The Boys Who Smashed the Van

Excerpt from Paul Rose, The Manchester Martyrs (1970), pp. 100- 103.

William Philip Allen, with his pale face, high cheekbones and flowing hair, had taken a leading part in the assault upon the van. Dedicated to the Fenian cause – some would say fanatically – he was quite prepared to lay down his life for its leaders. Indeed there was almost a premonition of this when he spoke to Kelly on his release: “I told you, Kelly, I would die for you before I parted with you” – or words variously reported to that effect. It was Allen whose spirited and reckless disregard for his own safety along with his colleagues made the rescue possible, and it was he who took personal responsibility for seeing that Kelly was safe before his own capture, in the course of which he was severely beaten by the mob.

Witness after witness testified that Allen appeared to lead the attack, and although he denied having fired the fatal shot there can be no doubt that this young man was a natural leader. How much his other talents might have contributed to the Fenian Movement we shall never know, but as so often is the case in revolutionary action the lead in action is taken by those who have scarcely reached manhood.

The son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, he was born in Tipperary but moved at a very early age to Bandon, County Cork, where his father became Bridewell keeper. His religious background must have contributed to the breadth of understanding and experience, for at one and the same time he attended regularly both Catholic and Protestant schools in Tipperary. What must again be remembered is that one of the features of Irish history smothered by divisive struggle between the Orange and the Green is that many of the great leaders in the struggle for national freedom from Wolfe Tone onwards have been Protestant and, particularly, dissenters.

But Allen himself, after attending a Catholic Mission in the town, was received into the Catholic Church by the local priest along with his sister, while his four brothers remained in the Protestant faith. Commenting on Allen and the other prisoners, Father Gadd later said, “I never had more devotional penitents in my life than the condemned Irishmen of Salford gaol.” [O’Dea, Story of the Old Faith in Manchester (1910)]

Like the great majority of Fenian supporters, he was a manual worker. The strength of the Fenian Movement “lay in the shop assistants, clerks and working men in the towns, and the agricultural labourers and small farmers in the country. The comfortable classes, the large farmers and the upper classes, were outside. But the mass of the people were with it.” [P. S. O’Hogarty, History of Ireland under the Union.]

Apprenticed as a carpenter at Bandon, Allen found work in Cork for about six months before returning home. He then went to Manchester to join some relatives and was engaged to a girl in the city at the time of his execution. He spent a few weeks in Dublin as a builder’s clerk and in the summer of 1867 he made his fateful return to Manchester. While in prison he was visited by his mother, two aunts and his fiancee, Mary Ann Hickey, who was heartbroken and desperate at the plight of young Allen.

All the indications are that he must have been one of Kelly’s close associates in Dublin, and it is no accident that in his extremity Kelly turned for help to Allen and his friends after the arrest in Oak Street. In all probability the two had been in contact before that event, particularly as Condon and O’Brien would have provided another link with Kelly.

All eyes were upon Allen during the trial, and although the strain showed upon him, all accounts bear witness to the fat that he endured not only the physical pain of his capture and subsequent handcuffing with fortitude but he mastered his feelings to a degree that all but concealed his obvious sensitivity. The recklessness of his leadership on Hyde Road was matched by his remarkable self-control in the dock and upon the scaffold. Confronting the Court upon his sentence, his speech followed the best tradition of speeches from the dock, all too often the only platform open to those Irishmen who laid down their lives for national emancipation during the years of the Union.

My Lords and Gentlemen - It is not my intention to occupy much of your time in answering your question. Your question is one that is easily asked, but requires an answer which I am ignorant of. Abler and more eloquent men could not answer it. Where were the men who have stood in the dock - Burke, Emmet and others, who have stood in the dock in defence of their country? When the question was put, what was their answer? Their answer was null and void. Now, with your permission, I will review a portion of the evidence that has been brought against me.

Interrupted by Mr. Justice Blackburne, he was told that it was too late to criticise the evidence: “If you have any reason to give why either upon technical or moral grounds, the sentence should not be passed upon you, we will hear it, but it is too late for you to review the evidence to show that it was wrong.” Allen went on:

No man in this court regrets the death of Sergeant Brett more than I do, and I positively say, in the presence of the Almighty and ever-living God, that I am innocent, aye, as innocent as any man in this court. I don't say this for the sake of mercy: I want no mercy - I'll have no mercy. I'll die, as many thousands have died, for the sake of their beloved land, and in defence of it. I will die proudly and triumphantly in defence of republican principles and the liberty of an oppressed and enslaved people. Is it possible we are asked why sentence should not be passed upon us, on the evidence of prostitutes of the streets of Manchester, fellows out of work, convicted felons - aye, an Irishman sentenced to be hanged when an English dog would have got off. I say positively and defiantly, justice has not been done me since I was arrested. If justice had been done me, I would not have been handcuffed at the preliminary investigation in Bridge Street; and in this court justice has not been done me in any shape or form. I was brought up here, and all the prisoners by my side were allowed to wear overcoats, and I was told to take mine off. What is the principle of that? There was an obvious object in that; and so I say positively that justice has not been done me. As for the prisoners, they can speak for themselves with regard to that matter.

And now with regard to the other means by which I have been identified. I have to say that my clothes were kept for four hours by the policemen in Fairfield Station, and shown to parties to identify me as being one of the perpetrators of this affair in Hyde Road. Also in Albert Station a handkerchief was kept on my head the whole night, so that I could be identified the next morning in the corridor by the witnesses. I was ordered to leave on the handkerchief so that the witnesses could more plainly see I was one of the parties alleged to have committed the outrage. As for myself, I feel the righteousness of every act with regard to what I have done in defence of my country. I have no fear. I am fearless of any punishment that can be inflicted on me. One remark more. I return Mr. Seymour and Mr. Jones my sincere and heartfelt thanks for their eloquent and able advocacy regarding my part in this affray. I wish also to return to Mr. Roberts the very same. My name, Sir, might be wished to be known. It is not William O'Meara Allen. My name is William Philip Allen. I was reared in Bandon, in the county of Cork, and from that place I take my name. I am proud of my country, and proud of my parentage. My Lords, I have done.

Forty years later Condon was to collect money for Allen’s father, who was active in the Fenian organization, although he took no part in the rescue. … [the other prisoners speak]

At this point the words were taken up by [O’Brien’s] companions in the dock. “God save Ireland” they all cried. (It was these words which were taken up in the anthem which was to remain the National Anthem of Republicans until replaced by “The Soldier’s Song”.) …

As the condemned men thanked their counsel, they looked towards the benches where their friends were seated and the only words that passes were perhaps the most moving of all: “God be with you, Irishmen and Irishwomen.”