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The Manchester Martyrs of 1867


In 1858, a young man by the name of James Stephens founded a secret society which he called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (an early forerunner of the IRA). This soon became known as the Fenian Movement, derived from the Fianna Eirann, a legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fin MacCoul. The object of the Fenians was to overthrow British rule in Ireland and it was their basic belief that this would be impossible to do by political means alone: armed insurrection, they believed, was the only solution.

In December 1866 James Stephens’ role was taken over by an Irish American, a veteran of the American Civil War, Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, originally from Galway. He had, as his second in command, Captain Timothy Deasy, also a war veteran. There were, by now, a number of Civil War veterans in Great Britain, including Captain Edward O’Meagher Condon, who came to Manchester in 1867 to rejuvenate the nine Circles there and who was soon de facto Head Circle for the north of England.

One evening in September Kelly and Deasy were ambushed by the police after a meeting in Manchester. Deasy drew a pistol, but this was wrestled from him before he had a chance to use it. Kelly, too, was overwhelmed before he could use his revolver and was taken, with his companion, to the nearest police station. Once at the station they did themselves no favours with odd, evasive answers as to how they had arrived in England and the magistrate had no compunction in remanding them in custody for a week.

Next morning Condon was given the shock news that Kelly and Deasy were in the hands of the police and that it would not be long before the authorities discovered who these men really were. Condon immediately called a meeting of the local Centres to consider how best to proceed. Assuming that the two Irish leaders would be remanded in custody after their Magistrate’s Court appearance, Condon reasoned that the only way to rescue them would be by waylaying the police van taking them from the court to Belle Vue Prison (approximately on the site of the modern day pleasure grounds) on the Hyde Road.

At half past three, the van, with its accompanying policemen, started out for Belle Vue. The plan was that the attackers would hide in and around the arches of the bridge and at a given signal, launch themselves at the van, break open the rear door, free Kelly and Deasy and then spirit them across open fields on the left and on to the Ashton road, where Condon had arranged for a cab to be waiting to take the fugitives to a safe house in Ashton-under-Lyne.

The van approached and as the horses emerged from underneath the central arch, two men ran into the road and made a grab for them. These were Captain Michael O’Brien and the thirty-two-year-old, scrawny and rather ill-looking Michael Larkin, both waving pistols. Despite Condon’s strict orders, shots were fired immediately, and one of the two horses was hit in the neck, forcing the van to a halt. Immediately, a mass of Irishmen attacked the van, two of them climbing up on to the top of the van, where they were handed up heavy stones from the roadside. They then proceeded to try to smash the roof and thus gain entrance. While all this was going on, several more shots were fired, one of them hitting an onlooker named Sprosson in the foot, whilst PC Seth Bromley was wounded in the thigh.

The enterprise now almost descended into farce as it was realised that someone had forgotten to bring the tools needed to force open the rear door of the van. Condon was eventually given the blame for this, but many years later, in his memoirs, he insisted that he had been planning the raid entirely on his own and that he could not be responsible for every single thing.

Meanwhile, amongst the mass of Irishmen struggling around the arches, the most prominent of the rescuers was seen to be William O’Meara Allen, a twenty-year-old Irishman living along Rochdale Road, an out of work joiner. He carried a pair of pistols which he waved wildly, exhorting his fellow rescuers to greater efforts and menacing the crowd if they got too near. It was Allen who had shot the unfortunate Sprosson in the foot.

Inside the van, there was chaos. Sergeant Brett was trying to keep his charges cool, although in this he was badly hampered by the three women, who had been allowed to stand in the corridor with him. The noise inside the van was fearful, with repeated attacks of the roof and door and several voices outside shouting to him to hand out the keys, so that the rear door could be opened. This Brett stoutly refused to do, ‘I must do my duty,’ he muttered to himself as he tried to look through the grill in the rear door, which someone was just then attempting to jam open with a stone. One of the women prisoners, Emma Halliday, caught hold of Brett by his sleeve. ‘Oh, come away, Charlie. You’ll get shot,’ she entreated, but Brett shook her away. Suddenly, the barrel of a pistol was poked through the open grill and a shot rang out. Brett immediately slumped to the floor. ‘Charlie’s killed,’ screamed one of the women and there was a renewed demand from outside for the keys to be passed out. One of the women frantically felt in Brett’s pockets and, discovering a ring with three keys on it, threw it through the grill and in less than a minute, the rear door had been flung open and the women were roughly pushed aside, Brett’s body falling out on to the road. ‘Kelly? Deasy?’ the words were heard dimly through the racket, ‘Here,’ came the reply. As the men came out of the van, Allen was heard to shout to Kelly, ‘Didn’t I say I’d die for you before I’d give you up?’

Kelly and Deasy were soon spirited away, but prison warders gradually began to take a hold of the proceedings and lay hands on the other escaping men. Altogether, over forty men were arrested and locked up in the next few days, including Allen, Larkin, and William Gould (a false name given by O’Brien), Condon (calling himself Edward Shore) and a man named Thomas Maguire, a Royal Marine, on leave from his regiment. The unfortunate Sergeant Brett was taken to the hospital, where he died the following morning, a bullet having pieced his head, removing an eye from its socket.

William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien were tried over five days. Justice Mellor pronounced a sentence of death and told the condemned men that they had been severally convicted of the crime of wilful murder, after a full, patient and impartial investigation. ‘If I were to hold out any hope of a pardon, I would be misleading you,’ he said.

When the drop fell, Allen died instantly, but it was soon obvious that Larkin and O’Brien were still very much alive. The drop had been too short, a not infrequent happening at executions in those days and the executioner hurried below the scaffold where he hung his full weight around Larkin’s legs to finish him off in the time honoured way. Satisfied that Larkin was now dead, he turned his attention to O’Brien, only to be forced away by Father Gadd, who forbade the hangman to touch him. Gadd then stood in front of the suspended man, offering a crucifix to his twitching fingers and there he stood for three quarters of an hour until O’Brien breathed his last. Later, he presided over the burial of the three in the prison grounds.

In 1871, the prison was taken down to make way for the extension to Salford station and the bodies were reburied at Strangeways Prison, where their graves are now marked solely by mysterious marks on the wall. In 1877, an impressive memorial to the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ was erected at the Catholic Moston Cemetery, (paid for by the Irish people) and the foundation stone was dedicated by James Stephens. The effigies of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien look down from the middle of the memorial, just below a large Celtic cross.

Extracted from Greater Manchester Murders by Alan Hayhurst

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