“The Smashing of the Van (I)”


Two Fenian leaders, Kelly and Deasy, have been imprisoned; a party of Fenians led Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien, stop and break into the prison van and free them. But the rescuers kill a man, and in the end are executed


Ben Schwartz tells me that this is sung to the tune of "The River Roe," but I'm not sure which song of that name is meant.

The Fenians were a group of Irishmen (many of them living in America) whose purpose was to liberate Ireland. Whatever one thinks of their goal, their history was almost comic; they kept trying goofy ideas and nothing ever worked.

This incident is typical: in 1867, the Fenians were talking rebellion, though leader James Stephens (for whom see "James Stephens, the Gallant Fenian Boy") was trying to call things off. But the British continued to arrest potential rebels.

On September 11, two men were captured in Manchester and charged with loitering. An informer pointed out that they were Thomas J. Kelly, who had been proclaimed chief executive of the Fenian's Irish Republic (see Robert Kee, _The Bold Fenian Men_, being volume II of _The Green Flag_, pp. 31, 33), and one Captain Timothy Deasy (Kee, p. 45).

Kelly and Deasy probably were not in danger of losing their lives, but they were "rescued" anyway on September 18. It wasn't that hard; the police wagon was unescorted. It was, after all, in England, not Ireland.

In the course of the "rescue," a police sergeant, Charles Brett, was killed. Kee reports that one Peter Rice (who later escaped, with Kelly and Deasy, to America) fired the fatal shot. Few other sources definitively list a name, but he is obviously the prime suspect.

The British, in their usual inept way in in such matters, hauled in a large crowd of Irish folk found near Manchester. Five men were put on trial for killing Brett. Rice was not among them. One of the five, Maguire, had no involvement in the rescue at all and was later given full pardon.

The other four prisoners, William Allen, Edward Condon, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien, had taken part in the attack but almost certainly had not fired the fatal shot. Nonetheless they were convicted of the murder (officially Allen was regarded as the one who had done the shooting). Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien were executed on November 24 (so Kee, p. 47; Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, p. 147; the article _The Manchester Martyrs_ on the Gorton Local History Group site says November 23).

The three men came to be known as the "Manchester Martyrs."

A rescue attempt failed, but was bloodier than the first try: This time, the Fenians managed to kill a dozen bystanders.

Even though the blood had been shed by the Irish, and the British had followed the law throughout (under both British and American law, one engaged in a felony in which a murder is committed is guilty of the murder even if one is not a murderer), both sides blamed the other, increasing Anglo-Irish tensions. The incident also increased rebel recruiting.

The description of the van being "smashed" is literally accurate: The van was locked, and Brett had the keys, so the Irish pounded on it with rocks to get it open. This failed, and Brett refused to yield, and so the fatal shot was fired. It is not known whether the bullet was aimed at Brett, or at the van's lock, or merely intended to intimidate; in any case, it proved fatal.

The trial of the martyrs also gave the Irish a memorable phrase: Edward Condon (the one raider who was condemned but *not* hung, because he was an American citizen) shouted out "God save Ireland!" during the proceedings, and it inspired the song of that name.

The British, having watched all these acts, plus another bungled rescue of a prisoner (Richard O'Sullivan Burke, for whom see the notes on "Burke's Dream" [Laws J16]) which led to the death of twelve English citizens and the maiming of dozens more (Kee, pp. 49-51), were hardly in a mood for pity. But the Gladstone government, which came to power in 1868, released most Irish political prisoners in 1871.

For other examples of Fenian bungling, see the notes to "A Fenian Song (I)" and "The British Man-of-War." - RBW

Historical references

  • Sep 11, 1867 - Kelly and Deasy are arrested and rescued a week later by 30 Fenians
  • Nov 24, 1867 - Three of the ambushers are hanged (source: _The Manchester Martyrs_ on the Gorton Local History Group site)

Cross references


  1. PGalvin, pp. 50-51, "The Smashing of the Van" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. OLochlainn 14, "The Manchester Martyrs" or "The Smashing of the Van" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Zimmermann 72, "The Smashing of the Van" or "The Three Manchester Martyrs" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Roud #3028
  5. BI, PGa050


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1867 (Zimmermann)
Found in: Ireland