The Irish Assassins

Julie Kavanagh
Grove Press UK
Publication date: June 8


Julie Kavanagh has established a reputation for biographical portraits based on meticulous research.  Until now, the subject-matter – Nureyev, Frederick Ashton – was befitting to a writer who trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet School and worked as a ballet critic before rising to senior editorial roles at Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.

By her own admission in an author’s note at the end, which could almost be a foreword, The Irish Assassins is in some ways “uncharted territory”.  In others, this study of political murders that destroyed Gladstone’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Irish problem is even closer to Kavanagh’s heart.

From a personal perspective, it is an exploration of her Irish roots and the completion of work carried out first by her father and then by her mother.  Both journalists, they tried to make sense of a story Kavanagh’s father had grown up with of a murder on the high seas and the detention of the assassin Patrick O’Donnell in Cape Town until he was sent to England for trial.

That assassination too was an afterword as O’Donnell was only the killer of the assassin-turned-informer who most of O’Donnell’s countrymen thought deserved to die.

Kavanagh is intrigued by the unsolved mystery that surrounds O’Donnell, but above all she is fascinated by the three women central to an essentially male saga.  They are Lucy Cavendish, the widow of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the murdered first secretary for Ireland, Katharine O’Shea, the mistress of Irish nationalist Charles Parnell and Queen Victoria.

One of the many strengths of The Irish Assassins is the sympathy it evokes for Lucy Cavendish as the devoted wife and intellectual equal of Cavendish, whose murder was made more cruel because he had nothing but goodwill for the Irish and had only just taken on political oversight of Ireland, while his predecessor William Forster, responsible for a draconian Coercion Act, had emerged physically unscathed from a series of failed attempts on his life.

By the same measure, we are left indignant at Queen Victoria’s unashamed bias against Lucy Cavendish’s uncle, the Prime Minister William Gladstone, and her unhealthy fascination with the murders rooted in a selfish dread of losing any control over her vast empire.

The press, then as now, whipped up the passions of a divided society and got some things right and some things wrong.

Kavanagh thoroughly understands its role.  She is also adept, despite her nervousness at her shift in subject-matter, at laying out the nature of politics and power and the recurrent failure to do the right thing as events and expediency defeat those with honourable motives.

Forster had considered himself a friend of Ireland and yet was driven to the conclusion coercion was the only way.  At the age of 82, Gladstone delivered what Roy Jenkins described as “a magnificent last performance”, but it was not enough to convince the House of the wisdom of Home Rule for Ireland.

Michael Davitt, the organiser of the Irish Land League whose primary aim was to abolish landlordism described O’Donnell’s murder of the informer James Carey as “one of the most marvellous and perfect tragedies which real life has ever contributed as a contrast to the creations of fiction”.

The most lasting tragic effect was that it ensured the cycle of revenge continued after the British authorities made a martyr of O’Donnell by hanging the man viewed in Ireland as a heroic deliverer of justice.

In telling the story so well, Kavanagh’s personal mission to complete the research of her parents and above all her father gives us a work of wide resonance that has set the stage for at least one sequel.

Barbara Lewis © 2021.