The Irish Assassins by Julie Kavanagh

Inspired by the discovery of notebooks belonging to her late father, in The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England (Grove Press, 2021), Julie Kavanagh digs deeper into the historical record to fully reveal the brutal slaying of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke in Dublin’s Phoenix Park by Irish radicals in May 1882. Long before the unrest and violence of “The Troubles,” a term which has come to characterize Irish history and politics in the twenty-first century, late-Victorian Ireland, then entirely under British control, boiled with dissatisfaction and an anger that was constantly on the cusp of turning ugly.

The subjugation of the Irish by Great Britain had long been a rallying cry among nationalists both in Ireland and among the immigrant communities that had immerged all over the globe, largely in consequence to a mass exodus of Irish in the famine years of the 1840s. Kavanagh opens her work in the latter half of the Victorian era with Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell heavily involved in the fight for Home Rule in Ireland through his establishment of the Land League, which sought to abolish landlordism and allow tenant farmers to own the land they worked on. A landlord himself, having been born into the protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Parnell became the face of the political agitation known as the Land Wars. He subsequently organized the needed financial and political support among various nationalist groups both in Ireland and abroad who sought political reform that would benefit the nation.

When Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield was forced to step down in favour of the Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone, the new administration began in earnest the slow process of making Home Rule a reality. Serving in the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in Gladstone’s government was William Edward Forster, who, given the role he played in the events that led up to the Phoenix Park murders, is a prominent character in the first half of Kavanagh’s work. In October 1881 Forster had Parnell arrested and the Land League suppressed and from then on, having enraged the Irish nationalists, became a target for assassination himself.  As Kavanagh relates, Forester avoided several attempts on his life by sheer luck before he ultimately resigned from his post in May 1882. To fill the vacant position, Gladstone named Lord Frederick Cavendish, son of the 7th Duke of Devonshire and husband of his niece the Hon. Lucy Lyttleton, to the position. Resident in Ireland for less than 24 hours, Cavendish, along with the Permanent Under Secretary at the Irish Office, Thomas Burke, was brutally stabbed to death by several men belonging to the extreme radical Irish nationalist group the Irish National Invincibles. Burke had been the intended target of the Invincibles, but Cavendish was murdered as well simply because he was in the other man’s company.

With politics threaded throughout, Kavanagh makes a distinct shift following the Phoenix Park killings and uses the remaining second half of the work to detail the aftermath of the crime that reverberated around the world. Dubbed the Phoenix Park Conspiracy by some, the author explains how the following few months unfolded as the perpetrators of the crime were hunted down and subsequently brought to justice. Kavanagh does this with the attention and skill of an accomplished writer and historian, but in fact has a further sensational story of assassination to impart to the reader. One of the Invincibles involved in the Phoenix Park killings, James Carey, turned Queen’s evidence after being apprehended and gave evidence against his fellow conspirators to save himself from punishment. Now seen as a traitor, Kavanagh brings this riveting book to a close by chronicling Carey’s escape to South Africa under an assumed name given to him by the British government and his own assassination by Patrick O’Donnell as revenge for his disloyalty to the Invincibles.

Although intensely complex, Kavanagh has successfully disentangled the many different factions of Irish politics and created a clear picture of the political playing field leading up to the murders of two innocent men, and the later assassination of James Carey. Although perhaps starting off overly long, with explanation and historical context taking up almost half of the text, the author provides the reader with an in-depth understanding of the many key players, important political movement, and events that made up a nation deeply divided over immense issues such as the question of Home Rule. The true crime aspect of the work picks up in the second half and does not leave the reader disappointed. Indeed, Kavanagh succinctly presents the narrative as it unfolds following the crime through both her own excellently crafted prose and a strong use of quotations from historical sources to bring events and characters to life.

An interesting aspect of the work which many readers will take note of, is the constant presence of Queen Victoria herself throughout the entirety of the work. From the first pages that lay out the state of Irish politics in 1880, right up until the conclusion, Queen Victoria’s opinions and thoughts are included as events unfold. Kavanagh does the same with other key figures, such as Gladstone and Parnell, but it is refreshing to hear from the woman who took an intense interest in not just the Phoenix Park murders and their aftermath, but the welfare of Ireland in general. Although Queen Victoria was head of Great Britain and its burgeoning empire, it is not always usual to hear from her to this degree, many historians opting instead to solely focus on the more active political figures who formed her government.

In this text not only does Kavanagh demonstrate her superb understanding of Irish politics and history, but she creates a captivating and engrossing narrative of assassinations and machination as she outlines the case of the Phoenix Park murders and the fallout from this horrific crime. The Irish Assassins is a must read for true crime enthusiasts and history lovers alike and is indeed a work of high quality for which Kavanagh should be lauded.

Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister William E. Gladstone

“The Irish Invincibles” responsible for the assassination of Lord Cavendish and Mr. Burke

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About the Author: 

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he will be pursuing a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting. 

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