Michael Barrett, Irish activist and a member of the Fenians, is executed on May 26, 1868, for his part in the Clerkenwell Gaol explosion in December 1867. From all the evidence, it is likely he is not guilty. He is the last man to be publicly hanged in England.
Barrett is born in 1841 in Drumnagreshial in the Ederney area of County Fermanagh. As a young man and in search of work, he moves to Glasgow where, at the age of 27, he joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), often referred to as Fenians. In the 1860s, the IRB is a political movement that dominates Irish Republican politics and defies the Catholic Church, middle-class nationalists who advocate milder approaches and Irish Unionists. Tens of thousands of Irishmen in both Ireland and Great Britain are recruited into its ranks.
The Clerkenwell bombing is the most infamous action carried out by the Fenians in mainland Britain. It results in a long-lived backlash that foments much hostility against the Irish community in Britain.
The events that lead up to the bombing start with the arrest in November 1867 of Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, a senior Fenian arms agent who planned the “prison-van escape” in Manchester a few months earlier. O’Sullivan-Burke is subsequently imprisoned on remand in the Middlesex House of Detention, Clerkenwell. On December 13, an attempt to rescue him is made by blowing a hole in the prison wall. The explosion is seriously misjudged. It demolishes not only a large section of the wall, but also a number of tenement houses opposite in Corporation Lane (now Corporation Row), killing 12 people and wounding up to 120 more.
The bombing has a traumatic effect on British working-class opinion. The radical, Charles Bradlaugh, condemns the incident in his newspaper, the National Reformer, as an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes.”
The day before the explosion, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli bans all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that are being held in support of the Fenians. He fears that the ban might be challenged, but the explosion has the effect of turning public opinion in his favour.
Months earlier, Barrett had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm and allegedly false evidence is used to implicate him in the Clerkenwell Prison explosion. In court, he produces witnesses who testify that he had been in Scotland on the date of the incident. The main case against him rests on the evidence of Patrick Mullany, a Dubliner known to have given false testimony before and whose price is a free passage to Australia, who tells the court that Barrett had informed him that he had carried out the explosion with an accomplice by the name of Murphy. After two hours of deliberation the jury pronounces Barrett guilty. On being asked if he has anything to say before sentence is passed, he delivers an emotional speech from the dock.
Many people, including a number of radical MPs, press for clemency. In Fermanagh, Barrett’s aged mother walks several miles in the snow to appeal to the local Irish Conservative Party MP, Captain Mervyn Edward Archdale, a staunch Orangeman, who rejects her.
Barrett is executed outside the walls of Newgate Prison on May 26, 1868, before a crowd of two thousand who boo, jeer and sing “Rule, Britannia!” and “Champagne Charlie” as his body drops. His execution is the last public hanging to take place in England. The hangman is William Calcraft.
Until their transfer to the City of London Cemetery, Barrett’s remains lay for 35 years in a lime grave inside the walls of Newgate Prison. When the prison is demolished in 1903 his remains are taken to their present resting place. Today the grave is a place of Fenian pilgrimage and is marked by a small plaque.
After the explosion, the Prime Minister Disraeli advocates the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act 1862 in Great Britain, as is already the case in Ireland. Greater security measures are quickly introduced. Thousands of special constables are enrolled to aid the police and at Scotland Yard a special secret service department is established to meet the Fenian threat. Although a number of people are arrested and brought to trial, Barrett is the only one to receive the death sentence.
Within days of the explosion, the Liberal Party leader, William Ewart Gladstone, then in opposition, announces his concern about Irish Nationalist grievances and says that it is the duty of the British people to remove them. Later, he says that it is the Fenian action at Clerkenwell that turned his mind towards Home Rule. When Gladstone discovers at Hawarden later that year that Queen Victoria had invited him to form a government he famously states, “my mission is to pacify Ireland.”