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13 March 2017 Edition

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Fenian historian Shane Kenna RIP

Remembering the Past

• Dr Shane Kenna with Mark Moloney in 2013

Shane has contacted the Office of Public Works to have the bodies of the five Invincibles buried in Kilmainham Jail exhumed and reinterred in Glasnevin

DR SHANE KENNA (Seaghan Mac Cionnaith), one of Ireland’s brightest young historians, died on 27 February after a brave battle with serious illness. 

He died just a few days before the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Rising of 1867. 

Shane specialised in the history of Fenianism and in his memory we carry here an edited version of an interview with him by An Phoblacht’s Mark Moloney in 2013 on how the Fenians brought a new form of warfare to the streets of 1880s Britain and his book War in the Shadows: The Irish-American Fenians who Bombed Victorian Britain.

Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam dílis.


DR SHANE KENNA holds a masters and doctorate in Irish History from Trinity College Dublin. He has also worked in some of Ireland’s most historically important buildings, including Kilmainham Jail museums and archive, Dublin Castle and Castletown House.

From 1881 to 1885, the Irish Republican Brotherhood – commonly referred to as ‘the Fenians’ – orchestrated a concerted bombing campaign against Britain. The campaign was designed to show there was still those in Ireland willing to fight for an Irish republic following the unsuccessful attempt at an uprising in 1867. A letter written in 1876 to the Irish World newspaper spoke of keeping the flame alive and calling for the establishment of a fund to support a revolutionary group to head over to England and conduct a war of attrition against English cities. The idea was that this campaign would niggle away and keep Britain distracted while ‘heavier work’ was underway for a rebellion in Ireland.

“The Invincibles are the most misunderstood organisation in Irish history,” Shane tells me. “People say the Invincibles were an offshoot of the Fenians — they weren’t. Others say they were a dissident group — they weren’t. They were all Fenians. They were an assassination committee established within the Fenians to make history: to assassinate obnoxious individuals from Britain’s Dublin Castle administration. In many respects it was a forerunner to the strategy Michael Collins had in the 1920s: a guerrilla strategy that you make Dublin Castle completely unworkable as an institution by taking out their leading figures until it comes to a point where the Castle government can no longer function.”

Shane goes on to speak about their most famous attack, the Phoenix Park assassinations.


On 6 May 1882, British Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Irish Office Thomas Henry Burke were killed with surgical knives on their way to the residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the Vice-Regal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin).

A previously unknown group called the Irish National Invincibles claimed responsibility. The incident is widely known as ‘The Phoenix Park Murders’.

“I would never go so far as to call them murders,” says Shane. “There was a political reason for it.”

The day before the Phoenix Park incident was ‘The Ballina Massacre’, when several young boys were shot dead by the Royal Irish Constabulary for celebrating the release of nationalist political leader Charles Stewart Parnell from jail.

“That incident has been written out of history. That in itself was murder.”

The thinking among the Fenians was that one could respond to tyranny by any means necessary.

“Does that justify what the Invincibles did?’ Shanes asks. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them murderers.”


He points out that describing the event as a tragedy would be more apt, as seven more people would lose their lives as a result. Five alleged members of the Invincibles would be hanged and buried in Kilmainham Jail. Their bodies are still somewhere in the grounds. One of the group who informed on the others would be shot for his treason, while the man who shot him would also face the gallows.

As well as organising a recent conference on the group, Shane has contacted the Office of Public Works to look at the possibility of exhuming the bodies of the five Invincibles buried in Kilmainham Jail and reinterring them in Glasnevin. He has also spoken to the families of the men, who have agreed in principle to the idea.

“As part of this decade of commemorations I would like to see those men buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. Whether you like them or not, I think we can all agree that after 130 years they’ve done their time. Their sentence was that they were to remain in Kilmainham Jail as long as that building was a prison. It’s a tourist attraction now, so they really shouldn’t be in there anymore.”


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