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An Explosive Trial......

Added: Tuesday, October 16th 2012 at 11:44am by wicklowmick
Related Tags: ireland

Justice......or not............

On the 6th April, 1868, at the Old Bailey – Central Criminal Court in London – when Michael Barrett was convicted of Murder, he was asked by the Judge if he had anything to say.    He made the following relply which is regarded by many as one of the finest speeches from the dock.   He was sentenced to be hanged.   Those who heard the speech in court, almost to a man, believed him to be innocent:

 “....I am far from denying, nor will the force of circumstances compel me to deny my love of my native land.   I love my country and if it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer.  If my life were ten times dearer than it is and if I could by any means redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so................”


It was alleged that he and others had placed a large amount of gunpowder against the perimeter wall of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in a bid to free a senior Fenian prisoner.    It was in fact unsuccessful on that score but the explosion did in fact result in the death of twelve people living nearby and injured fifty others.

(Before going any further, I feel I must state my case on Irish Nationalism.   I had a mother who was, with the rest of her family, totally Republican, whilst my father and his family were totally Loyalist and wished Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.

I would dearly love to see a totally united Ireland but would not and never have, lifted a finger to further the cause.   I am pleased that the ‘troubles’ that have plagued my life are now hopefully over for good.   The Peace Treaty has now held for about 12 years and I fervently pray that it will continue).

Now back to the story of Michael Barrett.......

The Fenians were nationalist Irishmen, forerunners of the Irish Republican Army, and committed to ‘freeing Ireland from the yoke of British rule’.   They felt that by taking the ‘war’ to mainland Britain they could encourage Britain to pass the necessary legislation.

The whole affair regarding Barrett goes back to the previous year in Manchester.   The Fenians were attempting to free from the prison one of their senior arms agents.who was awaiting trial at the Old Bailey.  

He was awaiting trial for organising an attack on a prison wagon in Manchester when two other leaders were being transported to prison.   The wagon was being escorted by several unarmed police officers on horseback and inside it was another unarmed officer, Sergeant Brett.   The two leaders were in fact American Civil War veterans  Kelly a Colonel and Deasy a Captain.    They had come to Ireland (and on to the mainland) to ‘fight the cause of Freedom’ and joined the Fenians as seniorofficersin a future uprising.

They had been arrested not for political offences but for being ‘suspected persons loitering with intent to commit a felony’ under the Vagrancy Act 1824, in that they had been seen hanging around on a corner near a shop which it was suspected they intended to rob.   Their true identities were not known at the time.............

At the onset of the attack on the prison wagon by about thirty armed Fenians, the escort party took flight leaving Sergeant Brett alone with his prisoners in the locked wagon.   He refused to hand over the keys and just when one of the Fenians decided to shoot out the lock, the Sergeant was looking out the keyhole.   The bullet entered his eye and into his brain.   He was killed.   A female prisoner, also in the wagon, passed the keys out and the lock was opened.

The two senior Fenian members were freed and never traced again – it is believed that they made their way to Liverpool and sailed to America.

As a result of the murder of Brett, all Irishmen in Manchester – about thirty percent of the population there at the time - were suspects and numerous were arrested and questioned. Dozens were taken before Magistrates and ‘a reign of terror’ against the Irish began.  In fact, one Irishman voluntarily surrendered himself to the magistrates stating that it was the “only means I have of saving myself from being arrested over and over again wherever I go, as a Fenian”.   I imagine that is where the expression began that ‘In British Justice you are innocent until proven guilty – or tobeanIrishman”...........

Eventually, twenty-eight Irishmen stood in the dock for examination as to whether there was a ‘prima facie’ case against them.   They were shackled when brought into court and a number of armed soldiers stood inside the courtroom.    Many of the lawyers for the defendants objected claiming that the men were in fact ‘innocent until proven guilty’ but the shackles remained.   At least one of the lawyers walked out in disgust.

Two of the twenty-eight were released without charge and the other twenty-six were sent for trial.    On 28thOctober 1867 their trial commenced.    Two of the defendants had also fought in the American Civil War, Larkin for the Confederacy and O’Meagher Condon for the Union.   Another defendant was a long service Royal Marine in the British Navy with ten years service who had just arrived home on leave.

They were found guilty of various offences with five selected as ‘ring leaders’.   They were sentenced to death by hanging.......................

When asked if they had anything to say before sentence, Allen stated his innocence and that he regretted the death of Sergeant Brett, but that he was “prepared to die proudly and triumphantly in defence of republican principles and the liberty of an oppressed and enslaved people”.   Larken stated that he had received a fair trial, adding “So I look to the mercy of God.   May God forgive all who have sworn my life away.  As I am a dying man, I forgive them from the bottom of my heart.  May God forgive them”.   O’Brien claimed that all of theevidenceagainsthimwasfalseandthat as he was an American citizen he ought not to be tried in a British court.   However, he continued into a tirade against “the British and their enslavement of the Irish people”.

O’Meagher Condon spoke eloquently and his speech from the dock was fully reported by The Times.   He admitted that he had organised the attack on the prison van but that he had never even thrown a stone or fired a pistol.  He further claimed that he was not at the scene of the attack and that any evidence saying so was false. He added in a soft clear voice: “Had I committed anything against the Crown of England, I would have scorned myself had I attempted to deny it”.   At the end of his speech he called out “God save Ireland” and the call was taken up by his fellow defendants.

All were sentenced to death by hanging.............

As the evidence against Maguire was subsequently proven to be false he was pardoned but the same perjurer had given similar evidence against others.   The British press and the lawyers all believed that as a result, the others would similarly receive pardons.

It was not to be.....   Thousands of people arrived the night before the public executions and a drunken party ensued.   All Irish in the city were advised and persuaded to keep away and instead Masses were held in the numerous Catholic Churches on the morning of the hangings.   All traffic into the city was stopped.......

About two thousand five hundred armed soldiers were positioned in the vicinity to prevent any attempt to rescue those being prepared to die.   After the boisterous behaviour of the mob the night before, as the time of execution approached, a strange silence came over the crowd.

At about 8am the executions commenced.   The hangman, William Calcraft, the most famous of the 19thcentury, was scared out of his wits due to the threats made by the Fenians against him and his family.   As a result of his shakes he was quoted at the time to be ‘most incompetent’ and had on occasion to run beneath the scaffold to ‘pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death’.

A Catholic priest who was in attendance, Father Gadd reported that when “Larken dropped into the pit he was not dead – Calcraft killed him”.   When he tried to do the same with O’Brien, Father Gadd refused to allow him to do so and instead the priest “for three-quarters of an hour held the dying man’s hands within his own, reciting the prayers for the dying.  Then the long drawn out agony ended”.

Those who died became known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ and mock funerals were held throughout Britain and Ireland.   Memorials were erected and revered by the Irish.    The British on the other hand began a campaign to eradicate the Fenians from society.    The British Government managed to get the British public on their side and the Irish Nationalists were hunted throughout the land.

Now the strange thing is, that within my own family back in Ireland when I was young, my mother often spoke of the ‘Martyrs’ with deep reverence.    She used to speak of the ‘murderous British’ who executed the ‘martyrs’ when the shooting of the sergeant was ‘just a mistake’.   Even as a boy – and this was only eighty years after the event – I knew that she was wrong.   My later police career confirmed the fact – those taking part in a joint enterprise are equally guiltyofwhateveroneofthegroupdoes.    Accident or not, the carrying of firearms in the commission of a felony (now an arrestable offence) is no excuse.

I of course stand on the side of my fellow sergeant, Sergeant Brett.............


So that is the lead-up to the Michael Barrett story.    A fascinating episode of police and Irish history.    I will leave you now with Richard O’Sullivan-Burke in the Clerkenwell House of Detention and supposedly Barrett and other Fenians preparing to blow up the outer wall................and of course his trial..............

(Continues .....................)




User Comments

fascinating...going to read the next instalment {#basic-laugh.gif}

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