Looking at the above, you would be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a final resting place in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Despite appearances however, and the fact three names are listed on the memorial, there is nobody buried there. This cross commemorates the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, three Fenian prisoners who were publicly hanged at Salford Gaol on 22 November 1867. A crowd of several thousand watched the men meet their end, and the sad affair is primarily remembered today for a moment of defiance, and the shouts of ‘God Save Ireland’ inside the courts of law.
William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien had all partaken in an event that became popularly known in republican folklore as the ‘Smashing of the Van’, on 18 September 1867 in Manchester. This was an attempt by republicans to free two of their ranks from police custody. Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy were two high profile Fenian prisoners, who had travelled to Manchester to take part in a council of Fenian Centres (or organisers) in England. Both men were veterans of the American Civil War, and their arrests galvanised the Irish communities in British cities like Manchester into action. Michael Herbert, who has a particular interest in the history of the Irish Diaspora in Manchester, has written that when both men were arrested on 11 September 1867, “this was a major coup for the authorities, but Edward O’Meagher Conlon, another Irish-American Civil War veteran who was in charge of re-organising the Fenians in the north of England, immediately set plans in motion to free the two men, procuring arms from Birmingham and organising a party of men to effect a rescue.”
Conlon’s party did succeed in stopping a horse-drawn police van , and both prisoners were successfully rescued and smuggled to America by the Fenian movement. The problem was that in the course of this, a policeman, Charles Brett, was shot inside the van. In one ballad dealing with this affair, it’s noted that:
With courage bold those heroes went
and soon the van did stop,
They cleared the guards from back and front
and then smashed in the top,
But in blowing open of the lock,
they chanced to kill a man,
So three must die on the scaffold high
for smashing of the van.
As Herbert has noted, the police response was immediate, as “the Manchester police arrested some of the rescuers at the scene and dragged in dozens of other Irishmen in the following days as the constabulary ransacked the Irish quarters, enraged by the deaths of their colleague.” One man who was present at the ‘Smashing of the Van’, but who evaded arrest, was James Stritch. A committed revolutionary for decades to follow, he was only seventeen at the time. He would later emerge in the General Post Office during the 1916 Rising, and was interned in Frongoch for his troubles.
Before Allan, Larkin and O’Brien were executed for their role in the affair, they appeared in court, as did dozens of other Irishmen. O’Brien struck a defiant note, telling the Manchester court that: “The right of man is freedom. The great God has endowed him with affections that he may use, not smother them, and a world that may be enjoyed. Once a man is satisfied he is doing right, and attempts to do anything with that conviction, he must be willing to face all the consequences.” When the men were hanged outside Salford Gaol, the crowd that gathered taunted and jeered them in their final moments. One of the Catholic clergy who attended the men remembered that “A crowd of inhuman ghouls from the purlieus of Deansgate and the slums of the City … made the night and early morning hideous with the raucous bacchanalian strains of “Champagne Charlie”, “John Brown”, and “Rule Britannia”. No Irish mingled with the throng … They had obeyed the instructions of their Clergy.”
The hangings attracted international attention. Frederick Engels would write to his co-author Karl Marx that “only the execution of the three has made the liberation of Kelly and Deasy the heroic deed as which it will now be sung to every Irish babe in the cradle in Ireland, England and America.” With the men buried in England, the demand for the return of their remains was immediate. In the absence of bodies however, mock funerals took place.
In Dublin, tens of thousands marched in procession to Glasnevin Cemetery on Sunday 8 December 1867, behind three empty hearses, while there were similar mock funeral processions in other parts of the country too, with a particularly large event in Limerick. Of the Dublin march, the following description of plans appeared in the Freeman’s Journal days in advance:
We understand that the following is the programme as arranged up to the present by the managing committee of the funeral demonstration to be held on Sunday: – A body of men, eight abreast, to lead the procession; the Youth of Dublin; a Band playing the “Dead March in Saul”, three Hearses, the Ladies, the general procession with bands interspersed. The procession will assemble in Beresford Place, the head of the cortege facing up Abbey Street. The start will be twelve noon.
Reporting on the march afterwards, the same paper reported the presence of a “bricklayer’s band all dressed in green caps…then followed a very imposing, well-kept line, composed of young men of the better class, well attired and respectable looking.”
The order that prevailed was almost marvellous – not a sound was heard but the mournful strains of the music, and the prevalent feeling was expressed, no doubt, by one or two of the processionists, who said in answer to an inquiry “we will be our own police today.”… The variety of the tokens of mourning, too, was remarkable. Numbers of the women carried laurel branches in addition to green ribbons and veils, and many of the men wore shamrocks in their hats.
Commemorating the Manchester Martyrs became one of the most important annual events on the republican calendar, and remained so for decades. The cenotaph, unveiled in April 1868, provided a focal point for these commemorations. Sometimes, the Manchester Martyrs commemorations in Dublin could hint at what as ahead; in 1915 for example, it was reported that armed men, wearing the uniforms of “Sinn Féin Volunteers”, paraded through the city carrying around 800 rifles and fixed bayonets. This was only months before the Rising.
As Mervyn Busteed has noted of the commemorations:
Ceremonies on the Sunday closest to 23 November became the longest-running commemorative ritual in Irish nationalism. Both the Catholic Church and moderate nationalist politicians climbed hurriedly on the bandwagon, and in the years to come they carefully passed over early anathemas and the secret, violent, separatist nature of the Fenian movement in favour of homilies and speeches on the exemplary piety, bravery and patriotism of the three men.
It is also worth noting that the Manchester Martyrs were commemorated annually in Manchester in the 1980s by Irish republicans, members of the Irish Diaspora and left-wing activists from Red Action and other left-wing organisations. These marches frequently encountered opposition from both the far-right and the authorities. One participant recalled in Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism that:
The first time I attended that march was 84. We started from outside Strangeways prison and ended up in some side street somewhere and were boxed in by the Police, I think it is called kettling today. We were harassed and followed non-stop by a large crowd of loyalists and fascists and the match was attacked at least once which was repelled by marchers themselves not the police, who did nothing until we started to defend ourselves and then they arrested some of the marchers. It was a horrible experience.