Phoenix Park Tragedy, The
DESCRIPTION: Burke and Cavendish are murdered in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The Lord Mayor and Irish MPs -- Davitt, Parnell, Dillon, Sexton -- condemn the assassins. "[L]et us hope and pray to the Lord each night and day, That no Irishman for this crime will be blamed"
KEYWORDS: homicide Ireland political
Chronology of the Phoenix Park murders (source: primarily Zimmermann, pp. 62, 63, 281-286.)
May 6, 1882 - Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Under Secretary Thomas Henry Burke are murdered by a group calling themselves "The Invincible Society."
January 1883 - twenty seven men are arrested.
James Carey, one of the leaders in the murders, turns Queen's evidence.
Six men are condemned to death, four are executed (Joseph Brady is hanged May 14, 1883; Daniel Curley is hanged on May 18, 1883), others are "sentenced to penal servitude," and Carey is freed and goes to South Africa.
July 29, 1883 - Patrick O'Donnell kills Carey on board the "Melrose Castle" sailing from Cape Town to Durban.
Dec 1883 - Patrick O'Donnell is convicted of the murder of James Carey and executed in London (per Leach-Labrador)
Bodleian, Harding B 26(362), "Lines on the Phoenix Park Tragedy" ("Pay attention young and old to these lines"), unknown, n.d.
cf. "The Condemned Men for the Phoenix Park Murders" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "The Execution of Michael Fagan" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "Joe Brady and Dan Curley" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "The Men Awaiting Trial for the Murders in Phoenix Park" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "The Murder of the Double-Dyed Informer James Carey" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "O'Donnell and Carey" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "O'Donnell the Avenger" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "Pat O'Donnell" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "Skin the Goat's Curse on Carey" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "Dan Curley" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "Joe Brady" (subject: the Phoenix Park murders)
cf. "The Bold Tenant Farmer" (subject: Charles Stewart Parnell) and references there
cf. "Carey's Disguise" (possible subject of James Carey)
NOTES: Zimmermann p. 62: "The Phoenix Park murders and their judicial sequels struck the popular imagination and were a gold-mine for ballad-writers: some thirty songs were issued on this subject, which was the last great cause to be so extensively commented upon in broadside ballads." - BS
The Phoenix Park murders were, in the end, very costly for Ireland; at the very least, they destroyed her influence in the English parliament, and arguably cost them Home Rule and eventually resulted in the Civil War.
Though it doesn't seem to have bothered the more vigorous Irish nationalists, we should note that the Phoenix Park murders were incredibly brutal; Kee, p. 87, says that Cavendish and the Catholic Irishman Burke were "hacked to death by twelve-inch long surgical knives."
Lyons, p. 176, says that on May 6, 1882, "A new Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, arrived in Dublin to replace W. E. Forster who had resigned in protest at the Kilmainham 'Treaty' [under which British Prime Minister Gladstone freed Charles Stewart Parnell and gave concessions in return for political help]. Later on the evening of his arrival Cavendish and his undersecretary, T. H. Burke, were set upon by a band of assassins while they were walking in the Phoenix Park in Dublin and stabbed to death. The murderers belonged to a secret society, the Invincibles."
Fetherling, p. 72, reports that "[Joseph] Brady stabbed Burke in the back with a long surgical knife; Burke died immediately. Alarmed, Cavendish attempted to repel Brady with his umbrella but Brady stabbed him repeatedly, while [Tim] Kelly cut Burke's throat to make sure he was dead."
Sadly, the murders forced Gladstone's hands at a time when he was trying to improve Ireland's condition. It was not just the English who were upset; Charles Stewart Parnell -- who dominated Irish politics and held the balance of power in the English parliament. offered to resign his leadership of the Irish party (Golway, p. 175).
Parnell, for the moment, stayed on. But Gladstone still had to be seen to do something -- that something being coercion. (Any scruples he may have had were probably lessened by the fact that Cavendish was Gladstone's nephew by marriage.) And when Gladstone finally managed to propose a limited Home Rule bill in 1886, it failed and Gladstone's government fell (Golway, p. 180).
We might add that Parnell himself was largely responsible for the sequel: His party fell apart not over Phoenix Park but his own adulterous affair (Fry/Fry, 259-260). Gladstone tried again for Home Rule in 1893; it was rejected in the Lords, and Gladstone sort of faded away. So did Home Rule.
And while Zimmermann is clearly right that this terrorist act caught the attention of the broadside press, it's worth noting that very little of this outpouring of venom seems to have made it into oral tradition. [One song that has been found in Newfoundland and the Canadian Maritimes as well as Ireland is "Pat O'Donnell" which tells only of the assassination of Brady at the very end of the story. - BS]
It did have its effects, though. According to Townshend, p. 6, the murder was carried out by "[t]he nearest thing to a home-grown terrorist group to appear in Ireland [prior to the twentieth century]... the shadowy Irish National Invincibles.... This ephemeral group carried out only one operation. All the same, that single operations... had a tremendous psychological impact. Together with the Manchester Martyrs, the Invincibles' drama became an enduring spur to later generations."
Coogan, pp. 12-13, gives another take, showing how the horrid events influenced a future Irish leader: "In the year [Eamon] de Valera was born, the desperation... led to some of the most horrific murders in Irish history. There were some sixty agrarian or politics-related killings in the first eight months of the year alone. Amongst these were the knifing to death on 6 May 1882, the day he arrived in Ireland, of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and of his Under Secretary, T. H. Burke...
"Some would argue that reaction in Britain to the deaths aborted progress to Home Rule for Ireland and so paved the way for revolution, partition and today's Provision IRA. Certainly, Parnell was so shattered by the assassinations that for a while he seriously contemplated resignation. Then, in August, there occurred the Maamtrasna murders in Co. Mayo: The Joyce family were slaughtered in a clay-floored hovel shared by humans and animals." Four people were killed, and two boys were mutilated and left for dead. "The neighbours, out of superstition and ignorance, left the boys in agony without doing anything to help them. One child died, and subsequently three men -- one of them innocent -- were hanged for the crime...."
Maamtrasna and the related events became the talk of Ireland, obviously adding to the tensions there.
For more on Parnell, see "We Won't Let Our Leader Run Down."
The Phoenix Park murders apparently inspired several books; the two most recent (both of them controversial, based on the reviews) appear to be T. H. Corfe, The Phoenix Park Murders, 1968; and Senan Molony, The Phoenix Park Murders: Conspiracy, Betrayal & Retribution, Mercier Press, 2006. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.2
- Coogan: Tim Pat Coogan, Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland, 1993 (I use the 2001 Dorset Press edition)
- Fetherling: George Fetherling, The Book of Assasins: A Biographical Dictionary from Ancient Times to the Present, 2001 (I use the 2006 Castle Books edition)Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland, 1988 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Golway: Terry Golway, For the Cause of Liberty, Simon & Schuster, 2000
- Kee: Robert Kee, The Bold Fenian Men, being volume II of The Green Flag (covering the period from around 1848 to the Easter Rising), Penguin, 1972
- Lyons: F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, 1963, 1971 (I use the 1985 Fontana Press paperback)
- Townshend: Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, Ivan R. Dee, 2006
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