In a scene more reminiscent of the Wild West than of Southern Ireland, two of the most wanted men in the country were sprung from police custody by 30 desperate Fenians and escaped – never to be recaptured.

They were “Colonel” Thomas Kelly, who was elected the chief executive of the “Irish Republic” at a secret Republican convention in that year, 1867, and “Captain” Timothy Deasy, who commanded a Fenian brigade in County Cork.

Both men had been captured and were under arrest, and on September 18th, 1867, they were being transferred from a court to the prison in Gorton, Manchester, handcuffed and locked in two separate compartments inside a police van escorted by 12 unarmed mounted policemen.

As the van passed under a railway arch a man darted into the middle of the road, pointed a gun at the driver and called on him to stop. At that moment the 30 men leapt over a wall at the side of the road, surrounded the van, and seized the horses, one of which they shot.

The rescuers began smashing at the van with hatchets, sledgehammers and crowbars, but they couldn’t open it. They knew Police Sergeant Charles Brett, 52, was inside with the prisoners. They shouted at him to open up.

“I won’t!” replied the gallant sergeant through the steel casing. “These are my prisoners, and you’ll not have them!”

One of the rescuers placed his revolver at the keyhole of the van and fired. At that moment Sergeant Brett put his eye to the keyhole to see what was going on outside. The bullet passed through his eye into his brain and killed him.

Although the killing seems to have been accidental, the fact that the victim was a policeman and that the crime occurred during an attempt to free prisoners made it murder rather than manslaughter.

The police made 29 arrests. Five were sentenced to death, two being later reprieved. On Saturday, November 23rd, 1867, the three others, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged outside Salford Prison before a “disappointing crowd” of 12,000. A monument was later erected to them in St. Joseph’s cemetery, Moston, Manchester, and even today in Southern Ireland they are still referred to as the Manchester Martyrs.