The Irish World’s Michael McDonagh was recently trawling his own family archives and came across a 1975 recording with his late father, Alexander McDonagh, in which he recalled his own first-hand, eye-witness account – from when he was a 14-year old boy – of a brutal killing by Manchester Police of a student activist for Irish independence.
As this decade of centenaries draws to its closing years and we approach the anniversaries of Ireland’s War of Independence, the Treaty and the Civil War, Michael recounts a lesser-known episode (for people in Ireland) of those unsettled times for Irish people in this country.
On Saturday 2 April 1921 the Manchester police raided an Irish Club in Erskine Street, Hulme in Manchester, where a whist drive was taking place. In the course of the raid, a young man from the local Irish community was shot dead and another was injured.
The mood in Manchester that April was tense around that time. 98 years ago, the police made a number of dawn raids on places frequented by the large Irish diaspora in Manchester, ending up that evening with the raid on the Irish Club on Erskine Street.
The police suspected it was the clandestine headquarters of the IRA activists.
Detective Inspector Crowther led the raid and a young man called Sean Morgan was shot dead, and Sean Wickham was shot and injured.
Various people were arrested and brought to trial in a big round-up of Irish people in Manchester. Those convicted got prison sentences ranging from five years to life.
The narrative that prevailed – one which surmised the Irish club attendee’s guilt – led to the officer in charge being decorated with an award for his bravery.
At the inquest, the cause of death was recorded as: ‘Bullet wound to the head. Due to being shot by a police officer whilst the said John Morgan (?) was resisting the said police officer in the legal exercise of his duty. Justifiable homicide.’
About 44 years ago, while having dinner with my parents, I switched on my Dictaphone machine and briefly recorded dad’s conversation.
This is an eye-witness account by a 14-year old boy, Alexander McDonagh, my dad, from 98 years ago.
“It was Sean Wickham that I saw get shot in a club in Erskine Street in Hulme. A fellow called Morgan was killed. He is buried in Moston Cemetery. I was 14 in 1921, I saw him get shot.
“Sean Wickham, a university man, was the son of the Wickham’s Brewery family. He got 14 years. Sean Barratt was an idealist who wrote books got 15 years, and a boy nearer in age to me Danny McNicholl, a painter, he got 5 years.
“I was once with Danny McNicholl and we went and got some bullets and put them on a tramline to get them flattened (he laughs.).
“Agnes (my father’s sister) said to me I’ve got a cutting of the police proceedings, but she never gave it to me.
“It was a dreadful tragic affair. It was a whist drive, a normal whist drive for charity. Peg (another sister) was there and a girl called Annie Higgins they had a shop there in Hulme and left after to open a shop in Dublin.
“I remember it very well. I was probably the youngest person in the place. It was a warehouse building and it was empty, the club for the whist drive was on the top floor. They had probably rented some empty rooms there. You went up a staircase and, in the room, there was a stage, a mock stage with green curtains and in the room were tables laid out for the cards and at the interval there were refreshments, tea and cake.
“I remember this very well. I was sitting there. (Taps to indicate on table his position) and the stage was there. As usual with these incidents, there was an informer – and I could recognise him to this day and could describe him. Well there were actually two of them, Gilmartin and Foy.
“I had been playing whist and was doing well and was in the running for a prize but it was the interval and the man who was on the door wanted to go for a drink, as they do, so there was a boy Morgan who had only come in to see somebody but the doorman asked him to look after the door whilst he went for his drink.
“The boy was reluctant, and he said don’t be long as he was going to meet his girl saying, ‘I can’t stay, my girls waiting for me’ as the doorman went off.
“Somebody said to me do you want to have this cake, as they could not eat it, so as I was eating it there was a bit of a commotion at the door with the boy and some men rushed in.
“There was a commotion and panic. Detectives came in, about eight of them in rain coats, and it all went quiet as they were looking for someone specific, so they went up to people and turned them around and after about the fourth it all went very quiet as more police came in.
“I saw the two informers, who I had just been thinking were better dressed than the rest of us, nice blue shirt and suit on. Both suddenly took a dive under the curtain on to the floor and were never seen again.
“The police picked out two people, but the two informants had now gone.
“When I hear the expression ‘climbing up the wall’ it makes me cringe because I saw people actually climbing up the wall…I saw girls climbing up the wall, the Walsh sisters.
“Demented, frightened to death…and there was Sean Wickham, and a fellow called Harding came and pulled a gun out.
“Later on, it was in the papers as a Detective got decorated for this and I felt like contradicting it.
“The police pulled the gun first. Sean Wickham tried to push Sean Morgan out of the way, but he got shot and was killed and the next bullet went into Sean Wickham’s neck. I can see it now just under his collar.
“He was very brave about it. Then they cleared everybody out. Morgan died but Wickham didn’t.
“He was a university student and real patriot and he had been paying out of his own pocket to help people who were coming over here to get a start and I thought the world of Sean Wickham. He was a real intellectual.
“So, with his wound and neck like this the police retreated for a bit but then they came back with a mob of the biggest hooligans you have ever seen, filth and rabble.
“It was a good hour and a policeman told me they had been buying them drink and told them that there were Irish fanatics in there and to do what you like with them.
“They came in and put women one side and men on the other and I was going with the men but Peg grabbed me and pulled me with her and Danny McNicholl.
“There were two brothers Steve Gunning and his brother, big guys, and they had come to try to rescue the girls, but the mob had the legs of chairs and sticks.
“I had my school cap in my pocket, I would often be in trouble at school for not having it on as I had curly hair and it kept getting knocked off, I put it on as we were getting out down the back stairs.
“This big man’s arm knocked my cap off, but I got out and down the stairs, where there was a lot of rubbish and they set fire to it. At the bottom outside there was this huge mob and, oh, you could hear them roaring they wanted to tear you to pieces as the men ran out, getting beaten up.
Paddy O’Donoghue, the head of the IRA in Manchester, was later arrested. During the ensuing trial in July, there was a truce in the War of Independence war and the Treaty was signed.
The prisoners, including Sean Wickham and O’Donoghue, were released.
My Dad went on to tell me that at the time he had badly wanted to contradict the official police and press reports when they came out but was told by others to stay say nothing and that, besides, nobody would take any notice of a 14-year-old anyway.