The Manchester Martyrs

Fr. O'Flanagan's speech delivered at St. Mary's Hall, Belfast, 25th November 1915.

Address delivered at St. Mary's Hall Belfast on the occasion of the Manchester Martyrs' Anniversary, November 25th, 1915, by Rev. Michael O'Flanagan, C. C. Crosna, Boyle, County Roscommon.

A postcard portrait of Fr. O'Flanagan, vice-president of Sinn Féin, published in 1919.
A postcard portrait of Fr. O'Flanagan, vice-president of Sinn Féin, published in 1919. Colour added by Old Ireland in Colour.

This is the third time that the heart of Belfast has been opened to receive me, and I am glad to see that the heart is growing bigger all the time. The first time I came here, three years ago, I spoke to you upon the Irish Language, and the second time, a year ago, I spoke to you upon the same subject. To-night I come to speak to speak to you upon a greater subject than even the Irish Language, I mean the subject of Irish Nationality. The Irish Language is indeed a part and a necessary part of Irish Nationality. But Irish Nationality includes much more than language, and I rejoice to observe that the response is great in proportion to the greatness of the subject. On the two other occasions on which I spoke here, the hall was filled or nearly filled, but to-night it is crowded to the doors, and I have been told that at least seven hundred people were unable to gain admission. Which proves that a public speaker in Ireland will always get a response in proportion to the accuracy with which he strikes the right note.

Clipping which mentions Fr. Michael O'Flanagan's speech in St. Mary's Hall in Belfast, 1915.
Clipping which mentions Fr. Michael O'Flanagan's speech in St. Mary's Hall in Belfast, 1915.

A few weeks ago I received a letter inviting me to speak at the Manchester Martyrs' Celebration in Cork. As the meeting was to be held upon Sunday I was unable to go. In my letter of reply I said I was sorry it was not the custom to hold the celebration in September in honor of the heroes who broke the van, rather than in November in honor of the Martyrs who died upon the scaffold. I did this because from my boyhood it was always the deed that was done that appealed to me rather than the death they suffered. So many men had died for Ireland that I found it impossible to understand why these three had been singled out from the rest, and given the supreme place upon the altar of our patriotism.

Shane O'Neill, Owen Roe, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and countless others had given their lives for Ireland under circumstances that were quite as dramatic as those under which the Martyrs of Manchester gave theirs. Yet no one of them, nor all of them put together, have stirred the heart of Ireland so deeply as the three humble members of the Fenian Brotherhood whose memory is an inspiration to us to-night. Even Robert Emmet the beau ideal of Irish Chivalry, splendid and holy as he is the place he holds in the affections of the Irish Race, is yet less exalted than Allen, Larkin and O'Brien.

God Save Ireland by Luke Kelly.

But I was wrong in the statement I made to the people of Cork. And Ireland is right. It is not upon the 18th September, but upon the 23rd of November, that we should celebrate the Holy Day of these precursors of Irish freedom. But the highest contribution which they made to the sacred cause of the liberty of their country is not the heroic example of the deed they performed nor yet the death which they suffered, but the cry that issued from their lips as they stood on the scaffold—the cry of GOD SAVE IRELAND. That cry has been the watchword of our race ever since; it contains within itself the deepest truth that has ever issued from the bleeding heart of Ireland.

Fr. Michael O'Flanagan and Padraig Pearse at the grave of veteran Fenian, O'Dovovan Rossa, at Glasnevin cemetery, August 1915.
Fr. Michael O'Flanagan with Padraig Pearse at the grave of veteran Fenian, O'Dovovan Rossa, at Glasnevin cemetery, August 1915, four months before this lecture.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture given in Dublin by a man who has been well described as the Apostle of Irish Nationality. (Mr. P. H. Pearse.) The lecturer treated of four men whom he described as the four Evangelists of Irish Freedom—Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, John Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor. Each of these four he represented as contributing to the theory of Irish Nationhood and how it was to be achieved. Wolfe Tone pointed out clearly what it was that was wrong with Ireland, namely the connection with England. The one object then of all our patriotic endeavors should be to break the connection with England.

Thomas Davis, a  leading member of the Young Ireland movement.

Thomas Davis dwelt more on the positive side of Irish Nationhood. He described the ideal that we should aim at in a free Ireland—an Ireland speaking its own language, singing its own songs, developing its own material and spiritual endowments, uniting in one common bond of brotherhood the men of every race and creed and class that combined to make up its population.

If Thomas Davis may be described as the Evangelist of Love, John Mitchel is the Evangelist of the equally necessary virtue of Hate. If we love Ireland, there is something also that we must hate. Mitchel calls it the Thing, the Thing that has crippled our National development and made our history the saddest chapter in the archives of Europe. What do you call that thing? (A voice, 'England'). Right, I too call it England, and I make no apology to anybody, by proclaiming that hatred of England is a right and virtuous feeling to cultivate and a wholly Christian feeling to cultivate in the breasts of Irishmen.

I do not of course preach hatred of the English people. Far be it from me to preach hatred of those poor toiling millions, who are crushed under the weight of material and spiritual slavery by the lure of the false ideals of Empire and World Dominance. Nay, if I could take them out of their grimy and smoky factories, and up out of their dismal mines, and spread them over the beautiful face of England to toil under God's sweet sunshine for the clean and healthy fare which God intended for them, I should consider my very life a small thing to give in such a cause. When we speak in Ireland of hating England, we mean hating that English power in Ireland that keeps us from our birthright of National freedom. That Thing with all its wiles, and in all its ramifications, it is our duty as Irishmen to hate and with all our power to strive to destroy.

The last of the four Evangelists was James Fintan Lalor. His special contribution was the doctrine that it was the people of Ireland who must achieve Irish liberty. You must be able to hurl the masses of the people of Ireland against the barriers of our slavery if you would hope to batter them down. Nothing short of the mass of the people has got sufficient momentum for the task. The leaders of Ireland cannot set Ireland free. The leader in himself is nothing. It is only in so far as he interprets the wishes of the people that he has any power. How necessary therefore is it for us to watch our leaders and to change them as soon as they show themselves unable to feel the pulse of the people.

John Mitchel, a  leading member of the Young Ireland movement.When I listen to that lecture I was surprised at two omissions. I considered that there were two important omissions, omissions of contributions that were even more valuable than those of the four mentioned, one made by Robert Emmet and the other by the Manchester Martyrs. The contributions of both were made in a single sentence. "When my country takes her place amongst the nations of the earth, then and not till then let my epitaph be written." The lesson that I read in that sentence is the lesson of another hatred, a hatred more necessary than our hatred of England. And that is our hatred of a submissive Ireland.

If we hate the English power that holds our country in thralldom, we must hate still more the Irish slavishness that lies down under it. Robert Emmet at least regarded Ireland as unworthy to write his name upon a tombstone until it had first achieved the liberty for which he died. Oh the depth of the contempt that is contained in that sentence for much of Ireland of the past hundred years. One would imagine that Robert Emmet must have foreseen the men who upon Irish platforms dare to mention the names of the martyrs who died for Ireland, and who then go across to England to beg for doles at the hands of the oppressor.

But the crowning contribution of all was made by the Manchester Martyrs. They made it with their last words upon the scaffold, "God save Ireland." God alone can save Ireland. And God will only save Ireland when the people cooperate with him in the right way. In other words it is only through a religious movement that Ireland can achieve its freedom. "Freedom comes from God's right hand and needs a Godly train, and righteous men must make our land a nation once again." Thomas Davis had the idea also. But he did not bring it home to us with the vividness lent by that greatest of all the Irish platforms—the scaffold.

One of the last letters of W. P. Allen who was one of the Manchester Martyrs of the 1867 Fenian Rebellion.
One of the last letters of W. P. Allen who was one of the Manchester Martyrs of the 1867 Fenian Rebellion.

There is only one power in Ireland that is stronger than the might of England, and that is the power of England, and that is the power of religion. Wolfe Tone tried to bind us together by our love of liberty, and failed. Thomas Davis tried to do it by our love of our heirlooms of the past that go to make up our kindly Irish life, he appealed to us in the name of our individuality, and failed Fintan Lalor tried to reach us through our love of the soil and failed. John Mitchel roused our pride and our hatred by scorching us with the insolence of the oppressor, and he has not succeeded. What force is then left amongst us that is strong enough to nerve us for the task. There is only one left; the force of religion. Our religion must not be neutral in the contest. Patriotism is a branch of the divine virtue of Charity. To work for the freedom of Ireland is a religious duty.

The man who would allow his country to lie down under a foreign oppression is not merely not a good Irishman, he is not even a good Christian. All the secular forces at our disposal, have been harnessed in turn to the Irish chariot, and they have all failed to pull our country out of the rut of oppression into which she has sunk. We must now attach the one force that has proved itself strong enough for the task and that is the force of religion.