The last public hanging in Britain took place 150 years ago and the unfortunate man at the wrong end of the rope was Fermanagh native Michael Barrett.
On the 26th of May 1868, Barrett was hanged outside Newgate Prison after he was found guilty of the Clarkenwell Explosion.
Barrett protested his innocence throughout and his death spawned a series of sympathetic ballads across Britain, Ireland, and America. 'The Lamentation and Last Farewell to the World of Michael Barrett' was printed by Disley's of London while 'The Sentence of Death on Michael Barrett for the Clarkenwell Explosion' was printed by Fortney of London. Another broadside ballad sheet appeared on the streets of New York called 'The Execution of Michael Barrett'. These ballads became highly popular with singers in the aftermath of Barrett's hanging and remained so for years after. Broadside ballads were as important as a newspaper report to provide the masses with a story and unlike a newspaper report, a ballad stuck in the mind and ballads such as the ones about Michael Barrett's death re-enforced folk memory of the event in 1868.
Barrett was born in 1841 the son of a small farmer in Co. Fermanagh. At the age of 21, he went to Glasgow where he lived at No. 65 Crown Street and worked as a stevedore. Barrett, like many other Irishmen living in Glasgow at the time, involved himself in the Fenian movement there.
In 1867 West Cork man Ricard O'Sullivan Burke devised a plan to rescue Fenian prisoners from a prison van in Manchester. This plan would result in three Irishmen going to the gallows for the attack on the van, history would cast them as the Manchester Martyrs. O'Sullivan Burke was later arrested and was held in Clarkenwell Gaol. On the 13th of December 1867, a plan was hatched by the Fenian Brotherhood to rescue O'Sullivan Burke, by any means possible.
It was decided to free Burke by blowing a hole in the wall of the jail but, the explosion was misjudged. A wheelbarrow packed with dynamite was placed next to the wall and it not only blew a hole in the wall it also destroyed a series of tenement dwellings and claimed up to a dozen lives. Up to 50 people were also injured and Burke remained incarcerated.
A month after the explosion the police were pressured by higher authorities to make an arrest in connection with the Clarkenwell incident. On a late January night in Glasgow, 1868 police observed a group gathered at Glasgow Green. This was a popular gathering spot for Irish immigrants in Glasgow and on the night in question, Michael Barrett was there when police approached and questioned him. Barrett was let go but, later he was put in handcuffs and the authorities decided to charge him with the Clarkenwell explosion.
Numerous witnesses backed up Barrett's claim that he was in Glasgow at the time of the explosion but they were ignored. Back home in Fermanagh his elderly mother walked miles in the snow to look for clemency from the local Conservative MP Captain Mervyn Archdale. The pleas of the old woman were dismissed by Archdale.
Barrett's fate was sealed when a Dubliner by the name of Patrick Mullany came forward and stated he saw Barrett with the dynamite ladened wheelbarrow at Clarkenwell. Mullany had been pressed by the authorities to create this false statement and for his lies, he was awarded a passage to Australia. In the ballad 'The Sentence of Death on Michel Barrett for the Clarkenwell Explosion' Mullany is mentioned with scorn:
"Patrick Mullany was a witness made,
A military tailor he was by trade,
To serve himself, he evidence gave,
Which he his neck has saved."
Barrett's execution drew thousands of onlookers who burst into song when the young Irishman walked up on the gallows. As the rope was placed around his neck the crowd sang Rule Britannia and as the trapdoor opened andBarrett's bodyy dropped, the crowd sang the music hall song Champagne Charlie. The body of Barrett was left hanging for hours until it was cut down and buried in a pit in the grounds of Newgate Prison.
Barrett insisted he was innocent and his innocence was believed by many Irish people at home and abroad as the trial was considered a miscarriage of justice. Ballads such as 'The Lamentation and Last Farewell of Michael Barrett' was written from the condemned man's view:
"To death, I'm condemned for the great crime of murder,
Whether guilty or innocent time will reveal,
I die now a felons death, Erin I'd rather
I could die like a man there, my fate could not feel."
In 1902 Newgate prison was demolished and the executed prisoners buried there were dug up and placed in a plot at the City of London Cemetery. Today that is where Fermanagh's Michael Barrett lies, in plot 340.
Today the broadside ballads relating to the Clarkenwell Explosion and Michael Barrett have fallen from popularity but there was one written in recent times by Father Joe McVeigh and it has become a favorite of many a balladeer in Glasgow and Fermanagh, thus keeping alive the memory of Michael Barrett who was executed 150 years ago.
This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.