THE IRISH ASSASSINS
Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England
By Julie Kavanagh
It was, The Times of Philadelphia excitedly observed, “one of the most marvelous and perfect tragedies which real life has ever contributed as a contrast to the creations of fiction.” The newspaper was commenting not on the 1882 Phoenix Park murders, the central event of “The Irish Assassins,” but on a subsequent, related killing, which took place far from Ireland a year later, on July 29, 1883, on board a ship at sea off the South African capital, Cape Town. It is indeed a tangled tale — in fact, two tales — that Julie Kavanagh has chosen to tell.
The famines that afflicted Ireland in the 1840s, in which it is estimated a million people died and another million emigrated, left the country devastated, and its inhabitants furiously resentful of British rule. The situation was exacerbated by the behavior of the big landlords, many of whom lived in England and left the running of their vast estates to often corrupt stewards. As Kavanagh writes, “It was as if the English felt themselves absolved from all ethical restraints when dealing with the Irish.”
Some of the worst suffering occurred among the poor in the west of Ireland. Even after the famines, many still went hungry, and many were homeless, having been driven from their smallholdings by supposedly reformist landlords; there are records of people living in holes in the ground, with no shelter and almost nothing to eat. Kavanagh, who is also the author of several biographies, including a life of Rudolf Nureyev, begins her narrative in Gweedore, a tiny community in northwest Donegal, the birthplace of the Irish Republican Patrick O’Donnell, whose name “became infamous throughout the world — a name that still resonates in Donegal to this day.”
A more famous name is that of Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landlord with a large estate on the opposite side of the country, at Avondale in County Wicklow. Parnell was an enigmatic and controversial figure, as anyone who has read the early pages of Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” will know. Parnell had little interest in politics until, in 1867, three Fenian volunteers were publicly hanged for a murder they had not committed. The execution of the “Manchester Martyrs,” as the three became known, “touched off a global outpouring of protest,” Kavanagh writes, “the ferocity of which shook Parnell into engaging with Irish history for the first time.”
Parnell’s coeval, Michael Davitt, was 4 years old when his family was evicted from their cottage in famine-stricken County Mayo: “Michael, his father, mother, sister and a new baby just a few days old were all thrown out onto the roadside as their cottage was set on fire.” When he was 19, and living in England, Davitt joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and became prominent in its violent campaign against British rule. His actions with the I.R.B. led to his imprisonment, in horrendous conditions. On his release, his health broken, he returned to Ireland, and with Parnell set up the Land League.
Parnell was an Irish member of Parliament, a champion of his country’s cause in Britain; as Kavanagh writes, his involvement in the league “would almost certainly guarantee the backing of Irish America.” In fact, over the coming years, activists in the United States gathered what in today’s money would be millions of dollars to support the Irish campaign against the landlords and their agents.
Parnell was engaged in Parliament to secure home rule for Ireland. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone supported him — to the end of his life Gladstone worked for the betterment of Ireland — but big business and the landlords were fiercely opposed to any relaxation of England’s hold on Ireland. So too was Queen Victoria, who disliked Gladstone and did everything she could to thwart him; in those days, the monarchy still had political teeth, and did not hesitate to bite.
Meanwhile, by 1880, conditions among the rural poor in Ireland had again reached a catastrophic level. The British Army general Charles Gordon — who would become famous as “Gordon of Khartoum”— made a tour of inspection and was appalled: “The state of our fellow countrymen is worse than that of any people in the world, … lying on the verge of starvation in places where we would not keep cattle.” A bill to tackle the situation was rejected by Parliament in a vote of 231 to 51, effectively destroying Gladstone’s cautious efforts to solve “the Irish problem” and ensuring a violent reaction.
A new, militant body was set up among members of the I.R.B. and the Land League, with funds from Irish America. The Invincibles, as they called themselves, were a tough lot, every bit as dedicated to “physical force” as their 20th-century successors, the Provisional I.R.A. While Parnell and his Irish Party at Westminster were quietly negotiating a road map to home rule with Gladstone and the Liberals, the Invincibles and their American backers were convinced that only by violence could Ireland be freed from British control. It is a familiar argument, one that continues even now.
As a symbolic strike against the heart of British power in Ireland, the Invincibles, led by Patrick Tynan, whom Kavanagh describes as “a delusional, would-be military hero,” drew up a plan to assassinate Thomas Burke, the permanent undersecretary and top Irish civil servant, based at Dublin Castle (hence his nickname, “the Castle Rat”). A squad was dispatched to Phoenix Park to waylay Burke during his evening stroll.
The two assassins were the hulking Joe Brady, one of a Dublin slum family of 25 children, and his best friend — and fellow church chorister — Tim Kelly, who at 19 was very nearly spared the gallows because of his boyish appearance. One of the two getaway drivers was the cabman James Fitzharris, known as Skin-the-Goat, whom readers of “Ulysses” will recognize.
The thing had all the makings of a farce, but the end was tragic.
As Kavanagh’s book amply demonstrates, life is indeed stranger than “the creations of fiction.” Walking with Burke that May evening in the Phoenix Park was the Liberal member of Parliament Lord Frederick Cavendish, who, as a younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, was a scion of one of the great English families; he was also an ally of Gladstone’s and married to his beloved niece Lucy. Cavendish had just been appointed chief secretary for Ireland, the second-highest-ranking queen’s representative in the country. He had been in the country only for some hours when by chance he met Burke and set out for a stroll with him.
The assassins struck. Brady attacked Burke with a 10-inch surgical knife, inflicting terrible wounds, and when Cavendish attempted to come to his colleague’s aid, Kelly, though he had no idea who Cavendish was, stabbed him. Both men died at the scene, as Brady and Kelly clattered away in a cab driven by another Invincible, Michael Kavanagh.
More than a dozen Invincibles were rounded up by Superintendent John Mallon, the same police officer who had arrested Michael Davitt for sedition a couple of years earlier. Evidence against the killers was scarce, until their fellow conspirator James Carey and two other Invincibles agreed to testify against them. Brady, Kelly and three others were condemned and hanged, while Skin-the-Goat was imprisoned.
And what of Patrick O’Donnell? In the year after the murders, he happened to be on board the ship that was carrying James Carey and his family to a supposedly new and safe life in South Africa, funded by the British government. O’Donnell recognized the informer and shot him dead. He was arrested and sent back to London, where he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. His case became a cause célèbre, drawing Victor Hugo, among others, to plead with Queen Victoria that O’Donnell’s life be spared. He didn’t know the woman he was dealing with.
The Phoenix Park murders and their aftermath destroyed Gladstone’s hopes of pacifying Ireland. Parnell was also gravely damaged, but not as badly as he was to be later by the revelation of a yearslong affair with Katharine O’Shea, the wife of a fellow Irish Party member of Parliament.
Julie Kavanagh has done an adroit unpicking of the intricacies of the history, and her book is at once admirable for its scholarship and immensely enjoyable in its raciness. Yet at the close one is left with the inevitable question: All that violence, all those deaths, and for what?