The IRB , like so many similar organisations before them and after them, were no strangers to internal factionalisation. It is, perhaps, only natural for an entity obsessed with secrecy and the independent operation of separate cells to develop separate, and sometimes competing, sections of its own structure, with different outlooks and different methods of operating. Some of the IRB would buy wholesale into the promise of the New Departure and a healthy co-existence with the Irish Land League and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Others would remain dead set on violent action to achieve Irish independence from Great Britain.
One of these factions would come to be known as the “Invincibles”, or the “Irish National Invincibles”, though this moniker would not be common until after the event most infamously associated with them. A grouping of Fenian “centres”, largely based around Dublin, their aim was to be an assassination squad of British political leaders in Ireland. They emerged in the shadow of the Land War, and the Coercion Act that had come into law to try and combat it. We discussed last time how the leadership of the Land League, including Charles Stewart Parnell, were arrested as part of this act, whose draconian measures included the suspension of habeas corpus and trial by jury, but over 900 other people were also arrested. The Act was enforced rigidly by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, William Forster, aided by his permanent undersecretary, Thomas Henry Burke. Forster’s methods, and his zeal in pursuing them, earned him the nickname “Buckshot” by his press, after it was reported he had ordered police to fire into a protesting crowd. He was the target of numerous assassinations plots and attempts, but survived them all due to a combination of good luck and the hesitance of the attackers to endanger civilian lives.
On the 2nd of May 1882, Parnell and others were released from prison as a result of the so-called “Kilmainham Treaty”, an agreement that produced some bitter retorts from both sides. Forster was outraged, and resigned his position. It just so happened that the release occurred right around the time of major political change in the British administration, as a new Lord Lieutenant, John Spencer, had recently been appointed and was due to arrive in Dublin in the next few days. With him would come a new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, a Liberal political and close friend of William Ewart Gladstone, married to his niece.
The Invincibles would get their chance to make a serious splash with the new arrivals. Having failed to lay a scratch on Forster, their efforts had turned instead to Burke. Tensions were high in Ireland, after the RIC had killed several people during a demonstration in Ballina on the 5th. On the 6th of May, the very same day that Spencer and Cavendish had arrived in Ireland, Cavendish walked home to his official residence in the Phoenix Park, and was joined by Burke in the process. There, they were confronted by seven members of the Invincibles. Using surgical knives, two of the group – Joe Brady and Tim Kelly – stabbed Burke and Cavendish to death, before they all dispersed rapidly. Later that day, cards identifying the group were handed into newspapers.
The act has become grandiosely known as one of the most infamous crimes of the 19th century, though this is a bit of exaggeration. But certainly, it was one of the great outrages of the day, an event that flooded newspaper headlines and columns and put the topic of the violent Irish resistance to British rule front and centre yet again. It was one thing for poor tenants to engage in rent strikes, or for unpopular landlords to be harassed or killed. But Burke and Cavendish were senior members of the Irish political scene, men with strong connections to the halls of power in London. For them to be murdered in such a fashion was an horrific reminder that Ireland was no pacified country. They remain the highest ranked members of the British administration to ever be assassinated in Ireland.
The response was quick. The Dublin Metropolitan Police launched a major investigation, and many suspects were rounded up under the Coercion Act, forced to give evidence without legal representation in a Star Chamber proceeding. The mass arrests and brutal interrogation methods resulted in the creation of many informers, divulging information about Invincibles and Fenian activities. The most important was easily James Carey, an Invincible who broke under questioning and became the State’s star witness in subsequent trials, outlining the history of the Invincibles, their previous efforts to kill Forster and the manner in which they had planned to and killed Cavendish and Burke.
Thanks largely to the testimony of Carey and others, five members of the Invincibles were eventually convicted of the killings and hanged in Kilmainham Gaol: the two actual killers, along with Daniel Curly, Michal Fagan and Thomas Caffrey. They were buried there too, and remain there today.
Carey emigrated to South Africa in the aftermath, but his actions caught up with him eventually. Another Fenian, Patrick O’Donnell, killed him at the Cape of Good Hope in 1883, an act for which he himself was subsequently hanged. In the world of violent Irish nationalism, not even informing could guarantee an escape from retribution.
The Invincibles vanished into the pages of history after the trial, most of its membership dead, imprisoned, exiled or informers. But their actions would long outlive them, even if the assassinations had little practical effect in terms of gaining Irish independence. There were always more chief secretary’s and undersecretary’s to send across the Irish Sea. If the Fenians wanted Irish freedom, they would have to be more pro-active in their methods and more varied in their targets. And some of them, financed and directed by the nationalists in the United States, were going to do just that.
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