Home History Invincibles – Frank & Mary Byrne Commemoration

Invincibles – Frank & Mary Byrne Commemoration


In a small yard to the rear of Kilmainham Gaol lie the remains of five Fenians who were executed in that yard between 14th May and 9th June 1883. Joseph Brady, Daniel Curley, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey and Timothy Kelly collectively known as ‘The Invincibles’ were part of an assassination team established to hit back at the agents of the British government in Ireland. These five men were hanged for their involvement in the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish, chief secretary for Ireland and his permanent undersecretary, Thomas Henry Burke in the Phoenix Park May 6th 1882.

The Invincibles were formed in the midst of the agrarian land war which was led by the Irish National Land League. The aim of the Land League was to seek tenant rights for the land worked by the indigenous people and to secure fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure. During this time violence sporadically erupted between the tenants and the land agents collecting rent for absentee landlords. The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) assisted with the collection of rent and also assisted with the eviction of tenants.

The killing of two women near Belmullet, in county Mayo by the RIC in October 1881 was certainly a catalyst if not the cause for the formation of the Invincibles. Mary Deane, aged 65 was hit in the throat with buckshot after the police opened fire on the local people; she died a few days later. Ellen MacDonagh, age 23 was running away from the police when she tripped over a small stone fence and was stabbed with a bayonet, she died soon after. According to the Freeman’s Journal seventy armed RIC men were escorting a poor-rate collector and summons server through the remote townland of Graughill. Between fifty and sixty shots were fired and all of the wounded visited by the journalist had been injured in the back with the exception of Mary Deane who had been standing at the doorway of her home at the time. Some RIC men had received trivial injuries from stones thrown at them by the local people.

The campaign to have the Invincibles reinterred at Glasnevin Cemetery was initiated by the late historian, Dr Shane Kenna whilst he was a tour guide at Kilmainham Gaol. In 2013 Shane held a symposium for the 130th anniversary of the execution of the Invincibles. He also wrote to the government expressing his concern about the condition of their burial site and requested them to consider reinterring their remains to an accessible cemetery. The reply received by Shane from the minister with responsibility for the Office of Public Works who manages Kilmainham Gaol acknowledged his request but no further correspondence was received. The Invincibles yard is no longer part of the guided tour of Kilmainham Gaol and access to the yard is by appointment only.
Shane approached the National Graves Association (NGA) asking for their advice and help with the campaign to have the five men reinterred at Glasnevin Cemetery. It was agreed that we would pursue the campaign after the 1916 centenary commemorations were completed.

Sadly Shane was diagnosed with cancer early in 2016 and he passed away on February 28th 2017, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Shortly after Shane passed the NGA wrote to the minister with responsibility for the OPW requesting a meeting to discuss the reinterment of the Invincibles. The minister’s reply did not grant a meeting instead it outlined a number of reasons why they believed that it should not happen… ”It is understood from contemporaneous accounts that after execution, the remains were buried in quicklime and this would render an exhumation and positive identification very difficult, if not impossible. Kilmainham Gaol is a National Monument and an iconic and much respected site in the context of the national independence struggle in particular. The fact that it is also a grave location adds a significant resonance to its penal and historical significance and there is a strong opposing view to the current campaign that believes that the grave should not be disturbed and the remains should be left within the confines of the Monument…”

We believed that the arguments put forward by the OPW were somewhat tenuous and far from insurmountable. In similar cases including the exhumation of Thomas Kent from Cork prison in 2015 and the ten IRA Volunteers from Mountjoy prison in 2001, evidence of quicklime had been found in their graves and full skeletal remains were found in all cases.

The NGA set up the Invincibles Reinterment Committee to build support for the campaign. Through contacts made by the late Dr Shane Kenna and later through social media we received the support of relatives of the five men to move forward with the campaign. The committee received a number of endorsements from public figures, historians and politicians. It was then decided to seek support from local authorities. Between 2019 and 2023 twenty eight councils called on the OPW to facilitate the exhumation of the Invincibles so that they could be reinterred at Glasnevin Cemetery in accordance with the wishes of their families. In addition to the councils, the campaign also has the support of 73 TD’s, 14 Senators, 30 MLA’s and 8 MP’s.

The Office of Public Works have also stated in their correspondence to the NGA and to local authorities that “…an exhumation and re-interral project would certainly not be undertaken unilaterally and would have to be considered and approved in the first instance as a policy matter, which is outside our remit.”

At the present time the NGA is compiling a dossier to be included with a submission that will be made via the Oireachtas online petitions system in advance of the Dáil reconvening in September. The petitions committee consists of TD’s and Senators and they will make a recommendation to government in due course.

The story of the Invincibles is a complex one and the exact number of members within that branch of Fenianism is difficult to determine. In addition to the five members executed and buried in Kilmainham some served lengthy prison terms, others went into exile never able to return home to Ireland.

Frank Byrne
Mary Byrne

The Invincible Fenians Frank and Mary Byrne were part of the Irish Land League and followers of Charles Stewart Parnell before becoming avid Fenians. They were eventually arrested and released, under suspicion of helping to plan the Phoenix Park murders. They then fled France and Ireland, respectively, to America, dying in exile in Rhode Island after living in New York. Frank was an Ancient Order of Hibernians member in the U.S. At a meeting (of Fenian supporters) in New York on 2 July 1883, he said, “I am not fastidious as to the methods by which the cause of liberty may be advanced. I do not say you should alone use dynamite, or the knife, or the rifle, or parliamentary agitation, but I hold no Irishman true who will not use all and each method as the opportunity presents itself.” 

The Fenian Memorial Committee of America (fenianmca.org) will unveil a commemorative plaque, honoring  the Byrnes at their burial plot (which is the same plot as the famous Catalpa rescued Fenian, James McNally Wilson) in Old Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Pawtucket, Rhode Island on September 30, 3023 @ 1 pm. For more information, contact FMCA at 401-688-2463 or fenianmca@gmail.com

Contributed by Aidan Lambert (Invincibles Reinternment Campaign) and George McLaughlin (FMCA).

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