Ireland in the 1880's, was a politically tumultuous place. Mainstream Irish nationalist political opinion was under the leadership of the charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell, who was bringing the call for Irish Home Rule (limited self government) to the very centre of British political debate. Among the more 'advanced' nationalists, various underground Fenian organisations plotted a more violent way to achieve Irish freedom.
On the bright spring evening of May 6th, 1882, members of a secret Nationalist society known as ‘The Invincibles’ fatally stabbed from behind the Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke as they walked along Chesterfield Avenue towards the Viceregal Lodge (Áras an Uachtaráin).
Thomas Burke, the Permanent Undersecretary (permanent head of the British administration in Ireland) whom Cavendish had bumped into by chance, was the intended target of the Fenians. Cavendish, related to the British Prime Minister; William Edward Gladstone by marriage, had only arrived in Ireland the day he was assassinated.
Sections of the British political and media establishment tried to link Parnell, unsuccessfully, to the attack. Many suspects were arrested and held in prison. The 'Invincibles' leader James Carey, Michael Kavanagh and Joe Hanlon agreed to testify against the other members. Joe Brady, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey, Dan Curley and Tim Kelly were convicted of the murder and were hanged in the infamous Killmainham Jail for the killings the following year. This event shook Anglo-Irish relations to the core and was one of the most significant attacks on members of the British Political Establishment in Ireland during the course of the 19th Century.
“The Phoenix Park tragedy, as it may well be called, occurred on the evening of Saturday, May 6, 1882. Its victims were Mr. Thomas H. Burke, the undersecretary, and Lord Frederick Cavendish, the new chief-secretary.
Undersecretary Burke, on that evening, was walking from the Castle to his lodge or official residence in the Phoenix Park, when he accidentally met Lord Cavendish, who accompanied him in the direction he was going.
When near the Phoenix Monument, they were surrounded by five or six men, armed with knives, who attacked them instantly. Surprised and unarmed the secretaries made scarcely any resistance, and were stabbed; and hurled to the ground where they expired in a few minutes.”
Extract from the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland 1900