Book Review: The Invincibles: The Phoenix Park Assassinations and the Conspiracy that Shook an Empire

By Shane Kenna

Published by The O’Brien Press, 2019

ISBN: 9781788490603

Reviewer: Kerron Ó Luain

 

In the days after reading this book I happened, coincidentally, to be discussing with a friend the topic of what would make a decent historical drama for Netflix. The friend in question had been prompted by a Twitter poll which had provided several options for the hypothetical programme. These included the legend of The Táin and the story of the sixteenth-century “pirate queen” Gráinne Mhaol among other options.

However, having just read the last few chapters of Shane Kenna’s excellent The Invincibles, I did not hesitate to suggest that it ought to be brought to life on screen. The plot twists, betrayals, assassinations, interrogations, and trials contained within this story make it seem like it could have been a fantastical work of fiction – a thriller novel set in an 1880s Dublin of smoke-filled pub backrooms, shadowy streets, and foreboding jails. But, of course, it is a true story.

The plot twists, betrayals, assassinations, interrogations, and trials contained within this story make it seem like it could have been a fantastical work of fiction. But, of course, it is a true story

The central narrative revolves around the Phoenix Park Assassinations of 1882. That year, Lord Frederick Cavendish, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, Undersecretary, were killed by a radical grouping within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) known as the Invincibles.

Kenna sets out to restore this seismic, yet historically neglected, event to our understanding of that era. He does so successfully, drawing on a range of contemporary newspapers, courtroom depositions, parliamentary debates, private correspondence, approver testimony, and police reports, in the main sourced from The National Archives of the UK, the National Archives of Ireland, and Kilmainham Gaol Museum.

 

Context

 

As Ruán O’Donnell stressed in the introduction, the Invincibles were formed against the backdrop of British coercion introduced in 1881 to quell the popular anti-landlord agitation initiated by the Land League from 1879. Kenna therefore spends the first chapter detailing the broader post-Famine socio-economic and political contexts. On the eve of the Land War, the memory of the social destruction of the years 1845-52 was still fresh in the minds of many tenant farmers and labourers.

When, in 1879, famine threatened again due to a series of bad harvests, in combination with several economic factors, the Land League was launched by Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell, and others. The league built on political networks and a process of popular politicisation that had been brought into being by Fenians over the previous decade, emerging most forcefully in the West in the late 1870s.

Parnell’s ambiguity in rhetoric, sometimes suggesting support for militant Fenianism, at other times not so, is highlighted. Kenna suggests that Parnell “duped” the Fenians for long term political gain; an accusation that is difficult to refute.

Indeed, the New Departure granted Parnell access to Irish-American finances through Clan na Gael channels and after the Land War ended he converted the Land League into a constitutional vehicle for Home Rule entitled the Irish National League.

 

Genesis

 

It was partly out of this distrust of Parnellism – a realisation that he was the classic political opportunist – that the Invincibles formed. James Mullet, a leading Dublin Fenian during the 1870s and 1880s, and chairman of the Invincibles, certainly detested the Avondale native.

But, interestingly, the initial impetus for an assassination squad within Fenianism seems to have originated in Britain with key Land League and IRB figures there who established a “London directory” to set in motion the necessary steps.

This grouping, through the aegis of Middlesbrough Fenian John Walsh, went about forging contacts with key Dublin IRB men, including James Carey, a trades councillor and prosperous landlord. The Invincibles were subsequently formed between late 1881 and early 1882. The large majority were working-class IRB members. According to Kenna, the “Dublin directory had little trouble recruiting members from the Fenian ranks”.

The Invincibles were an assassination squad set up by a Fenian faction known as the the ‘Dublin Directory’.

Their strategy could be best described as seeking to “cut the head off the snake” of British imperial rule in Ireland. To this end, they set about acquiring knives with the specific purpose of targeting key figures in government. Surgical blades, measuring eleven inches, were sourced in London. It seems that these were preferred to revolvers or other firearms so that the act could be carried out in relative silence.

There is, perhaps, an important transnational aspect to the Phoenix Park Assassinations of 1882, especially since the idea to carry them out seems to have emerged among Irishmen based in London – a city that was a melting pot of European revolutionaries at the time.

In 1878, Nikolay Vladimirovich Mezentsov, a Russian imperial statesman, was assassinated by Sergey Kravchinsky, of the revolutionary group Land and Liberty that had sought to spread socialism in rural areas of the Russian empire. Three years later, in early 1881, Tsar Alexander II met his demise at the hands of nihilists who were influenced by a philosophy that believed the peasant could be an agent for social change.

The Phoenix Park killings.

Further investigation into the networks of, and influences on, figures such as the aforementioned John Walsh, and Frank Byrne (secretary of the Land League of Great Britain), who conceived the London and Dublin directories in late 1881, may yield some interesting results.

Nevertheless, the stuff from which the Invincibles were made owed more to the Irish republican secret society tradition than anything else. In the wake of the failure of the 1867 Fenian Rising, the IRB moved to organise “vigilance committees” to deal with informants.

Such internal committees persisted as a phenomenon into a more recent phase of militant republican activity in the guise of the Provisional IRA’s Internal Security Unit, or “nutting squad”, of the 1970s and 1980s.

The post-1867 “vigilance committees” continued operating into the 1880s among the Fenian circles of Dublin. Factions had also grown up within the IRB in the capital and an occasion where they violently clashed in November 1882, branded The Battle of Abbey Street and detailed upon by Kenna, makes for interesting reading. It was out of this tendency to form smaller internal conspiracies and factions within the wider IRB conspiracy that the Invincibles emerged.

But the Invincibles must also be viewed alongside the agrarian secret societies or “Captain Moonlight” that were active at the time. The method of utilising the services of an individual known to the target of assassination for the purpose of identification as the Invincibles did had been used among Whiteboys as far back as the second half of the eighteenth century. The links that some Invincibles appear to have had, through the broader IRB networks, with the assassinations of landlords in rural parts of the country during the Land War also appear to have been significant.

 

Imperial rule

 

Yet, the Invincibles, though certainly highly influenced by the ongoing Land War and British coercion, were primarily a manifestation of urban Dublin. Although many within the IRB at the time sought to insert themselves into the heart of social struggle in the form of the Land War, others, such as leading Fenian John O’Leary, and likely many of the Invincibles, saw the question of land as a distraction from what they perceived to be the real source of Ireland’s woes – British imperialism.

To this end, they targeted not only Cavendish and Burke but other British officials in Ireland, beginning with William Forster, Chief Secretary, whose advocacy of lethal force against the Land League earned him the name “Buckshot Forster”.

The Invincibles intended to kill William ‘Buckshot’ Forster, Chief Secretary, but ended up killing his repleacement Frederick Cavendish.

Forster was the initial target of the Invincibles until his replacement by Cavendish in 1882. The Invincibles attempted to kill Forster on numerous occasions in Dublin but were always foiled or disrupted in some manner. Kenna also elucidates on how other members of the establishment such as judges, police, and prejudiced jurors, came into the crosshairs of the Invincibles who carried out, or planned to carry out, attacks against their person.

After the arrest of numerous Invincibles, the class bias of the Royal Irish Constabulary, Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), and imperial system was detectable in many confidential reports. Police accounts and witness testimony referred frequently to the Invincibles as “roughs”, “low desperados” or “low reckless Fenians”. They were viewed as uncivilised and apolitical, thus depriving them of their agency and their deeply held political convictions.

And these many of the Invincibles certainly had. Some of the most intriguing evidence presented by Kenna are the final speeches from the dock and last words with their families prior to being executed. Daniel Curley, after having a sentence of death by hanging passed against him, stated boldly, and in response to James Carey’s betrayal, that:

“I admit I was sworn a Fenian … I was let into a number of their secrets, and I will say here today that I will bring them to my grave faithfully and truly; and as to my own life, if I had a thousand lives to lose, I would rather lose them sooner than bring to my grave the name of informer … I am a member of the Invincible society – undoubtedly, unhesitatingly. Good bye all. God save Ireland”.

Another obstacle for the Invincibles regarding class was that the juries during their trials were packed with middle- and upper-class Protestants to ensure no sympathy on common ethno-cultural/religious grounds with those in the dock.

The most startling example of this class prejudice, however, was the occasion when the brain of leading Invincible Joe Brady was dissected in the wake of his execution and sent to the Royal College of Surgeons for study by “craniologists”. Although Kenna does not elaborate on this, it would be interesting to know whether this grisly act was informed by the pseudoscientific “anthropological criminology” that had gained currency among some surgeons and medical men at the time.

 

Working-class support

 

In the face of this imperial machine, the support for both the Land War and the Invincibles among the Dublin working class is evident throughout the book. The arrest and confinement of Parnell, and other Land League leaders, to jail at the height of the agitation in late 1881 saw large crowds gathered in Dublin to voice their support for the league. The Irish Times of 22 October that year noted the violence of the DMP who baton charged the crowd, leaving men:

“lying on the street with blood pouring from the wounds they received on the head … while others were covered with severe bruises from kicks and blows of clenched fists delivered with all the strength that powerful men could exert”.

In the wake of the killings in the Phoenix Park, and despite the condemnation issued by Parnell, Davitt and the Land League leaders, Kenna has also noted how “among the most vocal supporters of the assassinations were many of the Dublin working class”.

Kenna has noted how “among the most vocal supporters of the assassinations were many of the Dublin working class”.

During the eventual executions of five Invincibles – Joe Brady, Daniel Curley, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffery and Timothy Kelly – Kenna has documented how crowds gathered outside the walls of Kilmainham Gaol in support. These crowds fluctuated on different days but sometimes numbered in their thousands. Often when the “black flag went up” signalling the hanging of another Invincible, many among the throng dropped to their knees, with the men removing their caps, and the women wailing.

When James Carey became the chief approver against the Invincibles, thus sealing many of their fates, he and his family were ostracised in Dublin. Upon news of Carey’s assassination on board a ship to South Africa in 1883 by Pat O’Donnell – a relation of the Molly Maguire assassins of Pennsylvania – the press reported numerous cases of bonfires and celebrations among the working and small farming classes of Limerick, Dublin, Belfast, and Lurgan, as well as among the Irish diaspora of New York.

The book is replete with reports, often carried in hostile anti-nationalist sources such as The Irish Times, of substantial working-class support for the Invincibles. A useful corrective is thus offered to the historians who have sought to dismiss the nationalist and radical republican sentiment of the Irish working class during this and other periods.

Unfortunately, there are some minor problems of copyediting in the book – for instance the same quote is used twice on pg.138 and pg.140. Invincibles is also missing a conclusion, which might have drawn some together of the issues around class, imperialism, secret societies, the long-term impact of the Invincibles on Irish history, and other points of interest dispersed throughout the pages.

These omissions, however, were probably not the intention of the author, since it can be assumed that this was not the final product, Kenna having died tragically and unexpectedly in 2017. Indeed, the final chapters in his biographies of Thomas MacDonagh and O’Donovan Rossa make note of the long-term significance of both men. The O’Brien Press could, perhaps, have paid more attention to this.

Nevertheless, overall, the book is wonderfully illustrated, smartly laid out, stylishly presented and very well written. The written tributes from friends and family at the beginning and end are thoughtful and moving. Indeed, they are a testament both to Shane Kenna’s skill as an historian and to the positive impression he left on all those who knew him.

 Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. He was recently on a Fulbright Scholarship teaching Irish at Villanova University, Pennsylvania. His latest peer-reviewed article, ‘“Craven subserviency had vanished. Bitter hostility had arrived”: agrarian violence and the Tenant League on the Ulster borderlands, 1849-52, which examined anti-landlord collective action around South Armagh, appeared in Irish Historical Studies in May.

 

 

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