The Manchester Martyrs were three innocent Irishmen hanged in public outside the New Bailey prison in Salford on 23 November 1867. They had been convicted of murdering a police sergeant, killed in the course of a successful raid on Hyde Road, Manchester to free two leading Fenians.
The story of the Manchester Martyrs begins with the founding of the Fenian movement, which encompassed two separate but deeply entwined organisations; the Fenian Brotherhood – founded in New York on 17th March 1858 by John O’Mahon; and the Irish Republican Brotherhood – founded in Dublin by James Stephens, Thomas Luby and others who had taken part in the 1848 Rising.
The Fenians took their name from the Fianna, ancient warriors of Irish myth and legend, and their aim was the establishment of an independent Irish Republic, free from British rule, to be established by an armed uprising. The Fenian Brotherhood was a mass movement which men joined by oaths pledging allegiance to the future Irish Republic, while the IRB was a select and secret organisation which survived until 1922 when it was destroyed by the Irish Civil War.
The Fenians’ bedrock of support was in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Irish people had emigrated in the wake of the Famine, and where in addition many Irish men served in the Union (and a few in the Confederate) armies of the American Civil War – often in Irish regiments – giving those who survived the bloody conflict valuable military experience. In 1866, for instance, the Fenians made a number of raids across the border into Canada.. They also built up their organisation in Ireland and in Britain. The Royal Irish Constabulary had several detectives permanently based in Lancashire in order to monitor Fenian activities, which they did principally through the traditional device of recruiting informers. RIC detective McHale, based in Liverpool, supported the view that the Fenians had a wide base in England.
“I find the great majority of Irish labourers in this town, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, as well as those residing in towns of less note through this country, if not actually enrolled members of the brotherhood, are strongly impressed with the spirit of Fenianism, and there is another class of Irish resident in this country, who are in comfortable and easy circumstances…and who have the strongest sympathy with the movement & altho’ not enrolled members would, I am quite certain, give active cooperation if it so happened that there was a rising, or any attempt at rebellion in Ireland. There also numerous young Irishmen…who are Fenians. Many of them joined volunteer corps in order to acquire a knowledge of drill and military movements, for the express purpose of using in the Fenian cause…..”
Some arms shipments were made through Liverpool and by 1865 everything seemed in place for a successful rising in Ireland. Tens of thousands had taken the Fenian oath while Irish regiments in the British army had been infiltrated. At this critical juncture the Fenian leadership hesitated and delayed whilst the British government was alerted to the danger and struck first in September 1865, arresting a number of the most prominent leaders in Ireland, such as O’Leary, Luby and O’Donovan Rossa. They all received long sentences. Early in 1866 the government finally realised the extent of Fenian subversion in the army and rushed through a suspension of Habeas Corpus in one day on 17th February, enabling them to arrest thousands and imprison them without trial. The army court-martialled many soldiers, transporting some to Australia in the last convict shipment ever sent there, reaching Western Australia in 1868. Fenian organisation was fatally weakened and by the time the rising finally took place on 5th March 1867 it was easily defeated, despite some initial successes.
After the failure of the rising the Fenians sent two leading figures in the movement to Britain to rally and reorganise their followers . One was Colonel Thomas Kelly from Galway, who had replaced James Stephens as head of the IRB. Kelly had served in an Ohio regiment during the American Civil War, and had been responsible for rescuing Stephens from Richmond Jail, Dublin in November 1865. The other was Captain Timothy Deasy from Clonakilty, County Cork, who had also served in the American Civil War
Both men were arrested in Manchester on 11th September. This was a major coup for the authorities but Edward O’Meagher Condon, another Irish-American civil war veteran who was in charge of re-organising the Fenians in the north of England, immediately set plans in motion to free the two men, procuring arms from Birmingham and organising a party of men to effect a rescue. The two men were being held at Bellevue gaol on Hyde Road and conveyed to and from court in a horse-drawn police-van.
On 18th September Condon’s raiding party attacked the van on its way out of Manchester as it neared a railway bridge on Hyde Road, shooting the off-horse and sending the police escort packing. Then they began to break open the van in the course of which a man named Peter Rice accidentally shot dead Charles Brett, the policeman inside the van. The raiders got Kelly and Deasy out of the van and, despite strenuous efforts by the authorities to recapture them, the Fenian movement successfully smuggled them back to the United States.
The Manchester police arrested some of the rescuers at the scene and dragged in dozens of other Irishmen in the following days as the constabulary ransacked the Irish quarters, enraged by the death of their colleague. The government was equally dismayed. Home Secretary Gathorne-Hardy wrote in his diary, “This at Manchester! What are we coming to…. The Times is as the public will be ready for strong measures. England will never endure that such an event should happen unpunished.” The legal hearings in Manchester began on 27th September. Amongst the lawyers defending the Irishmen was William Prowting Roberts, who lived in Pendleton and had been an active Chartist in the 1840s, when he had even been imprisoned for a time. Roberts had been one of the speakers at the Free Trade Hall meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, 1848.
Twenty eight Irishmen appeared before the stipendiary magistrate and the number eventually rose to fifty. The court was ringed by troops, some of whom actually sat next to the magistrate on the bench. All the prisoners were in shackles and the magistrate refused to order their removal, despite protests from the lawyers. Roberts did his best, gaining the release of some prisoners, but the authorities merely filled the gaps in the ranks with newly arrested men. He was also heckled from the court gallery, which was filled with Manchester’s well-to-do come to watch the spectacle. “How dreadful it is to have to address such a spirit that reigns against these men”, he told the court, “ it paralyses the tongue”. The intimidation even continued outside the court. One evening a mob turned up outside Roberts’ hotel and he had to escape by the back entrance. The Times even devoted an editorial to attacking him, “……the prejudice which Mr. Roberts deprecates is not, we suspect, local as much as national, being no other than a prejudice against organised conspiracies for the defiance of the law and the murder of its authorised agents”. Ernest Jones was another barrister for the men. He had qualified as barrister in 1844 and then joined the Chartist movement, becoming editor of the Northern Star, and also served a term of imprisonment.
The special commission which tried the prisoners started sitting at the Assize Courts in Manchester on 28th October, presided over by Justice Blackburn with the Attorney General Sir Thomas Karslake leading for the prosection. W P Roberts and the other defence lawyers petitioned in an attempt to get the trial moved to London but this was rejected. Manchester was filled with police and troops during the five days of the proceedings. Twenty-six Irishmen were tried, with five of them being found guilty of murder, seven of riot and assault while the remainder were convicted of lesser offences.
The sentence of death on Edward O’Meagher Condon was commuted because of his American citizenship. Another condemned man Thomas Maguire, a Royal Marine home on leave who had been swept up by the police in their raids, was given a free pardon after the press reporters at the trial got together and petitioned the Home Secretary, declaring their belief in his innocence. It was plain that he had played no part in the raid or the death of the policemen, having only just come back to Manchester after ten years away. And yet many witnesses had sworn on oath that Maguire had been a participant. What reliance could now be placed on the evidence given against the other three men?
There was a vociferous campaign for clemency for the three condemned men by Irish and English radicals. On 18th November a deputation went to the Home Office to present a memorial from a meeting held at Clerkenwell Green the previous day. The Home Secretary Gathorne Hardy refused to see them so the men forced their way into the Home Office and held an impromptu “indignation” meeting before leaving just in time to avoid the police. In Manchester a number of citizens met at the Trevelyan Hotel in Corporation Street and drew up a petition which asked the queen to exercise her prerogative of mercy “…..on the ground that the British government can always afford to exercise clemency even to its worst and most misguided prisoners, although not sentenced for a political crime, but solely for the high crime or murder, may be regarded in a sense as political criminals…..” Like all others this petition was turned down. Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to Sir Stafford Northcote at this time that the Irish “are really shocking, abominable people – not like any other civilised nation.”
The campaign for clemency failed and the sentences were carried out in public on 23rd November outside the New Bailey prison on Bridge Street where Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were hanged at day break on a platform built on the walls. Below them was a large, jeering crowd and hundreds of police and the army, ready to prevent any possible rescue attempt. Few Irish attended, having been told by their priests to go to Mass and pray for the souls of the condemned.
After the execution the bodies of the three men were swiftly buried in quicklime in the prison grounds. Frederick Engels wrote to Karl Marx predicting that “yesterday morning the Tories, by the hand of Mr Calcraft, accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs. They have been provided by Derby and G Hardy. Only the execution of the three has made the liberation of Kelly and Deasy the heroic deed which will now be sung to every Irish babe in the cradle in Ireland, England and America”.
In Ireland tens of thousands paraded in mock funeral processions in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and many other towns, with participants and spectators dressed in mourning and wearing green ribbons and rosettes and other items. Newspapers remarked upon the large numbers of young women who marched in contingents in the parades, something new in Irish political life. Many of the women wept as they walked and in Cork an eyewitness described the women “keening” when the procession reached St Jerome’s cemetery, “the occasion of the gathering rendered this wild cry of sorrow sadly impressive and moving.” As the processions gathered momentum across the country across the country the Lord Lieutenant issued a proclamation banning all future ceremonies under the Party Processions and Party Emblems Act.
Annual commemorations of the executions became part of Nationalist political life, with marches in many Irish towns every November, often in the dramatic form of a torchlight procession.
Many years later Edward O’Meagher Condon returned to Manchester to a hero’s welcome. On 26th September 1909 he crossed the Atlantic from the United States and was received in triumph when he arrived at Exchange Station in Manchester, accompanied by the MP John Dillon and John O’Callaghan, secretary of the United Irish League of America. The party made their way to the Grand Hotel on Aytoun Street, accompanied by a large crowd and the Michael Davitt and Thomas Davis branches of the UIL in Manchester in a torchlit procession. The following day Condon visited the various scenes associated with the events of 1867 and in the evening there was a great meeting at the Free Trade Hall to welcome both him and those who had accompanied him on the visit. Condon was pictured in the papers seated alongside O’Callaghan, F L Crilly (Secretary of the United Irish League of Great Britain) and Stephen Gwynne (MP for Galway).
A veteran Manchester Fenian, Seamus Barrett, formed a Manchester Martyrs Memorial Committee at the beginning of the twentieth century which put up the monument in Moston Catholic cemetery, unveiled by James Stephens, the former Fenian leader. Thereafter an annual commemoration was held, involving a parade from Bexley Square, Salford to St. Patrick’s Church on Livesey Street, where Mass was said. Afterwards the parade, led by an Irish pipe band, would proceed to the Shamrock Hall on Rochdale Road or to Moston cemetery. In 1974 the march was cancelled, following the Birmingham pub bombings, and the memorial was extensively vandalised and defaced. In recent years it has been restored.
Article by Michael Herbert