Horsemen, Pass By – Frank McNally on the dramatic backdrop of a Dublin polo match on May 6th, 1882

An Irishman’s Diary

James Carey: central to the fateful events at the Phoenix Park on May 6th, 1882

James Carey: central to the fateful events at the Phoenix Park on May 6th, 1882

 

In the long poem “At the Polo Ground, 6th May 1882”, Samuel Ferguson has his narrator watching a polo match in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, on that fateful date, with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, he resents the spectacle of these mounted sportsmen, mostly British military types: “Young fops and lordlings of the garrison/Kept up by England here to keep us down.” On the other, he imagines a future in which his own son might be out there, and vows: “My boy shall have his hack, and pony too/And play at polo with the best of them.”

The ambition is plausible, as we learn, because the narrator – although a humble builder by trade – is a rising man in Dublin, with his own construction firm and a promising career in local politics that may yet make him city mayor, or something better.

In the meantime, he has more urgent business, for which the polo watching is only a cover. The real drama is unfolding on the road behind him, where he also keeps a nervous eye. 

And sure enough, at around 7pm on that Saturday, the narrator – who has just considered tripping on a tree root and faking a sprained ankle to escape involvement – glances yet again at the road and this time sees his target (along with an unidentified companion): “Oh, he comes at last!/No time for thinking now.”

Then the rising man rises onto a horse-drawn cab, and proceeds up Chesterfield Avenue to where another cab awaits his discreet signal: “If I blow my nose/And show my handkerchief in front of them/And then turn back, what’s that to anyone?”

The speaker, as gradually revealed, is James Carey, founding member of the Irish National Invincibles and architect of the plot that is about take the lives of both the planned target – Thomas Henry Burke, Britain’s permanent under-secretary in Ireland – and Lord Frederick Cavendish, the new Chief Secretary, who had just arrived in Dublin that morning, for his first and last day in the job.

The Invincibles had hoped for months to kill Cavendish’s predecessor, William “Buckshot” Forster. But Forster had resigned a few days beforehand in protest at the Kilmainham Treaty, leaving Dublin in a hurry. The lesser-known Cavendish walked unwittingly into the trap. And as told by Ferguson, the wave of a handkerchief condemned him too.

The poem is a potted summary of what emerged in the murder trials in 1883, minus the most dramatic moment: when the prosecution unveiled Carey as a key witness. Ferguson foreshadows this by stressing his personal ambition, the social distance he has been careful to keep from the “cut-throats on the path-way”, and his worries about what Irish liberation might unleash.

It would suit him as a businessman, he thinks, if “Parnell/And Property – in proper hands” emerge triumphant: “But some o’ these days the ruffians may have votes/As good as mine or his, and pass their Act/For every man his share and equal all/No doubt they’d have a slice from me. What then?”

He quells his fears with the conclusion that, on balance, any chaos will be to his advantage: “I’m not afraid. I’ll float. Allow the scums/Rise to the surface. Something rises too/Not scum but Carey, and will yet rise higher.”  

This he plays his part and exits the scene, via Islandbridge, but not before sneaking a look behind where, at first, the assassins seem to have passed their mark: “Another failure! No, they turn again/And overtake; and Brady lifts his arm --”. Thereafter, he heads for home, intent on catching the quick tram to a Grafton Street, sitting on the top deck for maximum exposure.

Ferguson may have been indulging in dark humour when he has Carey saying of his future strategy: “I’ll float”. The joke was embellished 80 years later in the ballad Monto, a rather more skittish summary of the murders: “When Cary told on Skin-the-goat/O’Donnell caught him on the boat/He’s sorry now he went afloat/The dirty skite/It wasn’t very sensible/To tell on the Invincibles/They stood up for their principles/Day and night”.

Having sent five of his fellow conspirators to the gallows (not including James “Skin-the-goat” Fitzharris, who got away with a jail sentence but whose nickname made him more famous than those hanged), Carey had to give up on his political ambitions and indeed on his very identity.

But sailing to a new life in the Cape colonies in July 1883, he ran into one Patrick O’Donnell from Donegal, who discovered who he was and shot him. Carey thereby became the eighth person to die because of events that evening near the Polo Grounds.

O’Donnell, shipped back to London for another murder trial, was the ninth.

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