The arrest of William O’Brien MP in Hulme Town hall, January 1889

William O’Brien, a leading Irish nationalist MP, escaped from a court in Ireland in January 1889 and was re-arrested in Hulme Town Hall after a dramatic public meeting. After being held for a night in Manchester Town Hall, he was sent back to Ireland.

O’Brien was born in 1852 in Mallow, County Cork and took up the trade of journalism as young man. Like many of his contemporaries he was attracted to the revolutionary Fenian movement and, after its defeat by the British government, became involved in the campaign for land reform and Home Rule. In 1881 Charles Stuart Parnell appointed him as editor of the United Irishmen. Within months O’Brien was imprisoned, along with Parnell and other Irish Nationalist leaders, in Kilmainham jail until a deal was done with the British government the following year. In 1883 O’Brien was elected as an MP to Westminster and was frequently arrested for his activities over land rights.

The story of this dramatic episode in Manchester begins in Ireland where O’Brien had been summoned to appear at Carrick-on-Suir courthouse on 24th January 1889. When he and his entourage arrived they found the town occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary, who had fixed their bayonets and were preventing the townspeople from getting anywhere near the courthouse. O’Brien argued vociferously with the police, while his fellow MP and counsel Tim Healy was nearly stabbed by a police bayonet. When they eventually got to the courthouse the two men found that it too was full of police. After some fierce arguments with the magistrates O’Brien announced his intention to leave. A policeman tried to stop him but was set upon by O’Brien’s supporters and, much to his surprise, the MP found himself outside. The enraged police now set upon the crowd with batons and bayonets, beating them mercilessly whilst O’Brien fled amidst the disorder, disappearing into the darkness.

According to the Manchester Guardian he was taken to the bakery of a Miss O’Neill, who dressed him as a farmer and then escorted him through the streets. O’Brien apparently pretended to be drunk when challenged by the police and made good his escape, a local priest driving him to Wexford (in his account in the pages of United Irishman, O’Brien, perhaps mindful of the strong temperance movement in Ireland later denied that he had been disguised as a farmer or pretended to be drunk).

Attention now switched to Manchester, where O’Brien had an engagement to address a Liberal Party meeting, the annual address of local MP Jacob Bright (a Pro-Home Rule Liberal). The speech was to take place at Hulme Town Hall on Stretford Road – a site now occupied by the Zion Arts Centre and the Zion Health & Resource Centre. O’Brien had particularly wanted to go to Manchester, he had said, because he wanted to address Mr Balfour’s constituents (Balfour was the Chief Secretary for Ireland and an MP for East Manchester). There was great expectation amongst the public because O’Brien was famous for not missing engagements, although few believed that he would be able to evade the authorities when the meeting was so publicly advertised in advance.

On the evening of Monday 29th January the hall was packed to the rafters, while a very large crowd had gathered outside as had hundreds of police – personally commanded by the Chief Constable of Manchester Malcolm Wood – who guarded all entrances to the building. Inside the platform was packed with local Liberal politicians, including a number of MPs and their wives. Dr Woodcock took the chair and began some introductory remarks amidst high tension. A few minutes into his speech O’Brien himself appeared and mounted the platform, the signal for the hall to erupt into what the Manchester Guardian reporter described as “a hurricane of rapturous cheers such as a Manchester audience has hardly ever accorded to even the most famous and best beloved of Englishmen.” It was subsequently revealed that the organisers of the meeting had used a decoy dressed as O’Brien. He had drawn up in a cab at the front of the hall and attracted the attention of the crowd and the police, thereby enabling the real O’Brien to slip into the meeting by the rear entrance.

When the crowd had finally quietened Jacob Bright made a short speech before handing over to William O’Brien, who began by stating that “…as soon as this meeting is over I am at the disposal of Mr Balfour’s policemen but meanwhile I stand here in spite of him”. He then went on to speak for an hour, despite his obvious tiredness, noting that if he were a Russian or French refugee England would fight to the last man before she would surrender him but as an Irishman he could be dragged away and sent back. He attacked the conduct of the Irish police and the British government. The man from the Manchester Guardian concluded his report of the meeting by lamenting “that England as now governed can do nothing with such a man as Mr O’Brien but make a felon of him, and all honour to Mr O’Brien that has not made of him an enemy.”

Jerome Caminada, Chief Detective Inspector of the Manchester police, gave the police view of the evening’s events in his engaging memoirs Twenty Five Years of Detective Life, published some years later in Manchester. Interestingly he gets some of the facts wrong, alleging, for instance, that O’Brien had escaped from custody in late December, when in fact it had been but a few days earlier, and that the meeting was an “indignation” meeting when it was in fact a Liberal party constituency meeting. Caminada would not, of course, be the first policeman (or indeed the last) to misremember some key facts when it came to the arrest of an Irishman. Here is his account:

“I beckoned from the platform to the Chief Constable, who at once joined me, accompanied by a number of detectives. He was immediately struck on the chest and knocked backwards off the platform, carrying in his fall four of the detective officers who were following him up. I immediately struck the man who had committed the assault a violent blow on the side of the head, which sent him after the officers. The platform stands about four feet above the level of the floor, and it was not a gentle fall. Fortunately the attack upon the Chief Constable was not seen by the main body of the police; but it was difficult to restrain those who did witness it. A little space was cleared, and the Chief Constable again ascended the platform”.

After further rough and tumble (including an assault on some of the meeting organisers) the police secured the hall and O’Brien surrendered into their custody without further resistance when he was presented with the warrant. The police were wary of putting their prisoner into a cab which might easily be overturned in the course of a rescue attempt and decided instead to surround him with a square of police and walk him to Manchester Town Hall, where the Lord Mayor William Batty had agreed that he might stay in a guest room in the mayoral apartments, rather than being kept overnight in a cell.

O’Brien was cheered every inch of the way to town by large crowds who lined the route. In Lower Mosley Street a small drum and fife band struck up. The police procession and their solitary captive finally arrived in Albert Square a few minutes before eleven, where a tremendous crowd had gathered after turning out from the local theatres and places of amusement. Finally O’Brien was able to get some rest after an exhausting evening.

The following day the police arranged for the express train from Manchester to Holyhead to stop at Ordsall Lane Station where O’Brien was put on board, accompanied by Manchester detectives – including Caminada – and members of the RIC. Despite the secrecy word had got out and O’Brien was greeted by crowds at both Chester and Holyhead where the party took the steamer Ulster to Ireland. In Dublin thousands turned out to welcome the errant MP and he was joined by his counsel Tim Healy, before being taken by train back to the court-house from which he had originally escaped. O’Brien was then imprisoned for several months. Back in Manchester a packed “indignation” meeting was held in the Free Trade Hall on 4th February at which the speakers included Jacob Bright, CE Schwann MP and Robert Leake MP. The meeting received many letters of support, including one from CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, noting “the provocations and humiliations to which the Irish people are now exposed, I believe that it is by the sympathy of the great masses of Englishmen that they can best be supported and restrained.”

O’Brien’s ordeal did not end when he was sent to Clonmel jail, for the authorities demanded that he put on prison clothing. When he refused he was forcibly stripped, twice put in a prison uniform and shaved. When the prison warders finally let go of him, he immediately took off all the prison clothing except a shirt. News of his treatment quickly spread with the Manchester Guardian commenting “To carry out this rule against a prisoner of Mr O’Briens’s type and character is either a piece of administrative stupidity of the first water or a down right malignity”. The Freeman’s Journal accused Balfour of adopting “the tactics of the thug” and “the strategy of the garrotter”. There were protest demonstrations in Ireland and Britain. O’Brien got his clothes back and was allowed proper food and books, although in parliament Balfour maintained those convicted under the Crimes Act were not political prisoners, and even if they were, did not deserve special treatment. In practice the government compromised to defuse the issue and in the future Irish political prisoners were allowed their own clothes and other facilities with O’Brien even being able to write several novels whilst in prison.

O’Brien continued his agitation on the issue of land rights until it was finally settled in the early 1900s with Bills which granted land and housing to Irish tenants. He died suddenly in 1928.

Article by Michael Herbert

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