The 150th anniversary of the Manchester Martyrs falls this month. On November 23,1867, a crowd, estimated at 10,000, gathered outside Salford Gaol in Manchester to witness the execution of three men who would go down in Irish history as The Manchester Martyrs. History graduate Pauline Murphy takes a look at the aftermath of the execution, including commemorations and monuments both here in West Cork and further afield.
In the old Kilbrogan Cemetery in Bandon there is a grave that holds no corpse. Instead in this old resting place there is a Celtic cross with the following inscription:
‘In memory of the boy Allen
Larkin and O’Brien
Who were executed in
November 23rd 1867
God Save Ireland
Erected by Allen’s fellow
This memorial cross was unveiled following a march through the town of 3,000 ‘mourners’ who followed a ‘coffin’ to Kilbrogan Cemetery. It was a strong public display of support for ‘the boy Allen’, Larkin and O’Brien – three Fenians wrongfully put to death and buried in an unmarked grave in England.
Michael O’Brien from Ballymacoda in East Cork, Michael Larkin from Offaly and William Allen from Bandon were executed on November 23,1867 following an ambush on a police van carrying two Fenian prisoners. During the attempt to break out the Fenians, a policeman was fatally shot. Larkin, Allen and O’Brien were among the 30 men involved; many whom were apprehended in the aftermath of what the British press dubbed ‘The Manchester Outrage’. Though Larkin, Allen nor O’Brien fired the fatal shot, the three men would be the ones to face the hangman’s noose.
Many considered it a botched trial and the execution of Larkin, Allen and O’Brien drew reactions from all quarters of the globe. The famed left-wing philosophers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who were living in Manchester at the time, corresponded with each other regarding the Martyrs. Marx informed Engels that his wife Jenny wore “black and her Polish cross on a green ribbon”. Engels replied, “I need hardly tell you that black and green are the prevailing colours in my house too!”
Others who condemned the hangings were philosopher John Stuart Mill – he called for clemency for the men – and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who later wrote in her biography that the executions were an utter mistake.
Public reaction in Ireland resulted in mock funerals being held across many towns and villages. Monuments were erected in places such as Rath Cemetery in Tralee, Birr, Kilrush and Clonmel. Monuments to the Manchester Martyrs were also unveiled in Miltown Cemetery Belfast, Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, Limerick city and East Cork.
In 1898 a Celtic cross was erected to the Manchester Martyrs in St Joseph’s Cemetery in Manchester, which would become a focal point of annual commemorations, as well as disturbances between Irish immigrants and those of a loyalist persuasion.
Commemorations, held in the guise of a funeral procession, were held in Liverpool, Sheffield and Birmingham. In London a crowd of over 3,000 followed three empty coffins, wrapped in black crepe and green flags, through the English capital.
On the day following the executions in Manchester a massive display of public support for the Martyrs was shown in New York City. Thousands followed a funeral procession including the City Mayor John T. Hoffman. Similar scenes played out in Boston and Chicago, while Philadelphia saw thousands of mainly Irish immigrants ignore the wishes of the Bishop to stay away from a mock funeral; a five-hour procession ended on the steps of the courthouse with fiery speeches against British imperialism.
Perhaps the most intriguing reaction to the executions of Larkin, Allen and O’Brien occurred on the far side of the world, in a small mining town populated by Irish immigrants. On March 8, 1868, some four months after the executions, up to 700 people followed a Manchester Martyrs funeral procession to the local cemetery of Hokitika in New Zealand. Mostly Irish people had settled the small township, on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island, in the early 1860s, when gold was discovered there.
Hundreds followed local PP Father William Larkin and John Manning, the editor of pro-Fenian newspaper The New Zealand Celt, as they marched in memory of the Martyrs to the local cemetery. When they arrived there they found the gates locked but a local miner with a pick in hand made swift work of the lock, and the funeral proceeded. The local constabulary paid little attention.
Manning planted a Celtic cross with the names of the Manchester Martyrs inscribed on it, which he had been carrying, in the middle of the cemetery. Speeches were made, prayers were said and the day ended with the singing of God Save Ireland.
A few weeks later seven people were arrested in Hokitikat, including Fr Larkin and Manning. Their crime was ‘unlawful assembly’ and a trial followed. The West Coast Times of May 30, 1868 reports how “a procession went to Hokitikat Cemetery, into which they effected a forcible entry for the purpose of planting a Celtic cross in memory of the men recently executed in Manchester…”
The seven men were found guilty and fined but Fr Larkin and Manning also received one months’ imprisonment. Fr Larkin, a native of Galway, would later leave New Zealand and settle in Chicago in the 1880s; Manning also left for America after his release from prison where he worked as a journalist. Both men continued to support the Fenian movement and attended annual Manchester Martyrs commemorations stateside.
Here in Ireland, and especially here in West Cork, commemorations continue on an annual basis to remember Micheal O’Brien, William Allen and Michael Larkin. This year, the 150th anniversary will be marked in towns across Ireland and especially in Bandon for ‘the boy Allen’.