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The Phoenix Park Murders: May 6th 1882

T.H. Corfe analyses a double assassination in Dublin that long left its scar on Anglo-Irish relations.

The murder of the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the Under-Secretary which took place on the evening of May 6th, 1882, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, shocked our Victorian ancestors in a way that the twentieth century cannot easily comprehend.

Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were overcome with emotion when moving the adjournment of the House of Commons, where the majority of members wore mourning; half of the members went by special train to Derbyshire for the funeral; almost every newspaper appeared in mourning, and almost every public body in England and Ireland, town corporations, learned societies, and trade union branches, passed resolutions expressing their horror and disgust.

In the nineteenth-century view of Irish history the crime occupied a significant position; it was held to have reversed the trend of Gladstonian policy, destroying the prospects of compromise and creating a new antagonism between English and Irish.

More recent writers have allowed it less significance: it has become, in the words of one recent Irish historian, a “strange and tragic anachronism,” the “first and most important” of several “external accidents (that) helped to disguise and distort the basic trend.” Another finds that “it turned out to be almost irrelevant to the central situation.”

The position on the morning of May 6th was full of bright hope for Ireland. A new Lord Lieutenant and a new Chief Secretary had just arrived at Kingstown, and during the afternoon they entered Dublin amid cheering crowds. For the last two evenings, torchlight processions in the city had been celebrating the news of a fresh departure in English policy towards Ireland.

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