Cork 1867 | Boats, Blasts and Flying Fenian Feats

On St. Stephen’s Day in 1867, with darkness falling on Fota Island in Cork’s inner harbour, two gunners and their families sat down to a meal of Christmas Day left-overs. Their home, the island’s Martello Tower, housed a stock of guns and gunpowder, and unbeknownst to the gunners, three boats had rowed up and across the harbour from Passage West and were now tying up outside. The gunners heard some commotion, but were surrounded before they could ask ‘who’s there?’ The intruders’ leader, a small man with an American twang, introduced himself as Captain Mackey, bade them continue with their meal and proceeded to converse as if he were an old friend. The others set about loading the boats with the Tower’s stock of ammunition.

Captain Mackey then shared out money among the bewildered but delighted children, wished them all a Happy New Year and left. The panicked gunners fired off the alarm signal, five consecutive shots, but in the Christmas revelry, this was misunderstood. The following morning, passengers on the Cobh train observed a man waving wildly from the tower and in the spirit of the season enthusiastically waved back.

This story was one of many passed down through generations of my family concerning our ancestor the infamous Fenian – Captain Mackey.

In 1844, three years old William Mackey Lomasney left Castlelyons, County Cork, with his parents, Susan Mackey and Bill Lomasney and emigrated to Detroit, Michigan, where Bill opened a bookshop. Both sides of the family were steeped in republicanism. Susan’s grandfather, a United Irishman, had been hanged for his part in the 1798 rebellion. It was no surprise then that in 1860, the Lomasneys, father and son, joined the oath-bound Fenian Brotherhood, an underground organization set up in America, in 1858, by John O Mahony. It was a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), founded earlier that year in Ireland by James Stephens.

Members of both organizations became known as ‘The Fenians.’ The Fenians’ stated aim was a democratic Irish republic based on equality and universal suffrage. Charismatic leaders in Ireland like John O Leary, Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa and Thomas Clarke Luby decried the ‘curse of monarchical government,’ and called for ‘complete separation of Church and State.’ Not surprisingly this gained them the wrath of Cardinal Cullen and the Catholic Church. Bishop Moriarity of Kerry famously declared that ‘Hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough for the Fenians.’

On taking the oath of the Fenian Brotherhood and to avoid confusion with his father, William Jnr. assumed his mother’s maiden name of Mackey. In 1862, father and son enlisted in the Northern Army and fought bravely in the American Civil War. Young William rose to the rank of Captain and was for ever after known as Captain Mackey.

To avail of the battle expertise of the thousands of Irish who fought in the American Civil War, the IRB planned a nationwide rising in Ireland for Shrove Tuesday, March 5th, 1867. Experienced American Civil War officers would lead the rebellion. However, infiltration by British spies and disagreements between the Irish and American Fenians – namely between James Stephens and John O Mahony, led to the arrest of the officers as they arrived and to confusion about the date. Furthermore, a failed arms raid on Chester Castle on February 11th and the fact that the Fenian arms-ship Erin’s Hope hadn’t arrived from New York left arms in scant supply. Throughout the country thousands of Fenians were ready for action, but the lack of weapons and professional leadership confined fighting to isolated skirmishes that soon fizzled out. To make matters worse, hardly had the rebels left their homes when the beautiful spring weather gave way to the hail and sleet of mid-winter. What ensued was two weeks of the worst snow storms in twenty years. Apart from Tallaght, only in Munster (and particularly in Cork) did action of any significance take place. One of the few American officers to get through at Queenstown was twenty-five years old Captain Mackey. He took control of his home area of Fermoy.

On that icy Spring morning of March 5th, 1867, Captain Mackey led out a band of poorly armed but determined men and marched towards Mallow. To hamper communications, they tore up the rails of the Great Southern and Western Railway and cut the telegraph wires. They then marched to Ballyknockane R.I.C. Barracks. ‘Surrender in the name of the Irish Republic!’ Captain Mackey called out. The constable refused and opened fire. Captain Mackey stormed the Barracks and without an injury on either side, relieved it of its weaponry and set it alight.

When news of the abortive countrywide insurrection filtered through, Captain Mackey resorted to guerrilla tactics. All through 1867, his dedicated Fenian unit of Cork men and New York men eluded the authorities and roamed Cork City and County impeding communications, felling bridges, raiding coastguard stations and military barracks. That the flying column brazenly operated in broad daylight horrified the British Government. Anxiety grew that Captain Mackey’s warfare would be copied elsewhere. Cork, already a proclaimed area, had its patrols doubled and reinforcements sent to protect police barracks. Conservatives urged an indiscriminate arrest of Irish-Americans but the powers at Dublin Castle declined, worried that the full force of the Coercion Act would incite popular unrest. Captain Mackey’s success suggested high levels of cooperation among the citizens of Cork.

On November 23rd, worldwide sympathy for the Fenians grew. After a dubious trial in Manchester, three Fenians – Allen, Larkin and O Brien, were hanged for their success in freeing two Fenian prisoners. Freidrich Engels summed up the global mood; ‘the only thing the Fenians had lacked were martyrs,’ he said, ‘they have provided them with those.’

In Cork, emotions ran high as two of the Manchester Martyrs were Corkmen. Fifteen thousand marched down Patrick Street in protest at the hangings. Under cover of the crowd, Captain Mackey and his flying column entered Richardson’s gunsmiths at number 87 and carried off their entire stock. The English press raged over the unstoppable Captain Mackey. In Dublin, The Nation magazine taunted the authorities for blundering about as if playing ‘blindman’s buff’ and printed the ditty:

The Queen’s round towers, cant baulk their powers,
Off go the weapons by sea and shore,
To where the Cork men and smart New York men
Are daily piling their precious store.

Rewards were offered for Captain Mackey’s capture, but none were claimed.

His New Year’s raid on the Gunpowder Mills in Ballincollig, next door to the British Army Barracks, was the last straw for the authorities. Rewards were increased. On February 7th, 1868, on a tip-off, Captain Mackey was apprehended at Cronin’s Grocery Store in Cornmarket Street. The police had to baton- charge a large hostile crowd to move their prisoner the short distance to the Bridewell. Sentenced to twelve years’ penal servitude, he was released in the general amnesty of 1871, on condition that he return to Detroit. He did and lived there in happy domesticity with wife Susan and family for years though still in regular correspondence with John Devoy and Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa – or Jerry O Dynamite Rossa, as he became known.

In October 1884, a certain individual turned up in London keen to rent out a ground floor premises. The well-dressed American who called himself JG Marshall impressed Mrs Solomon, the owner of 69, Harrow Street, with his plans to open a bookshop, along with his brother. In no time at all the brothers were in business.

Two months later an explosion occurred under London Bridge. Christmas shoppers hurrying overhead paid scant attention to the boat below or to its occupants engaged in attaching a device to the Bridge’s arch. They merely saw a blinding light followed by a massive blast.

It was the spring of the New Year before Mrs Solomon, anxious over the disappearance of her tenants at Christmas, contacted the police. Assisting her, officers from Scotland Yard found dynamite and other bomb making equipment in the back parlour of the shop she had rented to the brothers. It quickly became apparent that the brothers were not who they claimed to be. JG Marshall was none other than the notorious Captain Mackey.

Unlike his Christmas raid on Fota’s Martello Tower in 1867, this London escapade was Captain Mackey’s last.

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