Ireland, in the form of the Republic of Eire, or that still-British bit at the top around Belfast, has never been a safe place. Throughout the Middle Ages blood was spilled every day there, for one reason or another. The English, under Kings or a Lord Protector, were particularly prone to killing Irish people. Even in the more ‘civilized’ nineteenth century English politicians swore they could do nothing with the Irish, whose potato famine was killing them off in thousands. Death by starvation is no better than a bullet in the brain, but that is precisely what two placid Englishmen got when out for a bracing walk in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, on a blustery 6th May in 1882.
Lord Frederick Cavendish was the newly appointed Secretary for Ireland; his Under-Secretary was Thomas Burke, a good Irish-sounding name, whereas his boss was a brother of the 8th Duke of Devonshire, who held land in Ireland but hardly ever visited; the classic absentee landlord in fact.
One of the dozens of Irish terrorist groups was called with characteristic modesty ‘The Invincibles’: the actual word ‘terrorist’ had not then been invented, but such groups were out to cause maximum trouble, and murder was high on the list. Members of this band shot and killed Cavendish and his Secretary in the Park. More murders followed in the Irish summer, though the British Government reacted in the usual manner with the fearsome ‘Coercion Act’, allowing trials for treason and murder to be held before a ‘judicial tribunal’ without a jury. In addition, the police were awarded extensive additional search powers.
It was not long before five of the Phoenix Park assassins were caught, sentenced and hanged. It is not certain what these very public murders were supposed to achieve, apart from the calming of an insatiable blood lust. Things were made much worse by killing Cavendish and Burke, but ever since the time of the terrible O’Neils no-one in Ireland seems to have been much bothered by the reactions of authority.
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