Two reviews by Library volunteers of The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill (Mercier Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-85635-951-1)
The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill not only relates a milestone development in Irish nationalism, it also deals with a controversial event in Manchester’s history in the 19th century, one which is still alive in the minds of many Mancunians, ranging from those having concern about the judgements handed down to the Fenians to those who regard the killing of Sergeant Brett, in September 1867, as unjustifiable homicide. The arguments have flowed, ebbed, and flowed again from the 19th century to the 21st century and seem set to continue. The book deals with the origins and growth of Fenianism, the events surrounding the attack on the police Black Maria, and subsequent developments.
Many have heard of the Revolutionary Irish group, inspired by James Stephens a survivor from the Young Ireland uprising of 1848, that developed in the 1860s, but few appreciate the extent of its activities. They invaded Canada, plotted to assassinate Queen Victoria and attempted a rising in Ireland. Nowadays it would be defined as international terrorism. Yet the undertaking that has stood out above all the other exploits was an attempt to free prisoners on trial in Manchester in 1867.
In early September,1867, two leading Fenians were captured by police in Manchester. Soon others were taken into custody and also detained as suspects who had been involved in events in Ireland. It was while the prisoners were being taken from the courtroom to the prison at Belle Vue that the rescue was attempted. It did not go as planned. Shorts were fired and, disastrously, Sergeant Brett inside the van was mortally wounded.
A murder trial followed and initially all five accused were found guilty and condemned to death. Subsequently two sentences were rescinded but Allan, Larkin, and O’Brien were hanged on Saturday November 23rd 1867, in Manchester.
Intermingled are glances at the social history of the time. Most of this, naturally, concentrates on the condition of the Irish in Manchester where the population had been swollen in recent years by immigrants fleeing from the devastating effects of the potato blight that arrived in Europe in the mid-1840s and which took a particular toll in Ireland. Living conditions for working people in the 1860s were deplorable and at the bottom of the pile were the Irish. Yet execrable as those circumstances were they did at least provide people with shelter and a means of subsistence.
These conditions were not particular to the Irish or to Manchester. In every country experiencing great influxes of immigrants there has been the same pattern of development; ghettoization, relative poverty, scapegoating, etc., and eventually assimilation with the host nation.
There is occasional leaning towards literary licence here, especially towards the end of the book. However the content does invite that sort of treatment even though it is gruesome enough on its own. Elsewhere proof reading could have been better but publishers are not as fussy about this as they used to be.
O’Neill says in his introduction that he did not set out to write an academic tome.
What he has done is help to fill the great gulf that exists between academic writings and those self-styled history books, badly researched, badly written, full of bias, which are interesting only as curios. Persistence of this grey area is borne out by the continuing popularity of TV programmes hosted by highly qualified historians. Viewers are not deterred by their professional styles but when it comes to their written works the average reader can be overwhelmed by footnotes, etc. For the majority of those who are avid readers of history these are not prerequisites and so have been avoided here. This is a work based on extensive research about an event that has particular interest not only for readers in the Manchester area, but also for a much wider audience. For anyone interested in Fenianism, and Mancunian history, this is a stimulating tome and a good read.
The Manchester Martyrs are part of the history of the Irish Community in Manchester and, in his introduction, the author Joseph O’Neill explains why they are significant to him. “Throughout the 1950s when I was growing up in Manchester, the minute’s silence at the spot where the martyrs dies was part of our annual commemoration…it did more than forge a bond between the Irish community and the men who, there in our adopted city, died for Irish freedom.”
O’Neill has chosen to tell the story of the Martyrs as “a history book written for the general reader”. Unfortunately, this means that it is difficult to find out what sources he has used to write “ a narrative which captures the drama inherent in the events.” In the prologue he writes a melodramatic account of the execution of the Martyrs and, without knowing where he got the information from, it is hard to reconcile the drama with the real events.
The Martyrs were three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (also known as the Fenians), who were wrongfully executed for the death of a policeman during the successful rescue attempt of two of their comrades in Manchester in September 1867. The Fenians were part of an Irish tradition of rebellion against the occupation of the British in Ireland since the 12th century. James Stephens played a major role in the creation of the Fenian movement. As O’Neill says: “Unlike any previous Irish nationalist organisation, the one Stephens sought to create would combine the power of the Irish diaspora…with that of the most virulent elements at home (Ireland)”. Most of the support for the Fenians came from America, building on the bitterness felt by the Irish who had been forced to leave Ireland after the famine in 1846,and the movement was full of men who had gained military experience in the American Civil War.
The story of the Martyrs is the story of the Irish experience in Britain. And, although there are differences in the way in which the three men were unjustly tried and hanged for a crime they did not commit, there are also parallels with contemporary events, and in particular the case of the Birmingham Six. As the escaped Fenians were feted in America, O’Neill explains that the response of the Chief Constable of Manchester was: “The Fenian leaders had escaped but those who had rescued them would not. It was to these men that the police now turned their attention.” And the same thing happened with the Birmingham Six. The police and the government knew they were not guilty of bombing pubs in Birmingham, but framed them anyway. Someone had to be seen to be paying.
There are many aspects of this book I find objectionable. In particular it’s the way in which the author’s own politics pervade the whole narrative that is most unacceptable. He has chosen to locate the Martyrs within a separate part of the history of the Irish in Manchester; a pure, Catholic, Irish tradition. He fails to highlight the progressive nature of the Fenians; they were very much part of a progressive political tradition mirroring that of Thomas Paine. In their manifesto (which O’Neil puts in the index) it is clear that they were for universal suffrage, a free mind and, most importantly, the separation of church and state. They were part of the progressive tradition within the Irish community of republicans and socialists.
Like ONeill’s father, my father also took part in the Manchester Martyrs commemoration, but unlike him, he saw this as part of a republican socialist tradition, and one which he passed onto his children. O’Neill is scathing in his attack on 2nd and 3rd generation Irish: “Their children, with that chameleon plasticity that marks the Irish wherever they settle, assimilated the next generation even more.” He fails to mention the numerous Irish such as myself who have been involved in Irish politics in Britain, in groups such as the Irish in Britain Representation Group, the Labour Committee on Ireland, Troops Out etc. For someone who was a history teacher – presumably in the Roman Catholic sector – one must ask the question: why he wasn’t active in promoting Irish studies?
Whilst O’Neill is happy to expand on the reasons why the Irish supported the Fenians in the 1860s, he cannot extend the same analysis to the Irish of his own generation. He does not want to talk about the way in which the British government used legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act to stop a debate in the Irish community in Britain about human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. He does not want to talk about the widespread and unacceptable anti-Irish racism faced by children such as me growing up in 1970s Britain.
O’Neill says that the story of the Manchester Martyrs “speaks of the transformative power of suffering.” He doesn’t explain what this means. I would argue that the history of the Irish community in Manchester (like many other communities) does show that our community has suffered, but that our life has improved through people getting together and challenging inequality and injustice. I suspect O’Neill is calling for some kind of Catholic revival with the poor Martyrs as “saints”. If they were in a grave, I am sure that they would be turning in it, when faced with such a usurpation of their lives and politics.