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The Manchester Martyrs

ISBN: 9781856359511
€14.99 €13.49

The single most important event in the development of Irish nationalism before the Easter Rising of 1916.

A thrilling account of the events surrounding the execution of three Fenians known as the Manchester Martyrs. Their execution during a turbulent period of Irish history in 1867 united the Irish people in a patriotic fervour and outrage not matched until 1916. The events surrounding the dramatic rescue of Fenian leaders (resulting in the Martyrs execution) attracted worldwide attention and sparked anti-British protests across the globe. Their trial is one of the most infamous British court cases of the nineteenth century and their hanging was Britains last public multiple execution.

In 2006 Bertie Ahern announced that the Irish government would grant the Martyrs a full state funeral and re-inter them in a grave at Glasnevin Cemetery. The plan foundered because their remains could not be located at that time. This book reveals the location of the remains and explains why they will never be returned to Ireland.





The hairs on my arms and neck bristled with the surge of a disquieting emotion. The silence was like none I had ever  experienced. Beyond the silence, outside it, was the sound  of rain gurgling in the gutters, the relentless Manchester rain falling in great skeins buffeted by the November winds. I was seven years old. It is a moment that will stay with me forever.

Throughout the 1950s, when I was growing up in Manchester, the minutes silence at the spot where the Martyrs died was part of our annual commemoration, a fixture in the calendar of men like my father and many of their children. Together with the Mass, sometimes celebrated by the bishop of Salford, and the prayers at the Martyrs monument in St Josephs Cemetery, it did more than forge a bond between the Irish community and the men who, there in our adopted city, died for Irish freedom. Ritual has the power to express the inexpressible. It fashions our hearts.

In the 1960s, however, those who had commemorated the Martyrs became scattered and disparate. The citys programme of slum clearance the PR men had not yet
coined the euphemism inner city regeneration meant that the wrecking ball smashed the flimsy walls of the cramped houses and pubs once thronged by the nineteenth-century Manchester Irish. The rubble filled in the old cellars and the rafters and floorboards fed bonfires that lit up the night. The Irish of Moss Side, Hulme, Ancoats and Chorlton-on-Medlock were physically and socially on the move.

Their children, with that chameleon plasticity that marks the Irish wherever they settle, assimilated, the next generation even more. As the conflict in Northern Ireland intensified, commemoration of the Martyrs became, for some, an expression of support for a strident and brutal ideology that invoked past injustices as a rationale for present atrocities. Many saw this development as a subversion of the Martyrs memory, a misappropriation of the past in the service of current political dogma. The inevitable conflict vitiated the tradition of remembrance and a welter of accusations and counter-accusations drove away most of those who for many years had been the mainstay of the commemoration.

As conflicting groups claimed the legacy of the Martyrs, the events surrounding their execution were forgotten and no one remembered their story. Were they terrorists justly executed for the slaying of a Manchester policeman or were they victims of perfidious Albion? Were they champions of the oppressed working-class, noble bearers of arms in the on-going struggle against international capitalism? Or were they simply Irish republicans, part of an unbroken tradition linking Wolfe Tone to the hunger strikers? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for those who seek to manipulate the past in the service of the present, slogans and rallying cries are crude filters through which to view history. The past remains infuriatingly elusive, nuanced and contradictory and the complexity of peoples lives can never be reduced to a war cry. There is far more to the story than its political dimensions.

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. It is about the intrigues of a secret, oath-bound revolutionary conspiracy. It is about one of the most infamous court cases of the nineteenth century. It is about injustice. It is about the fraught relations between England and Ireland. It is about the Irish in England and particularly in the damp, quixotic city of Manchester which has, in equal measure, welcomed us and resented our presence.

I became reacquainted with the story about fifteen years ago and the more I researched the more fascinated I became. Interviews with some of those who had participated in the commemorations, especially Gerry Finn, whose commitment to the memory of the Martyrs over many years gave him a unique insight into the development of the public remembrance, brought me inevitably to the late J. P. (Jimmy) McGill. I had known the latters bookshops since childhood, without ever realising that he was for decades a moving force in maintaining the commemoration of the Martyrs. Shortly before his death, Jimmy deposited the papers of the Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Committee and related items accumulated over a lifetime, with the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, and it was there that I did a great deal of the research for this book.

Having written many articles and given numerous talks on various aspects of the incident, my brother-in-law suggested that the story was deserving of an accessible account. He provided the first incentive to write this book and over a decade later I acknowledge my debt to him. Since then I have met numerous people in Manchester and Ireland who agree with him and without exception they have been unfailing in their generosity and support, always anxious to share information with me and explain what the Martyrs mean to them.


New Bailey Prison, Salford,
Saturday 23 November 1867, 8.03 a.m.

Calcraft drew the noose tight under Allen's left ear. He could hear the prisoner snorting through the hood covering his head. Allen drew up his shoulders until they touched the noose, as if he would shrug off the rope. The crowd fell silent.

The hangman looked back along the scaffold at the other two hooded figures. O'Brien's shoulders were flung back as if he would face down death. A string of spittle dangled from the hem of Larkin's hood. This is it, Calcraft thought. He drew his hand down from his chin, pulling the white fibres of his beard into a rope.

Fr. Gadd took one stride backwards from the drop, but Calcraft stayed, savouring the moment.

'Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy', the priest intoned.

Pushing up against the barriers, the mob strained to see through the mist. The three men shot through the drop. The crowd gasped like a great beast startled.

Calcraft descended the ladder to the pit, his movements deliberate. Before he reached the bottom, he heard the breath rattling in Larkin's throat. The man's tethered legs thrashed as he gurgled.

Calcraft turned to Allen, swaying at the end of the rope, face snapped skywards.With two fingers the hangman touched his shoulder, spinning the body round. Stone dead, his neck snapped like a stick of charcoal.

Larkin's body was still pulsing. Calcraft reached for the rope, drew it to him. Holding Larkin steady, he lifted his foot to the manacle that bound the twitching ankles. Carefully he placed his shoe on the shackle. His body flexing, he leaped up onto the back of the dying man, setting the rope pitching.

Again he levered and jerked, levered and jerked. Tendons popped. Bones cracked. He stepped down, his feet silent on the planks.

'The soldiers are coming', rose the cry from below, beyond the black drape that hid the drop from the mob. Yelps and shrieks carried up from the street, the clatter of boots and clogs on the cobbles.

Calcraft patted his skullcap. He looked up at O'Brien, whose shoulders still twitched. He'd never seen a man go to the scaffold with such courage. He lifted his leg, ready to jump up on O'Brien's back.

'Leave that man alone!' came a voice from the foot of the ladder. Calcraft turned in disbelief. The priest had appeared without a sound. Before the executioner could speak Fr Gadd advanced towards him, his right arm extended, the black book clutched against his black soutane. His face was as white as his Roman collar.

'He ain't dead, sir. I must finish him off', protested the old man. Incompetent buffoon. The priest's waxy skin was now shot through with rage. 'Get back!' The priest pointed his arm towards the ladder.

The old man's mouth opened. He hesitated. 'I must stay, sir. It's my duty.'

'So long as you keep your hands off him', said the priest. Calcraft stepped back, his lips puckered like a scolded child's. He folded his hands behind his back.

Fr Gadd wrapped the chain of the crucifix around O'Brien's fingers and took the other hand in his.

'Take courage, Michael', he whispered. 'Your loving God has not deserted you. Nor shall I.'

He bent his head in prayer, causing the body to sway:

'Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord!

Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

To the voice of my supplications!'

O'Brien groaned.




ISBN 9781856359511

  • The Manchester Martyrs