Help bring the Manchester Martyrs home

By the Troops Out Movement

On 11th September 1867, the police in Manchester arrested two men for behaving suspiciously in a doorway. The two, Colonel T.J.Kelly and Captain Deasy, were leading figures in the Irish Rising. A week later, the two men were handcuffed and piled into a prison van to be transported from court to Belle Vue Prison. It was on this journey that Kelly and Deasy were rescued by their friends. During the rescue, the men had trouble opening the locked back door of the van. The police sergeant in the back with the prisoners refused to let them out. One of the raiders then shot the lock off with his revolver. In smashing the lock, a bullet penetrated the door and killed the police guard inside, Sergeant Brett. A female prisoner inside the van then took the keys from Brett and passed them out to the rescuers through the ventilator. Kelly and Deasy quickly ran off and were never recaptured.

Although the policeman had been killed with just one shot, by accident, five men were sentenced to death for the killing. None of the five had fired the shot that had killed Brett, however four of them had taken an active role in the rescue. According to historian and author John Devoy, the man who actually fired the shot was Peter Rice, a Dubliner who later escaped to the United States.


In the Manchester case there was a strong suspicion that witnesses were bribed. The activity at the time of the rescue confused the eyewitnesses. As a result of this, the prosecution found itself with very little evidence and treasured any it could get. The key witnesses for the prosecution were ‘whores and jailbirds’. The first prisoner said in his closing statement that he was forced to stand in the police line-up wearing handcuffs and iron chains. This had marked him out to the witnesses who identified him in order to claim the reward.

Double Standards

One of the five arrested was a marine named Maguire, a man of few words and fewer opinions. He was not involved in the rescue attempt, and was arrested simply because he had an Irish name and was in the neighbourhood at the time. Even the newspaper-men in the courtroom came to the conclusion that he could have had no conceivable connection with the raid. They made a representation to the home secretary that Maguire was an innocent man who had been convicted on perjured evidence. On examining his case, the home secretary agreed and he was immediately pardoned and released because the witnesses lied in their statements. However, the evidence that convicted Maguire in the first place was precisely the same evidence that condemned the other men. The implied attitude in the home secretary’s discrimination was that Maguire had shown no interest in Irish affairs and deserved to live, whereas the rest took pride in their Irish attitudes and deserved to die. A couple of days before the scheduled executions, one more of the men was reprieved by the intervention of the American Ambassador, Charles Francis Adams. It then became clear that the remaining three, William Philip Allen and Michael O’Brien, both from Cork, and Michael Larkin from Offaly, could not be saved.

Sentenced To Death

All three were condemned to death and publicly hanged at Manchester Jail on 23rd November 1867. These young men, the youngest nineteen, are the celebrated Manchester Martyrs. Bitter public feelings were aroused by their conviction on what many regarded as flimsy evidence. When they were executed, many Irish nationalists believed that the British government had refused to exercise mercy - not because the men were unquestionably guilty - but in order to satisfy public opinion in England, which expected that somebody would be punished. The unjust hanging of the three men however, was not the end of their punishment. Their bodies were not released to their families; instead they were buried in quicklime inside the jail yard. This action was interpreted throughout Ireland as a calculated religious indignity. Much sympathy was aroused among the Catholic community because the three men, who were said to be devout Catholics, did not receive a proper Christian burial. Instead, their bodies were covered in quicklime in Salford Jail.

There has been a long-running campaign to have the men’s remains brought home to Ireland and many obstacles have been encountered along the way. Their burial place has remained a mystery for generations. However, when Sinn Fein Councillor John Desmond travelled over from Bandon to Manchester, an important leap forward in the investigation was made. He discovered that the remains were removed from their prison burial plot in 1991. The men’s bodies were cremated in Blackley Crematorium and re-interred. This was a mass burial in which dozens of prisoners’ remains were buried together.

The caskets of the Manchester Martyrs remains need to be separated from others and brought back to Glasnevin. Trying to arrange this has not been an easy task. Troops Out Movement has been in discussions with the British Home Office and Prison Service. They claim that all the caskets were unmarked and therefore the men’s particular caskets cannot be identified. The Home Office added that “no casket carried any identifying marker, nor did the burial authority keep a record of the order in which caskets were interred within the grave”. The Prison Service have not been able to locate any records which would help identify the remains of the men. Identifying the remains would allow their families to bring them home to grant them the basic dignity of a Christian burial.

In March of this year, Troops Out Movement (TOM) attended the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. 380 motions were put forward and the attention of TOM was drawn to Motion 378:

“This Ard Fheis calls on the British Home Office and Manchester City Council to hand over the remains of the Manchester Martyrs, William Phillip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien, who are now buried in Blackley Graveyard, Manchester, to be buried in the Republican Plot, Glasnevin, Dublin where an empty grave awaits them.”

Commdt. Charlie Hurley Cummann, Cork

After the Ard Fheis, TOM contacted the Charlie Hurley Cummann in Cork and spoke to local Bandon councillor John Desmond. John told us that he had in his possession written statements from the three men. William Allen’s last wish (in a letter to his Uncle and Aunt) was: “A Few hours more, and I will breathe my last, and on English soil. Oh, that I could be buried in Ireland! What a happiness it would be to all my friends, and to myself - Where my countrymen could knee on my grave” William Allen was from Bandon, the town in which John Desmond is a councillor.

Since then TOM has been in regular contact with John, who visited Manchester in July to discuss the on-going campaign. TOM has also been in contact with the British Home Office, Manchester Council, HMP Manchester, Strangeways and the Local and National archives. Through our enquiries we have been able to establish that the three men have been cremated and interned with twelve other ‘Fenians’ and there is no way to distinguish the individual identities of the fifteen. We are now in discussions to have all fifteen returned home to Ireland.

Recent Developments in the Campaign

Troops Out Movement has carried out extensive research into the Manchester Martyrs including visits to the National Archives in London. It was during one such visit that notes were uncovered relating to prison burials. A letter from the Home Office to all local prisons was sent out in 1922, entitled “Instructions for Records”. The following are quotes from this document:

“The Commissioners have decided that the graves of persons who have been executed in prisons shall no longer be distinguished by names, initials, or any other marks on the walls. Such records are undesirable as they perpetuate the memory of the crime ... It has been decided to obliterate all existing marks, but before this can be done it is necessary to prepare records of existing graves. The Register of graves will be kept on the enclosed form and the enclosed plan, a duplicate of the latter having been retained in this office ... When the correct records are completed Governors will take steps to effectually obliterate all wall marks, etc., and report when this has been done ... The records will be kept locked up and regarded as confidential.”

It can be seen from these quotes that orders were given for a register of graves to be compiled. It is also stated that this register, bearing the names and places of burial of executed prisoners, be kept “locked up and regarded as confidential”. The Home Office today maintain that no such record exists - and yet it was the Home Office itself which ordered a register to be compiled in the first place.

Help the campaign for the Manchester Martyrs to be returned home to Ireland

-- Write to Gordon Brown & your MP at The House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA and demand that the remains be returned to the families

-- Organise delegations to MPs surgery’s

-- Raise the case in your Trade Union, local Labour Party or community group

-- Write to newspapers and get on radio ‘phone-ins’

-- Get in touch with Troops Out Movement for further information, leaflets, postcards, petitions and information about protests on this and other issues

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© 2009 Irish Republican News