“Graves were dug before the doors of evicting landlords. Murder was committed,” wrote historian Richard Barry O’Brien. “A reign of terror had, in truth, commenced.”
This is Ireland in 1881. Thirty-two years after the Famine ended, a time of insurrection and political violence.
The Land League formed in 1879 and in some parts of the country it developed a tactic of extreme ostracisation to intimidate landlords. The tactic is so successful it coins the term “to Boycott”.
In Dublin, a handpicked group of assassins, connected to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, chose 11-inch surgical knives to attack representatives of the British state in the Phoenix Park.
Storyteller Roisin Jones first heard the story of the Irish Invincibles as two friends were chatting in the Beerhouse pub in Capel Street, she says.
“When I first heard them talking in the bar, my comment was, ‘Oh my god, they basically hacked these two lads apart in the park’,” says Jones.
The story captured her imagination though. In a podcast series launched last week on Spotify, called The Invincibles: Park Assassins, Jones skilfully knits together the voices of actors, narrators and historians to recreate the story of the Irish National Invincibles.
The series examines the moral dilemma of whether the violence was justified. Historians debate that in episode three, says Jones. “If a few decades later, Michael Collins did the same thing, would we revere him the way we do now?”
Setting the Scene
Episode one, Oaths and Secrets, sets the story in its historical context with colour and drama.
Actors read the news in radio-style bulletins, although radio did not yet exist.
Jones says she used the Irish Times and other news reports to create the bulletins. “I know they don’t exist but [I decided] we are going to read them out in a radio voice,” she says. “Because it’s fun.”
An actor reads an account written at the time by French biographer, Frederick Moir Bussy. He outlines the brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police as they attack unarmed citizens, including women and children.
This is a time when politics and violence are deeply intertwined. “Militancy always needs a political wing. You have to have someone to do the talking for you,” says historian Mícheál Ó Doibhilín in the podcast.
“It is the old thing. You cause terror and then you talk around how to stop it,” he says.
These were desperate times and that sometimes calls for desperate measures, he says. “If your peace talks are backed up by the threat of force it concentrates minds hugely and things will happen.”
To tackle the injustice of unfair rents and evictions the Land League also perfected a type of “social ex-communication” which is described with colour in the podcast.
In Mayo, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English land agent for landlords, in charge of collecting rents from around 40 tenant farmers.
He was deeply unpopular. He threatened several tenants with eviction. His labourers went on strike.
After that, the local Land League decided to cut Boycott off – from everything.
They threatened his other workers, including a blacksmith, so they quit. Local shopkeepers stopped delivering groceries to his home. The postman was attacked so he stopped delivering the post there. Soon the telegraph workers followed suit.
“People walked over his crops and destroyed his gates, walls, and stock,” says narrator Marianne O’Rourke. “Captain Charles Boycott would eventually take leave of his estate and make for England, a ruined man.”
The success of the campaign was celebrated throughout Ireland and abroad, she says.
In 1881, the constitutional nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell was arrested and imprisoned.
“They took the doves out of it, leaving the hawks out there,” says Ó Doibhilín, the historian. “In Dublin, a secret group was formed, an assassination squad.”
There were roughly 40 members of the Irish National Invincibles.
One of the founders and leaders was James Carey who had joined the Fenian Brotherhood in 1861 and was a senior figure in the vigilance committee, tasked with rooting out informers.
The assassination squad was funded by collections from America and Britain and members swore an oath of secrecy.
After they killed somebody, they sent black cards to the newspapers in the post to claim responsibility. “Executed by order of the Irish Invincibles,” the cards read.
They planned to aim for the top and set out to kill the Land League’s arch-enemy, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, William Edward “Buckshot” Forster.
Making the Podcast
Jones had recently finished a master’s in digital media when she heard her friend Gerard Shannon, a historian, tell the story to a friend.
At first, Jones hoped to collaborate with Shannon to tell the story of the Invincibles. But he had to leave the project to focus on his master’s in history, she says.
By that stage, Jones was hooked. “I just have to keep going with this story,” she says.
She read every text she could find that mentioned the Invincibles.
She started writing the story two years ago, while also working on her first short film.
She wrapped that up recently, too. It’s a fiction film called A Sense of Joy, which is currently touring the festival circuit, she says.
“I call myself, in my head, a storyteller,” says Jones. “I’ll use whatever means necessary to get the story out, whether it is fact or fiction.”
She hadn’t got funding so she settled on making a podcast about the Invincibles because it was cheaper than a film, she says.
But she would still like to dramatise the story in film too if she gets the opportunity, she says. She has written a TV pilot.
Jones describes the podcast as a true-crime series. But, she says, “if the Invincibles had used guns instead of knives, would we consider it as criminal?”
“There is a huge difference in perception between shooting someone in the back of the head, and impaling them with a 11-inch amputation knife,” says Jones.
They selected knives over guns because they are quieter, increasing their chances of getting away.
The added publicity they received afterward may also have been a motivating factor, she says.
The killings caused a massive reaction in Britain, she says. Some daily newspapers published on Sunday to cover it and the then Prime Minister, William Gladstone, cried in parliament, she says.
Jones no longer holds a strong view on whether the Invincibles were right or wrong, she says. “You are going to think I’m lying but I’ve trained myself to have a one-hundred percent neutral stance on that.”
Ultimately, it is up to each listener to figure that question out for themselves, she says.
The first two episodes of The Invincibles: Park Assassins, an eight-part series, were released on Friday 19 November. Two episodes are due to be released each week.