Republican News · Thursday 10 Novemeber 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Fenian commemoration in Birmingham

The fact that Fenian leaders were active in Birmingham is well known, not least from the pages of John Denvir's ``The Irish in Britain''. Here, the presence of Colonel Ricard Burke, of Daniel Darragh, and of Michael Davitt were reported.

The demonstration of respect for the Manchester Martyrs seems to have gone largely unreported but is remarkable because it numbered about a quarter of Birmingham's Irish-born population and because of the vulnerability of this Irish population
The extent of sympathy with the aspirations of the Fenians has not been reported, so that while we have records of the demonstrations in London and Manchester in November 1867 to honour the Manchester Martyrs, there are no reports of the demonstration in Birmingham.

In Birmingham, the movement for the remission of the death sentences on William Allen, Michael Larkin, Michael O'Brien and Edward Condon held a mass meeting behind the Town Hall, in the city centre, on Wednesday 23 November. There was a violent response from an English Tory mob, which that night and the next tried to attack Irish areas and Catholic churches. The contemporary Tory paper, the Gazette, describes these attackers being driven off by Irish men and women.

Despite these attacks, which resulted in ten people being taken to the General Hospital, eight of them with head wounds, a service of remembrance was held for William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O'Brien on the day after their execution, in St Joseph's Churchyard, Nechells.

As reported in Birmingham's Liberal newspaper (The Birmingham Daily Post, 25 November 1867), 2,500 Irish people assembled on the slopes of St Joseph's at 3 o'clock on Sunday 24 November 1867. The report says: ``There were many women present, and the greater part, both men and women, wore green ribbons on their hats, a few had green rosettes on their coats.'' No priest officiated; a young man led the people in a prayer for the dead. As well as the Irish mourners, a huge crowd of respectful spectators had gathered.

The police had decreed that no procession would be permitted and before the service they had prevented any processions from the town centre. After the service, the police were unable to prevent an organised procession of about 2,000 people marching from St Joseph's back to the Old Square in the town. Here, however, the march was dispersed by more than a hundred police.

This demonstration of respect for the Manchester Martyrs seems to have gone largely unreported. Yet it is remarkable because it numbered about a quarter of Birmingham's Irish-born population and because of the vulnerability of this Irish population, about 9,000 Irish-born people in a town of more than 300,000. It is all the more remarkable because it took place only six months after the vicious anti-Irish riots of June 1867.

The June rioters took their lead from William Murphy, an employee of the Protestant Electoral Union, and his fellow orators, who delivered a mixture of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish invective to large crowds, twice a day for five weeks. Murphy warned that anyone who interfered with the lectures would be driven ``to Paddy's land, or to Dixie land''.

On the second day of Murphy's lectures, an English mob, described by ``respectable'' contemporary observers as being made up of the police, special constables and ``roughs'', wrecked many Irish homes and assaulted Irish people. More than 100 Irish people were arrested, men and women, and charged with conspiracy. Claims for damages for the property destroyed were made, but only three were met, partially. Several people were badly injured by police sabres, and one woman died from injuries received in the crush.

A month later, on 16 July, Michael McNally, who was said to be a leader of the Irish resistance to Murphy, was shot and killed by Morris Roberts, one of Murphy's supporters. Morris Roberts was found by a jury of his English peers to have committed ``justifiable homicide'' in shooting the unarmed Michael McNally in the chest. The young man, Michael McNally, arrested on the first day of Murphy's lectures, and murdered in the aftermath of the June riots, is, I think, buried in an unmarked grave in Witton cemetery.

Therefore, Birmingham's commemoration of the Manchester Martyrs on Sunday, 25 November 1867, the day after their execution, merits a place alongside those of London and Manchester.



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