The Murders That Touched Off Ireland’s Bloody Campaign for Self-Rule

A new, militant body was set up among members of the I.R.B. and the Land League, with funds from Irish America. The Invincibles, as they called themselves, were a tough lot, every bit as dedicated to “physical force” as their 20th-century successors, the Provisional I.R.A. While Parnell and his Irish Party at Westminster were quietly negotiating a road map to home rule with Gladstone and the Liberals, the Invincibles and their American backers were convinced that only by violence could Ireland be freed from British control. It is a familiar argument, one that continues even now.

As a symbolic strike against the heart of British power in Ireland, the Invincibles, led by Patrick Tynan, whom Kavanagh describes as “a delusional, would-be military hero,” drew up a plan to assassinate Thomas Burke, the permanent undersecretary and top Irish civil servant, based at Dublin Castle (hence his nickname, “the Castle Rat”). A squad was dispatched to Phoenix Park to waylay Burke during his evening stroll.

The two assassins were the hulking Joe Brady, one of a Dublin slum family of 25 children, and his best friend — and fellow church chorister — Tim Kelly, who at 19 was very nearly spared the gallows because of his boyish appearance. One of the two getaway drivers was the cabman James Fitzharris, known as Skin-the-Goat, whom readers of “Ulysses” will recognize.

The thing had all the makings of a farce, but the end was tragic.

As Kavanagh’s book amply demonstrates, life is indeed stranger than “the creations of fiction.” Walking with Burke that May evening in the Phoenix Park was the Liberal member of Parliament Lord Frederick Cavendish, who, as a younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, was a scion of one of the great English families; he was also an ally of Gladstone’s and married to his beloved niece Lucy. Cavendish had just been appointed chief secretary for Ireland, the second-highest-ranking queen’s representative in the country. He had been in the country only for some hours when by chance he met Burke and set out for a stroll with him.

The assassins struck. Brady attacked Burke with a 10-inch surgical knife, inflicting terrible wounds, and when Cavendish attempted to come to his colleague’s aid, Kelly, though he had no idea who Cavendish was, stabbed him. Both men died at the scene, as Brady and Kelly clattered away in a cab driven by another Invincible, Michael Kavanagh.

More than a dozen Invincibles were rounded up by Superintendent John Mallon, the same police officer who had arrested Michael Davitt for sedition a couple of years earlier. Evidence against the killers was scarce, until their fellow conspirator James Carey and two other Invincibles agreed to testify against them. Brady, Kelly and three others were condemned and hanged, while Skin-the-Goat was imprisoned.

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