Frank McNally on a forgotten song about the Phoenix Park Murders
The small, gravel-strewn cross, carved into the grass where Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke were assassinated in 1882
Out for a run in the Phoenix Park on Monday, I noticed a small group of people gathered by the roadside opposite Áras an Uachtaráin. I would have passed them without a thought except I happened to know they were standing at what must be Dublin’s least visible historical monument: the small, gravel-strewn cross, carved into the grass where Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke were assassinated in 1882.
Then I remembered it was May 6th, exactly 137 years since the fateful Saturday when Cavendish, on his first day as Irish chief secretary, decided to walk to the official residence (now home to the US ambassador), and was joined en route by Burke, the permanent under-secretary, neither man realising that a group called the Invincibles awaited up ahead to ensure they didn’t reach their destination.
But the cross apart, I had never seen the event commemorated. Even the memorial, modest as it is, had to evolve discreetly. It was first marked in the grass by someone in or soon after 1882, and later by his family and friends until the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for the minor maintenance involved. Political sensitivities had never allowed for a more overt memorial.
So I stopped, sweating and out of breath, to eavesdrop on a man at the centre of the group who was singing. I didn’t recognise the song, but one verse was enough to realise it wasn’t about the original victims of 1882, ending – as most verses did – with the lament: “My husband Dan Curley, I’ll see him no more”. Curiosity temporarily satisfied, I jogged on, past the cricket pitches that were among the last scenery Cavendish and Burke ever saw.
Of all the defendants in the subsequent murder trials, Dan Curley made the deepest impression on the public. It was partly his looks – “splendid physique with features of almost perfect mould”, according to the Freeman’s Journal – and well-groomed appearance. He was nicknamed “Dapper Dan”.
But it was also the contrast with his fellow Fenian-turned-informer, James Carey, whose testimony sent five men to the gallows. Curley had not been one of the actual assassins and might have saved his own neck by also turning queen’s evidence . As he said, however, “if I had a thousand lives to lose I would lose them sooner than [do that].”
In a farewell letter from Kilmainham Gaol, he apologised to his wife for having valued honour more than self-preservation. He also told her that would die forgiving his enemies and “at peace with all men”.
The unknown author of the Curley ballad did not share this equanimity. One of the verses is an extended malediction on Carey: “May he be evicted, may his wife be a widow,/May his children turn wanderers from Ireland’s green shore,/May the curse of the widow and orphan stay on him/My husband Dan Curley I’ll see him no more.”
The curse must have worked. After the trials, Carey was fitted with a false identity and shipped with his family to the colonies, to start a new life. He never got there. A fellow passenger named Patrick O’Donnell recognised him and shot him dead, thereby condemning himself to the gallows too. Including the original victims of the Phoenix Park Murders, O’Donnell was the ninth person to die.
I now know that the singer I heard on Monday was Jerry O’Reilly, a man famous in his own right, at least in traditional music circles. And as he has since explained over the phone, he was a carrying on a tradition that, like the cross itself, has been handed down quietly over the decades.
It used to be the preserve of a group including the great song collector Frank Harte. Then Harte got O’Reilly involved, until the last time they did it together before Harte’s death in 2005, when they were only the two of them. Knowing he wouldn’t be around much longer, Harte asked his friend to continue the annual commemoration, which he now does.
Modest as they were, the numbers this year were boosted by representatives of the National Graves Association, who are campaigning to have the bodies of the men hanged in Kilmainham in 1883 exhumed from the prison grounds and given proper burials.
As for O’Reilly, his main preoccupation is resurrecting (where necessary) and preserving some of Ireland’s lesser known songs, like the one about Curley. In the same cause, he is chair of An Góilín, the Dublin singer’s circle.
Founded in 1979, it turns 40 this year and meets, “religiously”, every Friday night in the Teachers’ Club.