The Manchester Martyrs: A Tragic Tale of Irish Nationalists and British Authorities in the 19th Century

The Manchester Martyrs, a trio of Irish nationalists named William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, left an indelible mark on Irish history, despite their brief and ultimately tragic involvement in the fight for Irish independence. Their story encapsulates the broader political struggle between Irish nationalists and British authorities in the mid to late 19th century. The martyrdom of these three revolutionaries not only ignited the flames of Irish rebellion against British rule but served as a rallying cry for generations of nationalists to come.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, was founded in 1858 with the primary objective of establishing an independent Irish Republic. With members in both Ireland and expatriate Irish communities throughout the world, the Fenians embraced revolutionary tactics in their pursuit of independence. The decades following the Great Famine saw a dramatic increase in anti-British sentiment, driven by long-standing national grievances and a growing sense of political urgency.

The events that led to the trio’s arrest and execution began on September 18, 1867, with a carefully orchestrated rescue attempt involving the 40-strong Manchester-based Fenian network. The target was a horse-drawn police van transporting two leading Fenians, Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy, who had been arrested the previous month on charges of conspiracy and incitement to treason. News of their arrest fueled determination among their comrades to secure their freedom by any means necessary.

The Fenians planned to intercept the police van in the Manchester suburb of Ancoats, where the two prisoners were slated to be moved. Kelly and Deasy were brought before a magistrate with a minor charge pending against them in order to transport them between prisons. The stage was set for the dramatic rescue attempt.

On September 18, the Fenians, guided by inside information on the movement of the police van, organized themselves at strategic points along the van’s route. As the van approached, they attacked and gained control of the vehicle. During the incident, Fenian Peter Rice fired a revolver at the lock on the van’s door, but the bullet tragically ricocheted inside, fatally wounding Sergeant Charles Brett, a police officer on board. The attack concluded with the liberation of Kelly and Deasy, who subsequently escaped to the United States.

In the resulting chaos, a number of Fenians escaped, while others, including Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien, were quickly apprehended. The enormity of the situation necessitated decisive and punitive action from the British authorities. Already grappling with the growing threat of Fenian attacks, the death of Sergeant Brett amplified the need to quell Irish nationalism and send a clear message to any other would-be revolutionaries.

The murder charge levied against the three Irishmen led to a swift and highly publicized trial. Despite notable discrepancies in key witness testimony and pleas for clemency from notable politicians and intellectuals, Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien were sentenced to death by hanging.

On November 23, 1867, the trio faced their fates at Salford Jail, Manchester. In a final testament to their bravery and commitment, all three men were reported to have faced the gallows “like soldiers on parade.”

The scenes that unfolded at the execution only served to cement the martyr status of the three men. A botched execution saw the men suffer an unusually long and painful death, the gruesomeness of which fanned the flames of Irish nationalist outrage.

In the immediate aftermath of the executions, the Manchester Martyrs were immortalized in numerous nationalist songs and poems, accentuating their sacrificial commitment to the cause of Irish independence. Their story resonated on both sides of the Atlantic, and their names became synonymous with the struggle for Irish freedom.

William Philip Allen

In the decades that followed, successive generations of Irish nationalists looked to the Manchester Martyrs as a symbol of courage and unwavering commitment to the cause. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the eventual establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, which set the stage for the full independence of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, can be seen as the culmination of the broader struggle that Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien so tragically became a part of.

Michael Allen

In both the short and long term, the importance of the Manchester Martyrs cannot be overstated. Their sacrifice awoke a sleeping giant – the collective Irish nationalist movement – and galvanized it into committed, coordinated action. The depth of feeling elicited by their story influenced political events for years to come, ultimately contributing to the birth of the Irish Republic.

Capt. Michael O’Brien

The Manchester Martyrs – William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien – represented the embodied spirit of Irish nationalism that burned brightly in the 19th century. Their tragic story – one of courage, sacrifice, and unwavering dedication to the cause of Irish freedom – forged a lasting legacy that resonated deeply with countless Irishmen and women. Through their actions, their memory, and the cultural representations that followed, the Manchester Martyrs became more than just three executed Irishmen – they became symbols of the Irish struggle, immortalized in history and inspiring future generations of nationalists to continue the fight for independence.

Source: The Manchester Martyrs: The Story Of A Fenian Tragedy By Paul Bernard Ross 1970


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