On this day – 6 May 1882 – The Phoenix Park Murders



Lord Frederick Cavendish  Thomas H.Burke



Had it not been for a tight and uncomfortable new pair of boots late 19th century Irish history might have been very different. The boots belonged to Superintendent John Mallon, head of detectives at Dublin Castle. He was on his way to meet an informer near the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park on the afternoon of 6 May. It was warm, and his feet were sore. When he was met near the eastern entrance to the park by one of his officers who told him not to go in as he had spotted some well-known Fenians in the area, Mallon succumbed to the offending footwear, and the warning, and headed home instead of going to meet his informant.

Had he walked on into the Park, more than likely with his associate, his presence might have prevented one of the most vicious and notorious murders in Irish history. A short while after Mallon did his about-turn the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, a nephew by marriage of prime minister William Gladstone, decided, on his first day in Dublin, to walk from his office in Dublin Castle, to his new lodgings in Phoenix park – today it’s the U.S. Embassy. While en route he was passed by the carriage of his under secretary, the Galwayman Thomas H.Burke, effectively the head of the Irish civil service and a figure not greatly beloved in his own country at a time of repressive measures during the so-called Land War.

When Burke recognized the lone walker he stopped his carriage and offered Cavendish a lift. The chief secretary declined and Burke sealed both their fates by offering to walk with him. As the two approached the Viceregal Lodge they were accosted by a group of four men who produced surgical knives and proceeded to attack Burke. When Cavendish intervened to defend his under secretary he, in turn, was attacked and murdered. Later that night notes were posted through the letter boxes of the main Dublin newspapers claiming that the assassinations were the work of a shadowy new organisation, the Irish National Invincibles.

It took almost a year to apprehend and punish the killers of Cavendish and Burke. Six men were hanged for the crime, including two of the main ringleaders, Joe Brady and Daniel Curley. One of the other masterminds behind the assassination escaped with his life by informing on his colleagues. James Carey was one of a number of informers produced by the Crown in the case against his fellow Invincibles, but his evidence was crucial. Superintendent Mallon essentially hoodwinked Carey into confessing and turning states evidence. As a case was built against about a dozen suspects they were incarcerated in Kilmainham jail.  Mallon organized that the cell next to Carey be left vacant. Over a couple of days however a stream of familiar establishment legal figures trooped in and out of the cell. Eventually Carey’s curiosity and anxiety got the better of him. He asked a warder who was in the cell beside him. The jailer had been primed to tell Carey that it was occupied by Daniel Curley. This had the desired effect. Assuming that Curley was turning informer Carey realized that he had to be quick. He sent for Mallon and turned states evidence against his Invincible colleagues before Curley’s evidence – which, of course, did not exist, could be used to hang him.

Carey’s freedom was short-lived. He was smuggled out of Ireland destined for South Africa a few weeks after the six Invincible hangings. Recognised on board ship he was shot dead by one Patrick O’Donnell when they reached dry land. O’Donnell, was, in turn, hanged for his own crime.

The Phoenix Park murders took place 131 years ago on this day.


French ‘penny dreadful’ representation of the murders