(Reading time text: 7 minutes)
The 23rd November is the anniversary of the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs by the English State in 1867 in front of Belle Vue Gaol, Salford1, Manchester. The “noble-hearted three” were Phillip Allen, William Larkin and Michael O’Brien. The Wikipedia page on the Manchester Martyrs says they were hanged for the murder of Constable Brett but this is completely incorrect. Although it was indeed the verdict, no murder occurred and, it is doubtful if even a verdict of manslaughter would have been correct.
On the 18th December of that year, Colonel Thomas J. Kelly and Captain Deasy, Fenian Brotherhood officers and Union Army veterans of the American Civil War, who had been arrested in England, were being transported in a horse-drawn prison van from the courthouse to Belle Vue Gaol. Manchester was an industrial town with a large working class population, of which at least a 10% of the population was of Irish origin. A large group of Fenians ambushed the prison van at a place since called locally “Fenian Arch”, as a railway line ran overhead. The Irish rescue party drove off the 12-man mounted police escort but failed to break open the van door with hatchets and crowbars and one of them fired a pistol shot at the lock.
It was unfortunate that just at that moment, Constable Charles Brett was peering through the keyhole – the bullet entered his brain through his eye and killed him. The lock was not broken and keys were still inside with the dead policeman but a female prisoner recovered them from his body and passed them out to the rescue party through a grille.
Kelly and Deasy were spirited away. A reward of £300 (£24,000 as of 2015, according to Wikipedia) was offered for information leading to their recapture but was never paid. Friedrich Engels, communist revolutionary lived in Manchester at the time with his common-law Irish patriot wife, Mary Burns and some say they were involved in hiding the fugitives (the Fenian Brotherhood had been welcomed by Marx and Engels into the First International Workingmen’s Association). Kelly and Deasy were never recaptured, getting back eventually to the USA.
A WAVE OF ANTI-IRISH HYSTERIA
But a huge wave of British State repression descended upon the working class areas of Manchester, in particular upon “Little Ireland” and scores of people were arrested. The British media named the events the “Manchester outrages”.
Twenty-six were sent for trial in a wave of anti-Irish hysteria and and eventually five were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. As noted earlier, without any intention to kill the officer, there should not have been even a charge of murder, never mind a conviction. Thomas O’Meagher Condon and Thomas Maguire had their sentences overturned; the first through the offices of the USA (of which he was a citizen) and the second was a Royal Marine and had a cast-iron alibi, as they say and the witnesses against him were exposed in lies. No convincing evidence was ever produced against the remaining three, Allen, Larkin and O’Brien and of those, only one had probably even been present at the rescue. But they hanged them all the same.
When their sentences were passed down by the judge, they cried “God Save Ireland!” and it was that which inspired TD Sullivan, an Irish constitutional nationalist politician, to write the lyrics to the ballad, known and sung to this day. TD Sullivan remarked that within a month of the executions, the song could be heard performed in pubs in England and Ireland, a remarkable feat for a time without radio, not to speak of mobile phones and the Internet! (Listen to Youtube video of the song being performed by the Dubliners ballad group).
Commemorations of the Manchester Martyrs became part of the events on the Irish Republican and Nationalist calendars and formed part of the tradition and history that helped form subsequent Irish revolutionaries; six Irish counties hold monuments to the three, two of those counties holding two each. The Irish community in Manchester commissioned a memorial to them in Moston Cemetery, Manchester, which was several times defaced by fascists and and an annual commemorative march was held there for years (sometimes too clashing with British fascists). There is a grand memorial to them too in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.
1Salford has received a number of uncomplimentary literary references, one in Frederik Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and another being in Ewan McColl’s song Dirty Old Town (1949).