On 18 September 1867 about fifty Irish Fenians, led by William Allen, attacked a prison van guarded by a large number of unarmed police at Hyde Road in Manchester, England. Their aim was to release two important Fenian prisoners, Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy. In the course of freeing the men, an unarmed police sergeant, Charles Brett, was shot dead, and 26 men were eventually tried for their part in the attack. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were among dozens of Irish arrested and charged. Their chances of a fair trial were slim, given the mood of panic and retribution among the public, whipped up by a hostile press, and a government vulnerable to accusations that it had been too easy on recent Irish insurrectionists.
William Allen, Michael O’Brien and Michael Larkin, who became known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, were hanged in front of an estimated 10,000 people on 23 November 1867 for their part in the raid, and the events surrounding the attack became part of Irish nationalist folklore.
All three executed men were born in Ireland: William Allen came from Bandon, Co Cork, and was only eighteen years of age when he died. In a defiant address from the dock he declared, ‘I will die proudly and triumphantly in defence of republican principles and the liberty of an oppressed and enslaved people’. Michael Larkin, 32, came from near Banagher, Co Offaly, and was a tailor who lived with his wife and family in Manchester. He was ill at the time of the raid and struggled to escape from the scene, and his comrades Larkin and O’Brien were captured while helping to carry him across a nearby railway embankment. Michael O’Brien, 31, from Ballymacoda, Co Cork, had previously lived in the United States and gained the rank of lieutenant in the US army. An accomplished revolutionary, he lived under the pseudonym William Gould while in England, and contemporary accounts refer to him by his false identity.
Monuments erected in honour of Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien stand in Limerick, Kilrush (Co Clare), Clonmel (Co Tipperary), Birr (Co Offaly), Ennis (Co Clare), Glasnevin Cemetery (Dublin), and in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, Manchester.
Their exploits and execution inspired Irish nationalist, T.D. Sullivan to write ‘God Save Ireland’.
Photo: Manchester Martyrs Monument, Clonmel, Co Tipperary