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 1882. 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 walk through the Park 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 strolled on into the Park, however uncomfortably, 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.Burke was a figure not greatly beloved in his own country at a time of repressive measures during the so-called Land War which had bedeviled the country for the three years.
When Burke recognized the lone walker as the new Chief Secretary 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 instead. As the two men 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. Burke’s killers had no idea of the identity or the importance of the man who had tried to defend their intended target.
The intervention of the new Chief Secretary and his brutal murder undoubtedly elevated the status of the crime and increased the intensity of the subsequent investigation. Later that night notes were posted through the letterboxes of the main Dublin newspapers claiming that the assassinations were the work of a shadowy new organisation, the Irish National Invincibles. This was a small, ruthless covert group that emerged from the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood but which maintained no specific ties with that organization.
The timing of the atrocity could not have been worse. It came a couple of days after an agreement between the British government and the Irish party leadership to end the Land War and almost sabotaged the secret diplomacy that promised to terminate that rancorous conflict.
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 had essentially hoodwinked Carey into confessing and turning states evidence. While Brady, Curley and their associates were either hanged or jailed for lengthy terms Carey was freed and given a new identity.
Carey’s freedom, however, was short-lived. He was smuggled out of Ireland destined for South Africa a few weeks after the six Invincible hangings. Recognised on board the ship taking him and his family to their new lives 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.