Paddy O’Donoghue

Paddy O’Donoghue was head of the Irish Republican Army in Manchester 1919-1921, co-ordinating jail escapes and attacks on buildings. He was jailed in 1921 but freed after the treaty was signed between Britain and the Republican government in 1922.

The leader of the IRA in Manchester between 1919 and 1921, Paddy O’Donoghue, was a native of Barraduff, Killarney who ran a grocers shop on Lloyd Street, Greenheys. Before the War of Independence he was best known as the organiser of the annual Irish concert at the Free Trade Hall but he was also intimately involved in the Republican movement in Manchester. O’Donoghue was a close friend of Michael Collins, who had been his best man when Paddy married Violet Gore. Collins apparently brought him into his intelligence and arms-smuggling network in England as early as 1917.

In February 1919 O’Donoghue played a key role in the escape of Eamon De Valera from Lincoln Jail. De Valera was very anxious to get out of jail and go to the United States to present the Irish case for self-determination. A devout Catholic, he served at Mass with the prison chaplain and managed to get an impression in the wax of a candle of the master key . The design was copied onto a Christmas card by Sean Milroy and sent to Sean McGarry’s wife in Ireland but she failed realise the significance of the design. The three prisoners then wrote to Paddy O’Donoghue in Irish and he contacted Collins immediately. A key was then cut to the design and smuggled into the jail in a cake but it did not fit the lock. A further card with the key design was sent to O’Donoghue with the words “ Eocair na Saoirse” (The Key To Freedom”). O’Donoghue had another key cut in Manchester and sent it in but once again it failed to work. Collins now came to England to personally take charge of the operation.

A further key was made inside the jail and on 3rd February, by prior arrangement, three prisoners made their way to the front door of the jail where Michael Collins and his close friend Harry Boland were waiting along with Frank Kelly. Disaster seemed to have struck when Collins’ key broke as he put it in the lock. Fortunately De Valera was able to push the broken key out with his own copy and open the door. The three prisoners made their way to where O’Donoghue was waiting with transport.

Collins and Boland went to London and then back to Dublin. The others journeyed back to Manchester by way of Sheffield. Milroy and McGarry were hidden by leading Manchester IRA commander Liam MacMahon in his own house, while De Valera stayed with a local priest, Father Charles O’Mahony. The police were looking for De Valera, of course, and MacMahon was warned by Thomas Walsh, a sympathetic detective in the Manchester force, that they were getting close. On 18th February, dressed as a priest and escorted by two young Irish women, De Valera travelled back to Dublin. At the beginning of June he went to the United States.

O’Donoghue was involved in another extraordinary episode when he arranged for two young boys to be kidnapped from Barry in South Wales. They were the children of Josephine Marchmont , who worked in the Cork military barracks as a secretary to a senior British officer. She had impeccable security credentials, being the daughter of a Head Constable in the RIC, while her husband had been killed in the war. Her children, however, were in the custody of her mother-in-law in Wales.

Michael Collins learned of this and offered Josephine a deal in which he would arrange for the children to be brought back to Ireland if she would pass information to the IRA. She agreed and with the assistance of Paddy O’Donoghue the two boys were seized and brought to Manchester, where they stayed in his house and were then taken to Cork to be reunited with their mother. Josephine kept her side of the bargain and her information was invaluable to the IRA. Her deception was apparently never uncovered by the British authorities.

In April 1919 a number of IRA prisoners were transferred to Strangeways from Belfast after disturbances there over the issue of political status. Their leader was Austin Stack, Sinn Fein MP for West Kerry, who had commanded the Kerry brigade during the Easter Rising and had been sentenced to death, though this had been commuted to life imprisonment. Also in the prison in Manchester was Piaras Beaslai, Sinn Fein MP for East Kerry.

In August Fionan Lynch, Sinn Fein MP for Kerry South, was released from Strangeways and made contact with Paddy O’Donoghue and Liam MacMahon, who set in motion an escape plan. Violet O’Donoghue arranged for messages and maps to be sent into the prison baked in cakes or buried in butter and jam. Collins followed the development of the plans closely and wrote to Beaslai several times using a code. Rory O’Connor was sent over to examine the plans, followed soon after by Collins himself who actually visited Stack in Strangeways, using a false name and unrecognized.

The escape took place on Saturday 25th October. A dummy pistol already been smuggled into the prison in butter while the prisoners had got hold of handcuffs from a sympathetic Irish policeman in Manchester. They overcame the prison warder on duty, gagging him and placing him in a cell, and then rushed into the prison yard where a rope with a weight was thrown over and, after some mishaps, came within their grasp. The prisoners hauled on the rope, bringing over a rope-ladder, and each in turn climbed up it and over the wall.

Outside the prison some twenty men from Manchester, including Paddy O’Donoghue, held up the street and preventing anyone from passing the prison. Beaslai was taken by a young men named George Lodge in a taxi and then by tram to his house in a Manchester suburb while others made their escape on bicycles. After a week Collins visited Stack and Beaslai and three days later Liam MacMahon and George Lodge escorted them to Liverpool from where they were smuggled home in a steamer to be met by Joe O’Reilly, Collins’ right hand man, at the quayside. The other escapees were Paddy McCarthy (later killed in action), Sean Doran, DP Walsh, and Con Connolly.

According to the report of the escape in the Manchester Guardian the IRA men left behind a letter exonerating the warder from any blame. Sean Doran was later recaptured in Ireland and brought back to Manchester where he was sentenced on 18th July 1921 to two months imprisonment for escaping, to run concurrent with the unexpired sentence of 12 months. Piaras Beaslai played a small but important part in Irish history when on 14th January 1922 he moved the motion to approve the Treaty at a meeting of members of the Southern Irish Parliament, convened by Arthur Griffith as chair of the Irish delegation to London.

The most spectacular series of IRA operations in Manchester took place on 2nd April 1921 when between 6am and 7am a number of Volunteers tried to set fire to offices, hotels and cafes in the city centre. Later that same evening a large number of armed police raided the Irish Club on Erskine Street, Hulme and shot dead Sean Morgan, a member of the IRA. The police arrested a large number of men at the Irish Club and also picked up others over the weekend, including Paddy O’Donoghue (a memorial to Sean Morgan was unveiled in Moston cemetery on the ninth anniversary of his death in 1930.)

The arrested men appeared in court on 4th April with the Chief Constable of Manchester present, accompanied by many officers. The prosecution produced dozens of revolvers and cans of petrol as evidence, claiming that the Irish Club was an arsenal or base of operations from which outrages in Manchester had been planned and carried out.

The twenty-one accused appeared in court again on 26th April before the stipendiary magistrate Edgar Brierley. There was tight security with every entrance to the court guarded by police and even the press having to show cards before they were admitted. A number of men, including Paddy O’Donoghue, were charged with the attempted murder of police officers and there were numerous other charges, including one of “making war against the King”. The police prosecutor claimed that one of the defendants, Daniel McNicholl, had admitted that there were 60 men in the IRA in Manchester, formed into three companies, one based at Albion Street and two at Erskine Street. In a confession to the Chief Constable, McNicholl had also alleged that O’Donoghue held high rank in the IRA and had shot a police officer.

The trial of those charged with treason-felony began on 7th July at the Manchester Assizes before Justice Rigby Swift with the prosecution led by the Attorney General himself, Sir Gordon Hewart. Nineteen men were now charged with treason felony, as well as with arson and shooting with intent to murder. The Attorney General alleged that Paddy O’Donoghue had hired a garage at 67 Upper Chorlton Road, Whalley Range on 13th November of the year before, which had been used to store explosives and firearms. On 25th May the police had arrested a number of men when they came to the garage to retrieve materials, presumably believing that the coast would be clear as some weeks had passed since the arrests of their colleagues. He also alleged that O’Donoghue had shot Constable Boucher at Bridgewater House in the chest and arm.

There was a dramatic incident in court on Monday 11th July. Over the weekend the Irish Republican government and the British government had finally concluded a truce in the armed conflict, which would come into force at noon. At that precise moment one of the defendants Charles Harding gave an order in Gaelic and the rest of the prisoners sprang to their feet and stood to attention for a moment, resuming their seats after another instruction from Harding. That same day, amidst scorching weather, Eamonn De Valera arrived in London to begin talks with the British Government and hundreds of Irish people greeted him at Euston railway station.

On 13th July O’Donoghue made a statement from the dock in which he pleaded guilty to the charge with respect to the garage admitting that the arms had been paid for by him as an officer in the IRA. “It is my firm belief that had the IRA been better equipped negotiations for the settlement now in progress would have long since been held”. He denied however having anything to do with shooting policemen. “I have always fully realised that I was committing an offence against the constitution of this country in smuggling arms to Ireland but at the same time I felt I was morally bound to help my country to regain its freedom”. Sean Wickham also made a speech from the dock, adding that he was an officer in the IRA. Addressing the court he contended that the signing of the truce was virtually a recognition of the claim of the accused to be treated as prisoners of war and he also rejected the Treason Felony Act.

The Manchester trial was raised in the House of Commons by Captain Redmond, Irish Nationalist MP for Waterford, who asked Lloyd George whether the Crown would discontinue the charges of conspiracy against certain Irishmen now being held at Manchester Assizes. In his reply Lloyd George claimed that they had pleaded guilty (which was a lie) and were entitled to a verdict.

Captain Redmond persisted, asking a logical question. “How can the government reconcile their actions in taking proceedings against certain Irishmen in England for conspiring with whom the government themselves are at present entering upon open negotiations during a period of truce?” Lloyd George dodged the question, merely repeating his previous answer.

Only two men – Nicholas Keogh and Daniel Mullen – were acquitted by the jury. The rest were found guilty and sentenced to varying lengths of prison.

The Treaty was finally signed in the early hours of 6th December 1921 but fell well short of the independent Republic the Irish had already proclaimed, conceding only Dominion status to twenty six counties of Ireland within the British Empire under the title of the Irish Free State and confirming the partition of Ireland for six out of nine counties of Ulster under the political and military domination of the Unionist Party.

After a lengthy and sometimes bitter debate Dail Eireann approved the Treaty on 7th January 1922 with 64 votes in favour and 57 against. Sinn Fein had already effectively split into two camps with De Valera opposing the Treaty and Collins and Griffith supporting it.

Republican prisoners in jails in Ireland had been let out as soon as the Treaty was signed, as had those imprisoned in Britain for offences committed in Ireland. Those convicted of offences committed in Britain still remained in jail, however, and on 11th February the Irish Self Determination League organised a demonstration in Trafalgar Square to press for their release. Five columns of Irish people carrying tricolours marched in from different parts of London. and were addressed by Art O’Brien and Alderman John Scurr. There was an unexpected third speaker – Shaun Wickham from Manchester – released that morning from Wandsworth Prison. Still dressed in his prison clothes of a cheap grey coat and striped trousers, he shivered in the February cold. The Manchester Guardian wondered why his friends had not bought him a warm coat.

Wickham had been freed because the previous day the British and Irish governments had simultaneously issued statements of amnesty. Collins’ statement granted amnesty to the British aimed forces and civil service “in respect of all acts committed in the course of the recent hostilities”, while the British statement (issued by the Colonial Office and not the Home Office) granted the immediate release of prisoners now in custody “for offences committed prior to the treaty in Great Britain from Irish political motives”.

Back in Manchester prisoners were also released from Strangeways and the authorities told the Evening Chronicle that all the Irishmen imprisoned there for political offences had now been released. So unexpected was their release that there was no welcoming crowd. The following day, however, thousands marched to London Road station to greet ex-prisoners, although they actually arrived at different stations. Several men eventually did make their way to the station and were given a tumultuous welcome and, Irish band playing, escorted to Central Station. Some sixty other prisoners were released and most went to London.

Paddy O’Donoghue left England for Ireland and in his later years managed a greyhound stadium.

Article by Michael Herbert. Michael is author of The Wearing of the Green: A Political History of the Irish in Manchester (2000), copies of which can be bought by contacting Michael directly at mossley [at] phonecoop.coop.