The Manchester Martyrs

On November 23rd 1867 three Irishmen, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged on a hastily built scaffold outside Salford Gaol in Manchester. The execution was a botched affair, carried out by William Calcraft who was…

notoriously unable to calculate the correct length of rope required for each individual hanging; he frequently had to rush below the scaffold to pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This is what happened to the unfortunate Larkin. O’Brien suffered a lengthy ordeal when the attending priest prevented Calcraft from dispatching him in the same way. He hung twitching on the rope for three quarters of an hour as the priest held a crucifix before him. Allen was luckier and died instantly. 

Nineteenth Century Manchester’s “satanic mills.”

I came upon this story while researching the history of the Irish community in Manchester. My father Francis Byrne was born there in 1925 to parents who emigrated from County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Today 35% of Manchester’s population have Irish ancestry. The Irish began arriving in the city in the late 1700’s for work in the textile industry. The Potato Famine caused a massive increase in emigration and by 1851 15% of the Manchester population were Irish. By this time the textile industry was mechanized and the city came to epitomize William Blake’s bleak vision of “dark satanic mills.” The Irish lived in dreadful slums that shocked Friedrich Engels. In The Condition of the Working Classes in England he wrote that Manchester’s Ancoats slum was “the most disgusting spot of all.” Overcrowded row houses with little light and no sanitation opened onto narrow alleys and canals haunted by filth and disease. To hear my father tell it conditions weren’t much better in the Moss Side neighborhood when he was a child. 

The Ancoats slum in Manchester

Wherever the Irish went they took their aspirations for an independent Ireland free of British domination with them. It was no different in nineteenth century Manchester and this is the background to the story of the Manchester Martyrs. In 1865 the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians after the ancient Irish warriors the Fianna Eireann, mounted an uprising in Ireland. Two of its leaders were Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, Irish Americans who had fought in the American Civil War. When the uprising failed they fled to England, ending up in Manchester. But eventually they were recognized and arrested. As they were being transported to Belle Vue Prison a group of Manchester Fenians led by another Irish American Civil War veteran, Edward Condon, mounted a daring rescue mission. 

The scene was chaotic as the horse-drawn police van passed under a railway bridge on Hyde Road. Suddenly the Fenians surrounded the van and attempted to free the prisoners. In the melee one of the horses was shot and the police escort fled. One officer, Sergeant Charles Brett, was locked inside the van with the prisoners. One of the rescuers shot the lock to break it open. But Sergeant Brett was at that moment peering through it to see what was going on and the bullet went straight through his eye. One quick-thinking woman prisoner fished the keys from the dead man’s pocket and pushed them through a grill to the rescuers. Kelly and Deasy jumped out and were spirited away to a safe house in Ashton-under-Lyne. (Decades later my grandmother Bridget Carney and two of her brothers would live in that same Manchester suburb). The fugitives were never recaptured and escaped to New York. The Manchester Irish were left to suffer the consequences.

The English authorities were horrified by the attack and the murder of a police officer. Home Secretary Gathorne-Hardy wrote in his diary, “This at Manchester! What are we coming to?” In a letter to Sir Stafford Northcote Queen Victoria expressed the prejudice common among her subjects, “The Irish are really shocking, abominable people – not like any other civilised nation.” A mood of anti-Irish hysteria gripped the country. The Manchester Police unleashed a reign of terror with indiscriminate raids in Irish neighborhoods in search of suspects. They had plenty to choose from. It is estimated there were about 50,000 Fenians living in and around Manchester at the time. Dozens were arrested but in the end just five were charged. William Allen was a nineteen year old carpenter, Michael Larkin a married tailor with five children, and Michael O’Brien a shop assistant who was a U.S. citizen and Civil War veteran. Also charged were Edward Condon, the leader of the raid, and Thomas Maguire, a Royal Marine who was on leave in the city. After a show trial in which the defendants were shackled in the courtroom, Thomas Maguire was exonerated. There was insufficient evidence to place him at the scene. Despite the fact that no evidence was presented to show that any of the defendants had fired the fatal shot, the other four were found guilty of murder. The judge pronounced the death sentence. Later Condon’s sentence was commuted due to the intervention of the U.S. government, but the other U.S. citizen, Michael O’Brien, was not so lucky as he had a prior conviction for Fenian activity. The condemned men were proud and defiant in the courtroom calling out “God Save Ireland” when they heard the sentence.

The execution of the Manchester Martyrs

The three who were executed on November 23rd faced death bravely before a crowd estimated at 10,000. Most of the spectators were English as the Catholic clergy advised the Irish to stay away. Historian Joseph O’Neill wrote:

Certainly it is a story about political idealism and nationalistic fervour. But it is also about personal bravery, faith and how a group of men prepared themselves to suffer with dignity a public death before a baying crowd eager for any sign of fear.

From The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill

Engels wrote to his pal Karl Marx about the case, stating that now the Fenians had the only thing they had so far lacked for their cause, martyrs. He said the only comparable contemporary event was the hanging of John Brown in America after the raid on Harpers Ferry. In England, in Ireland, and throughout the worldwide Irish diaspora funeral processions were held to honor the martyrs. And as Engels predicted the tragedy was a boost for the cause of Irish independence.

Men who had resisted with their whole strength the Fenian movement – priests who denounced it from the altar – have shed hot and bitter tears over this deed of blood.

Robert Kee

The Manchester Martyrs’ cry of “God Save Ireland” inspired the Irish poet Timothy Daniel Sullivan to write the lyrics for an anthem set to a tune popular with Union troops in the American Civil War. Until 1926 it was the unofficial national anthem of Ireland. The famous Irish tenor John McCormack made a recording of the song in 1906.

High upon the gallows tree swung the noble-hearted three
By the vengeful tyrant stricken in their bloom
But they met him face to face, with the courage of their race
And they went with souls undaunted to their doom.

“God save Ireland!” said the heroes;
“God save Ireland” said they all.
Whether on the scaffold high
Or the battlefield we die,
Oh, what matter when for Erin dear we fall!

Girt around with cruel foes, still their courage proudly rose,
For they thought of hearts that loved them far and near;
Of the millions true and brave o’er the ocean’s swelling wave,
And the friends in holy Ireland ever dear.

Climbed they up the rugged stair, rang their voices out in prayer,
Then with England’s fatal cord around them cast,
Close beside the gallows tree kissed like brothers lovingly,
True to home and faith and freedom to the last.

Never till the latest day shall the memory pass away,
Of the gallant lives thus given for our land;
But on the cause must go, amidst joy and weal and woe,
Till we make our Isle a nation free and grand.

Timothy Daniel Sullivan

A monument to the Martyrs was installed in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, Manchester in 1898. At the base of a twenty foot high Celtic Cross are images of the three men. In this same cemetery lies the grave of Philomena Byrne, my father’s baby sister who died of pneumonia before he was born.

The story of the Martyrs was within living memory at the time my grandparents arrived in Manchester. They lived there as single people before the First World War, married in Ireland in 1917, and fled Ireland with their first baby son as soon as the war was over. My grandfather Michael Byrne served as a Military Police Officer on the Front in France. When he returned home after the war he, like other Irishmen who had fought for the British, were persona non grata in their homeland. The Ireland they left was consumed by violence, a war for independence followed by a civil war.

Was Manchester a peaceful respite? Not altogether. From 1920 to 1922 the IRA (The Irish Republican Army, the successors to the Fenians) launched attacks throughout the city. A plot to destroy a power station failed, but factories, warehouses, hotels, railway signal boxes, and collieries were bombed. Like immigrant communities the world over the Irish in Manchester were conflicted between loyalty to their homeland and the wish to assimilate, a means to avoid the censure of anti-Irish attitudes among the English. They were divided between those who supported violence in the cause of Irish independence and those who opposed it. Over time immigrant community members become part of the establishment. My grandfather served as a Manchester City Police Officer from 1912 to 1930, interrupted by his military service during the war.

In St. Ann’s Church, Manchester, there is a marble plaque in memory of Police Sergeant Charles Brett, the first Manchester Police Officer to be killed on duty.

NB: A novel published in 2020, The Abstainer by Ian McGuire, is based on the story of the Manchester Martyrs. The plot pits an Irish American Fenian activist against an Irish Head Constable in the Manchester Police. It was named one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times.

4 thoughts on “The Manchester Martyrs

  1. My mother’s parents immigrated from the Manchester area in the 1890s. He was a weaver in the textile industry in N. Philadelphia until he retired. The street in Philadelphia where he lived was a rowhouse that looked a lot like the ones pictured in your article. I found your article very interesting.


  2. Dear Rita, thank you for this important story. And happy St Patrick’s day to you and yours. I grew up with John McCormack on old 78s. If this was recorded in 1906 he was only 22 (I googled his dates). When my mother was in her later teens she was in Dublin for some reason I forget. It would have been sometime in the 30s. She grew up near Skibbereen, so she was away from home. She saw that McCormack was giving a concert and, excited, went to the venue. But she found she had not enough money for the entrance. She was hanging about around the place, a bit disconsolate, and a policeman asked what the problem was. She told him she wanted to listen to the great tenor but couldn’t afford it. And so he kindly made up the difference for her. All the best in the coming months-hope you have been vaccinated or are about to be. US is doing so much better than Canada where I am now. Love, Desmond


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