Dillon, Brian (1830–72), Fenian, was born in Glanmire, on the outskirts of Cork city, one of seven children of Edward Dillon, publican, and his wife Margaret. Edward Dillon owned a public house on the Old Youghal Road, Cork, and it was here that Brian was raised. In his childhood he suffered a fall resulting in the curvature of his spine and life-long ill health; hunchbacked, he only grew to 4 ft 10 in (1.47m). After being educated at home by his parents (who knew Irish), he studied painting at the Cork School of Art. By the early 1850s he had secured a position as a clerk with a solicitor, W. R. Coppinger, 58 South Mall, Cork.
In the later 1850s Dillon joined the Tuckey Street club in Cork, a society of nationalists who met to discuss the future prospects of an independent Ireland. Around this time he met James Stephens (qv) and was sworn into the IRB. By September 1860 he was leader of the IRB in Cork city and regularly drilled Fenian units. In a general crackdown on Fenians in Dublin and Cork, he was arrested on 15 September 1865 with seven other Cork Fenians. Charged with treason-felony before a special commission and defended by Isaac Butt (qv), Dillon was convicted on the evidence of an informer and on 14 December 1865 sentenced to ten years' imprisonment.
On 16 January 1866 he was transferred from Mountjoy prison in Dublin to Pentonville prison, north London, where the severe conditions took a heavy toll on his health. He had only a wooden board for a bed and endured twelve-hour working days sewing at a table and cleaning bricks. He complained of repeated body searches, of guards disturbing him in his cell every half hour to deprive him of sleep, and of being forced to bathe in dirty bath water that other prisoners had used. In April 1866 he was transferred to Woking invalid convict prison, southwest of London, because of his deteriorating health. At various points in his prison term, he suffered from dysentery, shingles, neuralgia, and rheumatism. The report of a parliamentary commission enquiring into the treatment of political prisoners concluded that in his weak condition Dillon should not have been made to do so much physical labour, pointing out that he could barely walk unaided. It described him as ‘a very weak and deformed man of middle age, and delicate appearance’ (Report, i, p. 24).
With the plight of Fenian prisoners in English prisons publicised by the Amnesty Association (established 28 June 1869 in Dublin), Gladstone's government conceded the release of Fenian prisoners on the condition that they were exiled from Ireland for the remainder of their sentences. In January 1871 Dillon was sent to Millbank prison, London, and offered release on 8 February, but he refused to accept the exile condition. Because of his ill health and the notoriety of his treatment, the government relented and allowed him to return to Ireland. He arrived home in Cork on 13 February 1871 to a great public welcome, but his health did not recover. By the summer of 1872 he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis and paralysis of the left side of his body. He died 17 August 1872 in Cork and was buried eight days later in the family plot in the townland of Rathcooney, Co. Cork. His funeral was attended by 8,000 people and Ricard O'Sullivan Burke (qv) gave the oration. In March 1906 Dillon's name was put on the national monument in Cork city and three years later a commemorative plaque was unveiled at his home on the Old Youghal Rd. This was destroyed by the Black and Tans during the sack of Cork on 11–12 December 1920, but was replaced a few years later bearing a different inscription.