There is a long history of Irish workers organising alongside their English comrades and of anti-Irish feeling dividing the working class. One hundred and fifty years ago three Irish men were hanged by the British state on trumped up murder charges. Delia Hutchings tells the story of these Manchester Martyrs.
On 23 November 1867 Michael O’Brien, Michael Larkin and William Allen were hanged. They had been found guilty of murdering British police officer Sergeant Charles Brett while taking part in an audacious plan to free two leading Irish Nationalists from a police van. They are known as the Manchester Martyrs.
On 11 September 1867 Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy were arrested for loitering in Manchester. It was several days before the Manchester police realised that they were holding the leadership of the International Republican Brotherhood — the Fenians.
Formed in 1858, the Fenians were a secretive organisation dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland by force of arms. In the wake of the horrors of the potato famine (1845–52), which caused mass starvation in Ireland, many saw the need for a new radical liberation movement.
Some Fenians had fought in the American Civil War against the slave-owners of the south. Others were influenced by republican ideas gaining currency in Europe.
Kelly and Deasy were in Manchester to rebuild the group after an uprising in Ireland in March that year had failed. The plan had been exposed to the British, resulting in mass arrests. An attempted raid for arms on Chester Castle in Wales had also been thwarted.
Manchester was a stronghold of Fenianism. For decades Irish peasants had been immigrating to Manchester to join the working class there, many becoming leading trade unionists and supporters of the democracy movement, Chartism.
Chartism had been defeated by 1848, but in the following 20 years the Irish-born population of Britain had doubled. Irish workers had fled starvation and repression, and were ready to resist.
Now Kelly and Deasy were to face trial for their leading role in the March uprising. The Fenians believed it was vital to rescue the prisoners. They were to be moved from police custody on 18 September by secure police van to Belle Vue Jail in Salford. This would be the opportunity to release the prisoners.
Edward Condon organised the rescue. He was a leading Fenian and veteran of the American Civil War. He recruited a rescue party including O’Brien, Allen and Larkin. All three were Irish-Mancunian workers. O’Brien had fought in the uprising in Ireland earlier that year.
On the day a group of about 20 Fenians waited for the police van to pass. Condon knew that Sergeant Brett usually held the van keys and travelled in the front of the van with the driver, with one other officer guarding the van door at the back. However, after a last minute tip-off, the authorities decided to increase security with extra officers.
It is hard to be certain what happened after that. The courage of the rescue party cannot be doubted. We know that some were armed. One man stopped the van by shooting the horses while others threw stones and fired into the air. Police were shot at as they tried to block access to the van, with two sustaining injuries. One officer was caught and forced to tell where the keys to the van were. Sergeant Brett had them — inside the van with the prisoners.
By now a hostile crowd had gathered. One man was shot in the foot as he tried to lead a mob to capture the Fenians. Witnesses tell of someone repeatedly calling on Brett to hand over the keys. But he refused to do so, declaring, “I’ll do my duty to the last.”
Brett was killed by a gunshot aimed through the keyhole to break the lock. A prisoner passed out the keys, and Kelly and Deasy were freed. They managed to escape, fighting through the crowds aided by Condon, Allen and Larkin. O’Brien, Larkin and Allen were arrested at the scene. Condon was arrested later the same day. But Kelly and Deasy were not caught. House searches, mass arrests, a lynch mob atmosphere and a reward of £300 produced no result.
The trial started in Manchester on 28 October, only a few weeks after the rescue, with a massive show of military force. The four Fenians stood trial for murder alongside Thomas Maguire. Some 20 more prisoners were accused of lesser offences in relation to the rescue.
There was little chance of a fair trial. The previous day had brought news of Deasy’s safe arrival in New York. The press had whipped up a mood of hysteria. The inquest into Brett’s death had already brought a verdict of wilful murder by Allen and others. The application to have the charges reduced to manslaughter had already been refused.
Witnesses for the prosecution were mainly known criminals and could hear each other’s testimony. There is evidence they were coached by the police. All claimed to have seen Allen shoot Brett. They said that Larkin had fired into the van, that O’Brien had shot at a policeman and that Maguire had taken a leading role in the rescue.
The prisoners were represented by leading Chartists Ernest Jones and William Prowting Roberts. Witnesses for the defence risked attack by neighbours and arrest on arrival in court. There was no proof that either Larkin or O’Brien were armed, nor were all the police officers present on the day called as witnesses.
Crucially, it became obvious that Maguire was innocent. He was a Royal Marine and had never been political. He had been one of dozens of Irish men arrested in the crackdown following the rescue. Reliable witnesses testified that he had been nowhere near the scene that day.
On 1 November it took the jury just over an hour to find all five guilty of murder. From the dock, all asserted their innocence and their regret at Brett’s death. “I will die proudly and triumphantly in defence of republican principles and the liberty of an oppressed and enslaved people,” said Larkin.
All five were sentenced to death, while other prisoners were found guilty of lesser charges and received harsh prison sentences.
The verdict was met with a wave of protest. The International Working Men’s Association, led by Marx, wrote to the home secretary calling for the sentences to be commuted. Thousands, including councillors and MPs, signed a petition calling for Maguire’s release. Leading radicals including John Stuart Mill also called for clemency.
The matter was debated in parliament, but the decision to go ahead with the executions was endorsed by home secretary Gathorne-Hardy. It seems the government was determined to make examples of the men.
The revolt of March 1867 had ended with mass arrests, but the British state had not been confident to execute anyone because they knew the Fenians had mass support. Now perhaps they saw an opportunity to portray the Fenians as common criminals. A police officer had been killed, and this was not the first time the IRB had succeeded in freeing their leaders from British custody. The Fenians, it seems, had humiliated the British Empire once too often.
However, on 21 November, Maguire was granted a free pardon and released. The protests were widespread and his innocence clear to all. The same day Condon’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life on the demand of the US government. Both he and O’Brien were American citizens, but the US had intervened on O’Brien’s behalf in an earlier case, and refused to do so again.
Many still believed the remaining three must surely also be reprieved. All had been condemned on the same flawed evidence as Maguire, and Condon had freely admitted to organising the raid. It was not to be. Two days later, the three Manchester Martyrs — William Allen, Michael O’Brien and Michael Larkin — were hanged in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd.
The Catholic church had urged Irish people to stay away from the hanging. But the following day there was a 10,000 strong protest in Manchester. Protests in Ireland continued until they were banned.
In December 1867 a Fenian bomb exploded at Clerkenwell in London, unintentionally killing innocent workers. The resulting backlash made things harder for those arguing for Irish freedom, and was undoubtedly a setback. The bigot William Murphy toured the north west of England in 1868, provoking riots and mob attacks against Irish Catholics.
But the man who was executed for the Clerkenwell outrage, Michael Barrett, was widely believed to be innocent. The miscarriage of justice became the impetus for renewed struggles for justice for Irish
Marx and his daughter Jenny threw themselves into this campaign. Marx and Engels were critical of the Fenians’ methods. They argued for collective struggle, and against a strategy of individual acts of terror. However, their support for Irish liberation was unconditional.
In October 1869, 200,000 people demonstrated in London with the slogan “Justice for Ireland”. Marx argued that this showed that Irish-British unity was still possible. By December 1870 the justice movement had won the release of 33 Fenian prisoners.
The Fenians remained unbroken. Continuing protest in Britain and rebellion in Ireland forced Gladstone to grant reforms and even to consider home rule. Twenty years later class struggle in Britain revived in the form of the New Unionism. Irish workers were once again in the vanguard as match women, gas workers and dockers led the fight for decent conditions, better pay and the right to organise collectively in trade unions.
The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill (The Mercier Press, 2012)