30 November 2006 Edition
Manchester Martyrs: Possibility of state funeral
Campaign for return of Manchester Martyrs gathers momentum
BY ELLA O'DWYER
William Allen, Michael Larkin and William O'Brien were hanged in Manchester, England November 23, 1867. The men had been captured and convicted for their part in the rescue of Fenian prisoners Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy who had played important roles in the Fenian Rising of that year.
The burial place of Allen, Larkin and O'Brien was unknown until recently traced to Blakey Crematorium, Manchester. A campaign to have their ashes reburied in Glasnevin has been underway in recent years and a group of republicans from Bandon, County Cork, including Sinn Féin Councillor John Desmond have been central to this endeavour. Now it seems that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern proposes granting a full state funeral to the Manchester Martyrs.
"Our campaign started six years ago. The Manchester Martyrs were always very important to the people of Bandon because Allen was from here. But the issue had lapsed out of the community awareness for 19 years until the local cumann revived it", John Desmond told An Phoblacht this week.
"A historian who works in the University of Limerick called John J Hassett was one of the first people to speak out about the issue. I said to John that I'd love to bring home the remains. He said that the Old Bailey was knocked years ago and their bodies were under that. But I went and did some research", Desmond said.
The bodies were in fact buried in Strangeways Prison and after a three-week riot there in 1991 it was decided to build an additional wall for security purposes. To do that they had to knock down the chapel and dig up the graves lying at this part of the yard. The bodies were cremated and reburied in Blakely along with other prisoners thus making the matter of records more confusing. Desmond's research was prolonged and arduous.
"One thing led to another and I got onto Chris Sheffield, the old Governor of Strangeways Prison and he in turn put me onto someone else who put me in contact with a chaplain who in turn put me onto an Anglican Cannon Noel Proctor. He told me that the coffins were marked with a crest on each of them and we found out that the boxes were marked individually.
"The British Home Office on the other hand said the caskets weren't marked but I think they just didn't want the men turned into even greater martyrs. We persisted and finally we got onto the manager of all the graveyards in Manchester and he gave me permission to dig the graves. But I then had to get permission from the bishop of Manchester and his chancellor. He's the man I'm dealing with over the past number of years. He asked me why I wanted to have them dug up. I gave them the names and addresses of the relatives of the three men. He wrote to them and that answered all his questions. They all wanted the bodies back. There were more and more questions. He wanted a letter from the Bandon Historical Society confirming who I was which I got."
Desmond says that now it is all a question of waiting.
"The hope now is that the British have kept good records and that we can get these men back to give them decent burials."
Desmond welcomes any support from the Irish Government in getting the remains returned to Ireland.
"The Manchester Martyrs belong to no political party. They belong to the Irish people. We would wish for a state funeral and a decent burial for the men. It's long overdue."