Remembering West Cork Fenians and the Rescue at Manchester

Posted on: 10th September, 2015

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Above: Image from the National Library of Ireland. Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

In the early hours of September 11, 1867, two young men were arrested for loitering outside of a storefront on Oak Street in Manchester. Unknowingly, the apprehending officers had set into motion a series of events that would prove to be one of the great dramas of 19th-century Irish history. The two men, Captain Timothy Deasy, a native of Clonakilty, and Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, of Galway, were both decorated veterans of the American Civil War and leading members of the Fenian Brotherhood. Just prior to their arrest, they had slipped out of a local shop into what they thought would be the safe cover of darkness, having just attended a covert Fenian meeting. Authorities weren’t long in realising the true identity of their captives, who had presented their names as Martin Williams and John Wright. To their astonishment, the police noted that instead of the potential petty thieves that they thought they had captured, they had stumbled upon “Fenians of some consequence”.

As word of their arrest spread amongst the Irish community in Manchester in the days that followed, whispered murmurings of a potential Fenian rescue attempt began to circulate, and eventually reached the ears of the authorities. Following their arraignment at the courthouse on the afternoon of September 18, Deasy and Kelly were to be transported with four other common criminals by police van to Belle Vue Gaol. Taking extra precaution against any Fenian plots that might ensue along the route, the constables handcuffed Kelly and Deasy, and placed six unarmed guards on the outside of the van, supported by four others in an accompanying cab. Additionally, Sergeant Charles Brett was placed inside the van to monitor the prisoners during the ride.

As the contingent passed underneath a railway arch, the fears of a Fenian standoff came to fruition. In a scene that would rival any of the hair-raising plot twists in ‘Love/Hate’, a tall figure in a black coat and cap appeared from a nearby abandoned lot along the railway, stood in front of the van and pointed a revolver at the driver.  With that, he raised his hand, and a crowd of up to thirty other men quickly appeared and surrounded the police cortège. According to one onlooker, he had noticed the group of “strange, suspicious-looking men…loitering around the neighborhood” all morning on the day in question. He added that the unease he felt about these “stiffly-built” men who “looked as if they had been soldiers”, left him with no doubt that something was bound to happen at some point during the day. After easily subduing the unarmed constables and vigourously attempting to force open the back of the van, the men demanded that Sergeant Brett, who had the only keys to the wagon, open the door from within. After his refusal to do so, one of the crowd members aimed his revolver at the keyhole to shoot off the lock, and history was forever changed. At the same instant as the shot went off, Brett had peered through the keyhole to assess the outside situation. The bullet ricocheted through the lock and into his brain, instantly killing the curious sergeant. After taking the keys off of the dead officer, the two men stepped out of the van, and disappeared into a moment of great excitement and confusion.

In the days and weeks that followed, police rounded up dozens of suspects from various Irish neighbourhoods, particularly the Ancoats area due to its reportedly strong Fenian ties. Additionally, an unsuccessful countrywide manhunt for the two escapees was carried out, with a reward of £300 being offered for their recapture (The equivalent of £24,000 in 2015).

At this point of the story, most articles and retellings rightfully tend to focus on the three men, including then 18-year-old Willie Allen of Bandon, collectively deemed the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in acknowledgement of their controversial detainment, trial, and public hanging for alleged involvement in the rescue. However, in looking at both the rescue itself and the public executions that followed, little consideration has been given to the strong West Cork connections of two of the main actors, Allen and the rescued Captain Deasy, as well as the Fenian leader who had ordered the rescue, Colonel Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, himself a native of Kinneigh.

Although Deasy left Clonakilty as an eight-year-old when his family relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts during the height of the famine, his connection to the area was far from over. Upon his honourable discharge from the predominately Irish 9th-Massachusetts Infantry unit in June of 1865, the then 27-year-old battle-hardened veteran was sent back to West Cork by the Fenian Brotherhood to help prepare his native area for an uprising. After organising a group of Fenians in Skibbereen, the returned emigrant moved back to Clonakilty, where he remained until September 24. As in the case of many other Fenian veterans of the Civil War who had returned to Ireland with revolutionary intentions, the authorities became suspicious of Deasy’s presence, and placed him under arrest. After two weeks of imprisonment and interrogation, he was released on condition that he return to the United States. However, within a year, the Corkman was back on Irish soil, this time avoiding his native region so as not to arise the suspicions of the authorities. After participating in a number of Fenian agitations throughout the country, including the failed uprising in March of 1867, Deasy fled to Manchester where he remained in residence until the fateful morning of September 11.

Only three years after Deasy and his family first left West Cork for America in 1847, three-year-old Willie Allen and his family moved to the region from Tipperary. After being educated locally in Bandon and apprenticed to a local carpenter, Allen moved to Dublin, where it is thought that he first became involved with Fenianism. After moving to the north side of Manchester where he had relatives living, the young Allen established himself as a reputable billiards player, carpenter, and one of the city’s most active and passionate Fenians. Following the death sentence for his involvement in the infamous rescue, Allen made a speech from the dock, in which he expressed regret at the death of Sergeant Brett, but denied firing the infamous shot. Despite his protest of the verdict, he noted, “I’ll die as many thousands have died, for the sake of their beloved land and in defence of it. I will die proudly and triumphantly in defence of republican principles and the liberty of an oppressed and enslaved people.”

Like many actively engaged Fenians whose lives were spent criss-crossing the Atlantic or the Irish Sea in pursuit of an independent Ireland in the 19th-century, the most significant moments of both Deasy and Allen’s lives were spent abroad in England and America. However, despite the transnational nature of their lives, and the 148 years that have passed since that fateful September day in Manchester, the memories of Allen, Deasy, and their comrades still prove capable of evoking strong emotions from all sides of the political spectrum. Yearly commemorations, calls for the reinterment of the remains of those executed, and carefully constructed images of the martyrs that emerged in the years following their deaths have turned all those involved in the rescue into near-mythical figures who have become inseparable from the larger ideals that they represented. However, in remembering such men, one must not lose sight of their individual stories, or the places from which they came.

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