Book Review:The Manchester Martyrs by Joseph O’Neill (Mercier Press, 2012)
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. They were buried in quick lime, and in the 1990s their remains were secretly cremated.
In his introduction the author, Joseph O’Neill, explains why the Manchester Martyrs are significant to him. “Throughout the 1950’s when I was growing up in Manchester, the minute’s silence at the spot where the Martyrs died 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”. This often involves a melodramatic account akin to a novel but, without knowing where he got the information from, it is hard to reconcile the drama with the real events.
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)”. Much 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, whilst 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 the response of the Chief Constable of Manchester: “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 paying, and paying hard.
O’Neill has chosen to locate the Martyrs within a a purely Catholic Irish tradition, failing to highlight the progressive nature of the Fenians, who were very much part of a political tradition harking back to Thomas Paine . In their manifesto, (which O’Neil includes in the index) it is clear that they were for universal suffrage, a free mind and, most importantly, the separation of church and state.
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 second and third 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 and Troops Out.
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 when growing up in 1970s Britain.
The Birmingham 6 on their day of release in 1991
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 lying in a grave, I am sure that they would be turning in it, when faced with such a usurpation of their lives and politics.
J.O’Neill will be speaking about his book at the WCML on 27 June – details here