The failure of the Fenian uprising in Ireland in 1867 should have dashed the hope of freeing Ireland by militant means, but two escaped Fenians, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, went to England to reorganize Fenians there. Both had been officers in America’s Civil War and had key roles in the Clan na Gael. Kelly had been declared Head of the Irish Republic and Deasy, a member of Lawrence, MA AOH Div. 8, had led a Fenian brigade. On 11 September 1867, they were arrested in London and on the 18th they were bound for Belle Vue Jail in a locked police van escorted by 12 mounted police. As the van passed under a railway arch, about 35 men leaped over a wall at the side of the road, surrounded the van and seized the horses. The unarmed police fled. The rescuers called on Sergeant Brett, inside the van, to open the locked door. Brett refused, so one of the rescuers placed his revolver at the keyhole of the van to blow the lock unaware that Brett just bent over to look through the keyhole to see what was happening outside. The bullet killed him instantly. The door was unlocked with keys taken from Sergeant Brett’s pocket by another prisoner in the van. The van was opened and Kelly and Deasy were free.
The rescue was the only bit of positive news that the Irish had after the failure of the rising. However, British police invaded Manchester’s Irish section and brought in dozens of suspects arbitrarily selected in raids that were described as a ‘reign of terror.’ Of those apprehended, 26 were sent for trial on 28 October for murder, felony, and misdemeanor. It was decided to charge five, selected at random, as the principal offenders – William Allen, Michael Larkin, Michael O’Brien, Edward Condon and Thomas Maguire – despite none of them having fired the fatal shot. The vengeful jury returned a verdict of guilty for each of the five. When asked if they had anything to say, Allen stated his innocence and Larkin said ‘I forgive all who have sworn my life away.’ O’Brien claimed that all the evidence given against him was false and that, as an American citizen, he ought not to be facing trial in a British court. He went on to condemn the British as tyrannical rulers of Ireland. Condon admitted to having organized the attack in his role as leader of the north-west section of the movement, but claimed that he ‘never threw a stone or fired a pistol; I was never at the place, it is all totally false.’ At the end of his testimony he shouted, ‘God save Ireland!’ The cry was taken up by his companions in the dock. Allen, Larkin, O’Brien, Maguire and Condon were all sentenced to death by hanging, once again crying ‘God save Ireland’ after each sentence was pronounced – a phrase that has been immortalized in song.
The trial took place in what was called a climate of anti-Irish hysteria by the weekly Reynold’s Newspaper, which described it as a ‘deep and everlasting disgrace to the English government, the product of an ignoble panic which seized the governing classes. A yell of vengeance had issued from every aristocratic organ, and that before any evidence had been obtained, the prisoners’ guilt was assumed and their executions had been demanded.’ In Maguire’s case the witnesses who testified that Maguire was in the forefront of the attack had their evidence disproved. An appeal resulted and Maguire was granted a pardon. Many believed that the others would also be saved since they had been convicted on evidence by the same witnesses who perjured themselves against Maguire. Condon was pardoned on the eve of his execution, but Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were not as fortunate.
Throughout Manchester, silent congregations with tear-stained faces attended an early Mass for the souls the three innocent Irishmen doomed to die the morning of 23 November outside the New Bailey prison. To make matters worse, the executioner was incompetent and mis-calculated the correct length of rope required to break the neck of each victim. When the trap floor was released, Allen died almost instantly from a broken neck, but Larkin and O’Brien did not. A local priest in attendance, Father Gadd, reported that the other two ropes, were stretched taut and tense by their still breathing, twisting burdens. The hangman had bungled the job! He then descended below the scaffold and there finished what he could not accomplish from above; he pulled on his victim’s legs to hasten death and in that manner he killed Larkin. Father Gadd refused to allow the hangman to dispatch O’Brien the same way, and for three-quarters of an hour the priest knelt, holding the dying man’s hands within his own, reciting the prayers for the dying. Then the long drawn out agony finally ended. He did O’Brien no favor!
The Daily Telegraph, like most of its contemporaries, described Sergeant Brett’s death as ‘a dastardly murder’, nevertheless they found enough ink to support reform in Ireland; ‘we may hang convicted Fenians with good conscience,’ they wrote, ‘but we should also thoroughly redress those evils distinctly due to English policy still supported by English power’. Despite the government’s ban on demonstrations for the Manchester Martyrs, as they were now called, funeral processions were held throughout Ireland, America and England during the weeks following the executions, attracting crowds of thousands. The demonstrations gave rise to an intense groundswell of anti-British sentiment among Irish communities around the world. The militant approach to achieving Irish independence was beginning to find new converts.