In October 1881, the chief commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, George Talbot, received an intelligence report that Patrick Egan was in town.
“His business most important. . . . Received a very large sum of money from America according to some new arrangement. . . . I am assured that the money alleged to have been brought by Egan is altogether independent of the weekly receipts and it is supposed to be over £5.000 [about $600,000 today].”
Talbot’s source was almost certainly Superintendent Mallon, who had learned from a reliable informer in November 1880 of the emergence of a secret society calling itself the Mooney Volunteers, after Thomas Mooney, the Irish World’s transatlantic columnist, who offered cash rewards for killing landlords, published bomb-making instructions, and was described by Patrick Ford as perhaps the most intense Irishman who ever lived. Mallon had reported that the society’s members were “a set of assassins and desperadoes” and would be armed—some with handguns, daggers, and bayonets, and some with dynamite.
Now, in the fall of 1881, Mallon was warning of a plan to murder “persons in high places”—the prime minister, home secretary, and chief secretary at the top of the list. He told Talbot that the Land League was not implicated, although “they could not control the fanatics who contemplate such things [and] would accept them as inevitable and for the good of their cause.”
Talbot passed Mallon’s report on to Forster, and in a postscript he added:
“I have received further confirmation of the truth of this statement. There is no longer any [Land League] Executive; all is chaos; no control. . . . As to the atrocious crimes in contemplation, it will be observed they are no longer under any control of the League. They are in the hands of unscrupulous miscreants, whose movements it is not only necessary to watch, but to endeavor to become acquainted with their intentions. To effect this, I have spared no effort, and taken all the precautions at my disposal.”
What neither Mallon nor Talbot knew at this point was that key Land Leaguers were very much involved. An initial gathering in London in October was attended by Patrick Egan and two advanced nationalist MPs, John Barry and Joseph Biggar (the inventor of the obstruction strategy), who met emissaries from America to discuss the formation of a murder society. “This was the first occasion that such a proposition was made,” reported Mallon. “And the first occasion, moreover, that the Supreme Council party proposed an assassination of any kind.”
The Supreme Council was the governing body of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret revolutionary society, which, with its Masonic-style rituals, clan lodges, passwords, and alphabet ciphers, was virtually impossible for an outsider to infiltrate. The whereabouts of conventions were communicated only at the last moment; the insiders never attached signatures to any document, instead using a common seal. Mallon, nevertheless, had managed to ascertain Supreme Council names from top to bottom, including that of Patrick Egan, whom he said was by far the most effective organizer.
Highly intelligent, with shrewd administrative and executive abilities combined with great personal charm, Egan had been nominated three times to enter Parliament but had chosen not to run because he refused to swear allegiance to what he considered a foreign power. Although active in the ranks of the IRB—a founder of the amnesty movement established for the release of Irish political prisoners—he had no ambition to be a political star and seldom made speeches, preferring to remain a power behind the scenes. One Irish MP described him as “the ablest strategist of the whole campaign, and perhaps, except Davitt, the most resolute and invincible spirit amongst them all.”
A Home Rule supporter, Egan had been forced to relinquish his role as Supreme Council treasurer by its chairman, Charles Kickham, an implacable idealist with literary leanings, who believed that constitutionalism would contaminate the group’s revolutionary creed. Egan, however, was convinced that IRB support for Home Rule was crucial and continued to attend meetings, managing to straddle both open and insurgent movements. “I am a Land Leaguer and something else when the opportunity presents itself,” he declared. He was not alone. Thomas Brennan, secretary of the Land League, was also general secretary of the Supreme Council; and John Walsh was the north of England’s Land League organizer as well as Supreme Council representative. All three were part of an inner circle of IRB rebels and influential Land Leaguers who formed the directorate of the new assassination society: the Irish National Invincibles.
It was John Walsh, a powerfully built veteran of the Fenian cause, who was sent to Dublin to recruit men for action. His first call was to a Dorset Street pub owned by an extremist named James Mullett. “Mr. Walsh said he had a little mission for me,” Mullett recalled. “The Land League had determined to carry out the No Rent manifesto with a vengeance and to establish a new society to wipe out tyrants and harass the Government by the use of dynamite on public buildings. I said that was very dangerous ground and told him that Mr. Kickham would not have anything to do with it. He said that Kickham was an old fogey and too fond of poetry.” Mullett, who shared Kickham’s opposition to Home Rule, was uneasy about abandoning his principles, but after Walsh reassured him that the project had Egan’s support, he agreed to allow parcels to be left at his house and to relay important messages.
A short while afterward, Mullett heard that Patrick Sheridan wanted to see him. Sheridan was someone else whose affiliation to the Land League had overlapped with that of the Supreme Council, until Kickham deposed him for distributing IRB rifles for Land War agitation. The proprietor of a small hotel in the West of Ireland, Sheridan had been heavily involved in arms importation, but his recent arrest and internment in Kilmainham was because he was suspected of organizing intimidation to prevent payment of rent. Released on parole in October, as his alcoholic wife was gravely ill, he had fled to Paris to join Egan and had now covertly returned to Ireland with dispatches for the Invincibles.
When Mullett went to the Midland Hotel to meet Sheridan, he found him in the guise of a priest. “Father Murphy” said that he was sorry to hear he was holding to “Mr. Kickham’s old-fashioned notions of sunburstry and honourable business,” which was all humbug, and that it was imperative to wipe out tyrants such as “Buckshot” [Forster] and the big landlords. The Land League had devoted £10,000 (over $1 million today) for the purpose, Sheridan said, and there would be generous compensation for anyone carrying out Invincibles orders.
This was a major departure from the IRB, whose members subscribed what they could afford—often no more than a few pence a week—as the Invincibles would actually be given a fee. A few days later, Sheridan came to Dorset Street, where he was introduced to Mullett’s wife as “a clergyman from the country,” telling the publican that he hoped he would see fit to join them. Sheridan pulled out a little parcel from his pocket containing fifty gold sovereigns. And then he asked Mullett to go and fetch James Carey.
A thickset, bearded, middle-aged Dubliner, James Carey gave every impression of being an exemplary citizen. A devout Catholic and doting family man, he was a successful building contractor who had come to be recognized as the spokesman for his trade. His father and brother were bricklayers, but he was self-educated, with a canny flair for business and ambitious plans for his future. A committed nationalist from the age of sixteen, Carey had joined the IRB in 1861. “My object was to assist in separating Ireland from England,” he said. “It was not from personal ambition. It was not to make money; it was for the good of Ireland.”
In March 1877, Carey had resigned from his post as IRB treasurer and rented rooms in Peter Street for the purpose of drilling recruits—fifty to sixty men who could be called on for insurgent action. A founding member of the Mooney Volunteers, Carey had a violent disposition, once threatening the life of a Supreme Council official who refused to reveal the whereabouts of a meeting. He was responsible for arranging the execution of anyone found to be a traitor to the IRB, and he was said to be guilty of the cold-blooded murder of a colleague who refused to join it.
Superintendent Mallon had been told of the circumstances. Carey and several co-extremists had met the young man, a bricklayer named Behan, on his return from an Easter weekend with his family in the country and tried hard to enlist him for extremist activities. Having recently taken Communion in his native church—“The young fellow’s religion was very fast upon him,” as Mallon put it—he refused to get involved. Carey must have thought that he had given away too much, and as the two walked side by side along the quay toward Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge, he let the others go ahead, drew a stonemason’s hammer from his pocket, struck Behan with a fatal blow on the temple, and threw him into the Liffey. Mallon later found out that it was Carey who reported the youth’s absence to the police, and when his floating corpse was recovered, Carey managed to get himself appointed foreman of the coroner’s jury investigating the case. A verdict of drowning was returned, the wound said to have been caused after death by collision with a passing boat. “Facts came to my knowledge that made me suspect he had been personally responsible,” said Mallon. “But I only had an informer’s evidence and we could not obtain corroboration.”
In May 1881, Carey left the building firm that had employed him for eight years and started up on his own—a move that caused some surprise. “It could not come by his honest day’s work,” remarked a Fenian acquaintance, Patrick Delaney, who soon learned from the boastful Carey that his new venture had been funded by Patrick Egan with Land League money. That was not all. Egan had also undertaken to back Carey as a nationalist candidate for Dublin’s town council. “Pat Egan urged him on, and had sent letters from Paris that he would pay all expenses,” Delaney said—a claim confirmed by a note to Carey dated November 9, 1881.
Normandy Hotel, rue de l’Echelle
My dear James,
I have only to say that there is no one of my acquaintances whom I would sooner see in any position in which it were desirable that sterling worth and true Nationalism should be represented than yourself. . . . Should you be selected I will send £30 towards the expense of the contest. . . .
Don’t say much in reply, as my letters are liable to be opened, and don’t give your address or name in your letter, only your initial “J.”
Egan’s reason for courting Carey, Delaney declared, was because he was determined that an Invincible should become lord mayor of Dublin. John Walsh called on Carey later that month and, appealing to his sense of self-importance, said that his name was one of four submitted to be the Dublin leaders of a society that would “make history.” After explaining its purpose, asking Carey’s opinion of possible members, and finding out whether he was willing to join—“I said I was”—Walsh proceeded to administer an arcane initiation ritual.
Any new candidate to the IRB was subjected to an elaborate induction ceremony and minutely cross-examined before being blindfolded and led by guardians into the president’s lodge. There he was addressed by their leader, testified to his belief in the Deity, and finally took the brotherhood oath. The Invincibles’ version, by contrast, was accelerated and secular: instead of swearing on the Bible (which, as Mallon remarked, “might have aroused their consciences”), the recruit was instructed to hold a knife and recite from a written text. “It was an ordinary penknife,” said Carey. “And I held it in my right hand, [Walsh] holding it in his right hand at the same time. I read the words myself: ‘That I, of my own free will and without mental reservation whatsoever, will obey all orders transmitted to me by the Irish Invincibles, nor to seek nor to ask more than what is necessary in carrying out such orders, violation of which shall be death.’ There were a great deal more words than that, but I forget them. I destroyed that paper.”
A few days later, Walsh returned to Carey’s house accompanied by James Mullett and two other leading Fenians, whom he said had been chosen to head the Invincibles’ Dublin directory. Edward McCaffrey was an old-timer who had served six months in jail for his activities; Daniel Curley, a romantically handsome thirty-two-year-old carpenter, had given over his youth to his country, importing rifles for the Supreme Council and becoming a “center” (commander) of the city’s advanced nationalists. Mullett was selected by the men as their chairman and given charge of another fifty gold sovereigns—further proof of the promised resources. “I never saw anything at all like that coming into the [IRB] organization,” exclaimed Carey. “We were always in debt. . . . Mullett, Curley and I often talked among ourselves as to whence the money came. I expressed the opinion that it came from America; some of the others said, ‘Perhaps we are getting some of this from the Land League.’”