The Manchester Irish Volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising

This blog was written by Robin Stocks, using sources from the Stockport Local Heritage Library and Archives. More details about a book Robin has written about this subject can be found at the bottom of this blog.

This is the long hidden story of the group of men from the Manchester area who, in the middle of the Great War, chose to go to Ireland and fight against the British army by joining the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

It is a fascinating tale but one that had been lost to history and had only survived in rumours passed down in families.

Finding the truth became a detective story in its own right. My wife’s father used to tell us  stories he had heard about his cousin from Manchester who had been in the GPO during the rising, had been imprisoned and that he had died young as a result of hiding in ditches. He’d also been told that the family played some part in hiding deValera in Manchester when he had escaped from Lincoln prison. He did warn us, though, that none of it might be true as the family were such great story tellers.

That was a useful warning, but we were fascinated and, and over many years, tracked down  as many family memories as we could,  studied the archives, but only recently did we find the evidence proving that the  family rumours tales were  essentially  true as the Irish government began releasing  the pension applications of  those who took part in the Easter Rising. From these we discovered not only the story of my wife’s cousin Liam Parr, but also that he had been  part of a group of men from Manchester who all secretly travelled to Dublin to take part in a planned rebellion to proclaim  an Independent Ireland. These documents also showed us that that those who took part did not feel they could talk openly about their experiences for fear of being arrested for treason. Perhaps this explains why so few knew of the part played by Manchester volunteers in the Easter Rising.

Liam Parr as a young man
Liam Parr as a young man

This is the story that can finally be told. William (or Liam ) Parr, our relative, had been born in 1891 in a tenement  in Dublin  where he had become a bagpiper and Irish nationalist. He had links with Constance Markievicz’s youth organisation which was a republican alternative to the Boy Scouts. He moved to Manchester in around 1910 when he was 19. On the1911 census he was living with his aunt at 22 Tintern Avenue and working in a shop, possibly that of his mother’s family in Turncroft Lane, Stockport.  Through the Gaelic League he met Gilbert Lynch of Reddish, an active trade unionist who worked for the Reddish Spinning Company. Lynch helped organise the giant meetings when Jim Larkin and James Connolly came to Manchester to seek support for Dublin workers during the lockout of 1913.  With others Parr and Lynch formed the Manchester Company of the Irish Volunteers in 1914. This was a paramilitary organisation set up in response to the Ulster Volunteers who were opposing parliament’s plans for limited Irish Home Rule. On Sundays, members of the Manchester company would get ninepenny day return train tickets and drill and train on the moors.

When the War started, their drill instructor advised them to join up, saying, “the war wouldn’t last more than three months, and in the three months we would all be fully trained soldiers and be of service to Ireland.” Although very many Irishmen did volunteer for the British army, this group of the Manchester Volunteers decided to go to Dublin to fight for Irish independence rather than fight for the British Empire. As well as Parr and Lynch, there were two others. One was Larry Ryan of Tootal Street, Seedley. He had been born in Manchester but came from a strongly nationalist family who completed the 1911 Census form entirely in Irish. Before 1916 he worked as a clerk for J Roscoe and Sons who had a canal haulage business on the Ashton canal at Meadow Street Wharfs, Piccadilly. The other Volunteer was Redmond Cox of Warburton Street, Cheetham.  He’d been born in Ireland but had been living for the last nine years with his sister and working as a grocer’s assistant.

All travelled to Ireland in early 1916.  They would have done this in secret as they knew that they were liable to be conscripted in England and would have been arrested for treason had their plans been discovered. In Dublin, Larry Ryan and Liam Parr both joined about a hundred other ‘refugees’ (as they were known), from England and Scotland in the Plunkett family mill at Kimmage. Redmond Cox stayed in the Dublin family home of Martin Conlon who himself had family links with Manchester. The rising had been planned in secret and in the days before its intended launch, one of the leaders of the Volunteers, Bulmer Hobson, tried to call it off, as he believed it would be hopeless. He encouraged the official leader of the Volunteers to send out an order attempting to cancel all the plans. This caused huge confusion and led to the rising being delayed by a day and only going ahead with much reduced numbers. To stop him further threatening the plans, Hobson was held at gunpoint by the rebels in the house of Martin Conlon where Redmond Cox was also staying. We don’t know whether Cox was one of the men standing guard but he must have known what was happening as it was not a big house and Hobson was being  imprisoned in the front room  by men with rifles sat on the stairs. Hobson was released unharmed once the rising had begun although many of the rebels were extremely angry at him for jeopardising the plans.

On the very eve of the Rising Liam Parr introduced Gilbert Lynch to Sheila O Hanlon, a family friend, who was living in Dublin and was active in the women’s organisation of volunteers.  Gilbert and Sheila attended a ceilidh the evening before the planned start date of the insurrection and danced together until dawn, beginning a romance that would eventually lead to their marriage. The following morning Lynch and Parr heard of the attempted cancellation, but they soon also heard that the leaders had decided to go ahead anyway with the plans a day later than originally intended.

On the following day, Easter Monday, Parr and Ryan both marched to the GPO, Ryan stating that he was one of the first three to storm the building. Ryan was to spend the following week behind sandbags guarding the windows of the GPO, probably on the first floor.  Parr was sent across the road to buildings where the rebels were setting up a radio station to transmit news of the proclamation of Independence. He remained there until heavy fire forced them to retreat back to the GPO.

Liam Parr in his thirties in pipers' uniform. The badger's head sporran was characteristic of the James Connolly pipe band, but the photo would have been taken after he had moved to Manchester.
Liam Parr in his thirties in pipers’ uniform. The badger’s head sporran was characteristic of the James Connolly pipe band, but the photo would have been taken after he had moved to Manchester.

Redmond Cox and Gilbert Lynch were behind barricades near the Four Courts. Rebel forces numbered about 1500 and they were surrounded by about 20,000 much better armed men of the British army as well as by fire as much of the centre of Dublin burned out of control. When the rebels surrendered Parr, Ryan and Cox were arrested and imprisoned in Knutsford, Stafford and then Frongoch in Wales. Lynch had been slightly injured and was in hospital at the time of the surrender; he was spirited out by sympathetic medical staff so escaped imprisonment. Sheila O’Hanlon also served during the week in the Jameson’s distillery in Marrowbone Lane. At the surrender she was put in prison in Kilmainham gaol where the women heard the shots every morning as the leaders were executed by firing squad.

Gilbert Lynch was the only one who was able to return home. He spent the next few years in Stockport campaigning for Ireland and for workers’ rights as a member of the Stockport Independent Labour Party. He campaigned in support of conscientious objectors and then helped organise demonstrations in favour of the new Russian Revolution. He was also to take part in strikes among munitions workers and helped plan sabotage among workers who were repairing Crossley tenders for the notorious Black and Tans. The other Manchester volunteers stayed in Dublin after they were released, so they were there in the midst of the conflict with the Black and Tans.

Liam Parr travelled to England to help Lynch during the 1920 Stockport parliamentary election where they campaigned to elect an imprisoned Irish trade unionist to the Westminster Parliament. They did not expect to be successful, but used the election to gain publicity for the plight of Ireland. Parr sailed back to Dublin after the election. Here he was working for the insurance company which acted as cover for Michael Collins intelligence activities. It is likely that he was acting undercover because he was advised to ‘lie low’ after his identity was discovered in papers found in an attaché case captured during an army raid. This was at the time of the shootings in Dublin known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and Parr returned to his family in Stockport.  His widow said his parent’s home in Upper Brook Street was raided and he was ‘knocked about from pillar to post’.

Meanwhile Larry Ryan worked as a merchant seaman on the ships between Liverpool and New York. De Valera was only one of the republican leaders who were smuggled across the Atlantic by sailors like Ryan. Many also carried weapons from America to use against the Black and Tans in Ireland. It was while attempting to smuggle arms that Ryan was arrested by the New York police and imprisoned there. He spent his sentence in the infamous Tombs prison in Manhattan, which was well known for housing gangsters during the prohibition years.

Redmond Cox worked in a Dublin mental hospital during the War of Independence. On one occasion when the hospital was raided by troops looking for Volunteers like Cox, they were thwarted when their intended victim had his colleagues lock him in the padded cell where he convincingly pretended to be a patient.

After the treaty, Redmond Cox stayed in Dublin and worked all his life in the same hospital. Larry Ryan worked as a clerk for the Irish Army, but his health never recovered from his period in prison in America and he died aged only 30 in 1924.

Liam Parr remained in Stockport and married a woman he had met in Manchester through the Gaelic League. He worked as an insurance agent and then as a plumber and became a prominent singer in his church. He had three children, the youngest of whom has given great help to this project. Liam however never fully regained his health and died in 1934 aged 41. His daughter said: “Perhaps if my father hadn’t died so young he would have written a memoir, but my mother said his memories of what had happened troubled him a lot, but time can bring about healing.”

Gilbert Lynch and Sheila O‘Hanlon married after Sheila was released from prison after serving another term during the Irish Civil War. They settled in Dublin, had children and Gilbert worked as a trade union official, eventually becoming President of the Irish TUC. He and Sheila returned to Stockport every Christmas to see his parents, and presumably his old friend Liam Parr who had introduced them to each other. Gilbert and Sheila both died in Dublin at the end of the 1960s. Lynch recorded some of his memories as an old man, and his family have helped us tell this story.

While doing our research we discovered eye witness accounts of many of those who took part in the events of 1916.  It has been wonderful to read these and to be able to see the events of that time through the eyes of those who were there. The story becomes so much more vivid when we can hear the participants recounting the ‘unimportant details’ such as eating an extra big breakfast before climbing on the roof to face snipers or having to serve food with bayonets. To be told of a man stuffing his handkerchief in his mouth so his commanding officer would not hear his teeth chattering makes his experience feel very real.

I enjoyed hearing women in the GPO arguing with Padraig Pearse when he told them to leave the burning building before the men; “You told us we were all equal- what about women’s rights?” they demanded of an obviously shaken Pearse.

We’ve only been able to tell this story because of the memories that have been passed down within families.  We have spoken to some of the relatives of Liam Parr and Gilbert Lynch but haven’t been able to track down anyone with family stories of Larry Ryan or Redmond Cox. We feel there must be others who have heard tales about their relatives from Manchester who took part. Perhaps, like us, people have heard stories but didn’t know whether to believe what they had been told. There might even be others who took part that we haven’t heard about.  We have found that family rumours can be more accurate than the history books, which had never mentioned anyone from Manchester taking part, so we know that family stories should be taken seriously. We would love to hear from anyone with memories to share.

We have produced a website and are adding new information to it as it comes to light:
https://hiddenheroesofeasterweek.wordpress.com

and a book:
“Hidden Heroes of Easter Week- Memories of volunteers from England who joined the Easter Rising” by Robin Stocks.

Hidden Heroes of Easter Week will have a stall and give a talk at Manchester Town Hall on June 11th 2016  all day  for Manchester Histories Festival, Celebration Day.

One thought on “The Manchester Irish Volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising

  1. Pingback: The Manchester Irish Volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising | GM 1914 | First Night History

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