Arriving in Dublin on 6 May 1882, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Frederick Cavendish (who was married to the niece of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone), attended to some formal business in Dublin Castle, the seat of the British government, before walking home to the Viceregal Lodge in the Phoenix Park. Joining Cavendish in his walk, was his under-secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, the two men were approached by a group of seven men, three in front, two in the middle and two behind.
Passing through – Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, Brady stabbed Burke while Kelly made for Cavendish – both using surgical knives – killing the two officials in what was regarded as a brutal assassination. Afterwards the killers made their way from the park at a hurried pace in two cabs, the first driven by Myles Kavanagh, the second cab driven by James Fitzharris, known better as ‘Skin the goat’. In Dublin they would leave a card in all the major newspapers identifying themselves as the Irish National Invincibles.
Mass roundups of suspected Fenian ‘activists’ followed. The Invincibles’ leader, James Carey, told his interrogators that the Invincibles had been formed in the fall of 1881 to ‘make history’ and to establish a grouping within the Fenian network to assassinate government administrators in Ireland. James Carey, Michael Kavanagh and Joe Hanlon agreed to testify against the others. Joe Brady, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey, Dan Curley and Tim Kelly were convicted of the murder and were hanged by William Marwood in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin between 14 May and 9 June 1883.
Charles Stewart Parnell made a speech condemning the murders in 1882. This increased his already huge popularity in both Britain and Ireland. He had just enabled some reforms under the Kilmainham Treaty four days before the murders. Parnell’s reputation increased in Ireland, being seen as a more moderate reformer who would never excuse such tactics. Infuriated by the manner of his brother’s early death, Hartington split with Gladstone on the Home Rule bills of 1886 and 1893 and led the breakaway Liberal Unionist Association which allied itself to Lord Salisbury’s conservative governments. In the ensuing 1886 general election the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists swept the board. This delayed Home Rule by 28 years, until the Third Irish Home Rule Bill which was passed technically in 1914, but which was never effected.
However, Parnell’s policy of allying his party to Gladstone’s Liberal Party in 1886 to enable Home Rule was also ultimately defeated by the murders. Gladstone’s Minister Lord Hartington was the elder brother of Lord Frederick Cavendish.
In March 1887, The Times printed letters purportedly from Parnell claiming sympathy with the murderers and that his public denunciation of them was insincere. It emerged that the letters were forgeries written by journalist Richard Pigott, and Parnell was personally vindicated by the Parnell Commission in 1888–89.
Image | A cross etched in the grass in the Phoenix Park, the memorial to Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke, killed by the Invincibles. It is one of the most discreet memorials you will ever see. Image credit | Frank McNally