The Manchester Martyrs

An edited version of this article also appeared in the Cork Holly Bough Christmas 2023 Edition.

The execution of three Irishmen in Manchester on November 23rd 1867 caused anger and revulsion across the island of Ireland. William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien were executed outside the New Bailey Prison in Salford in front of a crowd of thousands. Allen, born 1848, was a native of Tipperary, but grew up near Bandon, Co. Cork. Larkin, born 1835, was a native of Co. Offaly. Michael O’Brien was from Ballymacoda.

The Manchester Martyrs, Allen, Larkin & O’Brien

Michael O’Brien was born in Ballymacoda on January 17th 1838, the son of John & Johanna O’Brien (née O’Neill). His family rented a large farm, but were evicted in 1856. After school, he was apprenticed to a draper in nearby Youghal, where he worked for Arnott, Grant & Co., and later moved to the Queen’s drapery in Cork city. He became involved in the Fenian movement there, through contacts with Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, and for three years he served as deputy to Brian Dillon, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Cork city.

In late 1861, he lost his job and decided the following year to emigrate to the United States. At this time, the Northern and Southern states were engaged in the American Civil War (1860-1865). In August 1862, O’Brien joined a Union Army regiment from New Jersey. Records available from the 13th New Jersey Infantry Regiment (Company E), confirm that O’Brien enlisted on August 14th 1862 with the rank of Private, for a period of 3 years. The same record also shows that he was discharged at Eckington U.S. Army General Hospital in Washington, D.C. on February 5th 1863, with the discharge noting ‘Disability‘ as the reason, which one would assume meant he was recovering from some injury received in battle. This seems to be confirmed in October 1864, when O’Brien signed up for the Union Army once again – this time for a period of 1 years service in the 10th Regiment of the Ohio Infantry. The official soldier roster for the Ohio Infantry (seen below), confirms this service, and that he was discharged at San Antonio, Texas on October 17th 1865, having completed his service.

Entry for Michael O’Brien in the Official Soldier Roster, Ohio Infantry

After discharge, he returned to Ireland where he obtained a job as a shop assistant in Cork city and lived for a period with his sister Mary in Glenagare, Ladysbridge. During this time, O’Brien became involved in procuring arms for the Fenian movement in Ireland and England, and travelled regularly for this purpose. In late 1866, he was arrested in Liverpool along with three other Fenians on charges of possession of firearms, after police found army rifles in the basement of a house which they used at the time. Remarkably, all four were acquitted in November that year due to lack of evidence against them.

The Fenian Rising of March 5th 1867 is the next significant event in the story. In the aftermath of the failed rising, two men fled to Britain in an attempt to re-organize. Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy had fought in the American Civil War similar to Michael O’Brien. They had both been involved in the Fenian Rising and were now on the run from authorities. O’Brien himself had been involved in the rising and had also fled to England, where he stayed with Edward O’Meagher Condon in Manchester, using the assumed name ‘William Gould‘. On September 11th 1867, Kelly and Deasy were arrested in the early hours of the morning in Oak Street in Shudehill, Manchester. Police suspected them of being about to commit a burglary, and didn’t realize until later that the men they had in custody were the wanted Fenians, Kelly and Deasy.

On September 18th, Kelly and Deasy were being transferred from the courthouse to Belle Vue Gaol in Manchester, a Victorian age prison which was known for its deplorable prisoner living conditions. The police van in which they travelled was heavily guarded by mounted police officers. The van contained six prisoners, including a 12 year old boy and two women. Police Sergeant Charles Brett travelled inside the van with the prisoners. As the van travelled along Hyde Road and passed under a railway arch, a man ran into the road and forced the driver to stop at gunpoint. At that moment, a large group of Fenians, including Michael O’Brien and Edward O’Meagher Condon, appeared and attempted to surround the van and the mounted officers, with the goal of liberating Kelly & Deasy.

The scene of the ambush today, the railway arch replaced by a modern bridge

The Fenian rescuers had great difficulty in opening the van door, and called for Sergeant Brett inside to open the door, who refused. His words of reply, “I dare not. I must do my duty,” were later inscribed on his gravestone. One of the Fenians, later alleged to be a Dublin man by the name of Peter Rice, in an attempt to blow the lock, took aim and fired at it just as Sergeant Brett was looking through the keyhole from the other side to see what was going on outside. He was hit in the head by Rice’s shot and killed. One of the women prisoners took the keys from Sergeant Brett’s corpse, and passed them to the group outside through a ventilation hole. Most of the Fenian’s then escaped, having secured Kelly & Deasy, but some including Michael O’Brien, William Allen, and Michael Larkin were later arrested.

The handcuffs worn by Deasy, and purportedly the gun used to kill Sergeant Brett

Sergeant Charles Brett was the first police officer killed whilst on duty in Manchester, causing outrage and a significant backlash from the population and policing authorities. Over the proceeding weeks, many innocent Irishmen were targeted for arrest. A £300 award was offered for information leading to the capture of Kelly & Deasy. By this time, both had already escaped to the United States via Liverpool.

Sergeant Charles Brett (1815-1867)

In late October, proceedings began against the men accused of participating in the attack, via a Special Commission overseen by Mr. Justice Blackburn and Mr. Justice Mellor. In total, there were twenty-six accused before the court – with the principal defendants being Michael O’Brien, Edward O’Meagher Condon, William Allen, Michael Larkin and Thomas Maguire. Maguire was a young Irishman and a member of the Royal Marines, who had been on leave and had been seized by police close to the scene of the attack, just because he was Irish. After the fifth day of the trial, the jury retired to consider its verdict. It took them just over an hour to come back with a guilty verdict for each of the five defendants. The men were invited to speak, had they anything to say before sentence was passed. Michael O’Brien, having received U.S. citizenship for his service in the American Civil War, spoke eloquently claiming that as an American Citizen, he should not be facing trial in England. Perhaps the most famous and enduring remarks came from O’Meagher Condon’s address to the court, at the end of which he shouted “God save Ireland!“, which later inspired the popular Republican song of the same name, written by Timothy Daniel Sullivan, and almost became the second national anthem of Ireland.

The fate of the defendants when handed down by the court, was of no surprise to anyone. The only sentence permitted at the time for murder, was the sentence of death by hanging. Thomas Maguire, the young marine arrested near the scene of the ambush, was later pardoned due to the uncertainty of the evidence against him. Similarly, O’Meagher Condon’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment because of his American Citizenship. This left Allen, Larkin and O’Brien to face the gallows.

The execution of the Manchester Martyrs at Salford Prison

The executions took place on the morning of November 23rd 1867, on a specially built gallows outside Salford prison. Large crowds gathered from the previous evening to witness what would become the last public executions to take place in Manchester. The executioner was William Calcraft, a man described as “particularly incompetent“. He had purportedly received death threats in advance from the Fenians, and this coupled with his incompetence meant that he bungled two out of three of the executions. Allen was reported as having died instantly, but Larkin and O’Brien struggled after the ropes dropped, indicating they were still alive. Calcraft descended from the scaffold and pulled on Larkin’s legs until he was dead. A Catholic priest, Fr. Gadd who had ministered to the condemned men, refused to allow him to kill O’Brien in the same way, and so for nearly 45 minutes, the horror continued with Fr. Gadd kneeling before O’Brien, reciting the prayers for the dying. One has to take the times into account, but even for 1867 this was a particularly gruesome execution carried out by a demonstrably incompetent executioner.

Reports of the executions carried in news all over Ireland, including this one in the Waterford News (O’Brien referred to using his pseudonym Gould)

The remains of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were buried in the New Bailey prison graveyard. When the New Bailey closed a year later, their remains were moved to the cemetery at Strangeways prison (HM Prison Manchester). In the publication “Glasnevin Cemetery: Being a Record of Ireland’s Heroic Dead in Dublin City and County” published by the National Graves Association much later in 1932, a mock funeral procession at Glasnevin in Dublin with an empty coffin for each of the men was referenced:

When the news of their execution reached Ireland, solemn funeral processions were held, and three coffinless hearses proceeded to Glasnevin Cemetery, followed by 60,000 mourners. Allen was a native of Tipperary, O’Brien came from Ballymacoda, Co. Cork, and Larkin from Lusmagh, Offaly.

From “Glasnevin Cemetery: Being a Record of Ireland’s Heroic Dead in Dublin City and County” published by the National Graves Association in 1932

In 1991, the remains of the Manchester Martyrs were once again disturbed by the authorities when they were exhumed, cremated, and reinterred at Blakley Cemetery in the northern suburbs of Manchester, along with the remains of 63 other executed prisoners.

Plaque at the sight of the ambush on Hyde Road, Manchester.

Today, there are numerous monuments remembering the Manchester Martyrs, both in England and Ireland:

  • A monument in Glasnevin Cemetery in Co. Dublin.
  • A monument in Birr, Co. Offaly.
  • A monument in Kilrush, Co. Clare.
  • A memorial at the east end of the Quays in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
  • A Celtic cross in Ladysbridge, Co. Cork.
  • A monument in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, Manchester.
  • A plaque denoting the location of the ambush on Hyde Road, Manchester.
Monument in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, Manchester.

Michael O’Brien, in his last letter dated November 14th, 1867 said:

..much though I would like to live… I cannot regret dying in the cause of Liberty and Ireland. Let no man think a cause is lost because some suffer for it. It is only a proof that those who suffer are in earnest, and should be an incentive to others to be equally so – to do their duty with firmness, justice and disinterestedness

Excerpt from the last letter of Michael O’Brien, preserved at St Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street, Manchester

O’Donovan Rossa wrote of Michael O’Brien in his book ‘Irish Rebels in English Prisons’ describing him as “one of the truest and one of the noblest; as devoted as a lover and as courageous as a lion.”

The Celtic cross commemorating the Manchester Martyrs in Ladysbridge Village

An interesting thing happened in 1870, three years after the execution of the Manchester Martyrs. A relative of the landlord who had evicted Michael O’Brien’s family was threatened with death unless his family was reinstated. This story carried in the many Irish and English newspapers of the time.

Three years after, or three hundred years after, the Manchester Martyrs will always be remembered and revered for their sacrifices for Ireland.

References & Further Information

Dictionary of Irish Biography, Entry for Michael O’Brien

Find a Grave, Entry for Michael O’Brien

Records of the 13th Regiment, Company E, New Jersey Volunteers

Official Soldier Roster, Ohio Infantry

“Glasnevin Cemetery: Being a Record of Ireland’s Heroic Dead in Dublin City and County”, National Graves Association, 1932

Irish Rebels in English Prisons: A Record of Prison Life, by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1880)

Irish Volunteers, Entry for the Manchester Martyrs

The Waterford News, November 29th 1867

The Leeds Mercury, May 7th 1870