IRISH FREEDOM, no. 14, December 1911
On the evening of the 18th September, 1867, an incident which was as startling to the people of Manchester, as it was brilliant in conception and daring in its execution, took place almost in the heart of that crowded English city. The memory of that heroic event and its tragic sequel will live in the hearts and minds of Irishmen as long as Croagh Patrick lifts its imperious head to the Irish sky or as long as the waters of the Liffey flow onwards to the sea. In the chequered history of our country there are records of bravery and heroism which will forever compel admiration, but I will venture to say that there are few events that can for conspicuous dash and courage compare with the rescue of Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy from the prison van in Manchester; nor is there any other exploit the memory of which can more effectively arouse the slumbering fires of nationality in the breasts of Irishmen; nor can we find in all our records a more glorious example of genuine self-sacrificing patriotism.
You know the story. Every Irishman who loves his country and resents her wrongs should know its every detail. Every Irish mother should teach it to her children at the fireside and impress on them to teach it to their children, so that it might be handed down to the ages to serve as a standard of ability, courage, grit and determination for future generations of Irishmen. In the heart of a foreign city, in the midst of hundreds of thousands of the enemies of their race and their country, a small, but brave band of Irishmen surrounded the Queen of England’s prison van, not under cover of darkness, not in an unfrequented laneway, not remote from towns and the haunts of men, but on the broad highway in a populous district of a great English city and in the bright light of a September afternoon—and rescued therefrom two of the trusted leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The two men were hardly outside the van when they disappeared as mysteriously as if the ground had opened and swallowed them to the chagrin and bitter disappointment of the British blood-hounds who were immediately on their tracks. Let me sketch for you as rapidly and as clearly as possible the main facts of this inspiring story. Early on the morning of September 11th, 1867, Col. Kelly, Deputy Head Centre of the I.R.B. and his chief lieutenant, Capt. Deasy, were arrested in Oak Street, Manchester, on suspicion of being burglars. When brought before one of the city magistrates, a detective officer applied for a remand as they had reason to believe the prisoners were prominently identified with the terrible Fenian Organisation. The remand was granted. Kelly, while not as able a conspirator as Stephens, possessed many qualities which endeared him to the members of the Brotherhood. He had received an admirable military training in America; he was bold and daring even unto recklessness, quick and conceiving a plan and clever in putting it into execution, as was evidenced by his share in the rescue of Stephens from Richmond Prison. He enjoyed a large amount of confidence of which he did not prove unworthy. The Irishmen of Manchester felt that in the arrest of Kelly and Deasy a reeling blow from which it might never recover had been struck at the Fenian Organisation. They realised that it was up to them to do something and nullify, or at least counteract, the depressing effect of the arrests. They did it effectively and thoroughly. They felt with the Roman hero, that ‘To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late,’ and that Irishmen could not die nobler or more glorious deaths than facing fearful odds against the enemies of their nation in a heroic endeavour to perpetuate the ideas of Irish Nationhood. They did not believe in taking a blow sitting down. So they determined on the rescue of the two prisoners. In the interval between the first remand and the second appearance of the prisoners at the police station the plan of the rescue was decided on and all the details arranged by Colonel R. O’S Burke. Kelly and Deasy were identified, were remanded a second time, and then handed into the custody of Police-sergeant Brett to be conveyed to the borough jail. Two of those who had volunteered for the rescue, O’Bolger and Ryan, watched the actual entrance of the prisoners into the van. They then hired a cab and drove rapidly to the point where the attack was to be made. No less than twelve policemen accompanied the van, as it was feared by the authorities that an attempt would be made to rescue the prisoners. Halfway between the police office and the prison, a man revolver in hand, stepped into the roadway in front of the van and ordered the driver to pull up. Immediately, and as if by magic, a band of armed men, numbering about 18, under the command of James Lavery, a Co. Down Presbyterian, surrounded the van. The terror-stricken driver tried to force his horses through the crowd, but a bullet whistling past his ear soon brought him to his senses, and he and his companions on the box seat descended hurriedly and sought safety in flight. Then to prevent the further progress of the van one of the horses was shot dead by James Cahill. A portion of the gallant band formed a ring round the van to keep back the crowd which was attracted by the report of firearms, while the other portion attacked the door with pickaxes, hatchets and stones. The policeman who had ran away being reinforced by others and supported by the rapidly growing mob, returned and made an attempt to hem in the valiant men who were effecting the rescue, but the sturdy Fenian lads sent them reeling back again, just as the Boers and the Irish Brigade sent the British regiments reeling back some 34 years later. In order to expedite the rescue Sergeant Brett, who was inside the van, was asked to hand the keys through the grating. This he refused to do, and personally I admire his fidelity to his duty. He must have been an exceptional Englishman. But the door must be opened at any cost, and so a shot was fired by Peter Rice into the keyhole to shatter the lock, which it failed to do, but the bullet found a lodgement in the head of the police-sergeant. A woman prisoner in the van took the keys from the sergeant’s pocket and handed them through the grating. The door was opened immediately, and in the space of a few minutes Kelly and Deasy were free men. While one body of rescuers hurried them away to a place of safety, the major portion disposed themselves so as to prevent the possibility of pursuit, and they kept the now furious English mob at bay until Kelly and Deasy were out of sight. Such in brief is the story of one of the grandest—if not the grandest—episodes in our Fenian history. When the story of the rescue got abroad, which it soon did, the whole world stood amazed. If a German army descended from airships and took possession of Manchester that evening, the event could not have created greater consternation than did the brilliant exploit of that exiled Fenian band. The inhabitants were simply panic-stricken. For hours they were in a state of abject terror, until it became known that less than a score of man had taken part in the rescue. Your average Englishman is not as great a hero as he is represented to be by the many penny-a-liners, and it is a well-known fact that the Englishmen of Manchester were that night in much the same pitiable state as the people of London were last year when horse, foot and artillery under the command of the present ruler of the King of England’s Navy, to the number of a couple of thousand, exclusive of the Fire Brigade, boldly took the field to fight the famous battle of Stepney against two foreign anarchists. The thrilling exploit of the Manchester Fenians in rescuing Col. Kelly and Capt. Deasy, caused consternation not alone in Manchester, but in every corner of England, while it caused jubilation and exultation in Ireland and made the Irish race shout with joy all over the world. It also excited sympathy and admiration amongst the peoples of every freedom-loving nation on the earth. But when John Bull, the ancestor of South African and the Stepney heroes, recovered from the paroxysm of terror into which the rescue had thrown him, he howled savagely for the blood of the rescuers, and offers many Irishmen as could be in anyway identified with the cause of Irish Nationality. The Irish quarter in Manchester was raided, houses were broken into and property destroyed; Irishmen were set upon in the streets and brutally beaten; wholesale arrests were made and the ‘cry for Irish blood arose upon the night air like a demonical chorus.’ Your unctuous, justice-loving Englishman, who never hits below the belt or strikes a fallen foe—according to himself—wrought his vengeance on unoffending Irishmen in his humiliation and fury that night.
And now to return to the stirring incidents of the rescue. This was effected successfully—so successfully that it shook England to her foundations. Wholesale arrests were made, and of the twenty-eight men arraigned for trial, five were condemned to death for the murder of Sergeant Brett. This result was brought about by the bias and partiality of the judges; by the perjured evidence of suborned witnesses; by the English lust for blood-money; by all those tricks and chicanery which have ever been used as weapons by England against our country. The accidental killing of Sergeant Brett was described as a ‘dastardly murder.’ It was not murder. If technically it was a crime, it could not under any circumstances be considered so from a moral point of view. Even if Sergeant Brett had been shot deliberately, it could not be described as murder, for Ireland was at war with England at the time. However, none of those men who had gloried in the part they had taken in the rescue, and who bravely met their doom glorying in it, fired the shot which had proved fatal to Brett. One of the five condemned men, Maguire, had nothing whatever to do with the rescue. He was a loyal private in the Marines, and had no connection with Fenianism. Yet he was condemned with the others. In my opinion he was the only man that deserved hanging. The Press reporters who were present during the trial were so struck with the apparent sincerity of Maguire’s defence, that they took the unprecedented course of sending a memorial to the Government in which they expressed the conviction that Maguire was innocent. When the matter was looked into it was found that he had been wrongfully convicted, and he was at once pardoned. It was no wonder that the news of the mis-carriage of justice in Maguire’s case threw great doubt on the validity of the verdict in the other cases. Several attempts were made to get the savage sentences commuted, but Lord Derby, who was then head of the Government, turned a deaf ear to all appeals for justice. He even described the act for which he had resolved those heroes should die as a ‘dastardly deed.’ The conduct of the men, who at the risk of their own lives, and regardless of the consequences, broke open a prison van in the heart of a great and hostile city, and rescued two of their leaders therefrom, might from the English point of view be described as lawless, but it could not be described as dastardly except by English knaves and cowards. Every people, except the panic-stricken English, described the action of those men as heroic, and so it will be described for all time. I shall not harrow your souls with the brutal details of the trial and subsequent execution. One other of the condemned men he was reprieved because he was an American citizen; but Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were executed—strangled to make a British holiday. They met their deaths as Irishmen should, with courage and composure. In strangling our three brave countrymen the English Government sowed another bushel of dragon’s teeth which may, in God’s good providence, spring up some day in armed men who will help to worry to death the British lion whose roaring is growing feebler with the years, and who has so gleefully lapped up so much of the blood of our countrymen.