Julie Kavanagh’s background is in ballet: she was a young ballerina and then worked in the glossy world of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Subsequently she wrote acclaimed biographies of Rudolf Nureyev, Frederick Ashton and Marie Duplessis. Why should she now embroil herself in the hideous Phoenix Park murders of 1882, when Lord Frederick Cavendish, chief secretary of Ireland, and his undersecretary, Thomas Burke, were hacked to death in a park in Dublin?
It was an event that appalled all of Britain – and most of Ireland. It left an indelible imprint on the mind of Winston Churchill, who, as a small child, had been given a toy drum by Burke (when one of his grandfathers, the Duke of Marlborough, was lord lieutenant of Ireland). It dismayed Parnell and other nationalists, who were working to advance Home Rule through parliamentary procedures and were nearing an agreement with Gladstone to lift restrictive laws on Ireland. It sent Gladstone into despair and blackened his name with Queen Victoria, who had never much liked him anyway. The queen believed that Gladstone’s Irish policy was an encouragement to the ‘Invincibles’, the men of violence who carried out the act.
Kavanagh has taken up this story partly out of filial duty to her late father, Christopher, a South African journalist of Irish heritage who was fascinated by the Phoenix Park murders and left voluminous research papers when he died aged fifty-two. His daughter has written the book her