independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Blade runners

A new book by Senan Moloney reveals the gory story of how assassins sliced the top two British administrators to death in the Phoenix Park - and then vanished without leaving a clue

The widely expected visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland next year, although still unconfirmed, will take her to the Phoenix Park to visit Aras an Uachtarain.

Every other British monarch to come here has included the park on the itinerary because the presidential residence of today was yesterday's Vice-regal Lodge.

Generations of British representatives of the Crown ruled Ireland from here surrounded by a necklacing barracks of soldiers and police. Winston Churchill lived in the park as a boy and Princess Diana's ancestor, Earl Spencer, was here twice as Queen Victoria's Irish figurehead.

On the way to meet Mary McAleese next year, Queen Elizabeth will pass a low-key memorial from Earl Spencer's second stint in Ireland. Across the road from the Aras is a white cross cut into the grassy embankment, marking the spot where a bloody assassination in 1882 helped set in train forces that ultimately led to Irish independence.

On May 6 that year, a squad of men in civilian attire swarmed about Britain's top two administrators in this country, cutting them to ribbons with surgical knives. Next year will mark the 125th anniversary of the gory episode.

Many will have forgotten the double assassination of Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Under Secretary Thomas Henry Burke, on a summer's day in the park. But, for a while it briefly overshadowed Parnell, the Land League, agrarian struggle and the whole tide of Irish history.

It was an event that paralysed the Gladstone administration and threatened to plunge Britain's closest client state into bloody anarchy. Lord Cavendish was killed after only a few hours in the country, while Burke had headed the Irish civil service for over a decade.

Today, it would be the equivalent, God forbid, of the Irish Head of Government and Deputy Head being assassinated together - with the scything blows being witnessed from the Aras, home of the Head of State.

The assassinations were seen from the windows of the Viceregal Lodge and thought to be a drunken squabble. Officers were sent out to investigate but they dawdled, imagining it a case of Saturday-evening horseplay.

Tens of thousands of cars now drive daily over the spot on the park's main road where Lord Frederick fell dying, his left arm nearly severed from attempts to fend off the whirlwind of blows. A milestone at the path opposite the Aras marks the place where Burke gasped his last, drowning from a slashed throat.

The bloodshed happened within half a mile of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police headquarters (now Garda HQ), and less than a mile from Mountjoy and Marlborough military camps (now the site of the Ordnance Survey and McKee barracks).

It was also a few hundred yards from where 21 artillery fieldpieces had, a few hours earlier, trumpeted the arrival of Cavendish and the new British administration.

After the deed was done, the four assailants climbed onto a horse-drawn carriage and clattered away from the scene.

'A squad of men in civilian attire swarmed about Britain's top two administrators in this country, cutting them to ribbons with surgical knives' The use of knives, rather than firearms, had bought them the time and space to make good their escape, turning left at the Phoenix column and exiting the park at Chapelizod. And still, the machinery of State dozed unwittingly.

No one but the assassins, it seemed, had expected these two powerful personages to be walking alone, without bodyguards, especially since the last chief secretary had a file of threats against his life nearly nine inches thick at Dublin Castle.

But that is what happened - Cavendish choosing a walk in the evening sun and Burke later getting down from an official carriage, bringing him to a dinner at the Viceregal lodge, in order to join him.

It was a double slaying that the British Government simply had to solve, under pressure from an outraged Queen Victoria and a dismayed public. The dead chief secretary also happened to be married to Gladstone's niece.

Yet there was nothing to go on. Forensic evidence was non-existent, witness descriptions were hopelessly contradictory and there were no reliable sighting of the getaway vehicle after Chapelizod.

Nor did they know that it was more difficult still, since the killings had been carried out by an entirely new group of nationalist extremists, calling themselves the 'Irish Invincibles'.

No one knew anything about them even in the Fenian underground and the police were led into a series of dead ends, wild goose chases and spectacularly embarrassing failures.

The 'Keystone Kop' antics of a desperate police force is reported in the still-surviving files on the outrage, which consumed the country for months.

These increasingly bizarre lines of enquiry make for entertaining reading - and the best are included in my new book on the affair, The Phoenix Park Murders.

But eventually, through various machinations and age-old 'tricks of the trade', the police assembled a battery of suspects in custody. A breakthrough came with the discovery of a stash of knives in the attic of a house by one of the owner's tenants.

Detectives concluded that these were the murder weapons, although 'spots of blood' identified by the city analyst later turned out to be only rust.

They were not the actual weapons involved, but they were close enough. Bolstered by a series of emergency powers ushered in after the assassinations, the police mounted a terrifying form of psychological warfare against the men held in Kilmainham Jail.

In those days, the British administration was not above 'packing juries' or even introducing evidence that was transparently deceitful. Conviction on a capital charge meant only one outcome - a terrible death at the end of a hangman's noose.

Thus began the drive to engender a chilling race between the prisoners to outdo each other in turning Queen's evidence, slipping the noose from one's neck in order to fix it around that of one's fellows.

The upshot in 1883 was a series of show trials that led to the hanging of five men who were admittedly extremist plotters, including the two actual assassins - stone mason Joseph Brady, the youngest of 25 children from North Anne Street, Dublin and Timothy Kelly, a baby-faced coach builder from the Bishop's Square area of the city.

Most sensationally, their accuser turned out to be the leading recruiting sergeant of the Invincibles, a leading nationalist politician named James Carey.

Pardoned of his role in the killings in return for his evidence, Carey was taken into the 19th century equivalent of a witness protection programme.

Carey was spirited aboard a vessel leaving London in the summer of 1883 for South Africa. Already aboard, under assumed names, were his wife and children. But, off the South African town of Port Elizabeth, the long arm of Fenianism saw to it that James Carey was shot dead.

It is an uncanny tale, yet every word of it true. It may have slipped deep into the national subconscious but the time is surely ripe for a permanent memorial in the park to an incident that shook an empire.

The Phoenix Park Murders by Senan Moloney (Mercier Press, ?12.99) is published this week. Moloney is Political Correspondent of the Irish Independent

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