(Not a) Review: The Irish Assassins

The Irish Assassins Julie Kavanagh book cover

The Irish Assassins, by Julie Kavanagh, is the fourth nonfiction book I’ve read about Victorian British history in as many weeks. I’m reading these books as research for my current writing project, which means I’m trying to catch multiple disciplines in my tbr pile.

With each book, I’m filling in knowledge-gaps about the period. I’d say that it feels like connecting puzzle pieces, except my understanding of these complex social issues is still so woefully shallow[1] that it feels more as though the puzzle is missing most of its pieces—maybe my dog swallowed them. He’s been known to do so.

This book focused on the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin, where militant Irish nationalists killed Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke. I don’t have Irish heritage, and I’ve only spent a few weeks in Ireland throughout my life, but elements of this history still felt personal. They reminded me of the religious and ethnic conflicts I observed as an outsider during my growing-up years. Cycles of hatred, destruction, retribution (and even, occasionally, forgiveness), are universal. You might say inevitable.

It’s remarkable how easily we hoodwink ourselves into thinking that extreme acts will further the causes we believe in. Really, the greatest threat to any cause seems to be a loss of sympathy among its supporters. That’s the reason I dislike stories like V for Vendetta. I get annoyed when friends of mine, many of whom come from sheltered parts of society, hold it up as an inspiring model of how to properly handle despotism. Even in a place like Ireland, where people have good reason to remember old scars, and where defiance against outside authoritarianism runs deep in the blood, the murder of a hated political figure can turn them from a villain back into a human, if not a martyr. Ditto to the blowing up of public buildings.

I think public opinion is more often reactionary than inspirational. You can keep your Batmans: give me the person whose neck Batman broke and whose family is struggling to pay the hospital bills. Then you’ll see societal change.

The opposite is also true. When the punishment of the Phoenix Park murderers became a sensationalized spectacle, it galvanized fresh sympathy for their cause. Donations poured in from Irish-Americans. Even famous figures like Victor Hugo, who had earlier declined to advocate for the Irish cause, now attempted to intervene on behalf of a man who killed a British informant.

Ireland and England came so close to striking agreements on home rule. It’s tempting to paint the people who sabotaged those agreements as morons or monsters. But the truth is, they were just regular old humans, choosing to act and react in regular old human ways.

This makes me reflect on the difference between justice and vengeance. How do you push for long-needed societal change—which will always be messy—without letting yourself become reactionary? I have goodhearted, compassionate friends who see people’s rights being stripped away in this country, and who now advocate for acts of destruction as genuine political discourse. On the other hand, I know people who are so terrified of change, so happy with the unjust status quo, that they label everyone who tries to make a difference as a terrorist.

It’s easy to gaze back on these events with 140 years’ worth of hindsight, and to claim an understanding of what went wrong. Heck, it’s easy to do that to people in our own time. Americans used to ask my parents why communities in Nigeria can’t simply forgive each other and end the cycles of violence. People in other countries sometimes look at the U.S.’s racial injustices and wonder why we all can’t just get along. But these days, if you ask an American on the right or the left why they don’t simply forgive those on the other side, you’ll get a blank-eyed stare or a political screed.

For the sake of our own causes, and of creating lasting change—however slowly it comes—we have to learn to take a long view. To stand in resolution, but not in vengeance.

That might sound like a simple answer, but it’s not.

It’s really, really not.


[1] Can you tell that I’ve reading lots of Victorian stuff? It’s not every day that I use “woefully” in a sentence.

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