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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Richard Pigott Exposed as Forger of Phoenix Park Letters

richard-pigottRichard Pigott, an Irish journalist, is exposed as the forger of The Times Phoenix Park letters on February 10, 1889.

Pigott is born in 1835 in Ratoath, County Meath. As a young man he supports Irish nationalism and works for The Nation and The Tablet before acting as manager of The Irishman, a newspaper founded by Denis Holland. James O’Connor later claims Pigott embezzled funds from the paper and covered his tracks by not keeping written records. Pigott also works for the Irish National Land League, departing in 1883 after accusing its treasurer, Mr. Fagan, of being unable to account for £100,000 of its funds, and for keeping inadequate records. Nothing is done about his accusation, which is publicised in the newspapers, and he turns against the League, which is allied to several Irish nationalist groups including the Irish Parliamentary Party led by Charles Stewart Parnell.

In 1879 Pigott is proprietor of three newspapers, which he soon sells to the Irish Land League, of which Charles Stewart Parnell is president. Hitherto a violent Nationalist, from 1884 Pigott begins to vilify his former associates and to sell information to their political opponents. In an effort to destroy Parnell’s career, Pigott produces fake letters, which purports that Parnell had supported one of the Phoenix Park murders.

The Times purchases Pigott’s forgeries for £1,780 and publishes the most damning letter on April 18, 1887. Parnell immediately denounces it as “a villainous and barefaced forgery.” In February 1889, the Parnell Commission vindicates him by proving that the letters are forgeries. They include misspellings which Pigott has written elsewhere. A libel action instituted by Parnell also vindicates him and his parliamentary career survives the Pigott accusations.

The Commission eventually produces 37 volumes in evidence, covering not just the forgeries but also the surrounding violence that follows from the Plan of Campaign.

After admitting his forgeries to Henry Labouchère, Pigott flees to Spain, and shoots himself in a Madrid hotel room. Parnell then sues The Times for libel, and the newspaper pays him £5,000 in an out-of-court settlement, as well as considerably more in legal fees. When Parnell next enters the House of Commons, he receives a hero’s reception from his fellow Members of Parliament.

(Pictured: Pigott as caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) in Vanity Fair, March 1889)


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The Phoenix Park Murders

phoenix-park-murdersLord Frederick Cavendish, newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Undersecretary, are fatally stabbed in Phoenix Park, Dublin, on May 6, 1882 in what becomes known as the Phoenix Park Murders.

Cavendish, who is married to Lucy Cavendish, the niece of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, and has worked as Gladstone’s personal secretary, arrives in Ireland on the day he is murdered. Cavendish and Burke are attacked as they walk to the Viceregal Lodge, which is the out-of-season residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Thomas Myles, resident surgeon at nearby Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, is summoned to render medical assistance to the victims. The then Lord Lieutenant, Lord Spencer, describes suddenly hearing screams, before witnessing a man running to the Lodge grounds shouting “Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke are killed.” Responsibility for the assassinations is claimed by a small hitherto unheard-of Republican organisation called the Irish National Invincibles.

The hunt for the perpetrators is led by Superintendent John Mallon, a Catholic man from Armagh. Mallon has a pretty shrewd idea of who has committed the crime and suspects a number of former Fenian activists. A large number of suspects are arrested and kept in prison by claiming they are connected with other crimes. By playing one suspect against another, Mallon gets several of them to reveal what they know.

James Carey, leader of The Invincibles, Michael Kavanagh, and Joe Hanlon agree to testify against the others. Joe Brady, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey, Dan Curley, and Tim Kelly are convicted of the murders and all are hanged by William Marwood in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin between May 14 and June 9, 1883. Others, convicted as accessories to the crime, are sentenced to long prison terms. The getaway driver, James Fitzharris, is acquitted of murder but is retried as an accessory and convicted.

Only the case of Tim Kelly gives any real difficulty as he is only nineteen and generally said to look much younger. By referring to him as “a child” his defence counsel creates enough unease for two juries to disagree. He is found guilty only after an unprecedented third trial.

Charles Stewart Parnell makes a speech condemning the murders in 1882, which increases his already huge popularity in both Britain and Ireland. He has just enabled some reforms under the Kilmainham Treaty four days prior to the murders. Parnell’s reputation increases in Ireland, being seen as a more moderate reformer who would never excuse such tactics.

However, Parnell’s policy of allying his party to Gladstone’s Liberal Party in 1886 to enable Home Rule is also ultimately defeated by the murders. Gladstone’s Minister, Lord Hartington, is the elder brother of Lord Frederick Cavendish. Infuriated by the manner of his brother’s early death, Hartington splits with Gladstone on the Home Rule bills of 1886 and 1893 and leads the breakaway Liberal Unionist Association which allies itself to Lord Salisbury‘s conservative governments. In the ensuing 1886 general election, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists sweep the board. This delays Home Rule by twenty-eight years, when the Third Irish Home Rule Bill is passed in 1914 but never effected.

In March 1887, The Times prints letters purportedly from Parnell claiming sympathy with the murderers and that his public denunciation of them was insincere. It emerges that the letters are forgeries written by journalist Richard Pigott. Parnell is personally vindicated by the Parnell Commission in 1888–89.


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Birth of Irish National Land League Founder Michael Davitt

michael-davittMichael Davitt, Irish republican and agrarian agitator, is born in Straide, County Mayo, on March 25, 1846. Davitt is the  founder of the Irish National Land League, which organizes resistance to absentee landlordism and seeks to relieve the poverty of the tenant farmers by securing fixity of tenure, fair rent, and free sale of the tenant’s interest.

Davitt is the son of an evicted tenant farmer. After their eviction, the family emigrates to England. In 1856, at the age of 10, he starts work in a cotton mill, where he loses an arm in a machinery accident a year later. In 1865, he joins the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood, an international secret society that seeks to secure political freedom for Ireland. He becomes secretary of its Irish analogue, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), in 1868. Arrested  in Paddington Station in London for sending firearms to Ireland on May 14, 1870, he is sentenced to 15 years in Dartmoor Prison and there lays plans to link Charles Stewart Parnell’s constitutional reform with Fenian activism to achieve political-agrarian agitation.

Paroled from prison in 1877, Davitt rejoins the IRB and goes to the United States, where the Fenian movement originated. There he is deeply influenced by Henry George’s ideas about the relationship between land monopoly and poverty.

Back in Ireland, using funds raised by John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the United States, Davitt wins Parnell’s cooperation in organizing the Land League in 1879, which leads, however, to his expulsion from the supreme council of the IRB in 1880. He is elected member of Parliament for County Meath in 1882 but is disqualified as he is a convict. He is also imprisoned for seditious speeches in 1881 and 1883.

Because of his public championing of Henry George’s theories of land reform, Parnell repudiates him. Davitt actively defends the Nationalists before the Parnell Commission, which meets between 1887 and 1889. When the Irish party splits in 1890 over Parnell’s involvement in Capt. William Henry O’Shea’s divorce case, Davitt is among the first to oppose Parnell’s continuance as leader.

Davitt is elected to Parliament in 1892 and 1893 but is unseated in both cases. He is elected again, for South Mayo in 1895, but resigns in 1899 in protest against the Second Boer War.

Davitt dies in Elphis Hospital, Dublin on May 30, 1906, at the age of 60, from blood poisoning. The fact that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland attends his funeral is a public indication of the dramatic political journey this former Fenian prisoner has taken. There is no plan for public funeral, and hence Davitt’s body is brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary, Clarendon Street, Dublin. However, the next day over 20,000 people file past his coffin. His remains are taken by train to Foxford, County Mayo, and buried in the grounds of Straide Abbey at Straide, near his place of birth.

Davitt’s book, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904), is a valuable record of his time.