The Fenian Rising, Jacknell Expedition, and Manchester Rescue

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


SEVENTEEN years have sped swiftly by since the author of the foregoing chapter, with the instinct of a deep thinker and student of political history, predicted for that land, to which he has proved his deep devotion, a glorious future and a deliverance from the long night of bondage. That hope is not yet realized; the goal is not reached yet; it is still the night; but our eyes are turned toward the East—a little while and the day of freedom shall have dawned upon Erin.

Portrait of James Stephens

Before narrating the more important events that have occurred in Ireland within the period indicated, or speaking of that wave of agitation founded on constitutional lines, as laid down by the Liberator, which has passed over the land quite recently, it will be well, perhaps, to give a short résumé of those incidents of the rising of '67 that have not been recorded in the last chapter.

The 12th of February had been the day originally fixed for a simultaneous rising throughout the country by the council of delegates in Dublin. As the time approached, however, it was decided to postpone the movement until the 5th of March. The Fenian circles in Lancashire, England, had decided to co-operate with the Dublin movement on the day originally fixed, and their project was unquestionably a most daring one, being nothing less than the surprise of Chester Castle, which was known to contain many thousand stand of arms, with ammunition and military equipments; and which, moreover, had only a small garrison. It was resolved on by the Fenian military council in Liverpool to attack the castle, seize all the arms therein, and next, to attach the railway rolling stock, load the same with men and arms, and run the trains to Holyhead. At the latter place, all steamers in port were to be seized and converted into a transport fleet, which was to be headed immediately for Dublin Bay!

The audacity of this enterprise has scarcely a parallel in military history; save it be that brief and unfortunate campaign that culminated in Ballingarry; yet, astounding as it may appear, it is conceded that its success, so far as regards the seizure of Chester Castle, might have been effected, were it not for the treachery of John Joseph Corydon, one of Stephens' lieutenants, and deemed to be one of the most reliable men in the conspiracy. Corydon had given information to the Chief Constable of Liverpool, and, so utterly incredulous were the authorities at the intelligence that considerable time was lost before steps were taken to thwart the movement by strengthening the garrison of the castle. Soon, however, mounted messengers hurried off in all directions for troops, who reached the scene of expected attack by special trains from Birkenhead and other local points.

The arrival of these troops, and the bustle and stir observable in the vicinity of the castle, were not lost on several groups of men who had lounged all the forenoon around Birkenhead, and whose presence—most of them being strangers—was, doubtless, an object of surprise to the inhabitants. These were the contingents from the Fenian circles in Manchester, Bolton, etc., who had come in by the morning trains, and who now departed as quickly, word having reached them that their plans were betrayed. One party of them who got on board the Dublin boat at Holyhead, were arrested immediately on its arrival in North "Wall. The rising in Ireland, which occurred a few weeks later, was, if anything, a more abortive attempt at revolution than the episode of Chester Castle; and its results, as all sane persons could predict, the reverse of what its foolhardy participants had anticipated. In the vicinity of Cork, the more formidable demonstrations took place; but they amounted to nothing more than attacks on constabulary barracks (one of which, Ballynokane, was burned) and a skirmish in the streets of Kilmallock.

Two circumstances were paramount in rendering the movement wholly futile—the treachery of the arch informer, Corydon, and the tempestuous elements. The severity of the weather has been already spoken of. The traveller who is familiar with the aspect of Canadian hills, or the steppes of Russia, when the biting north wind from the pole drifts the cumbering snow, lying deep on the highways and deeper in ravines and mountain gorges, can best judge of the outlook for revolutionary warfare carried on in such a season on the hills of Tipperary or the mountains of Kerry; yet this was the plan of the Fenian military chiefs. Under more favorable circumstances—with a larger force supplied with arms and a commissariat—it is a moot question whether exposure on the bare hills of Ireland at such a season would not have caused its speedy decimation, as surely as the same cause effected the destruction of Napoleon's army retreating from Moscow. While it must be admitted that the Rising, as the outcome of the plans hatched for long in secret by the Fenian brotherhood, served the National cause in so far as proving (if proof were necessary) the disaffection of the people at large, and as a clear and emphatic protest against misrule, yet it cannot be denied that its immediate consequences were, indeed, very sad. The young men who had taken an active part in the inglorious affair very quickly realized the enormity of conspiring against the British crown when they found themselves dragged off to prison—often out of their beds at night—and there held to await the trial where Justice seldom lent her ear to the plea of Mercy. Terms of ten, fifteen, and twenty years of penal servitude, and sometimes sentence for life, was the reward of those who had loved their country not wisely but too well.

The next affair in the order of time that followed after the Rising has acquired notoriety as the "Jacknell expedition." The Jacknell, a brigantine of about 250 tons' burden, formerly engaged in the West Indian trade, was chartered by a party of patriotic Irishmen in New York, who designed to supply the "men in the gap" with arms in the hour of their struggle—so grossly had the Irish-Fenian executive deceived the American contingents as to have left them for weeks under the delusion that the red tide of war was rolling over the hills of Ireland! The Jacknell was freighted with rifles, bayonets, cartridges, and a few field guns, all packed into wine barrels, sewing-machine and piano cases—the latter serving as a safe blind for "contraband of war" against the scrutiny of custom-house officials. The bill of lading was made out for the domestic articles just mentioned, and the ship cleared for a port in Cuba. Her destination, however, was not Cuba.

On the 12th of April, 1867, a party of forty or fifty men got on board a steamboat at a wharf in New York, ostensibly for a trip down the harbor. The whole party was composed of ex-officers and privates of the American army, and as they had no baggage with them, and presented nothing suspicious in appearance, their departure was unnoticed. They reached Sandy Hook in due time, and boarded the Jacknell, which quickly set sail toward the West Indies. The Jacknell's destination, however, was not the West Indies, but Ireland. The more prominent among the party were Gen. J. E. Kerrigan, Col. S. E. Tresilian, Col. John Warren, Col. Nagle, Lieut. Augustine E. Costello, and Capt. Cavanagh. The Jacknell steered southward for about twenty-four hours, then changed her course for the "old land." On Sunday, 29th of April, the sunburst of Erin was hoisted to the mainmast, and hailed with a salute from the three field pieces carried on board the "Erin's Hope," which was the new and auspicious name there and then bestowed on the adventurous brigantine.

Sealed orders were then opened, and commissions assigned to the officers and men of the expedition. Sligo Bay, which was their destination, was reached on the. 20th of May. The ship stood in the offing for a day or two, until boarded by an agent of the Confederates. His account of the real state of affairs in Ireland very quickly dispelled the visions conjured up in the minds of these men by perusal of sensational telegrams in the New York daily papers. A landing in Sligo, they were informed, was out of the question; but an effort should be made to land the arms and military stores somewhere on the southern coast. The government had intelligence of a suspicious-looking vessel hovering on the western coast. British gunboats cruised around, ever on the alert, and the Erin's Hope had a hard time of it, night and day, to escape capture. She had been sixty-two days at sea, and her stock of provisions and water were running short. In this extremity it was decided to land the bulk of the party and set sail for America with the others, who could be maintained on the meager stock of provisions. Accordingly, a fishing smack was hailed off Helvick Head, near Dungarvan, and when she came alongside, some thirty or more of the party jumped on board and were rowed to the shore.

Their landing was not unobserved, as they were seen by a coast guard lookout, who promptly notified all the local police stations, and ere many hours, the whole Jacknell party were lodged within prison walls. In the minds of the government officials, the appearance of the suspicious craft in Sligo Bay had not, up to this time, been connected with the landing of the party of strangers at Helvick Head; but, as usual, a traitor, Buckley by name, was in the camp, who "blew" on the whole business, and at the next assize-commission every man of them was indicted for treason-felony. The Jacknell expedition, though it in nowise helped to attain the grand object in view by the Fenian organization—to wit, the overthrow of English dominion in Ireland, yet was instrumental in effecting an important change of law in relation to Irish-born citizens of America: that is to say—persons born in Ireland, and afterward living in, and becoming naturalized citizens of, the United States.

The issue was raised at the trial of the prisoner Warren, on the refusal of the crown to grant him a jury mediatate linguae, and on his instructing his counsel thereupon to waive any defense as to whether the ancient doctrine of perpetual allegiance held good in law. The presiding judge decided in the affirmative, and Warren and Costello were both sentenced—the former to fifteen, the latter to twelve years' penal servitude. Warren claimed the protection of the United States Government, which, though it had abandoned him on his trial, found it necessary to its own status to assert and uphold the rights of American citizenship. Negotiations were entered into between the cabinets of Washington and London, and resulted in an act being passed in 1870—33 and 34 Vic., cap. 14 (known as the Warren and Costello Act), which finally disposed of the question—making it legal for a British subject to divest himself of his allegiance and become the citizen of another country.

The one event of this year—the saddest, perhaps, of all the mishaps that followed in the train of Fenianism, since this was tragic in almost every particular—has already passed into history as the "Manchester Rescue." To understand what led to this occurrence, and to the sacrifice of life which it entailed, it is necessary to explain that on the deposition of James Stephens from the rank of Head Center of the Fenian organization, he was succeeded by Col. Thomas J. Kelly. It was Kelly planned and directed the rescue of Stephens from Richmond, and subsequently his flight to France. Some six months after the Rising, Kelly crossed over to Manchester to attend a council of centers there. On the morning of the 11th of September, four men were observed by the police loitering at the corner of Oak Street, in the latter city.

From some observations let drop by the former, the officers were led to think that the party were plotting some crime, and proceeded to arrest them. A struggle followed, and two of the suspects escaped. The other two had a first hearing before a magistrate, and were remanded at the request of a detective who "suspected" that they might be connected with Fenianism, and so the event proved, for they turned out to be none other than Colonel Kelly, the Fenian chief, and Captain Deasy, his assistant. The arrests excited the local Fenian circles beyond measure, and the daring resolve was taken to rescue the prisoners, come what would. On the 18th of September the prisoners were brought up again and identified as Kelly and Deasy, and were remanded once more. After the court adjourned, the prison van in which were Kelly and Deasy-and four other prisoners—three women and a boy—drove off for Salford jail, distant about two miles from Manchester.

Kelly and Deasy were handcuffed and locked in separate compartments of the van. Twelve policemen, instead of the usual number of three, formed the guard on this occasion. Sergeant Brett sat inside the van, five on the box-seat, two on the step behind, and four followed in a cab. Under the railway arch, which spans the Hyde Road at Bellevue, a party of about thirty powerfully-built men sprang over the fence and shouted to the driver to stop, which order not being obeyed, one of the party leveled his revolver at the horses and. shot one of them. Then the whole party surrounded the van and demanded the keys. The police having no arms made scarcely any show of resistance, but took to flight. The rescuers had brought such tools as they deemed necessary, hatchets, crowbars, etc., but found that the task of breaking open the van was much slower than they had reckoned. Very soon the police returned, followed by a large crowd. Twenty or more of the rescuing party formed a ring around the van, and with revolvers pointed at the heads of the policemen, kept back both them and the crowd; while their companions worked might and main to force open the van.

Through the ventilator over the door they spoke to Brett, commanding him to give up the keys, if he had them. Brett divined what was occuring on the outside, though he could not see the attacking party, and in order to obtain a glimpse of them, placed his eye to the keyhole. On the instant some one in command shouted to "blow open the lock," and immediately a bullet whizzed through the aperture, and Brett as he withdrew (but all too late) received the ball in his head' and dropped dead within the vehicle. One of the women screamed out, "He's killed." "Take the keys from his pocket, and hand them out;" was the mandate given her from outside. This was done; and immediately a young man, William Philip Allen, unlocked the door and released the prisoners, who were hurried away across the fields on the instant. In the struggle which ensued between the police and crowd on the one hand, and the Fenian party on the other, the latter were roughly handled, and five of them were arrested. Their names were William Philip Allen, Edward Condon, Michael Larkin, Thomas Maguire, and Michael O'Brien.

News of the rescue and the shooting of Brett was flashed all over the country in an hour, and raised a storm of indignation in the English public mind—awoke every slumbering prejudice of that hereditary hate of the Irish which is, even to this hour, a darling nursling of the Saxon breast, and boded not only the extreme penalty of the law to the prisoners, but indiscriminate vengeance on the entire Irish population resident in and around the scene of the outrage.

Hounded on by a malignant press, the English executive of that day seems to have lost its head, in the indecent haste with which it ordered a special assize-commission for the trial of the prisoners, and in the mode of conducting the trial which was eminently unfair, and betrayed a clear intent to satisfy the popular craving for a victim or victims. The testimony in support of the indictment for Brett's murder was altogether of a doubtful nature, and hung chiefly on the evidence of a reprobate woman; but these men were, of course, foredoomed, and the sentence of death, pronounced on the five above named, could hardly be a surprise under the circumstances. So inconclusive did the evidence in the case of one of the prisoners, Maguire, appear to the reporters present at the trial, that they took the unusual course of petitioning the Home office in his favor; and this resulted in his being pardoned.

Soon after, Condon was reprieved. This was a tacit admission of miscarriage of justice in the trial, and brought the public mind from its abnormal state of excitement to a sober second thought as to the guilt or innocence of the prisoners. It was expected, up to the last, that following Maguire and Condon, all the others would be reprieved. Many humane gentlemen exerted themselves for this object, and among the more distinguished may be mentioned Victor Hugo, who wrote a letter on their behalf to Queen Victoria; and Buchanan, the poet, who in pathetic verses published in a London evening paper pleaded for mercy. But all pleading was in vain—all hope of mercy was disappointed. The government had resolved on satisfying the popular thirst for blood. And it did. On the morning of November 23, 1867, Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien, were led out to the scaffold of Salford jail surrounded by military, and executed in the gaze of such another rabble as might have gathered around when the Savior of the world stood contrasted with the infamous Barabbas!