God Save Ireland is an Irish rebel song celebrating the Manchester Martyrs, three Fenians executed in 1867. It served as an unofficial Irish national anthem for Irish nationalists from the 1870s to the 1910s.
On 18 September 1867, a group of 20–30 men effected the escape of two Fenian prisoners by ambushing the carriage transporting them to Belle Vue Gaol in Manchester. An attempt to shoot the lock off the carriage door caused the death of a police guard. In the following weeks, 28 men were arrested, 26 sent for trial, and five tried on 29 October. None had fired the fatal shot; all were charged with murder under the common purpose and felony murder doctrines. One of the five, Edward O'Meagher Condon, concluded his speech from the dock with the words "God Save Ireland", a motto taken up by supporters in the public gallery. All five were convicted and sentenced to death, again responding "God Save Ireland". One was acquitted on appeal as the evidence was shown to be unreliable; although the others were convicted on the evidence of the same witnesses, their sentences stood, though Condon's was commuted. The other three, Michael Larkin, William Phillip Allen, and Michael O'Brien, were hanged on 23 November 1867 and dubbed the Manchester Martyrs, not merely by physical force Irish republicans but more generally by Irish nationalists who felt a miscarriage of justice had occurred.
The phrase "God Save Ireland" was quickly repeated by campaigners for their pardon and, after their hanging, by organisers of commemorations. The lyrics to "God Save Ireland" written by Timothy Daniel Sullivan were first published on 7 December 1867, the day before the Martyrs' funeral. Two other songs with the same title had been published before Sullivan's. To hasten his song's adoption, Sullivan set it to the well-known tune of "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!", a popular pro-Union song of the American Civil War. The lines "whether on the scaffold high / Or on battlefield we die" were similar to lines from "The Place where Man should Die", by Michael Joseph Barry, published in 1843 in The Nation.
Between 1867 and 1916 "God Save Ireland" was often referred to as the "Irish national anthem", being habitually sung at gathering of Irish nationalists, both in Ireland and abroad. During the Parnellite split of the 1890s, "God Save Ireland" was the anthem of the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation. John McCormack, an Irish tenor residing in the United States, had a big hit with the number, making the first of his popular phonograph records of it in 1906. For this reason, he was not welcome in the United Kingdom for several years.
The song was sung by the insurgents during the Easter Rising of 1916, but thereafter it fell out of favour. Just as the Irish Parliamentary Party and the green harp flag were eclipsed by Sinn Féin and the Irish tricolour, so "God Save Ireland" was eclipsed by "The Soldiers' Song", which was formally adopted in 1926 as the anthem of the Irish Free State created in 1922.