- It’s a cool May evening in Dublin. The birds are singing, the shadows are long, and the reaper is coming.
He strolls through Phoenix Park, his scythe dragging listlessly on the ground. Rodents scamper away from him, and in the distance, dogs howl. Children can not see him but they still shriek in his presence. Women shiver and men grow anxious. But he is not here for them, not tonight at least. Tonight he has come for Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Thomas Burke.
As he wades into the depths of the park he sees them. First Cavendish, walking alone, and then Burke joining him. The two had just left Dublin Castle, the seat of English rule in Ireland. Cavendish had just been sworn in as Chief Secretary for Ireland alongside the new Earl Spencer, who had been sworn in as the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. Burke, an Irishman, had held the position of Under-Secretary for years, and had helped the English coerce the Irish out of their land throughout his tenure. For this he was known in Ireland as “the Castle Rat.” His death was planned, Cavendish’s was not. The reaper doesn’t care either way.
As they continue their stroll they pass through a group of men, several of whom break off and turn around. They grab Burke and viciously stab him in the back, killing him almost instantly. Cavendish, caught quite unawares, turns around and is struck but not killed. He stumbles backwards into a passing cyclist, who, in his haste, is ignorant to the crime unfolding. The murderer then leaps upon Cavendish and drives his blade into his torso. The life drains from Cavendish’s eyes. His attackers, first ensuring that he and Burke are dead, flee the scene in an awaiting cab. The bodies lie still. The rattle of the scythe grows closer.
These men were part of the group known as the Irish National Invincibles, who were a ring of assassins bent on killing their English rulers. The Land Act of 1881 had essentially made every Irish citizen only able to rent land, not own it, from the English. Obviously the Irish were not happy about this, and the Invincibles represent some of the more extreme feelings of the Irish people. The Phoenix Park Murders (or killings) are essentially all they are known for, as the conspirators were all systematically rounded up and executed.
Prior to the Phoenix Park Murders, the gang had conspired to kill William Edward “Buckshot” Forester, Cavendish’s predecessor, who had earned his name through his ardent advocacy for the use of lethal force against the Irish National Land League. The gang failed to assassinate Forester several times, often due to mistakes in planning or women being in his presence. In April of 1882 Forester left Ireland and the Invincibles had failed. Frustrated, they conspired to assassinate a new target, one Thomas Henry Burke. The “Castle Rat” as he was known, was one of their own after all, wasn’t he? An Irishman helping the English was blasphemy. He had turned his coat on his fellow countrymen and in doing so had signed his own death certificate. They watched him for several days beforehand and had often observed him walking through Phoenix Park. The Invincibles would have their vengeance, one way or another. Cavendish was just a casualty of political violence, and the reaper was more than happy to clean up the mess.
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