Unholy Sabbaths – Frank McNally on the Phoenix Park Murders and other Irish Times ‘Sunday Specials’

An Irishman’s Diary

The breaking news story of 140 years ago today was a big one, by any standards. Inconveniently for The Irish Times, however, May 6th, 1882, was a Saturday, when the paper traditionally took a 24-hour break. There was nothing for it this time but to produce a rare Sunday edition.

So it was that the issue of May 7th, 1882, devoted the front page – another rarity in an era when that was usually reserved for advertising – to the murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the evening before in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

The "Special Sunday Morning Edition" began by reporting widespread public incredulity that the newly arrived Chief Secretary for Ireland and his permanent under-secretary could be killed in "broad daylight".

Then it moved to the grim details of their assassination-by-knife: “The desperate character of the affair was evidence by the fact that [Chief Secretary Cavendish’s] clothes were perforated in all directions . . .”

But pending postmortems, it went on, the press had not yet been allowed to view the bodies, which were being held in a private room at Dr Steevens’s hospital, under the guard of “fifty constables”.

The special edition extended only to page one. The rest of the eight-page newspaper was a reprint of Saturday’s which, even before the murders, reflected an extremely busy news week.

That had seen the release from Kilmainham Gaol of Charles Stewart Parnell and the other nationalist politicians imprisoned for months under the Coercion Act. Michael Davitt had been freed too, in England.

This had all been part of the "Kilmainham Treaty", in protest at which the previous Chief Secretary, William "Buckshot" Forster, had resigned, making way for the conciliatory new appointment, who also happened to be married to the favourite niece of the British prime minister, William Gladstone.

Thus the Sunday edition that reported Cavendish’s death also included news of his and the (equally new) Lord Lieutenant Spencer’s arrival in Dublin, and of Cavendish’s address on Friday night to his constituents in Yorkshire, justifying the change of policy on Ireland.

In the meantime, gossip at Westminster suggested that the incoming Chief Secretary, being considered a political lightweight with a whiff of nepotism, would be only a stopgap.

The London Letter, datelined “Friday night” but printed Saturday and reprinted inside the Sunday edition, was accidentally ominous:

"We hear popular feeling in Ireland is wrathful over the appointment of Lord F Cavendish. The condemnation is rather premature. The appointment may seem grotesque but it is graciously meant […]It is whispered, moreover, that Lord Frederick is a mere warming-pan, and that as soon as Lord Spencer has unravelled the tangle of affairs a bit, an Irishman will be invited to accept the office."

Including the executions (one of them extra-judicial) that followed, the Phoenix Park Murders claimed at least nine lives eventually and had a profound effect on Irish politics for decades. As for Irish Times Sunday editions, they went back to being an extreme rarity until 1914, when the first World War made them a regular occurrence for a time.

There was none on the fateful last Sunday of June that year, however. Readers had to wait until Monday 29th and turn to page six for coverage of Sunday morning's events in Sarajevo. But the timing set at least one correspondent – the London one again – thinking about 1882. In doing so, he made a prediction that, although intended to be dire, now looks understated.

With a dateline of “Sunday night”, he wrote: “This is not the first time that the Sabbath peace of London has been broken by the news of an awful tragedy. It was on Sunday, May 7 1882 that Londoners heard of the Phoenix Park murders. The consequences of to-day’s assassination will not, perhaps, be much less far-reaching than those which followed upon the crime of the Invincibles.”

By April 1916, Sunday editions were a weekly occurrence. Yet even the last of them that month, on Easter Sunday (23rd), could not have foreseen the news about to break in Dublin. When the Sunday specials resumed on May 14th, the cataclysm had passed, although the meagre four-page edition then was still struggling to make sense of what had happened.

Twenty-three years later, Sunday editions were an almost forgotten oddity again. Then, for the first two weeks of September 1939, they made a temporary return, in the process confirming a new journalistic era.

News was firmly on page one now, with banner headlines across the top. “German ‘Planes Hammer Warsaw” proclaimed the lead story of September 10th. Elsewhere, experts struggled as always to predict the future. Surveying the dire events on mainland Europe, the off-lead that Sunday carried the bleak-but-not-bleak-enough headline: “Britain Prepares for Three Years’ War.”