“Phoenix Park Tragedy, The ”


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"


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; Robert Kee (_The Bold Fenian Men_, being Volume II of _The Green Flag_, p. 87) says that Cavendish and the Catholic Irishman Burke were "hacked to death by twelve-inch long surgical knives."

Sadly, the murders forced British Prime Minister 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 (see Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, 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 (see Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _A History of Ireland_, 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.

It did have its effects, though. According to Charles Townshend, _Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion_, 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 carrie 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."

Tim Pat Coogan, _Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland_, 1993 (I use the 2001 Dorset Press edition), pp. 12-13, gives another take, showing how the horrid events influenced a future Irish leader: "In the year de Valera was born, the desperation... led to some of the most horrific murders in Irish history. There were some sixty agraraian 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 supertsition 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 other deeds were spoken of at every fireside in Irelend.

For more on Parnell, see "We Won't Let Our Leader Run Down." - RBW

Historical references

  • 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)

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Harding B 26(362), "Lines on the Phoenix Park Tragedy" ("Pay attention young and old to these lines"), unknown, n.d.


Author: unknown