Breaking the silence on the Manchester Martyrs

On this day in 1867, the Manchester Martyrs were executed. Local historian Joseph O’Neill discusses his book about the men and their legacy


As a seven-year-old boy in the 1950s, Joseph O’Neill remembers his hair standing on end as he stood with his father and other members of Manchester’s Irish community for a minute’s silence on the spot where the Manchester Martyrs were executed to commemorate their sacrifice almost a century beforehand.

O’Neill has now broken that silence, drawing on his skills as a former history teacher and successful author to relate in gripping fashion and riveting detail the dramatic story of how Manchester for a time became the epicentre of resistance to British rule in Ireland.

The Manchester Martyrs were William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien, all born in Ireland but living in Manchester and active Fenians. In 1867, after a most dubious trial, they were executed for their part in a successful ambush to free two Fenian leaders from a prison van in which a policeman was shot dead.

Their deaths made them martyrs but the courage and eloquence of their speeches from the dock after being condemned to death established them as heroes, their cry of “God save Ireland” inspiring TD Sullivan to write a rebel song of that name which became for more than 50 years Ireland’s unofficial national anthem.

But over time memories fade, even the most tightly-knit communities scatter and contemporary events such as the Troubles cast their shadow over history. O’Neill’s book also traces the story of how the Manchester Martyrs have been commemorated since their deaths, how their memory has been in turn cherished, neglected, fought over, even perhaps exploited.

“There is far more to the story than its political dimensions,” the author rightly states in his introduction. “Certainly it is a story about political idealism and nationalistic fervour. But it is also about personal bravery, faith and how a group of men prepared themselves to suffer with dignity a public death before a baying crowd eager for any sign of fear.

“It is about the intrigues of a secret, oath-bound revolutionary conspiracy. It is about one of the most infamous court cases of the nineteenth century. It is about injustice. It is about the fraught relations between England and Ireland. It is about the Irish in England and particularly in the damp, quixotic city of Manchester which has, in equal measure, welcomed us and resented our presence.”

O’Neill is no polemicist – he is scrupulous in his use of sources and measured in his tone – but the story he tells is no less dramatic for that. “This book is not an academic tome, nor is it a work of fiction,” he explains. “I have sought to construct a narrative which captures the drama inherent in the events while at all times remaining true to the facts.”

His achievement surpasses expectations, applying a writer’s imagination to the historian’s meticulous research, producing something rare and true and graceful, a flight of fancy borne up by facts.

For example, he tells how masons and joiners built the scaffold at New Bailey prison in Salford on Saturday, November 2nd, to hang 60ft above the prison wall, but adds the inspired detail. “Maddeningly Allen, himself a joiner, caught a whiff of white pine on the air and moved to the window, filling his lungs, half expecting to find blond curls of timber shavings on the sill.”

His skilful recreation of crime and punishment from another century recalls Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The book starts with a gruesomely botched execution by an incompetent 67-year-old hangman, Calcraft. One biographer said: “At Manchester ... he is said to have shown more signs of weakness than any man put to death.” The drop having failed to kill Larkin, Calcraft jumped on his back to finish the job and only the intervention of prison chaplain Fr Gadd spared Allen the same fate.

The book then tracks back to establish the historical context, first the rise of the Fenian movement among the Irish worldwide, embittered by famine and exile, then how the Irish came to settle in Manchester – by 1861 one-fifth of the population was Irish – and finally how the two strands became entwined.

“The ideals of Fenianism were particularly attractive to emigrants. They tended to regard leaving Ireland not as an opportunity to improve themselves economically and socially, but as a curse, inflicted on them by British misrule and repression.”

The capture of Irish-American Fenian leaders Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy is recounted, then the plot to free them and its execution.

As O’Neill explains: “Apart from its practical benefits, a prison breakout had enormous psychological and symbolic importance. Nothing provided a greater boost to morale than defying the British government in the very seat and symbol of its power.”

The ambush at the bridge on Hyde Road approaching Belle Vue prison is described in great detail. Sgt Charles Brett was shot dead through the door of the prison van. It is unclear who fired the shot, or whether Brett was targeted or the unfortunate victim of a shot intended to blow off the lock, the view of Constable Shaw, a police witness. What is certain is that the Fenian leaders were not only freed but also spirited out of the country to New York, despite a £300 reward for their capture, about six times the average annual salary. Among those who helped Kelly escape were a Dr Kelly of Oxford Road and a Fr Tracy, evidence that Fenian sympathies were not just the preserve of the “low Irish” as the English press depicted the working-class Irish.

Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were among dozens of Irish arrested and charged. Their chances of a fair trial were slim, given the mood of panic and retribution among the public, whipped up by a hostile press, and a government vulnerable to accusations that it had been too easy on recent Irish insurrectionists.

Cllr Thompson warned against trying the case in “hot haste and in hot blood” but it went ahead in Manchester itself, within weeks of the killing, with the accused manacled in the dock, which led one defence lawyer to quit the case in protest. There was time neither for passions to cool nor for a proper defence to be prepared.

The evidence was contradictory, many witnesses of low character, suspects were identified not in ID parades but sitting in cuffs and manacles in police custody. As the defence lawyer Roberts averred, “their intention was never to commit murder. They assembled not to rescue ordinary criminals, but to rescue two men not convicted, but accused of, a political crime. Their crime too is political.”

Five were sentenced to death, but two were reprieved two days before their execution. Thomas Maguire, a serving Marine, was so clearly innocent that court reporters petitioned and secured his release, this despite trial judge Justice Mellor declaring “no person who has witness these proceedings can doubt the propriety of the verdict”. Edward Condon, a US citizen and Civil War veteran, had his sentence commuted after the US ambassador intervened but O’Brien, likewise a US citizen, was not so lucky, having used up his credit after a previous Fenian conviction.

Their deaths were a catalyst, prefiguring the Easter Rising in that their brutal execution or judicial murder brought many critics into the nationalist fold. Historian Robert Kee wrote: “Men who had resisted with their whole strength the Fenian movement – priests who denounced it from the altar – have shed hot and bitter tears over this deed of blood.”

Friedrich Engels, Marx’s collaborator, said they had: “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing the Fenians had lacked were martyrs. They have been provided with these.”

The first commemoration was held the day after the executions, attended by 10,000. A week later, 15,000 marched to the prison. Others marched in Limerick, Cork, Dublin, Birmingham and London. But a botched rescue bid of another Fenian held in Clerkenwell Prison killed 12 innocent Londoners in an explosion and the political momentum and moral high ground were also destroyed.

A memorial was erected in St Joseph’s Cemetery in Moston, unveiled by Fenian founder James Stephens and Maud Gonne. Over time, commemorations were led by organisations as diverse as the Land League, the Gaelic League and the Anti-Partition League. In 1949 Eamon de Valera was guest speaker. In 1967, the Connolly Association planned to erect a sculpture on the execution site, soon to be the site of the Manchester Evening News, but planning permission was refused. In 1987, however, Manchester City Council erected a plaque at the arch where Deasy and Kelly were rescued.

The Troubles and the IRA campaign saw the commemoration become associated with militant republicanism and be targeted by right-wing extremists. The monument was vandalised and the hierarchy banned the marchers from the cemetery. Today, the commemoration takes the form of Mass in Irish in the cemetery chapel and a procession to the monument where a decade of the Rosary is said for the repose of their souls.

What, asks the author, is the legacy of the Martyrs? “It is one of the many paradoxes of Irish politics that the memory of the men of violence is most widely invoked when they are safely in their graves and no one is following their example. The Manchester Martyrs, however, occupy a unique position in the nationalist pantheon in that they were the victims of violence, as much as its purveyors ... If the story of the Manchester Martyrs tells us anything, it speaks of the transformative power of suffering.”

The Manchester Martyrs is published by Mercier Press, priced €13.99.

A version of this interview was first published in The Irish Post.

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