Scandal and Terror in the Empire’s Emerald Isle: Police and Power in British Ireland Following the Phoenix Park Murders

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



Date of Award

Summer 2018


In 1882, members of the Invincibles—a radical Irish separatist group—murdered two prominent members of the British administration in Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke, sparking outrage throughout both metropole and colony. The ensuing trial dominated the attention of both the British and the Irish, the events playing out like a Victorian soap opera. However, the murders also fanned the flames of more sinister passions within the Empire, including what the British government perceived as dangerously violent nationalism. In fact, the murders plunged the already tenuous relations between imperial power and colony into a freefall, and further darkened the fellowship between the two peoples. To the British, the murders represented the worst incarnation of the Irish populace—as dangerous, malicious, untrustworthy, and deviant—in turn reinforcing the civilizing mission of the British administration, and even justifying its expansion. The Irish, for their part, increasingly perceived the British as harsh and tyrannical foreign occupiers, repelled by the most visible instrument of state control: the British police. Indeed, the British police deployed formidable resources to identify, capture, and destroy the individuals responsible for the Phoenix Park Murders. In doing v so, the British revealed the extent to which they created a police state in Ireland, and the machinations employed to justify and perpetuate the British Empire. This thesis examines the circumstances surrounding the Phoenix Park Murders, especially focusing on the British response. It posits that British rule in Ireland necessitated the enforcement of order as a form of coercion, and uses the Phoenix Park Murders as a case study for this supposition. It begins with the law and order campaign of Chief Secretary of Ireland William Edward Forster and transitions into the attempts by the police to solve the murders and punish the perpetrators, all analyzed through the prism of the power dynamics at play that actively supported and justified British authority. Ultimately, I propose that concerns about upholding order in Ireland were not just a product of the Phoenix Park Murders, but were absolutely foundational to the continuance and operation of the Empire. As a case study, the Phoenix Park Murders allow insights into the British mindset about controlling Irish conduct and mitigating the effect of Irish nationalism, and helps explain how the British justified their continued presence in Ireland.


William Kuracina

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History