A few short years before his young life was taken from him and he would be remembered forever as a Fenian martyr, William Philip Allen was apprenticed to a Master carpenter in Bandon, Co. Cork. During that time the young apprentice made a table that still exists today, over 150 years later!
Now a prominent and key item in our Independence Museum Kilmurry collection, the table has been a part of our archive for many years; from the time of our previous 50 year existence as The Terence McSwiney Memorial Museum. That the table is still in such a sound state today is a testament not only to the obvious craftsmanship of the young apprentice but more so to his enduring legacy as one of the Manchester Martyrs.
A Tipperary native his family transferred to Bandon when his father became a turnkey at the local Bridewell. Although raised in his father’s Protestant faith and educated at a Training School under that religion in Bandon, his Catholic mother saw to it that he also studied under the direction of her own faith. By all accounts a conspicuously intelligent and thoughtful student his particular strengths lay in the fields of algebra and drawing. Most likely under the influence of his mother and his extra-curricular Catholic teachers the young Allen would later on in his teens be received into the Catholic faith. A few years before this the young Allen came under the influence of Fenians in the town and eventually joined that organisation.
For reasons unclear, but most likely due to his increasing activity within the Fenian organisation, he did not complete his apprenticeship but ended up working later on in Manchester, England for one of the principal builders in that city; having gone there to stay with relations. Being an active and enthusiastic member of the Fenians there it is no great surprise that Allen was at the forefront of attempts to rescue his friend, Fenian Leader Colonel Thomas J. Kelly (“I’ll die for you before I deliver you up!”) and Cork Centre (unit leader) Timothy Deasy.
While it is undoubted that Allen was a key member of the successful rescue attempt that freed both Colonel Kelly and Captain Timothy Deasy, while being transferred to prison in Manchester, there is much doubt surrounding Allen’s role in the killing of Police Sergeant Charles Brett during that ambush. However Allen and his Fenian companions, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien, would be hung for common murder even though the charge and indeed the trial itself were highly questionable.
From the British point of view they had hoped that this would put to bed the so-called Fenian scare that was perceived as a threat to Empire (let alone the North of England) and political stability.
The truth however was that this was a major boost to the Fenian cause which at that time was at something of an impasse in strategic terms and not being able to muster major support at home in Ireland. A point that was not lost at the time on no less an observer than Friedrich Engels, who wrote the following to Karl Marx:
“So yesterday morning the Tories….accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs….. Only the execution of the three has made the liberation of Kelly and Deasy the heroic deed which will now be sung to every Irish babe in the cradle in Ireland….”
The brutal injustice of the treatment of these men contrasted with the Fenian traits of stoicism, manliness and principled behaviour displayed by them- this led to an immediate awakening of Irish Nationalism both at home and abroad. Their speeches from the dock and the unquestionable idealism of the men, especially their rallying cry of “God Save Ireland” ensured that they would become iconic figures of the Nationalist struggle. The religious undertones of the sobriquet, Manchester Martyrs (all 3 were said to be devout Catholics who were denied a Christian burial) indicated the tacit acceptance by the Catholic Church, up to now no friend of the Fenians, of the injustice done to the men. All over Ireland (also in some other jurisdictions) masses and mock funerals were held (from then on most commemorations would involve some religious iconography – thus fusing the cause of Nationalism with religious freedom.)
For 50 years the anniversary date of the execution of the Manchester Martyrs on 23rd of November would supplant the 17th of March as the crucial date in the Nationalist calendar, only losing its pre-eminence post-1916 when the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising would eventually take up that mantle.
However, even in the post-1916 period the anniversary was still widely commemorated. In 1917 the anniversary provided an opportunity for returned internees from Frongoch and recent Irish Volunteer recruits to muster a public show of strength in defiance of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA); then widely used as a method to suppress and court-martial the re-organising threat from the Volunteers. One such bold public display of this new found confidence and defiance was held one hundred years ago this month (November) in 1917 – just adjacent to where our museum now stands. Kilmurry village witnessed a torchlight procession – a scene repeated throughout the country – by Volunteers in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Manchester Martyrs making its way through the village, ending at the graveyard on top of the village.
The importance of the religious aspects of the commemorations and the many local connections would have a galvanising effect on the local Volunteers in the forthcoming revolutionary period.
Liam Deasy – veteran of the War of Independence and Civil War – recollected in his book ”Towards Ireland Free” that in his childhood the tale of the Manchester Martyrs was constantly being told and retold at the fireside. He also emphasised the importance of the local connection with Allen himself and that of the Fenian Timothy Deasy (Colliers Quay) in whose escape Allen was instrumental. The importance of the commemoration date to Liam Deasy was such that to miss it would have been akin to missing Sunday Mass!