The Avondhu - By The Fireside
‘DISORGANISING’ ESSENTIAL SERVICES
Yes, the heading is correct, at the height of the War of Independence in 1921, a 24-year-old Ballyporeen man, Patrick Fennell, an Irish Volunteer was convicted as a result of attempting to burn the grounds of Manchester United at Old Trafford, as part of the IRA campaign of disruption in England.
Patrick was born in Cooladerry, a townland in Ballyporeen parish, north west of the village. Born on March 8th, 1897, Patrick was the seventh of twelve children born to William Fennell, a farm labourer from Cooladerry and Kate Caplice from Kilcaroon, Clogheen.
Patrick joined the Ballyporeen branch of the Irish Volunteers in April 1917, having no doubt been influenced by the Volunteer activity of the Galtee Battalion and subsequently the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, along with the 1916 Easter Rising aftermath.
His brother, Michael Fennell, was also a member of the Volunteers and subsequently the Irish Republican Army, as were his neighbours in Cooladerry, John O’Brien, Patrick Quirke, John Clancy, Morgan Lyons and Paddy Mahony. In all, there were more than 100 members of the Ballyporeen IRA Company and Cumann na mBan branch, who at this time were led by Morgan Lyons and Katie Donovan.
During 1917 and 1918 Patrick, along with other Volunteers, carried out all orders of their Officer Commander which involved weekly parades, collecting arms and activities associated with the Sinn Féin election victory in December 1918. Incidentally, the local Company met resistance in the neighbouring townland of Knocknagapple, when a local farmer resisted the request to voluntarily give up his arms to the local company.
This resulted in the farmer’s hay being burned of a Wednesday night on July 24th, 1918. No doubt the Cooladerry Volunteers played a part in this and served a warning to other locals to hand up arms upon request by Sinn Féin/ IRA. As we’ll see later, this
Patrick Fennell emigrated to Manchester, England in January 1919, the same month as the Soloheadbeg ambush and the first meeting of Dáil Eireann in the Mansion House, Dublin. Patrick soon recommenced Volunteer activity by joining the No. 2 Company IRA Manchester Brigade in early February. He was appointed 1st Lieutenant, with the other officers being Patrick O’Donoghue, Officer Commander, Charles Harding and Sean Wickham. The activities centred on obtaining arms, storing and ultimately shipping them to Ireland to supplement the ongoing rebellion.
No. 2 Company called on 23 volunteers at various stages to carry out the orders as issued from Dublin. In September 1920 an order was received to “set fire to warehouses, cotton mills and hay sheds, etc, to disorganise, as far as possible, the essential services of the city”. Patrick took charge in a number of these burnings, namely Queen’s Park Museum, Hollowen Wood Mill Factory and various hay sheds in Manchester and its surrounds.
Tuesday, 22nd March, 1921 is still remembered in Ballyporeen 100 years later as the evening that the most determined attempt was made by Sean Hogan’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade Flying Column to capture the R.I.C. Barracks in the village, which later that night resulted in the burning of O’Farrell’s Public House, Kearney’s Shop and damage to other businesses by the Black & Tans’ reinforcements. Little did the Ballyporeen Volunteers realise that one of their former members was about to do similar in Manchester at the same time.
Patrick Fennell, along with three if not four fellow armed IRA members - Eamon Conroy, Michael Hayes and Thomas O’Brien - made their way to Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United Football Club on that damp night. They carried 2 paraffin and petrol filled bottles and a rope. The FA Cup semi-final replay involving Cardiff and Wolverhampton Wanderers was due to be played at the ground the following evening, with an anticipated crowd of 45,000 expected. Their intent was clear as per their orders, disruption.
Old Trafford in 1921 wasn’t as grand as it is today, it had one fine main stand and the other 3 sides were banked for standing room only. At 11.15 that night a police Constable Thomas Carr was on duty at Glovers Cable Works which adjoined the football ground. Constable Carr climbed a slag heap to peer over the wall to get a good view of the ground. He noticed 3 men standing in a doorway of the ground itself, only 25 yards away. He called out “What are you doing there?”; as the 3 walked towards the constable, one shouted “We are on guard”, whilst two revolver shots were simultaneously fired at Constable Carr. None took effect and he ducked, partially slipping down the slag heap.
He quickly regained his footing only to see the 3 run away in the direction of the local railway. He was armed but didn’t have an opportunity to fire, but blew his whistle which brought assistance.
The initial search only confirmed that the 3 IRA members has successfully escaped. A further search resulted in a leather wallet being found close to the football ground doorway where the 3 were initially seen. It contained 3 items of note, a photo of Terence McSwiney, a letter titled ‘Deserters from Ireland’ and most notably, a Manchester Royal Infirmary Patient Card with the name Patrick Fennell.
The police, after checking with the hospital, quickly ascertained Patrick’s lodging address and arrested him not long after midnight while in bed. Patrick accepted that it was his wallet but denied he’d been at Old Trafford the night before saying that after tea, he went to the Erskine Street Club and then to Brady’s Pub with a friend and later got a tram to visit his sister, Margaret McLoughlin at Rusholme, Manchester. Patrick Fennell was charged with “feloniously, wilfully and of aforethought, did attempt along with 2 others to murder Police Constable Carr.… by firing 2 revolver shots directly at him ….”. To which Patrick stated, “All that I have got to say is that I don’t know anything about it”.
Before long at Strangeways Police Station, he was placed in an identity parade along with 8 others and Constable Carr “at once” identified Patrick Fennell.
The following Wednesday 23rd
day, March, 1921, Patrick Fennell (23) was charged at Manchester County Police Court and remanded for 1 week to appear the following Wednesday. The magistrates at the court continued to remand Patrick for the next six weeks, sitting every Wednesday until he was committed for trial at the next session of Manchester Assizes. Nine weeks later at the Manchester Summer Assize on Monday 4th May, 1921, Patrick Fennell was tried. The Crown case was primarily the evidence of Constable Carr of the events as they occurred on the night of 22nd March, the subsequent finding of the wallet and the bottles of paraffin/petrol along with a Drill Book found at the Erskine Street (Sinn Féin) club in Manchester with Patrick’s name listed 6 times during January 1921 for taking part in drilling and being listed as 1st Lieutenant of IRA 2 Company Manchester.
The defence argued for Patrick’s alibi visiting various premises in Manchester and finally his sister, Margaret McLoughlin, while Patrick acknowledged being 1st Lieutenant of IRA 2 Company, but argued that being a member of Sinn Féin in Manchester is not a crime, as 20,000 Sinn Féiners were living in the city at that time.
Patrick swore that he had never come in contact with a revolver at any stage, but the most explosive testimony was that of Charles Harding, from Clonmel, who was a self-proclaimed IRA captain in Manchester. He had only just been sentenced to 15 years for treason following a round up of the same Erskine Street club. Harding testified that “If you want the right man in the dock, put me in!”.
He stated that he borrowed Fennell’s trench coat and headed for Old Trafford to burn it down accompanied by Seán Morgan and J. Barrett. Morgan was killed in a shoot out during the arrests at Erskine Street and Barrett had since returned to Ireland. Harding further testified that Fennell played no part and was in fact at his digs in bed at the time and that when addressed by Constable Carr, that it was he who fired the initial shot and they returned fire before fleeing.
Remarkably, the defence and especially the evidence of Charles Harding, appeared to have swayed the jury as after the long deliberation they “desired to return a verdict to the effect that prisoner was on the football ground but did not take part in the shooting”. The Judge, Justice Rigby Swift, said that this wasn’t a verdict and directed the jury to deliberate again. They did so and quickly returned a verdict of guilty. Patrick Fennell, 23, labourer, was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude (hard labour) with the judge noting that he would “assume that his hand did not fire the shot”.
Patrick was to travel the length and breadth of England and Wales in serving the initial six months of his sentence in Strangeways (Manchester), Dartmoor (Devon), Wormwood Scrubbs (London) where he went on hunger strike and Usk prison (Wales).
One of the conditions of the July 11th 1921 Truce, was the release of IRA prisoners and in January 1922, after much deliberation, the Churchill Committee requested a list of the IRA prisoners in England and Wales. On 11th February 1922 King George V requested that 55 prisoners be released as part of the amnesty, and four days later on February 15th, 1922, Patrick Fennell was number 41 on this list when released.