Hardly a walk in the park

The assassination of two high-ranking government officials in Dublin’s Phoenix Park during the Irish Land War of 1879–82 remains one of the most infamous events of late-nineteenth-century Irish history. In the early evening of May 6, 1882, members of the extremist oath-bound society the Irish National Invincibles butchered the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the permanent undersecretary, Thomas Burke, with twelve-inch surgical knives. While Burke’s murder had been carefully plotted, Cavendish’s death was collateral. Walking from Dublin Castle to his residence in the park, he had run into Burke just moments before the Invincibles struck.

Ireland had been volatile since the establishment in 1879 of the Irish National Land League, which demanded that the government improve conditions for Irish tenant farmers by legislating the “three Fs”: fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale. Following a spate of acts of agrarian violence, boycotts and rent strikes, a Coercion Act was introduced in 1881 to suppress the organization, the government to intern suspected Land Leaguers without trial.

Formed in late 1881 as a splinter faction of the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood, which shared many key figures with the Land League, the Invincibles aimed at assassinate representatives of British power. Their initial target was Cavendish’s predecessor as chief secretary, William Forster, but he resigned in 1882 in protest at the informal agreement that the prime minister, William Gladstone, had negotiated with Charles Stewart Parnell, a leader of the Land League and head of the Irish Parliamentary Party, at the time imprisoned at Kilmainham Gaol. When Gladstone also recalled the lord lieutenant, Francis Cowper, the Invincibles’ focus shifted to Burke, an Irishman who had worked his way up the ranks as a Dublin Castle official.

The political fallout of the murders was massive. A protégé of Gladstone, Cavendish had arrived in Dublin earlier that day with the new lord lieutenant, Earl Spencer. Both had been appointed following the Kilmainham Treaty, an informal agreement that also provided for the release of Parnell and other important Land Leaguers. Though celebrated by some radical nationalists, the murders were widely condemned. Despite his emphatic and appalled denunciation of the murders, Parnell saw support for the international among British politicians melt away.

It can be hard to navigate the intricacies of nineteenth-century Irish political history accessibly, but Julie Kavanagh’s well-researched. The Irish Assassins turns the complex story of the Phoenix Park murders and their aftermath into a pacy and absorbing narrative. Character-driven and strong on human interest, the book tethers the story of the murders to the lives and careers of its protagonists, notably Parnell and Gladstone. It follows Parnell’s emergence as a pivotal figure in Irish nationalism, also showing how his affair with Katharine O’Shea, the wife of a fellow Irish MP, had considerable political significance even before his fall from grace in 1890, not least because she acted as go-between during the negotiations with Gladstone.

Ireland was a central concern of Gladstone’s second premiership and, as Cavendish was married to Gladstone’s niece Lucy, the murder deeply affected the prime minister. There are also frequent quotations in the book from Queen Victoria’s reflections on Irish affairs, which often show her bemusement at Gladstone’s leadership. As well as the assassins, Kavanagh follows leading nationalists as Patrick Egan and Patrick Ford, editor of the influential Irish-American newspaper the Irish World. Another crucial figure is Superintendent John Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, whose sleuthing was instrumental in the apprehension and conviction of the murderers.

One reason the story of the Phoenix Park murders continues to fascinate is that it did not end with the perpetrators’ trial and execution. The prosecution hinged on evidence supplied by James Carey, a successful businessman and town councillor as well as a key member of the Invincibles, who had turned informer to save his own skin. Following the trials, Carey and his family were shipped out to South Africa under an alias, but he was fatally shot on board the steamship Melrose, en route from Cape Town to Durban, by a fellow Irishman, Patrick O’Donnell, who had decided to try his hand at mining in South Africa after failing to make his fortune in the United States. O’Donnell was arrested in Port Elizabeth but taken to England to be tried, as the British government was afraid the presence of a large Irish community in Port Elizabeth might lead to his acquittal.

As the novelist Canon Patrick Sheehan observed in 1905, informers were “an object of particular horror in Ireland”, and Carey became the target of widespread opprobrium. Many believed that O’Donnell “had avenged the Fenian dead” by killing “the traitor Carey”, as one ballad suggests. Yet he had only discovered Carey’s identity in Cape Town and denied that his act had been premeditated, insisting that he shot his victim in self-defence.

The sensational tale caught the attention of the press in the UK and elsewhere. As a result of coverage in the Irish World, Irish-Americans donated more than $55,000 for O’Donnell’s defence, allowing him to hire the prominent Irish barrister AM Sullivan. After the trial Victor Hugo sent a letter to Queen Victoria, begging her to “look favorably on the life of the condemned ‘O’donnel’ [sic]“. Like the dead Invincibles, O’Donnell was proclaimed a martyr for the Irish cause, and a monument to his memory was erected in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.

Covered in Kavanagh’s book, this “thrilling tale of violence, courtroom drama, romance and political intrigue” is told in greater detail in the broadcaster Seán Ó Cuirreáin’s impassioned The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell, a tie-in with a drama-documentary produced for the Irish-language channel TG4. His previous book focused on the Maamtrasna murders of 1882 and the wrongful conviction of Myles Joyce, helping to secure a posthumous pardon for Joyce. The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell Similarly suggests that its protagonist may have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. However, the argument here is much more speculative, not least because nobody denied that O’Donnell was responsible for Carey’s death.

Basing his case on notes found in the National Archives at Kew that deviate from the official transcript, Ó Cuirreáin hypothesizes that the judge’s instructions to the jury in response to two written questions unduly directed it towards a verdict of murder rather than manslaughter. It would be interesting to see whether a legal expert would also define the conviction as unfair, as a report by Niamh Howlin of University College Dublin concluded in Myles Joyce’s case.

Both Kavanagh and Ó Cuirreáin highlight how events in Ireland were shaped by the transnational flow of people, capital and information. As an emigrant, O’Donnell was typical of his generation and class. Born in Gweedore, Co Donegal, an area marked by systemic poverty, he had spent most of his life between Ireland and the United States before fatally deciding to try his luck in South Africa. Though not involved himself, he had a close familial link with the violent notorious Irish-American secret society the Molly Maguires, responsible for a series of acts in Pennsylvania in the 1870s.

The money funding nationalist activities in Ireland came mostly from the Irish community in the United States, which remained, according to Patrick Ford, editor of the Irish World, “an unassailable base of operation” even as the British government tried to suppress the Land League in Ireland. And, like so many Irish politicians and local before and after him, Parnell solicited funds for his cause with a speaking tour around the US.

There are already several good books on the Phoenix Park murders, most recently the historian Shane Kenna’s posthumous and sadly unfinished The Invincibles (2019). Accessible and well written, Kavanagh’s and Ó Cuirreáin’s books also demand attention. The former provides not just insight into the Phoenix Park murders, but an excellent overview of the controversies that defined Irish politics in the 1870s and 1880s. More focused, Ó Cuirreáin’s book is an illuminating addition to such panoramic discussions of the period. Both, however, make abundantly clear why the Phoenix Park murders continue to fascinate: with its terrorist plots, political intrigue, romantic imbroglios and murder mystery, the story still reads like a thriller.

Christopher Cusack holds a PhD in Irish Studies. He writes regularly about the afterlives of nineteenth-century Ireland

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