'It happened in the Phoenix Park all in the month of May'

The political history of the Phoenix Park in Dublin. While the park hosts many of the symbols of power in Ireland - past and present - from the monument to the arch-reactionary Wellington, to the US-ambassador's residence and the Garda Headquarters, it has also seen its fair share of opposition.

I stared this piece intending it to be little more than an ad for this Maydays anarchist picnic in the Phoenix park (details follow) with perhaps a little bit of context thrown in. But suddenly I found myself carried away by the political geography of this park which was after all originally built as a Deer park for a discarded mistress of Charles II (hence the high wall). If you know even a little of that history the park becomes a different place and suddenly the events of Mayday 2004 fall into a greater context of political protest and the control of space.

One year ago, on Mayday 2004, the summit of the EU heads of state took place in Farmleigh House in the Pheonix Park. The entire park was filled with surveillance cameras, ringed with fences, draped with barbed wire, buzzed by helicopters, rigged with motion detectors and surrounded with riot police. In the end water cannons were deployed to keep a protestors out of the park

History is normally written by the winners and it is common to find each new generation of radicals having to rediscover the stories of those who went before them. Thus, it is not surprising that many of those who protested last year probably were unaware of the history of battles between radical movements and the state that the park played host to in the past.

While the park hosts many of the symbols of power in Ireland - past and present - from the monument to the arch-reactionary Wellington, to the US-ambassador's residence and the Garda Headquarters, it has also seen its fair share of opposition. The invincibles assasinated the British Secretary there in 1882, it was the site of many early 20th century trade union ralies and the magazine fort in the park was captured at the start of the 1916 rising and was raided again by the IRA in 1939. The phoenix park is, in many ways, a symbolic battleground for the soul of Ireland. In recent years radical movements in Ireland have re-energised Mayday in Dublin. This year, even without the pomp and grandeur of the EU heads of state, a series of radical events are planned to span the weekend. A festival of radical opposition that is once again bubbling to the surface. And once again the Phoenix Park is on the menu.

The Phoenix Park and Mayday - a Long History

Did you spend Mayday last year trying to get into the Phoenix Park only to discover it filled with surveillance cameras, ringed with fences, draped with barbed wire, buzzed by helicopters, rigged with motion detectors and surrounded with riot police? Maybe you even got a blast from a water cannon.

It wasn't just you; the working class communities that surround much of the park were also not only excluded from it but virtually locked down for 12 hours. Kids coming in and out of the estates were searched and families turned back by squads of riot cops yelling 'hold the line'. All so 25 rulers could eat without the distant sound of angry drums being carried over the park wall.

Reclaim the park

So this Mayday lets go back to the park and have ourselves a picnic free of all that hassle and madness.

This will be at least the fourth anarchist picnic held in the park. But the tradition of using the Phoenix Park for radical gatherings goes back to the Land League. At one point the government had tried to ban them meeting in the Park and Michael Davitt threatened to lead a march to pull down the gates if they were shut in the Land Leagues face. In fact you can even go back further if your like, the largest mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers happened in 1882 in the park near the present day papal cross. The debates that took place during and around these mobilisations were to form part of the basis of the United Irishmen and the radical democratic risings of 1798 and 1803.

In 1914 the Irish Trade Union Congress annual meeting was preceded by a huge rally of workers in the park - the bitter defeat of the lockout had just passed but this demonstrated that the unions were not yet beaten. The Irish Citizens Army attended protest meetings in the park in 1915 - with their guns. Even the idea of radicals using the Park to celebrate May Day is not new - at the start of the last century it was the frequent destination for Dublin workers out to mark May Day. In a 1915 James Connolly reported that soldiers had tried to stir up trouble with the trade union May Day marchers in the park.

Mayday has been a day of celebration of anarchist resistance since the 1860's. Both because it is a traditional day for workers of the land and factory to skive off and because it celebrates the lives of our comrades who were martyred in Chicago in 1887 after the police riot of May 1886. That riot was in response to the growing movement for the reduction of the working day to 8 hours which had seen the workers of Chicago come out on strike. Since then it has sometimes been a day of protest, sometimes a day of parties and surprisingly often a day of picnics. The left and union movement today seems to have been drained of the sense of fun it once held but events like RTS ensure that this traditions is also upheld. And the picnic in the park can form a useful hinge between the union march and 'Stand up for your Rights' action the day before and the Reclaim the Streets on the day after.

So this year we will be protesting on the 30th, picnicking on the 1st and partying on the 2nd. This Mayday come along and join us in the park. Bring a kite, a football or a frizbee. Bring something to eat and drink not just for yourself but that you can also share with others. Bring your kids or your parents or both.

Meet with reaction

We'll meet up at 1pm at one site of reaction in the park, the giant obelisk erected for the Duke of Wellington. This reminds us that the park has not only played a role in radical politics in Ireland but is also a home of reaction. Today it contains the Garda HQ, the Presidents palace, the US Ambassadors residence and the Papal Nuncios residence to name four. The Royal Irish Constabulary staged its final parade in Phoenix Park before disbanding.

A cartoon from the time of Wellington putting his sword on the side of repression
A cartoon from the time of Wellington putting his sword on the side of repression

The pen and the sword
"The cut depicts a set of scales with a quill pen in the left-side dish clearly outweighing ... representations of a repressive legal apparatus. ...The suggestion is ... a free press has been able to keep a repressive government in check.

Further to the right, however, stands the figure of ... in the process of adding his sword (i.e. military force) to the legal documents in the right-side dish of the scales. The sword has not yet landed, and it thus remains to be seen whether or not the pen will continue to outweigh the combined force of legal and military repression."

Wellington was not only a misanthrope and an anti-Catholic bigot but also part of the suppression of the radical workers movement in Britain. These movement's demands included the reduction of the working day to 10 hours. This is a curious link through history with the anarchists of Chicago who were executed for leading the struggle for the 8 hour day but the park contains many curious links some more of which I will mention here.

Wellington was brought into the cabinet in 1815 to help suppress the wave of radical protests that had broken out at the end of the Napolonic wars. August 1819 saw the Peterloo massacre in Manchester when a mass demonstration of around 200,000 which included "bands and a series of embroidered banners carried by friendly societies and fledgling unions" was attacked by the cavalry leaving 11 dead and 500 injured. Some 10 years later when Wellington visited Manchester his carriage was stoned by Manchester workers because of his role in the Peterloo massacre. The Iron Duke - so called because he had bars put on all the windows of his house - was Irish, although he didn't like to advertise that fact.



 The platform at Peterloo - note the 'Caps of Liberty' also used in Ireland in 1798
The platform at Peterloo - note the 'Caps of Liberty' also used in Ireland in 1798

Peterloo set off a wave of protests across Britain, which culminated in the 1820 rising in Scotland. "Ordinary people from all over an increasingly industrial Scotland had been inspired to rise and overthrow the state in order to secure their rights and better working conditions." This included on April 3rd what is probably one of the first general strikes in history as "people from many different trades, but especially weaving, stopped work. They were not only refusing to work, but were in many cases preparing for war. Reports flooded in of groups of men engaged in military drills, and making weapons such as pikes from any material that could be obtained." Something to remember for all of us planning to go with Dissent to Scotland this summer to protest the G8 - it didn't start in Seattle - it won't end in Gleneagles.

A commemorative jug

A commemorative jug

Meet with rebellion

We'll leave the Wellington monument at 1.30 to head for the area behind the magazine fort. This is a nice quiet bit of the park with plenty of room for running around - if you know where it is you could head straight there but it would be nice to go across country as a group from the Wellington monument. You can also get there by bike or car if your mobility is limited.

The magazine fort was built in 1735. Jonathan Swift wrote that:

"Now's here's a proof of Irish sense
Here Irish wit is seen
When nothing's left that's worth defence,
We build a Magazine."

This bit of the park also has quite a radical history as attempts to storm the magazine fort formed part of the plan of many republican insurrections. It's isolated position in the park made it quite vulnerable and soon after the IRA had managed to get in and get a few lorry loads of guns out in 1939 it was abandoned. Liam Brady described that raid in his unpublished biography 'A Libertarian in the Thirties'.

Don't get too excited by the title - he is referring to have lived in the Liberties rather than to having been an anarchist in the 1930's! But there is another odd link here because Liam Brady was the grand nephew of Joe Brady, one of the Invincibles who was hanged in 1882 for his part in the Phoenix Park assassinations

It happened in the Phoenix Park all in the month of May,
Lord Cavendish and Burke came out for to see the polo play.
James Carey gave the signal and his handkerchief he waved,
Then he gave full information against our Fenian blades.

The Invincibles were a working class republican group close to the Fenians who stabbed to death the British secretary and also the under-secretary for Ireland somewhere along the road opposite the Aras. In Europe and the USA 1882 was part of the 'propaganda by deed' period which parts of the anarchist movement had entered after the suppression of the Paris commune when some 30,000 communards were executed. Propaganda by deed consisted of assassinations of members of the ruling class; in particular those associated with oppression.

Press reports at the time often referred to the Invincibles as anarchists and Engels even called the Invincibles 'Bakunists'. But there is no evidence of any links with anarchism either in Ireland or abroad. In London however the short-lived German anarchist paper Freiheit (worker) was shut down as a consequence of an article "applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882". The Invincibles had formed of ex Fenian/IRB men in 1881 in the aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Land League and with the objective of "removing all the principal tyrants from the country".

Meet with our history

This and other references to the Invincibles has left me with a lasting curiosity about them. I've spent some time opposite the Aras looking for the possible site of the assassination. We know that as late as 1938 it was remembered and even marked out by some working class Dubliners because of another of the odd links that crop up in connection with the Park.

In 1938 James T. Farrell came to Dublin to visit Jim Larkin. He relates that while there Larkin "asked me if I wanted to see the monument to the Invincibles ... I imagined that I was going to see a statue, but this did seem passingly curious. The idea that there would be a monument commemorating the Invincibles in Dublin didn't make sense. We stopped in Phoenix Park, just opposite the Archbishop's palace. ... We got out. Jim walked along a path, looking down at the grass. I was bewildered. Jim became nervous, and he stared on the ground with some concern. Then he pointed. There it was. I saw a little hole where grass had been torn up. A cross had been scratched in the earth with a stick. I gathered that many Dubliners did not know of this act commemorating the Invincibles. Jim's boys always went out to Phoenix Park, and marked this cross in the earth. No matter how often grass was planted over it, it was torn up. The cross was marked in the earth."

I only found this account today - but I do remember when looking for the site coming across a cross scratched in the grass on the left hand side of the road. This evening perhaps I'll talk a walk up there to see if someone is really still carrying on that tradition.

I should probably also ask my mother. Probably part of my interest in the Park comes from spending a lot of summer days there as a kid visiting my grandparents. They lived in Kirwan street but as a child she had lived in Neill st which is very close to the North Circular entrance to the park and so she spent a lot of time there. History gets forgotten if we don't retell it. [ Well she didn't know about the cross but she did say that a distant relative was meant to have been a maid in the Viceregal lodge at the time and was said to have come across the scene just after the murder. That side of her family later ended up in Liverpool - and there was more to tell there. ]

Whatever the exact site the assassinations took place less that a kilometre as the crow flies from the magazine fort. Blowing up the entire fort was also supposed to be the signal for the start of the 1916 rising. If the main magazine had gone up the resulting explosion should have been heard all over Dublin. But although the fort was captured around noon on Easter Monday 1916 by volunteers Patrick Daly and Garry Holohan they were. "Unable to locate the key to the main store, the men were able only to set off a small charge with a cache of gelignite which did not make a sound to be heard all over Dublin as the rebels had planned."

You can see why the state decided it was probably better to abandon the fort, today the dry moat is full of brambles and the gates are long padlocked shut. It's a quiet spot where you can easily believe you are deep in the country side rather than a short walk from Park Gate Street.

Meet with each other

So this Mayday lets return to the Park and celebrate resistance and struggle from Chicago to Dublin. And lets be at the trade union march the day before and the Reclaim the Streets the day after.

May weekend events in Dublin

* May Day Demonstration - Solidarity with Migrant Workers
This years May Day trade union demonstration will take place on Saturday April 30th meeting at 2.30 at the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square. The demo will march to Liberty Hall and is on the theme of solidarity with migrant workers. The march has been called by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions

Join The Get Up Stand Up Bloc And Help Organise The Unorganised
This Mayday weekend, the Get Up Stand Up Campaign will be organizing a block on the Trades Council March In Dublin. After the march we will be returning to the roots of Mayday and parading through the city to distribute leaflets on basic workers' rights to people working in casualised labour. Join us in building the labour movement.

Anarchist 1st of May picnic in Phoenix Park
This Mayday let us go back to the park and have ourselves a picnic free of all the state imposed hassle and madness of last year. This will be (at least) the fourth anarchist picnic held in the park. Meet up at the Wellington Monument at 1pm

Reclaim The Streets
On Monday, May 2nd, starting from the Spike on O'Connell Street at 1.30pm, Reclaim The Streets and Dissent! Ireland, along with Critical Mass will be holding a free street party to help highlight the effects that the G8 leaders have on the world, and to help people mobolise to take action and travel to this years G8 Summit at Gleneagles, Scotland on July 6th.

More information
The anarchist origins of Mayday in Chicago -

The Peterloo massacre
Original texts reporting on Peterloo

The 1820 revolt in Scotland

Liam Brady and 1939 raid on the magazine fort

The Invincibles
Larkin and the Invincible monument

History of the park
About the park today
A kids game based in the park

First published on indymedia.ie, May 2005


Liam and Joe Brady

Can you give me any useful links to Liam Brady? Joe is (was) a relative of mine on my grandmothers side but I've never heard them speak of a Liam Brady. Any help you could possibly give would be greatly welcomed and appreciated. my E-Mail is vonryanphonograph@hotmail.com.

2012 note

 The anarchist picnic mentioned in the text as the original reason for writing this piece saw a dozen of us being carefully watched over by a van load of cops, a car of branch men and two mounted cops as we ate at the entrance to the Magazine fort. To this day I wonder what on earth they thought we were 'really' up to.

If your on Facebook you can see my photo album of the park which includes many of the areas mentioned and a little more history. BTW if you don't know me fell free to subscribe to my FB feed, 90% of what I post in terms of photos, links and comments is public anyway.  My friend list has got out of hand (1100+) so I tend to only accept friends requests from people I know IRL at least vaguly.


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