The Irish National Invincibles occupy a prominent role in the current mythologization of the bygone militant struggle among Republicans upholding the right to wage armed resistance in 21st century Ireland. A tight-knit, well-disciplined group of conspirators staging a high-profile “blow against the Empire”, as the late Ruairí Ó Brádaigh called it, attracts many militant Republicans today.
The 2015 publication of Heroes and Villains: The Rise and Fall of the Invincibles by Irish Freedom Press in Dublin serves as one notable example. The author, Seán Óg Ó Mórdha, is a former POW who served time in Portlaoise Prison during the 1990s for charges related to the Continuity IRA.
Earlier this year, O’Brien Press published a detailed and highly readable book on the same topic by the late Shane Kenna. Kenna sadly passed away in February 2017. At the time of his death at the age of 33, he had already established himself as one of the specialists of Fenianism and late Victorian Republicanism. His books included a study of the Irish-American Fenians and a biography of O’Donovan Rossa.
His deep knowledge of Republicanism of this period is reflected in the book. The first chapters explain the social and political context that gave rise to the Invincibles, the day of the assassination, and the investigations. The second half of the book provides a detailed account of the trials and the executions.
Readers already familiar with the subject will find new insight for Kenna provides fresh understanding, based on detailed research. He quotes lengthy from archival documents, statements, and pamphlets. The editors of the book, Liz Gillis, Gerry Shannon, and Aidan Lambert deserve praise for turning Kenna’s manuscript into this volume.
In Kenna’s contextualisation of the Invincibles lies the significance for Republican activists today. Several Republicans would consider themselves as modern Invincibles; the militant vanguard that stands in opposition to a much larger, opportunistic nationalist movement. While this may be true in terms of ideology and commitment to scarify one’s own liberty for the freedom of a nation, the Invincibles were the radical outburst during a time of social revolution. Despite the social protest in recent years – water charges, anti-eviction, etc. – Ireland faces no large-scale civil unrest comparable to the Land Wars, and no pre-revolutionary movements attract mass support as the Land League did. To be sure, while ideological continuity persists, the tactics do not reflect economic and social developments.
The Invincibles is a timely publication. The National Graves Association launched a campaign to reinter the remains of the Invincibles, currently buried in Kilmainham Gaol and give them a dignified burial in Glasnevin Cemetery. Writing in the afterword, Aidan Lambert, secretary of the Invincibles Re-internment Committee explains:
We made a pledge that post the 2016 celebrations, we would campaign with the NGA to have the remains of Joseph Brady, Daniel Curley, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey and Timothy Kelly exhumed from the prison yard where have lain since 1883.
As Irishmen who were executed by a foreign ruler for their fight for the independence of their country from colonial rule, they deserve to be honoured accordingly. Shane Kenna’s book will strengthen the NGA campaign’s argument to honour the Invincibles as true anti-colonial fighters against British colonialism in Ireland.
The Invincibles: The Phoenix Park Assassinations and the Conspiracy that Shook an Empire by Shane Kenna includes a foreword by Liz Gillis and an introduction by Ruan O'Donnell. It was published in February 2019 by O’Brien Press, Dublin.
Dieter Reinisch is a historian at the Institute for Social Movements in Bochum,
and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Central European University, in Budapest.