Kevin Haddick Flynn on the Irishman who suffered the last public hanging in Britain
The Ballad of Michael Barrett
Throughout the Kingdom, among high and low,
A great excitement has long been caused,
Of a dreadful crime - horrible to tell
The fatal explosion at Clerkenwell.
Out of the seven they for the crime did try,
One Michael Barrett was condemned to die.
Patrick Mullany was a witness made,
A military tailor, he was by trade;
To save himself, he evidence gave,
Which he his neck has saved.
The informers swore, and others beside,
When the prisoners, all at the bar was tried,
That by Michael Barrett the deed was done,
And from the spot did to Scotland run.
He was taken in Glasgow and to London brought,
He says of the crime he never thought,
He would not be guilty of such a deed,
But he was convicted, as we may read.
Though Michael Barrett is condemned to die,
The dreadful deed he strongly does deny,
There is one above who all secrets know,
He can tell whether Barrett is guilty or no.
We hope all men will a warning take,
And long remember poor Barrett's fate;
We find it difficult throughout the land,
For man to even trust his fellow man.
A dreadful tale we'll have long to tell,
The fatal explosion at Clerkenwell.
THE FENIAN movement was one of the most important revolutionary movements to challenge the British Empire in the 19th century. It dominated Irish popular politics in the 1860’s and defied the anathemas of the Catholic Church and the condemnations of middle–class nationalists who advocated milder approaches.
Thousands of young Irishmen in both Ireland and Britain were recruited into its ranks; one of these was a young man from Co. Fermanagh who paid the highest price. This was 27–year old Michael Barrett, the last man to be publicly hanged in Britain. A commemoration was recently held in the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park, to mark his burial there over a 100 years ago.
Barrett was executed outside the walls of Newgate Prison on 26 May 1868 before a crowd of two thousand who booed, jeered and sang Rule Britannia and Champagne Charlie as the body dropped.
Months earlier, he had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm and false evidence was used to implicate him in the Clerkenwell prison explosion which occurred the previous December. At the time it was widely believed that he was innocent and had been arrested to mollify a demand for vengeance against the Irish community.
In court, he produced witnesses who testified that he had been in Scotland on the date of the incident. The main case against him rested on the evidence of Patrick Mullany (a Dubliner who had given false testimony before and whose price was a free passage to Australia) who told the court that Barrett had informed him that he had carried out the explosion with an accomplice by the name of Murphy. The jury was out for two hours and in spite of the lack of corroboration pronounced Barrett guilty.
One of the trial lawyers, Montague Williams, wrote:
“On looking at the dock, one’s attention was attracted by the appearance of Barrett, for whom I must confess I felt great commiseration. He was a square–built fellow, scarcely five feet eight in height and dressed like a well–to–do farmer. This resemblence was increased by the frank, open, expression on his face. A less murderous countenance than Barrett’s I have not seen. Good humour was latent in his every feature and he took the greatest interest in the proceedings.”
The Clerkenwell bombing was the most serious action carried out by the Fenians in Britain and sparked hostility against the Irish community which took years to abate. It arose from the arrest in November 1867 of Richard O’Sullivan–Burke, a senior Fenian arms agent and the mastermind behind the sensational ‘prison–van rescue’ at Manchester a few months earlier. He was incarcerated in Clerkenwell Prison and on December 13th an attempt to rescue him was made by blowing a hole in the prison wall. The explosion was seriously misjudged; it demolished not only a large section of the wall, but also a row of tenament houses opposite. Twelve people were killed and over fifty injured.
The disaster had a traumatic effect on British working–class opinion. Karl Marx, then living in London, observed:
“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”
The Radical, Clarles Bradlaugh, condemned the incident in his newspaper The National Reformer as an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes”. Certainly it rallied public opinion behind a Tory government that was increasingly concerned by the revolutionary threat that the Fenians posed in Britain, let alone in Ireland.
The day before the explosion, the prime minister, Disraeli, banned all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of the Fenians. He had feared that the ban might be challenged, but the explosion turned public opinion very much in his favour.
After the explosion he advocated the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Britain, as was already the case in Ireland. Greater security measures were quickly introduced. Thousands of special constables were enrolled to aid the police and at Scotland Yard a special secret service department was established to meet the Fenian threat. Although a number of people were arrested and brought to trial, Michael Barrett was the only one to receive the death sentence.
Queen Victoria was outraged that only one man went to the gallows. She urged that in future, instead of being brought to trial, Irish suspects should be ‘lynch–lawed’on the spot. Before he was sentenced Barrett spoke from the dock. The next day the Daily Telegraph reported that he
“...delivered a most remarkable speech, criticising with great acuteness the evidence against him, protesting that he had been condemned on insufficient grounds, and eloquently asserting his innocence”.
Following the sentence, many people, including a number of Radical MPs, pressed for clemency. In Fermanagh, Barrett’s aged mother trudged several miles in the snow to appeal to the local Unionist MP, Captain Archdale, a staunch Orangeman, who, predictably, rejected her.
On May 27th, following the execution, Reynold’s News commented:
“Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood”.
It should be mentioned that the disaster at Clerkenwell had one positive result; it concentrated British minds on the seriousness and urgency of the 'Irish question'. Within days of the explosion, the Liberal leader, William E. Gladstone, then in Opposition, announced his concern about Irish grievances and said that it was the duty of the British people to remove them. Later, he said that it was the Fenian action at Clerkenwell that turned his mind towards Home Rule.
Prior to its transfer to the City of London Cemetery, Michael Barrett’s remains lay for thirty–five years in a lime grave inside the walls of Newgate Prison. When the prison was demolished in 1903 it was taken to its present resting place. Today the grave is a place of Irish pilgrimage and is marked by a small plaque.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2004 Michael Barrett