The International Workingmen's Association, 1867

On the Fenian Prisoners in Manchester

Memorial of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association November 20, 1867;
Written: by Marx November 20, 1867.

To the Right Hon. Gathorne-Hardy,
Her Majesty's Secretary of State:

To the Right Hon. Gathorne-Hardy,

At a special meeting of the General Council of the IWA held at the office 16, Cable Street, East, W., on Wednesday evening the following memorial was adopted:

The memorial of the undersigned, representing workingmen's associations in all parts of Europe, showeth:

That the execution of the Irish prisoners condemned to death at Manchester will greatly impair the moral influence of England upon the European continent. The execution of the four prisoners resting upon the same evidence and the same verdict which, by the free pardon of Maguire, have been officially declared, the one false, the other erroneous, will bear the stamp not of a judicial act, but of political revenge. But even if the verdict of the Manchester jury and the evidence it rests upon had not been tainted by the British Government itself, the latter would now have to choose between the bloody-handed practices of old Europe and the magnanimous humanity of the young Transatlantic Republic.

The commutation of the sentence for which we pray will be an act not only of justice, but of political wisdom.

EUGENE DUPONT, secretary for France
HERMANN JUNG, secretary for Switzerland
ANTON ZABICKI, secretary for Poland
ALEXANDRE BESSON, secretary for Belgium

ROBERT SHAW, secretary for America,
KARL MARX, secretary for Germany
PAUL LAFARGUE, secretary for Spain
DERKINDEREN, secretary for Holland
J. GEORGE ECCARIUS, general secretary

Note from MECW

In the autumn of 1867 the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association launched a widespread campaign among the English workers in support of the Irish national liberation movement led by the Fenians. The memorial written by, Marx was an integral part of this campaign.

The Fenians were Irish revolutionaries who named themselves after the “Féne” — a name of the ancient population of Ireland. Their first organisations appeared in the 1850s in the USA among the Irish immigrants and later in Ireland itself. The secret Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, as the organisation was known in the early 1860s, aimed at establishing an independent Irish republic by means of an armed uprising. The Fenians, who expressed the interests of the Irish peasantry, came chiefly from the urban petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia and believed in conspiracy tactics. The British Government attempted to suppress the Fenian movement by severe police reprisals.

On September 18, 1867, the Fenians made an armed attack on a prison van in an attempt to liberate Kelly and Deasy, two of their leaders. The latter managed to escape but a policeman was killed during the clash. Five Irishmen (Maguire, Condon, Larkin, Allen and O'Brien) were charged with murder and brought to trial. Although there was no direct evidence, they were sentenced to death. Maguire was subsequently pardoned, and Condon, as an American citizen, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The others were executed.

The Fenian trial in Manchester aroused a storm of protest in Ireland and England. On the insistence of Marx, the General Council of the International began, on November 19, a discussion on the Irish question during which the leaders of the international proletarian organisation expressed their solidarity with the struggle of the Irish people for independence and condemned the position of the reformist trade union leaders who, in the wake of the English bourgeois radicals, denied the right of the Fenians to resort to revolutionary methods in the struggle. The discussion was scheduled to continue on November 26, but when the news of the conviction was received, the General Council convened a special meeting on November 20 and addressed a memorial to the Home Secretary, asking for the commutation of the death sentence. The British Government ignored the memorial.

Because of opposition from the trade union leaders, the English labour press did not publish the memorial in its original wording. A report on the special meeting of the General Council, published in The Bee-Hive, No. 319, November 23, 1867, only summarised it, and trained the General Council members who had signed it. The French translation was published by Le Courrier français, No. 163, November 24.

In English the memorial was first published in full in The General Council of the First International. 1866-1868, Moscow, 1964.

This document is also preserved in the form of the manuscript copy, made by Mrs. Marx which fully coincides with the text entered into the Minute Book. Written as an article, this copy was apparently, to be sent to the press.