Clerkenwell Jail Bombing - 1867

Dec 13, 2012 - 0 Comments


Clerkenwell Bombing

by Michael Thomas Barry

On December 13, 1867, Irish terrorist, Michael Barrett plants a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison in London in an attempt to free fellow Irish political prisoners. The bombing killed 12 bystanders and severely injured many more. Barrett had positioned the bomb in a wheelbarrow outside the external wall of of the jail in the belief that it would bring down the prison wall and allow the prisoners to escape.

Michael Barrett was born in 1841 and at the age of 27 he joined the Fenians, which, in the 1860s, was a political movement that dominated Irish politics and defied the Catholic Church and middle-class nationalists who advocated milder approaches. Thousands of Irishmen in both Ireland and Britain were recruited into its ranks. 

The Clerkenwell bombing was the most infamous action carried out by the Fenians in Britain. It resulted in a long-lived backlash that fomented much hostility against the Irish community in Britain. The events that led up to the bombing started with the arrest, in November 1867, of Richard O Sullivan-Burke, a senior Fenian arms agent. O’Sullivan-Burke was subsequently imprisoned at the Clerkenwell jail. On December 13th an attempt to rescue him was made by blowing a hole in the prison wall. The explosion was seriously misjudged; it demolished not only a large section of the wall, but also a number of tenement houses opposite the jail, resulting in 12 people being killed and over 50 suffering a range of injuries. 

Months earlier, Barrett had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm and allegedly false evidence was used to implicate him in the Clerkenwell explosion. In court, he produced witnesses who testified that he had been in Scotland on the date of the incident. The main case against him rested on the evidence of Patrick Mullany (a Dubliner who had given false testimony before and whose price was a free passage to Australia) who told the court that Barrett had informed him that he had carried out the explosion with another accomplice. After two hours of deliberation the jury found Barrett guilty and sentenced to death. Barrett was executed outside the walls of Newgate Prison on May 26, 1868 before a crowd of two thousand people. He was the last man to be publically hanged in Britain. Until their transfer to the City of London Cemetery, Michael Barrett’s remains lay for 35 years in an unmarked grave within the walls of Newgate Prison. When the prison was demolished in 1903 it was taken to its present resting place. Today the grave is a place of Irish pilgrimage and is marked by a small plaque. 

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