by David Granville
On 23 November 1867, three Irishmen, Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen and Michael Larkin, were hanged in public in Salford, England, for the murder of a police sergeant during the rescue of two Fenian leaders.
Although the three executed Irishmen were known to be involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, there was no evidence that they had been involved in the policemen’s killing. All three protested their innocence to the end, becoming known as the Manchester Martyrs.
The authorities, outraged that a Fenian disturbance had taken place in the heart of England, were set on revenge and what was presented to the court as evidence was either contradictory or tainted by perjury.
The political and historical importance of this episode, and the various ways in which the they have been commemorated over the past 140 year, is the focus of a one-day conference to be held at the Working Class Movement Library (WCML), tomorrow Saturday 24 November. (unfortunately, the event is already fully booked)
‘The Bold Fenian Men”: remembering the Manchester Martyrs’ has been organised by the library and leading Irish historian Christine Kinealy, who is the author of numerous books on Irish modern history, and will be addressed by an impressive array of historians, cultural workers and community activists.
In addition to Kinealy the conference will be address by historians Michael Herbert, author of Wearing of the Green: a political history of the Irish in Manchester, Tristram Hunt, who is currently working on a biography of Engels and Roger Swift, who has written extensively on the Irish in Britain.
Also taking part will be the playwright and theatre director Eileen Murphy and local musician Bernie Murphy. The conference will be chaired by Bernadette Hyland of the IBRG, a longstanding campaigner on Irish miscarriage of justice and prisoner issues.
Colonel Thomas Kelly and Captain Timothy Deasy, veterans of the American civil war, had been sent to Britain from America in the wake of the failed Fenian rising of February 1867 to rally and reorganise their supporters in Britain.
Their arrest on the evidence of a police spy shortly after their arrival in Manchester, was a major blow to the Fenians, who immediately set about plotting their release.
It was during their efforts to free the two Fenian leaders, who were transported to-and-from court in a Black Mariah police van, that police sergeant Charles Brett was accidentally shot by and killed by one of the rescuers.
A number of Fenians involved in the breakout bid were arrested at the scene of the rescue. An indiscriminate round-up of ‘suspects’ from within the large Irish community of Manchester and Salford followed and led to indictments for murder being levelled against twenty-nine Irishmen.
In the en,d the authorities decided to concentrate their efforts on securing the conviction of just five men - the three who were eventually to hang, Edward O’Meagher Condon, the organiser of the rescue attempt and an important Fenian leader, and a totally innocent and uninvolved Irishman, Thomas Maguire.
Although the accused were skilfully defended in court by Ernest Jones and W P. Robert, both former Chartists, there was never any doubt that convictions for murder and sentences of death would be the outcome.
Many English radicals and socialists, including Frederick Engels and Charles Bradlaugh, while disapproving of Fenian tactics, had strong contacts with the Irish rebels, recognised that Fenianism was the offspring of British injustice and misrule, and called for clemency.
An energetic, amnesty campaign ensued, resulting in strong protests from as far away as America and Australia.
The International Working Men’s Association, in which Karl Marx was a key figure, was among those organisations which called for clemency and petitioned the home secretary. However, it is clear from a letter that Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelman in November 1869 that Marx’s own views went some way further.
Marx believed that any decisive advance for the English working class was linked to its attitude towards Ireland:
“...it can never do anything decisive here in England until it separates its policy with regard to Ireland most definitely from the policy of the ruling classes, until it not only makes common cause with the Irish but actually takes the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801 and replacing it by a free federal relationship.”
Although Marx was thinking primarily of the interests of the English proletariat, which he saw as the lever for serious economic and revolutionary change in the world, he had no doubts about the malign effect of British rule in Ireland or of the divisive nature of anti-Irish prejudice in England.
Despite the growing amnesty campaign, which included large demonstrations in Manchester and London, only Maguire, who had a cast-iron alibi and the support of journalists who had attended the trial, was pardoned - although Condon, a US citizen, had his sentence commuted to a lengthy term of imprisonment. There was to be no reprieve for the three remaining three innocent Irishmen. Frederick Engels who lived in Manchester and was married to a Fenian, Elizabeth Burns was closely involved with the Irish community. Following the public hanging of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien he noted prophetically that the executions had “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing the Fenians still lacked were martyrs. They have been provided with these.”
The judicial murder of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien on 23 November 1867 was one of the most controversial episodes in the fraught and often bloody relationship between Britain and Ireland. One hundred-and-forty years on, the conference at the Working Class Movement Library will help to remind us of the lasting significance of these events and of the long-standing relationship between radicals and revolutionaries and the struggle for Irish freedom.