Never mind X factor or any of that rubbish, here’s 5 people (or groups of people) who are actually worth talking about…..

Although not all are recognisable today these were all celebrity jailbirds in their day.

1.     Oscar Wilde

Oscar WildeWhile celebrated today for his skill with the pen, Oscar Wilde at the time of his death was probably more famous for his incarceration than for anything he had written.

The Victorian society Wilde lived in was socially conservative. Operating more by a rule of “don’t get caught” rather than any genuine moral code it was harsh and unforgiving. This rule was only t0o apparent to Oscar Wilde when he was he was publicly “outed” having an affair with another man in 1895.

Wilde’s sexuality had always raised an eyebrow. Whilst it was not exactly common knowledge it was no major secret that while although Wilde was married he was bisexual having had many affairs with men.

For Wilde his fall in Victorian society began when the father of a male lover – the Earl of Queensbury – publicly called him a sodomite. In what was a disastrous move, Wilde decided to sue Queensbury for liable given that sodomy was crime. The problem for Wilde was that Queensbury could prove that he had had sex with men and according to the laws of the day was guilty. When the case went to court, Wilde was destroyed in cross examination. Incidentally it was another famous Irish man – Edward Carson – later leader of Ulster Unionism who was Queensbury’s lawyer.

By the end of the case it was clear that Carson could prove Wilde had had affairs with men and his case of liable collapsed. This loss however opened Wilde to a criminal prosecution under the appalling Victorian laws on homosexuality and in 1895 after two trials Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to 2 years of hard labour. Although Wilde survived prison, the experience broke him. On release he left England and died three years later in 1900. His prison experiences formed the basis of one his most famous poems – The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The conviction and sentence sullied Wilde in the eyes of many of his contemporaries in Ireland and England, indeed unbelievably it would take nearly a century before the Ireland decriminalised homosexuality.

2.       James Larkin

James Larkin For many Irish emigrants the USA was a less welcoming place than we often imagine. In 1914 one of the most popular Irish men of the time –  James Larkin arrived in America and found himself very quickly at odds with the US state or perhaps it could be said that the US state found itself at odds with Larkin.

A Trade Unionist and ardent socialist Larkin arrived in the USA after the failure of the 1913 lockout – one of the biggest, most bitter and militant union struggles in Irish History. In America he found conditions of workers no better than they were in Ireland.

Larkin quickly joined the most radical Union the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.). In a time when I.W.W. members frequently locked up it was only inevitable that Larkin at some point would find himself in prison or deported. Before the US government managed to incarcerate Larkin he made a mark on US politics having the unfortunate honour of giving an oration at Joe Hill’s funeral (the self same Joe Hill of the folk song fame).

By 1920 Larkins time as a free man in the US had run out. Having spent his time in America union organising, campaigning against the slaughter of world war one and supporting the Russian revolution Larkin was imprisoned for the catch all crime of “criminal anarchy” in 1920. He was convicted and sentenced to spend 10 years in Sing Sing Prison.

In 1923 Larkin was pardoned, freed and returned to Ireland just as Irish trade unionism most militant and popular phase was drawing to a close. After a decade of intense radicalism Ireland went on to become a distinctly conservative country leaving men like Larkin sidelined. He became disillusioned with much of Irish politics and indeed international politics as cynical barbarism of the 1930’s replaced the idealism of the 1920’s.


3.      Thomas Kelly and William Deasy

Manchester gaol breakIn 1867 in the wake of a failed uprising two relatively unknown Irish-American Fenian leaders were arrested in Manchester. The two, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, both veterans of the American civil war, would become part of Irish nationalist mythology within a few weeks as it was their escape from prison lead to the execution of the “Manchester Martyrs”.

After their capture Kelly and Deasy were held for a week and on the 18th of September 1867, when the two were being taken to court the prison carriage was attacked by a large crowd of sympathisers. This was not particularly surprising given most of the cities in the North West of England had huge Irish emigrant populations.

The crowd set about breaking open the van in an effort to free Kelly and Deasy. In one of the most bizarre accidents of history, one of the crowd attempted to blow the lock off the van at the exact moment a policeman inside was peering through the keyhole. Although the lock was blown and Kelly and Deasy escaped, a massive investigation was launched to find the perpetrators, for what was the first killing of a policeman in Manchester.

Kelly and Deasy evaded recapture but the fall out of the incident was huge in Manchester. The incident gained worldwide attraction when a number of Irishmen living in Manchester were convicted of murder of the police officer and sentenced to death. In the end three men Allen, Larkin and O Brien were executed in what became one of the biggest Irish cause celebre of the post famine period.

The convictions for murder were widely seen as very dubious. Given only one shot was fired and the fact the death was almost certainly accidental, convicting five people was a blatant miscarriage of justice. Kelly and Deasys’ names were added to the cannon of Irish history political prisoners while poor Allen, Larkin and O Brien gained the dubious honour of becoming the “Manchester Martyrs”


4. Mother Jones

Mother JonesIn the early 20th century one of the best known Irish-Americans was an aging cork woman known as “Mother Jones”. Her reputation was so great that when she was imprisoned in Colorado in 1913 on suspicion of murder she was released due to the ground swell of public opinion. Jones was not a politician or celebrity but a famed trade union organiser considered by many as a matriarch of the United States trade union movement.

Born Mary Harris in cork in 1837, she like many of her generation emigrated, first heading to Canada before eventually moving to America. There she married incorporating her husband’s name into her own – Harris Jones. After starting a family and opening a business her life was struck by tragedy when her husband and four children died in an epidemic. She subsequently lost her business which burned down in a fire that destroyed much of Chicago in 1871.

Through the late 19th century Harris was radicalised by the increasingly bitter trade Union disputes and increasingly violent reaction from employers and the United States government. She quickly became involved in Trade Unionism being famous as a prolific organiser of workers. In one of her various trials in 1902 she was described as “the most dangerous woman in America”.

Around her arrest for murder in 1913, she spent much time in and out of prison, preparing for a miners’ strike in Colorado. Eventually the only solution authorities had was to deport her from the state of Colorado entirely. Several months later the strike went ahead but was crushed after the US state massacred miners and their families in the infamous Ludlow Massacre. Harris would go on to organise right up to her death in her late 90’s living her life to her famous maxim. “Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living”

5.  The Freemantle Six

Fremantle prisonWhile Kelly and Deasy were escaping prison in Manchester other Fenian leaders were being deported to Australia to the prison at Fremantle in Western Australia. These men could well have faded into anonymity among the thousands of Irish prisoners deported to Australia in the 19th century however six of them were catapulted onto the world stage through one of the most audacious prison escapes in history.

After contact with some of the prisoners in Fremantle, Fenian leaders in the USA including John Boyle O Reilly and John Devoy set about freeing the men. In 1875 they purchased a whaling ship, the Catalpa, and left New Hampshire on the East coast of America. First they sailed to the Azores Islands and from there they set out on the long journey to Western Australia.

In 1876 nearly a year after leaving the US and after overcoming various mishaps, including loosing its crew to desertion, the Catalpa arrived off the coast of Australia near Fremantle. After avoiding British navy ships in the area the escape went ahead on the 17th April 1876. Remarkably six Fenian leaders escaped – James Wilson, Robert Cranston, Martin Hogan, Tom Darragh Thomas Hassett, and Michael Harrington. The six got to the catalpa and after a close shave with a British warship they made a safe get away escaped. The return voyage of the catalpa was smoother than the outward leg – they arrived in New York three months later in August 1876 to large celebrations. The Fremantle six went down in history after one of the most remarkable prison escapes involving co-ordination across three continents in era before telephones.

If you liked this and want to hear more just “like” on facebook here