Murder in the Empire’s Emerald Isle: Phoenix Park, the Press, and the Politics of Violence

Aaron Ackerley's picture

Nicholas Sprenger,

Department of History, Rutgers University


In the early 1880s, Ireland was in the midst of a revolution. This was not a conventional revolution like those in Russia and France but was instead a widespread populist movement that sought to transform Irish society. The issue at hand was land—who could own it, how should it be used—and property rights—fixed tenancy, reasonable rents, and an end to arbitrary evictions. These conflicts over land and property were championed by social reformers like Michael Davitt and John Dillon. These activists allied with powerful politicians such as Charles Stewart Parnell, who was the foremost Irish politician of his day. In 1879, this coalition produced the Irish National Land League.

Though ostensibly an organization dedicated to land reform, the Land League was also a vehicle for a return to self-government in Ireland. As of 1801, Ireland had been merged with Great Britain, subsuming Ireland under the British Parliament based in London. Many social groups and political interests viewed this situation as unacceptable, understanding Ireland to be under the yoke of British colonialism and, therefore, unfree. Thus, part of the Land League’s argument was that only Irish rule in Ireland—what was called Home Rule—could rectify the social and economic imbalances in land ownership that plagued the country and impoverished its people.

United with the politics of Irish independence, then embodied by Parnell, the Land League became a standard around which a wide variety of interests could coalesce. Irish tenant farmers, nationalists, social reformers, political radicals…all of these groups found some measure of appeal with the broad platform of the Land League. By 1882, there was reason to expect that the Land League would accomplish many of its aims. Parnell even noted, with some measure of confidence, I see no reason why we should not soon obtain all we are looking for in the league movement.”

Parnell spoke these words on May 6, 1882. He could not know this, but May 6 was a fateful day for both him and the Land League.

As Parnell delighted in his impending success, so too did the people of Dublin celebrate. May 6, 1882 was a day of celebration for Dubliners. Crowds packed the streets of the capital city, and the atmosphere crackled with excitement. The source of this jubilation was the arrival of the newly minted Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer, and the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish.[1] Spencer and, especially, Cavendish were meant to heal the terse political situation in Ireland, which had worsened under the previous administration of William Edward Forster. Alas, it was not to be so.

After the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the swearing in of the new administrators, Spencer and Cavendish deliberated with a longstanding member of the British administration in Ireland—the Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. It was nearly dusk by the time that the men decided to head home. Earl Spencer departed first, shortly followed by Lord Cavendish, who declined a ride in the royal car, preferring instead to walk the streets of his new home.

Cavendish and Burke sauntered along the River Liffey toward Phoenix Park. Later accounts recalled the two men engrossed in conversation—so much so that they likely took no notice of the cluster of men briskly approaching them. A vanguard of three men passed Cavendish and Burke without incident before turning around, blocking a rear escape. The remaining four individuals suddenly halted in front of the two politicians, closing their path forward. Cavendish and Burke were encircled. As they closed in on the hapless statesmen, the men drew knives.

Their work was intimate. The conspirators struck Burke first, dealing him a brutal blow to the back. As he fell, they knifed at his chest and neck in frenzy. Another man stabbed Cavendish in the shoulder with enough force to knock him to his knees, after which he received several brutal thrusts to the torso. Their work done, the assassins mounted a carriage and hurried away, the only witness being the crimson and amber of the setting sun that reflected in the blood pooling on the ground at Phoenix Park.

The assassins were a group called the Irish Invincibles, a secret fraternal society dedicated to achieving independence for Ireland. They believed that the best way to accomplish this goal was with extreme violence—violence to shock and demoralize the British while galvanizing the Irish into a larger revolution.

In fact, the assassinations had the opposite effect. For the British, the assassinations confirmed long-held stereotypes about supposed Irish dangerousness and barbarity, thus justifying both continued British rule in Ireland and a harsh state response. For the Irish, the scandalous and high-profile nature of the murders led many—even other Irish nationalists—to condemn the attacks as unnecessary and disgraceful.

Presses in the British Isles and around the world denounced the brutality of the murders with outrage and shame. Papers made an implicit association between Irish nationalism and the violence of the murders, arguing that other forms of independence, such as Home Rule, were underpinned by violence.

An extract from The Graphic drives home this point. It charged as “approximately responsible” for the Phoenix Park Murders “all those Irish orators and patriots, from Mr. Parnell downwards, who in some form or other have counselled resistance to the law of the land, and have either failed to rebuke, or have offered half-hearted apologies for, all kinds of dastardly outrages.”[2] Likewise, the Times noted that “The crime itself was not only brutal, but defiant and insolent…they have inflicted a blow which will be all-powerful for evil in the immediate future.”[3]

Such attempts to link Irish leaders (like Parnell) to the crimes committed at Phoenix Park was part of a deliberate British strategy to discredit Home Rule and the Land League by associating them with extreme, unprovoked violence. It flipped the narrative; no longer the suffering population under British colonialism and landlordism, the Irish were now perpetrators of heinous crimes against British victims.

In the confidence shattering moment of uncertainty following the assassinations of Cavendish and Burke, the British seized the chance to reassert the supremacy of their rule, the need for continued British guidance, and ethical superiority of the Empire over a free Ireland. The murders provided an opportunity to rebuke Irish nationalism.

One paper encapsulated this aura of pessimism: “[Home Rule] has already had its baptism in blood. A double murder, revolting in its conception and in its details, has stained a land already deeply dyed, and declares, in a way that that cannot be misunderstood, that the enemies of law will not be propitiated with what Mr. Gladstone has offered them…the appalling tragedy of Saturday last shows the utter futility of any attempt to reconcile Irish nationalism.”[4]

Ultimately, these papers had the same goal in mind: they contended that it was a mistake to give concessions (such as Home Rule) to the Irish because their recent history showed them as incapable of decent and “civilized” behavior. The context of the murder reiterated that the basic role of British rule in Ireland—to promote order from good government—remained unfulfilled, and exposed “the true nature of mischief” the Irish people harbored for the British government in Ireland.[5] In the rhetoric of the press, the Irish were not yet suited for Home Rule, a perspective that served to justify continued British rule in Ireland.

The media rhetoric after the Phoenix Park Murders was part of a deliberate strategy that I call the politics of violence. The purpose was to implicate powerful socio-political interests like the Land League or Parnell’s Home Rule politics with the extremist violence of the Invincibles as a means of delegitimizing them. In that way, the press helped undermine the success and respectability of Irish demands for social reform and political independence. In a sense, Britons got to have their cake and eat it too: Britain would remain unfractured and the empire would not be forced to grant concessions to Irish malcontents.  

For the Irish, though, the assassinations cost them everything. The rhetoric of the press worked to turn domestic and international opinion against Irish radicalism of any form; it did not matter the goals or aims: all were painted with the same brush. The Phoenix Park Murders derailed a powerful engine of reform and activism on the eve of it achieving its goals. The murders were, for those who challenged British colonialism and imperial power in Ireland, a “terrible tragedy which suddenly shattered all those fair hopes and made the dark history darker, just when men were fondly fancying that the new era had begun.”[6]           




[1] The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, also known as the Irish Viceroy, was the most senior political post in Ireland. They were technically the person in charge of running the country, but the day-to-day duties often fell to the second in command, the Chief Secretary. Assisting the Chief Secretary was the Permanent Undersecretary. While it was common to change the Lord Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary as politics demanded, the Permanent Undersecretary was often a more stable position.

[2] “The Instigators of the Deed,” The Graphic, May 13, 1882. 

[3] PJP Tynan, The Irish National Invincibles and their Times (London: Chatham and Co., 1894), 285. 

[4] “The Assassination,” Ballymena Observer, May 13, 1882.

[5] “The Phoenix Park Murders,” The Globe, May 8, 1882.

[6] Justin Huntly McCarthy, England Under Gladstone 1880-1884 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1884), 201-202. 

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