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Frank Byrne

 John Walsh  Mary Ann Byrne
The Paris-based Irish revolutionaries Eugene Davis and the Casey Brothers were involved in the intriguing case of Frank Byrne (Dublin, 1848Providence, Rhode Island, 1894), who was secretary of the Parnellite National Land League of Great Britain and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
Byrne was implicated in the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Under Secretary Thomas Henry Burke in the Phoenix Park murders of May 1882, carried out by a group of subversives connected to the IRB called the ‘Invincibles’. Along with helping ensure the conviction of a number of his accomplices and the execution of five of them (including that of the godfather of his two-month-old son), police informant James Carey claimed that Frank Byrne was the main organiser of the Phoenix Park assassinations and that his wife carried over from England the knives used in them. Carey also hinted that Patrick Egan, treasurer of the Land League, supplied the money needed for the operation.


Byrne escaped to France in mid-February 1883. With British undercover agents hot on their heels, Byrne and John Walsh (Milford, Co. Cork, c. 1835—Rochester, state of New York, 1894), another IRB man and Land League organizer, stayed briefly in Paris at the Hotel Normandy at 7, rue de l’Echelle (1st arrondissement). Coincidentally (or not?), Charles Stewart Parnell had previously stayed in the same hotel and was to travel to Paris at the height of l’affaire Byrne in March 1883). However, by the time the British authorities had issued an international mandate for his arrest, Byrne had left Paris for Cannes, where he met his wife, Mary Anne, who had been briefly detained by the French police for “carrying weapons in/to Dublin”.


 Rue Hyacinthe
Why did the Byrnes go to Cannes? Some accounts suggest that Byrne went there to file reports for London press agencies on the British prime minister, William Gladstone, who was staying in Cannes at the time. But according to Byrne himself, cited in French police reports, he simply went down to the French Riviera to pick up his wife, who was there for health reasons. On a more sinister note, some newspapers linked the Byrnes’ presence with plans for an assassination attempt on Gladstone. Travelling back in Paris, the Byrnes booked into the Hôtel de Londres et de Milan in rue St. Hyacinthe (1st arrondissement), but didn’t stay long there because of oppressive police surveillance. But the Byrnes, along with John Walsh, did not move far: in fact, they moved just a few hundred metres away, to the Hotel Bacqué at 338, rue St. Honoré (1st arrondissement, address no longer exists), where Eugene Davis was staying.


In between some serious conspiring, the small group of Irish revolutionaries formed by Walsh, Davis and Byrne were joined by one or other of the Casey brothers to wine and dine in a number of establishments. The group was frequently spotted carousing in cafes and restaurants the rue du Bac (6th arrondissement), the same street where one of the Casey brothers lived (at no. 93). Among other prominent Irish Republican Brotherhood in Paris at this time that Byrne most likely met were John O’Leary and James Stephens.


 Order for Frank Byrne's release from police custody in Paris
On February 27, 1883, the French police moved in and arrested Byrne in his hotel room on foot of the arrest mandate issued by the British. But Byrne was to escape the clutches of the British, not least because the latter could not provide irrefutable evidence of Byrne’s involvement in the assassinations. In addition, Carey was unable to recognise Mrs. Byrne, the alleged supplier of the assassination weapons, in a police line-up, while Frank Byrne himself had a perfect alibi in the form of a telegram he sent from London on the day in question. Even though there were heavy suspicions as to the involvement of the Byrnes and Walsh in the murders, French justice finally decided that “ils n’ont pas été le bras qui a trempé le couteau dans le sang de Lord Cavendish et de Thomas Burke.”


Beside the lack of concrete evidence against him, undoubtedly Byrne owed his release in large part to the furious political debate his case stirred up in France. An avalanche of protest from French newspapers and politicians greeted attempts to arrest a fellow “republican” from Ireland and hand him over to la perfide Albion. Davis and the Casey’s did their bit to sway French opinion, writing long letters to the French press and contacting that old secular saint of liberal causes, Victor Hugo, as well as the left-wing populist Henri Rochefort (an acquaintance of ‘General’ James Dyer MacAdaras and Charles Stewart Parnell).


 L'Intransigeant takes up Byrne's cause
Byrne afterwards claimed that his service as a volunteer in an Irish company in the French army during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 was responsible for his favourable treatment in France. In January 1871 he had been wounded in the battle for Montbéliard while fighting under General Bourbaki in the Army of the East, he asserted. Indeed, M.W. Kirwan, who had commanded the Irish company during the War, makes a couple of fleeting references to Byrne in his book ‘La compagnie irlandaise—reminiscences of the Franco-Prussian War’, published in 1873. But, no doubt, the IRB’s French political contacts paid dividends in the Byrne case—even though, as Owen McGee writes, “the French Left never had any sincere interest in Ireland.”  What a relief.


A week after his release, Byrne was picked up again briefly by the police in Le Havre as he awaited to embark a ship bound for New York together with his wife and John Walsh (who had participated in the Catalpa rescue of John Devoy from a penal colony in western Australia in 1876). While in Le Havre, Walsh and the Byrnes also avoided the clutches of the British one final time when they twigged that a “Polish count” who invited them on a yacht trip around the harbour was actually a British secret service agent.


In spite of his faits d’armes, Byrne made little impression on the fractured Fenian movement in America. Forgotten and reduced to selling cigars to earn a living, he died in Providence, Rhode Island in February 1894. Later, an imposing monument in honour of Byrne's contribution to the Irish cause was erected in Old St. Mary's Cemetery in Pawtucket. His death was preceded by that of John Walsh who, according to the New York Times, “died of paresis, destitute and apparently friendless” in a hospital in Rochester, state of New York, in 1894.




Select Bibliography

Archives de la Prefecture de la Police de Paris, Carton BA 924, Frank Byrne


The Phoenix Park Murders (1968)

Tom Corfe 


The Irish National Invincibles and their times (1894)

Patrick Tynan


La Compagnie IrlandaiseReminiscences of the Franco-Prussian War (1873)

M.W. Kirwan


“The IRBThe Irish Republican Brotherhood from the Land League to Sinn Fein” (2005)

Owen McGee


“The Irish Conspirators”, New York Times, March 9, 1883


“Frank Byrne, Land Leaguer, Dead”, New York Times, Feb. 18, 1894


“The Fate of an Infamous Informer”, History Ireland, vol. 9, issue 2 (Summer 2001)