Off the Shelf: The Invincibles: The Phoenix Park Assassinations and the Conspiracy that Shook an Empire

Off the Shelf: The Invincibles: The Phoenix Park Assassinations and the Conspiracy
that Shook an Empire, by Dr. Shane Kenna. The O’Brien Press ISBN 978-1-78849-060-3 336 pp 2019
Book Review by Terry Kenneally

This months Off the Shelf selection is the story of a historically neglected event in the 19thCentury of Irish history. The narrative revolves around the Phoenix Park assassinations in 1882 of two high ranking British officials, Lord Frederick Cavendish, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, Undersecretary, by a radical group of men known as the Invincibles.

As stressed by Irish historian Ruan O’Donnell in his introduction, the Invincibles were a radical group within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) formed against the backdrop of British coercion introduced in 1881 to quell the popular anti-landlord agitation initiated by the Land League in 1879. The Land League was launched in that year by Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell and others in response to another famine, due to a series of bad harvests, and other economic factors, and reminiscent of the social destruction brought on by An Gorta Mor in the years 1845-52.

The Invincibles were an assassination squad within the IRB formed to “cut the head of the snake” of British imperial rule in Ireland. They did this by acquiring knives with the specific purpose of targeting key government figures, using surgical blades, obtained in London, measuring eleven inches. Knives were preferred to revolvers or other firearms so that the attacks could be carried out in relative silence.

The Invincibles actually intended to kill Chief Secretary William “Buckshot” Forster but ended up killing his replacement, Frederick Cavendish, and Undersecretary Burke.

The men involved in the assassinations eventually were apprehended by the Dublin Metropolitan Police and their fate sealed when one of their number, James Carey, became the chief approver (an accomplice who gives evidence for the prosecution) against the Invincibles. Five of their number were executed by hanging in Kilmainham Gaol. Carey and his family were ostracized in Dublin, forcing them to flee to South Africa, where Carey met a similar fate in 1883 at the hands of Pat O’Donnell, a relation of the Molly Maguire assassins of Pennsylvania.

The author, Dr. Shane Kenna, who unfortunately died before the book was completed, successfully drew on a range of contemporary newspapers, courtroom depositions, parliamentary debates, private correspondence, approved testimony, and police reports to tell the story in a stylish and well written fashion. I found this book to be a TOP SHELF read.

*Terrence J Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Associates in Rocky River, Ohio. He represents insureds and insurance companies in defense litigation throughout the state of Ohio. Mr. Kenneally received his Masters from John Carroll in Irish Studies and teaches Irish Literature and History at Holy Name High School where he is also the President. *

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