Manchester Martyrs

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE shooting of Sergeant Brett could not, save by overlooking the circumstances of the occurrence, or by perversion of fact, be construed as murder. Concurrent testimony has shown that there was no intention to kill him, and that his death was accidental. Not so in the case of Allen, Larkin and O'Brien: their execution was murder pure and simple. When the news of the Manchester executions reached Ireland, men gasped for breath in astonishment that that which no man expected had come to pass—that the blind fury of the English populace had been allowed to quench its frenzy in blood—that the rabbid hatred and malicious instigation of a calumniating press had overridden the calm, unbiased judgment which should guide a just administration, and prompted the Tory ministers to steel their hearts to every appeal for mercy. A wail of grief went up from the people; a cloud seemed to darken the land for days; and the heart of Ireland was wrung with anguish.

The stain of deepest degradation attempted to be set on the characters of the Manchester victims while living, by loading them with irons and manacles—the cruel devices of a barbarous, by-gone age—at their preliminary trial, and the ignominy of denying them Christian burial, and confounding them with common murderers, added an additional pang to the shocking outrage of their execution. But their mother Ireland would pray for, and honor the memory of, her martyred sons. In all the Catholic churches of the land prayers were asked for their souls, and the people knelt, and prayed, and wept; and when they quitted the churches, and realized in all its grim repulsiveness the tragedy that had been enacted, men knit their brows and clinched their teeth, and the prompting of every patriotic heart was defiance of that despotic power which, through the persons of these victims, aimed a blow at the national cause, and smote the manhood of Ireland in the face—-thus obeying the dictum of the Times to "stamp out" sedition, and stifle all patriotic aspiration.

This feeling soon grew almost universal, and extended even to men who, hitherto, had been ultra-loyal, but who now joined hands with the Nationalists in a resolve to resent the insult offered to the nation in the persons of these victims by a public display of sentiment which should at once approve the conduct of the latter and do homage to their memory. Then was inaugurated a movement, which may be said to be the parent of every other agitation that arose in the country in recent years—a plant which with truth can be said to have been watered by the blood of martyrs, and grew to immense proportions, namely—the funeral procession, which in every city of Ireland was a vast and imposing public display of mourning that would do honor to any earthly potentate. At the Dublin demonstration it was estimated sixty thousand persons walked in the procession, which was headed by Mr. John Martin, and Mr. A. M. Sullivan. The processions in Cork, Limerick, Killarney, and other places were proportionately large.

Then was witnessed a spectacle rarely seen in Ireland, or elsewhere before—viz., a funeral procession of vast proportions, where all the somber paraphernalia of a burial were present—all save the corpse or rather corpses; for the funeral represented the burial of the three men, and comprised three hearses and three coffins, with attendant mourners. The Times and other oracles, to which the British ministers had lent a willing ear in giving effect to the dictum of "stamping out" sedition, by such a holocaust as that of Manchester, now sounded the note of alarm by descrying the funeral processions as "seditious demonstrations," and called for their suppression. Then came a proclamation from "His Excellency," and next, the prosecution of the last-named gentlemen and others. Mr. A. M. Sullivan's speech, in his own defense, was a complete turning of the tables on the crown, and its myrmidons, past and present. It proved a powerful indictment of the law itself, as framed for, and administered in, Ireland up to a very recent period, and showed that "disesteem for the law"—for brutal laws and penal enactments—was not only natural, but inevitable. This speech and that of Mr. John Martin on the same occasion, had a very marked effect on public opinion; and, taken in connection with the sad occurrences which had caused their being uttered—the Manchester executions and the funeral processions—led many men, whose hostility to Fenianism hitherto was well known, to change their views altogether, and join hands with the Nationalists.

This newly awakened sympathy with those who had recently suffered martyrdom for their country, extended itself to those poor political prisoners whose hard fate was to toil unrequited in the convict gangs at Portland and Chatham. The moment for an appeal to the government to pardon these men seemed opportune, as there had been a change of administration, and Gladstone, whose sympathies were supposed to be more Christian than his predecessors, was at the head of the Cabinet—and so there was started under direction of the CentralAmnesty Committee in Dublin, a new agitation having this philanthropic object in view. The first great Amnesty meeting was held in the Rotunda, Dublin, on the evening of January 24, 1896, at which the lord-mayor presided. Letters from nearly all the Catholic bishops, and many prominent persons unable to attend were read, expressing entire sympathy with the movement.

The first resolution was intrusted to a distinguished man and true patriot—Isaac Butt. At the mention of this name, and that of two others, snatched since then by the unsparing hand of death from Ireland and her cause—George Henry Moore and John Francis Maguire—few true Irishmen can repress a sigh of regret for their loss. Mr. Butt had won his way to distinction, and was the acknowledged leader of the Irish Bar; but won higher esteem as a convert to the National cause. He had sat for some years in the House of Commons, elected in the conservative interest for the borough of Youghal, and his political creed, for a period of his life, was directly opposed to Nationalistic views. When the political prosecutions were commenced, the government, following out its traditional policy, threw out its bait to enlist the services of Mr. Butt on its side, while at the same time the prisoners bid for his advocacy in their defense. The magnanimity of the man was shown in the readiness with which he espoused the weaker side, and in the fact that he gratuitously defended several of them who were too poor to pay the usual counsel fees.

Then the shining abilities of Isaac Butt were given full scope in the legal arena, and were successful in mitigating the full measure of punishment which would otherwise have been the lot of many prisoners; and, notably, in one case saved a man's neck from the rope. This was the case of Robert Kelly, who shot Head Constable Talbot in the streets of Dublin. The latter lingered for some hours with a ball in his spine, and at a council of doctors, some were for extracting the bullet, and others were opposed to the operation. The former had their way, and and the patient died. By a clever piece of legal jugglery, Mr. Butt threw the onus of blame on the doctors, and saved the life of the prisoner, who was sentenced to a period of imprisonment.

Such was the man who stood up to move the first resolution and whose sympathies were altogether with those poor fellows for whom he had fought many a legal battle. The resolution ran thus:

"Resolved, That it is the persuasion of this meeting that the grant of a general amnesty to all persons convicted of political offenses would be most grateful to the feelings of the people of the Irish Nation."

Mr. Butt spoke up to the resolution with all the energy and impressiveness which characterised his oratory. The popular demand for amnesty, which hourly increased, he pronounced, an indorsement and ratification of the principles for which the prisoners suffered, and a strong, protest against English misrule. The resolution. was carried with acclamation, and other resolutions, pledging the meeting to incessant agitation until the desired boon was granted, were adopted. It has been estimated that there were then in prison eighty-one civilians charged with treason-felony; of whom forty-two had been transported to "Western Australia, while the remainder were divided between Chatham, Portland, Pentonville, and other English prisons. Beside these, there were several military convicts, and persons charged with murder. Toward the end of February, 1869, the first concession was made, and it was then announced that forty-nine prisoners were to be pardoned—-thirty-four of those in Australia, and fifteen who were confined in England. This partial amnesty could not be expected to satisfy the popular demand; and so the agitation for a general amnesty was renewed, early the following summer, by open-air meetings, held near all the important towns and cities, and which, in some places—such as Cabra—assumed vast proportions. At the latter place, George Henry Moore and.

Isaac Butt addressed the assembled thousands, and at every meeting held to further this movement, there were not wanting men of distinction and ability to urge the popular demand. Yet it was not until December, 1870, that the government announced its intention of pardoning all the non-military treason-felony convicts. The condition imposed was to leave the United Kingdom, and not return until the term of their several sentences had expired; and agreeable to this stipulation, thirty-seven prisoners were set at liberty. Six of the convict soldiers at Swan River, Western Australia, were rescued from there in April, 1876, chiefly through the exertions of Mr. John J. Breslin, and by means of funds supplied by an Irish-American Society. The few remaining prisoners were released at intervals on tickets-of-leave or otherwise.

Side by side with the amnesty agitation, another great movement—in which the future prime minister of England was the prime mover—was in progress, viz., the Disestablishment of the Irish Church. This institution—this "upas tree" as Gladstone described it, if it at any time had exhaled poison on the social atmosphere, was at least, no longer formidable. Its existence, or dissolution, was no longer the burning question of the hour, though as a standing mark of conquest—as the stronghold of the "Ascendency" party—its existence in a Catholic land was wholly anomalous, and its position untenable on any reasonable grounds. This had been shown long previously by several writers, foremost among whom may be mentioned Mr. W. J. O'Neill Daunt of Kilcascan Castle, County Cork, and Sir John Gray, M. P., for Kilkenny, and proprietor of the Dublin Freeman's Journal. Mr. Daunt had for a considerable time corresponded with Mr. Carvell Williams, Secretary of the Liberation Society, and, in conjunction with the latter gentleman, aroused public opinion against the Irish State Church. Sir John Gray, in a series of exhaustive reports on the history, revenues, and congregational strength of the establishment, entitled, "The Irish Church Commission," published in his own journal, made out an unanswerable case against its maintenance.

The assault on this ancient stronghold was initiated by what may be called a coalition of political and ecclesiastical power. The Liberation Society and that section of English Liberals represented by John Bright, had for some time carried on private negotiations with prominent Irish ecclesiastics and politicians, with a view to an alliance, and for the ulterior object of winning some concessions or effecting some needed reforms for the Irish people. Denominational education had been for long the issue raised by the bishops at every election, and the securing of this concession they considered paramount. When, however, the "National Association of Ireland," under the auspices of Cardinal Cullen, was founded in December, 1864, the education question was omitted and Disestablishment substituted as the primary object of the new agitation. This was done in accordance with the views of those English Liberals above mentioned, who could not be of one mind with Catholics on the education question, and suggested its postponement till other reforms could be won. The Irish Church motion moved by Sir John Gray on the 10th of April, 1866, found the Russell-Gladstone ministry more favorable to it than hitherto; but two months later, June, 1866, this ministry, defeated and deserted by the "Adullamites"—a section of their own party—lost office, and were succeeded by a conservative administration, facetiously termed the "Derby-Dizzy" ministry—that is, the Tory Cabinet of which Earl Derby was the premier, and Mr. Disraeli, the chancellor of the exchequer. During this administration occurred all the troubles detailed in the last chapter, and its policy toward Ireland for the period may he characterized as one of callous indifference to the grievances of the nation, and of cold unrelenting cruelty to the unfortunate men who had offended against its edicts.

When the storm of angry excitement which the Fenian outbreak and its concomitant incidents conjured up in England had subsided—when that grand object, the "vindication of the law," was accomplished—the better class of Englishmen began to ask themselves whether or not the disaffected nation had any real grievance which might be removed—any heavy burden on its shoulders which it was the duty of the legislature to lighten. The Liberation Society saw their opportunity in this growing interest manifested on the Irish question, and promptly furnished the answer by pointing to the Irish State Church as the true cause of all the humiliation and heartburning that afflicted the nation. Here, too, the leaders of the divided Liberal party saw a chance to form a new platform, where its scattered contingents might combine for a general onslaught on the Irish Establishment.

A debate which was continued for four days commenced in the House of Commons on the 10th of March, 1868, on the motion of Mr. J. F. Maguire for a committee to consider the state of Ireland. On the last day of the debate, Mr. Gladstone declared that the time had come when the Irish Church must be disestablished. On the 23d he introduced his "Resolutions." The debate to go into committee on the Resolutions opened on the 30th of March, and was carried by 331 to 270 votes. The debate in committee lasted eleven nights, and on the 1st of May the first resolution was carried by a vote of 330 to 265. Four days later the ministers resigned, but it was announced that they would retain office at the request of the queen, until the state of public business admitted of a dissolution. Parliament was prorogued on the 31st of July, 1868, and on the 11th of November it was dissolved, and the ministers "appealed to the country."

At the general election which ensued, the Liberals were almost everywhere victorious, and on the 2d of December, Mr. Disraeli (who had succeeded Lord Derby), surrendered the seals, and Mr. Gladstone assumed the reins of power. On the 31st of May, 1869, the bill for the Disestablishment of the Irish Church (introduced by Mr. Gladstone on the 1st), passed the third reading, and on the 26th of July, received the royal assent. Its advantages to Catholics can be summed up in a few words. It throws open all public offices to them, save and except the lord-lieutenancy, and abolishes test oaths hitherto required of them on taking office.