The Irish National Invincibles were a splinter group of the IRB who had five members hanged and buried in Kilmainham Gaol in 1883 for an attack in which two senior British civil servants died. A campaign is underway for their reinterment. A look at the issue by historian Ronan McGreevy (for the Irish Times).
In the lower yard of Kilmainham Gaol and out of bounds to its many visitors is the place where the Invincibles are buried in rough teal coffins.
It is a bleak, high-walled place with cracked, moss-lined paving stones. The only evidence of its significance is a plaque on the wall listing the names of the five assassins who were hanged for the murders of the chief secretary to Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and the permanent under-secretary Thomas Henry Burke on May 6th, 1882.
Their killers were Joe Brady, Daniel Curley, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffery and Timothy Kelly.
It was a posthumous feature of their punishment that they would be buried in the prison yard out of sight and, the British authorities hoped, out of mind. Historian Dr Gabriel Doherty said their burial in unconsecrated ground was designed to put the “mark of Cain” on the men.
The executions and the prison incarcerations were meant to convey civic disgust at the murders of Cavendish and Burke. The two men were stabbed repeatedly with imported 11-inch surgical knives as they strolled through the Phoenix Park. Burke, an Irish Catholic who was the chief civil servant in Dublin Castle, was a hate figure in the Fenian movement for implementing the British government’s coercion policy in Ireland.
Cavendish was an unknown who had just arrived in Ireland, ironically, to bring peace to the countryside. He was a nephew by marriage of British prime minister William Gladstone who came under fierce pressure after the assassination to modify his conciliatory position on Ireland.
The Phoenix Park assassinations occurred just a few days after Charles Stewart Parnell was released from jail in what became known as the Kilmainham treaty. In return for land reform, Parnell and the leader of the Land League Michael Davitt promised to use their influence to calm the countryside.
On the day prior to the assassinations the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) fired on a crowd in Ballina killing two children. Though some have speculated that the Cavendish and Burke killings were an act of revenge for this deed, in reality the Invincibles had made 19 previous attempts to assassinate Cavendish’s predecessor, the hated William “Buckshot” Forster, and Cavendish was simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Both Davitt and Parnell recognised the counterproductive nature of the killings and condemned them in the strongest possible terms. “On the eve of what seemed a bright future for our country, the evil destiny which has apparently pursued us for centuries has struck another blow which cannot be exaggerated in its disastrous consequences.”
Almost 140 years on from those momentous events, the National Graves Association (NGA), which tends to the graves of Irish republicans, has begun a campaign to have the remains of the Invincibles removed from Kilmainham Gaol and reinterred in Glasnevin Cemetery.
There is a long tradition of removing the remains of executed Irish revolutionaries from prison grounds to consecrated graveyards beginning with Sir Roger Casement in 1965.
The campaign was started by the late historian Dr Shane Kenna, whose book The Invincibles: The Phoenix Park Assassinations and the Conspiracy That Shook an Empire was posthumously published in 2017 and has done much to resurrect the memory of the Invincibles in the public imagination.
A new book on the Invincibles entitled The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England by Julie Kavanagh will be published this summer.
The book contains an endorsement from former British prime minister Tony Blair who states that the killings were an “act of extremism which derailed a constitutional process driven forward by a prime minister determined to bring peace to Ireland. The moderate cause of Home Rule collapsed under the weight of outrage against the assassination.”
Interest in the Invincibles has also been heightened by a groundbreaking eight-part podcast entitled The Invincibles: Park Assassins by Roisin Jones.
With a Master’s in applied digital media from Griffith College, Ms Jones spent three years carefully crafting the podcast recreating not only the assassinations, but the celebrated court case which brought the Invincibles to justice thanks to the indefatigable Inspector John Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. She first heard about the story through historian Gerard Shannon.
“I was intrigued. You’ve got the good guys, you’ve got the bad guys, you’ve got the court case. You’ve got everything that made a good story and I thought it would be really cool to bring it to a wider audience. It kind of tells itself,” she said.
Given the emotions that the killings can still invoke, The Invincibles: Park Assassins takes a neutral tone leaving it up to the listener to make up their minds about the morality of the deed.
“I’ve trained myself to see it [the reinterment campaign] from both sides. The part of me that is brought up religious is aware that where they are buried is not consecrated ground. One of the arguments against it is to not turn the Invincibles into a big celebration site.”
The NGA campaign has, thus far, received unanimous support from local authorities with 19 approving motions to have the men reinterred. They are Dublin City Council (Central Area Committee), Galway, Westmeath, Wexford, Cork, Tipperary, Louth, Sligo, Cavan, Fermanagh and Omagh, Mid-Ulster, Laois, Limerick, Cork, Mayo, Derry City and Strabane, Monaghan, Fingal and Waterford.
Campaign organiser Aidan Lambert said the NGA is acting on behalf of the families in the first instance. “We are not looking to be triumphalist. This is simply about giving five men a proper Christian burial in a grave that can be visited by anybody who wishes to visit,” he said.
Mr Lambert stressed that the reinterment does not necessarily signal approval of what the Invincibles did. He acknowledged that people have different opinions on an assassination that provoked fierce condemnation when it happened. He also stated that the campaign has cross-party support and motions have been put forward by councillors of all the major parties.
Neither is the campaign looking for a State funeral for the men on the lines of the “Forgotten 10” whose remains were removed from Mountjoy Prison and reinterred in Glasnevin Cemetery in 2001.
“I doubt if the State would do it [a State funeral] anyway, to be honest. I think the State is very careful when it comes to dealing with Britain,” he said. “I just don’t think they wish to be seen honouring these men who assassinated a very high-profile figure.”
Historian and former civil servant Felix Larkin, formerly the academic director of the Parnell Summer School, said he approves of the reinterment, but only on the basis that it be done discreetly.
“I wouldn’t want it to be a celebration of what they did or indeed a ceremony that would imply approval in any way shape or form,” he said.
The Invincibles were never claimed as part of the lineage of those involved in the Irish Revolution, he said, adding that their deed was an “embarrassment and a stain on the national character.
“It is seen as a cowardly act rather than if you see 1916 or whatever as a fair fight. There is something miserable and cowardly about assassination.”
The Office of Public Works (OPW), which looks after Kilmainham Gaol, is not enthusiastic about moving the remains of the men. Other executed men are buried in the same yard. This, it said, is “a significant complicating factor which would make accurate identification of remains difficult”.
The biggest obstacle, though, would be the political will to achieve this. It will be up to the Government to decide if their remains should be reinterred.
The NGA wrote to Minister of State for OPW Patrick O’Donovan last week seeking a meeting. A spokesman for the Minister said he has requested his officials to liaise with officials in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media about the feasibility of such a plan. Though the OPW runs the building, it is owned by the other department.
The centenary commemorations have shown they can become contemporary political bombshells. This is another one that will have to be handled with the greatest tact.
* A Facebook page for the campaign is online at https://www.facebook.com/InvinciblesReintermentCommittee/