After reading Marx, Allan ‘at once became a rebel against the accepted tenets of the Victorian age’.


Allan’s career as an IRB man suffered a serious setback, however, in 1884 when the police intercepted a number of documents posted from London to the IRB leaders in Paris, some of which were evidently in his handwriting. In addition, in November that year the police raided his home on the North Strand in Dublin and more suspicious documents were found. He was immediately arrested and placed before the Northern Police Court in Dublin where preliminary hearings took place to test whether or not he could be placed on trial on the charge of treason-felony. Fortunately for Allan, who was defended in court by Tim Healy (then making his debut as a defence lawyer), the documents used against him proved inconclusive as evidence, owing to their cryptic nature. He was granted bail and the charges against him were not prosecuted. Over the next couple of years he was less active in the IRB, partly because of family and business commitments. He married Clara Neale, daughter of a Royal Navy officer, in January 1885 and they had one son, Eugene, who later became an electrical engineer with Dublin Corporation. Meanwhile during the late 1880s he was promoted manager of the Freeman’s Journal after he had introduced a more efficient communications system in its offices. His principal service to the IRB at this time was in helping to establish the National Club in Dublin (another off-shoot of the Young Ireland Society) that was used as a meeting place for many IRB men over the next decade.

The Parnell split and the Irish Daily Independent

During the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1890-1, Parnell’s principled stand against dictation by English politicians and the Catholic clergy in Irish politics struck a chord with the IRB. Notwithstanding the damage Parnell’s movement had done to the IRB in the past and their belief that the Irish Parliamentary Party had never been really independent from the dictation of British political parties, the IRB decided to support Parnell in his hour of need. It did so primarily because it believed that the split had provided a great political opportunity to forward two of its most basic goals: to propagate the republican principle that all Irishmen must be responsive to the sovereign will of the Irish nation alone, and, to fight against the very conservative and powerful political influence of the Catholic clergy in Ireland, who now opposed Parnell and who always abhorred republicanism. For the IRB to offer real support to Parnell necessitated it becoming involved, to some extent, in constitutional political agitation.

On joining the IRB in 1880, Allan described himself as ‘a disciple of John Mitchel’. (Currier & Ives)

On joining the IRB in 1880, Allan described himself as ‘a disciple of John Mitchel’. (Currier & Ives)

To the IRB, this appeared as a temporary, yet necessary, evil and Fred Allan was the leading man behind this particular strategy.
In 1891 he helped organise a couple of large labour demonstrations in Dublin in support of Parnell and agreed to be manager of a new Parnellite newspaper, the Irish Daily Independent, which first appeared in December that year. When Parnell died on 6 October 1891, Allan even helped with the funeral arrangements. Thereafter, after encouraging a handful of other leading men in the Independent Newspaper Company to take the IRB oath, Allan attempted, with only partial success, to use the ‘independent nationalist’ rhetoric of the Parnellite press as a vehicle to propagate the republican principles of the IRB.
In terms of actual political agitation, Allan worked most closely with the Parnellites within the Irish National Amnesty Association, of which he was a vice-president. This body sought to secure the release of various Irishmen and Irish-Americans convicted on terrorist charges during the 1880s, many of whom had been the victims of British agent provocateurs. Although Allan resigned as vice-president of the amnesty movement in 1893, protesting against the use of the movement by the Parnellites for party political purposes, the following year he was able to write a long series of articles in support of the amnesty cause in the Parnellite press owing to his still strong following in the Independent Newspaper Company. To the irritation of many IRB men, however, Allan did not attempt to hide his revolutionary sympathies in these articles. This led many IRB men to criticise him for drawing too much publicity to himself and in turn to the secret activities of the IRB.

Explosions in Dublin

Due to a small number of Irish-American extremists and a British agent provocateur in New York, attempts were made in Dublin during the 1890s, by some of the more extreme elements in the local IRB, to revive the disastrous Irish-American terrorist campaign of the 1880s. Three explosions were caused in Dublin during the early 1890s, including two at Dublin Castle, and the police believed several other attempts had also been made. Notwithstanding the fact that Allan had been in contact with London anarchists, the police tended to believe that Allan had opposed the bombings and attempted to restrain the men involved, owing to his strict adherence to the IRB code of opposing terrorism and because the bombings could only hinder the work of the amnesty movement. Whatever the case, it is clear that Allan made determined efforts to ensure no IRB man would be convicted of these or other charges, such as the murder of a wrongfully suspected informer in Dublin in November 1893. Incidents like these naturally alienated many people from the republican movement and Allan could not prevent the defection of many IRB men during the 1890s. Although various factors contributed to this development (including IRB involvement in the Parnellite movement), the drop off in IRB membership was partly accounted for by the introduction of a new, Irish-American inspired, breakaway movement known as the Irish National Brotherhood (INB). This secret body sought to infiltrate and remodel the IRB by replacing its traditional oath to establish an Irish republic with a simple pledge in support of the independence of Ireland. The INB knew that the IRB oath had always discouraged many from joining the movement as, if the police could prove that one had taken such an explicitly seditious oath, this by itself could lead to a conviction on the charge of treason-felony. For this reason the INB believed that its organisational model could potentially increase the ranks and thus the potency of the republican movement. During the late 1890s, however, Allan, as secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, opposed the INB stringently due to the undependable nature of its support network in the United States. Ultimately Allan’s opposition, combined with the gradual withdrawal of Irish-American support, led to the virtual collapse of the INB by 1900. Nevertheless the ongoing rivalry between its adherents and those who stood by the IRB continued to dissipate the energies of the republican movement for several years afterward.

In Ballykinlar gaol (1921) Allan was greatly admired by his fellow republican prisoners for his long devotion to ‘the cause’, prompting one of them to make this drawing as a tribute to him. (National Library of Ireland)

In Ballykinlar gaol (1921) Allan was greatly admired by his fellow republican prisoners for his long devotion to ‘the cause’, prompting one of them to make this drawing as a tribute to him. (National Library of Ireland)

Meanwhile the decision of many local IRB men, particularly in rural Ireland, to stand for election to local government bodies in 1898 was having a demoralising affect upon the IRB as, once elected, the vast majority of these men subsequently abandoned the organisation and its revolutionary goals, though not necessarily its more basic republican ones. Together with the complete failure of the IRB to make any sort of constructive response to Britain’s involvement in the Boer War (1899-1902), this helped to accelerate a gradual decline in IRB membership, which between 1882 and 1902, had actually dropped from approximately thirty thousand to only a few thousand.

1798 centenary

Perhaps Allan’s greatest service to the IRB was the part he played on the 1798 Centenary Committee. As secretary of this committee, founded in March 1897, he was largely responsible for co-ordinating the activities of the various centenary clubs across the country, thus helping to turn the Centenary Committee into a national movement (albeit a short lived one) under the influence of the IRB at executive level. He also played a major role in organising the centenary celebrations in Dublin, which were the largest in the country. His work in this respect was widely admired by his IRB associates as these celebrations helped to rejuvenate the IRB by encouraging some very talented young nationalist intellectuals to join the movement. Within a couple of years, however, he was embroiled in a controversy that turned many republicans against him. In March 1899 he lost his position with the Irish Daily Independent, owing to a change in its ownership, and in April the following year, while employed as secretary to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, he was politically embarrassed when ordered to organise a reception of school children for Queen Victoria in the Phoenix Park. His performance of this duty bewildered many republicans, causing them to portray him as a traitor. Although most leading IRB men were actually prepared to excuse this as an unavoidable and essentially meaningless incident, many of the younger activists in Dublin and elsewhere became increasingly opposed to him. As a result he lost his position as secretary of the Supreme Council at the next IRB election. Nevertheless he remained an honorary (un-elected) member of the Supreme Council and thus he continued to exercise a significant influence over the IRB, largely through the Wolfe Tone Clubs of Dublin, a remnant of the 1798 Centenary Committee that remained in existence for many years.

In 1902 Allan played a significant role in establishing Dublin’s first major electricity station at Pigeon House. (Dublin Civic Museum)

In 1902 Allan played a significant role in establishing Dublin’s first major electricity station at Pigeon House. (Dublin Civic Museum)

Dublin Corporation

After working for a short time as manager of an employment agency for freelance journalists, Allan’s career took a new direction in late 1901 when he was employed as secretary of Dublin Corporation’s Electric Light Company. Afterwards he was put in charge of its public lighting committee and also secretary of the Corporation’s cleansing department. He successfully held all three positions up until the formation of the Irish Free State due to his exceptional ability for handling committees and his entrepreneurial skills. For example, in 1902 he played a significant role in establishing Dublin’s first major electricity station at Pigeon House and later made determined efforts to prevent it from being transferred to private ownership. A few years later, as secretary of the Corporation’s cleansing department, he was instrumental in the creation of Fairview Park. To solve the city’s waste disposal problems and to create better recreational facilities in the city, Allan proposed and oversaw a programme of incinerating the city’s rubbish and using it to reclaim the swampland along the Dublin coastline from Marino to Clontarf with a view to creating a public park. Afterwards several members of the Corporation, including Sean T. O’Kelly, who was also involved in this project, believed that Fairview Park should, in fact, have been named ‘Fred Allan Park’ as he was the man most responsible for its creation.

Leaves the IRB

Due to allegations of financial mismanagement against P.T. Daly, secretary of the Supreme Council, Allan was reinstated in this position in April 1910. However owing to quarrels, of both recent and distant origins, between himself and the other members he found it difficult to reassert his authority in the movement. Although persuaded to publish Irish Freedom, a monthly IRB newspaper, in November 1910, he subsequently tried, in vain, to wrest control of the paper away from younger men in the movement such as Bulmer Hobson and Patrick McCartan. Allan had hoped to serve as an editor of Irish Freedom, but was instead only allowed to write a series of (anonymous) recollections for the paper. Angered by his failure to dictate its editorial policy and the unwillingness of younger members to follow his orders, he attempted to shut down the paper and restart it entirely under his own control. This plan failed: Hobson and McCartan managed to secure the financial support of Tom Clarke (IRB treasurer) and leaders of the Irish-American revolutionary movement. After an IRB election in January 1912, Allan not only lost his position on the Supreme Council but also whatever control he had over Irish Freedom. Realising that his authority and popularity in the movement had disappeared he resigned reluctantly from the IRB two months later.

War of Independence

Although Allan took little or no part in the Irish Volunteers and opposed the 1916 Rising as a futile gesture, he re-emerged as a significant figure in the Irish independence movement in 1917 when, together with Michael Collins, he helped to establish the Irish National Aid Association and Volunteer Dependants’ Fund to give financial assistance to the families of the 1916 rebels. Allan was a secretary and joint trustee and donated a number of his personal possessions for a raffle in order to raise funds for the bereaved families. Two years later he was appointed chairman of Sinn Féin’s election committee for South County Dublin and secretary of the new republican court established in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). As a result he was arrested on 10 January 1920 and put on trial two weeks later. During his trial he stated defiantly that: ‘I have been a republican for forty years and I am not going to change by a rule of this court’. Refusing to recognise the authority of a British court, he declined bail and was consequently imprisoned for three months. Later that year, on the 14 November, he was arrested again for his Sinn Féin activities and interned without trial. He spent three months in Mountjoy gaol before being transferred to Ballykinlar gaol in County Down. Due to his imprisonment Dublin Corporation was ready to dismiss him from his job. This prompted his wife Clara to contact Michael Collins, IRB president, who in turn promised to do all he could to prevent him from being dismissed.

The Free State government followed Allan’s advice to employ Swiss and Scandanavian hydroelectric experts to examine the plans for the Shannon scheme. (Adolf Morath)

The Free State government followed Allan’s advice to employ Swiss and Scandanavian hydroelectric experts to examine the plans for the Shannon scheme. (Adolf Morath)

Later career

Allan remained in prison until 9 December 1921, three days after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. Upon his release, he was granted a pension and officially retired from the Corporation. Nevertheless shortly afterwards he received a more prestigious position, possibly through Collins’ influence, in charge of the electricity committee of the Irish Free State’s Department of Industry and Commerce. Like many nationalists, he regretted the split in Irish republican ranks but soon became a strong supporter of the pro-Treaty party. Indeed in December 1922, Allan was appointed chairman of a Provisional Standing Committee directly responsible for the creation of Cumann na nGaedhael. In the summer of 1924 he spent two months in London as a representative of the Free State at an international power conference. On returning to Dublin, he advised the government to employ Swiss and Scandinavian hydroelectric experts to examine carefully the plans, then before the government, for setting up the Shannon scheme. That autumn the cabinet followed his proposal before giving final endorsement to the plan. In the last years of his career Allan worked as the Free State’s official Controller of Weights and Measures. However as he was now over seventy years old he retired in 1933 and died four years later on 16 March 1937 at his family home in Monkstown, County Dublin. Many leading members of Fine Gael, including the party leader and his old friend in the Corporation, W.T. Cosgrave, attended his funeral.


Perhaps the most striking fact about Fred Allan’s career was his exceptional organisational and entrepreneurial ability. This enabled him to give very valuable assistance to, and to earn the highest respect from, each successive body with which he was involved. During his term of leadership in the IRB, the movement was actually less active in arms importation than it had been in the past. This was largely due to the imprisonment of its principal arms agents in 1884 and the extremely strained and sometimes non-existent relationship between the IRB and the Irish-American revolutionary movement during this period. Without Irish-American financial support, the IRB was often paralysed and it was not until roughly 1910 that this financial support became substantial. The emergence during the 1880s of the Irish National League, a very large and disciplined national movement that supported the Irish Parliamentary Party and that had a steady flow of Irish-American financial support, was also a serious blow to the IRB and essentially left it fighting for its existence. Allan played a very central role in sustaining the IRB during this period. Nevertheless by the early twentieth century he found himself at odds with a new generation of republicans. Although highly sceptical that home rule could ever be achieved by parliamentary means, Allan and his generation in the IRB nevertheless felt morally bound not to do anything that might hinder the parliamentary party’s attempt to achieve home rule, owing to the extent of its popular support. After 1900 many younger IRB men understood this very cautious approach towards revolutionary activity as essentially the result of a lack of initiative on the part of the IRB leaders. This prompted one of them, P.S. O’Hegarty, to describe Allan’s generation of the IRB as having been trapped in an essentially powerless ‘Fabian’ like approach to revolutionary politics. This division within the IRB, however, rather than illustrating the existence of a difference in political principles in the movement, was essentially the result of a ‘generation gap’. Allan was still a republican in his political beliefs but by 1912 he lacked the same degree of revolutionary fervour he once had, or as had the new young leaders in the movement. Although an obituary notice in the Irish Times claimed that Allan’s real political sympathies were with James Connolly, there is little or no evidence that his interest in socialism outlived the mid-1890s.         Finally Allan’s painful recollections of the clash of personalities within the IRB, his opposition to the 1916 Rising, the bitter legacy of the Irish Civil War and the fact that his only son, Eugene, had absolutely no interest in Irish nationalism, made him very reticent in the post-1922 period about speaking of his former activity as a leading Irish revolutionary. This effectively ensured that this side to his career became forgotten to a large degree. Nevertheless, it would seem quite improper to overlook the significant role he played in the Irish independence movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Owen McGee is a postgraduate student of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.

Further reading:

L. O’Broin, Revolutionary Underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood 1858-1924 (Dublin 1976).

B. Hobson, Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee 1968).

S.T. O’Cealliagh, Sean T. (Gaillimh 1963)


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