Manchester, The 1916 Easter Rising and the “Great Unrest”.
During the early months of 1916 nearly a hundred Irish rebels secretly left the cities of England and Scotland in ones and twos and travelled to Ireland. They had heard that the uprising, for which they had planned and hoped, finally seemed to be approaching.
Several dozen caught ferries from Liverpool and Glasgow and slightly fewer went from London. The histories of some of these are well known – the most famous traveller from London being the ex post office clerk Michael Collins. The stories of most of the others are more obscure. Until now the histories have made no mention at all of any contingent going from Manchester or Stockport.
This has always seemed hard to understand. My father in law used to tell stories of his cousin from Stockport who was in the GPO during the Easter Rising. The stories also claimed that this man, Willie Parr, played the pipes for de Valera, that he died young as a result of hiding in ditches and that the IRA came to his funeral and turned it into such a major event that some family members were astonished.
For a long time we were tempted to dismiss this as an unfounded family fantasy. However, recent access to Irish Government pension files has shown that four men from the Manchester area actually did take part in the Rising, one of whom being the relative I had been told about.
All these people applied for Irish Government pensions, so that their service in the independence struggle has been recorded. In addition, many hundreds of the Volunteers had their memories transcribed in witness statements, which were preserved by the Irish Bureau of Military History. The witness statements have now been released, and provide an unparalleled archive of grass roots memories of a twentieth century revolution. Many of these were written by veterans who were fighting beside the Manchester Volunteers.
This began as a family history detective story, and might have interested no one but the immediate family. We all know what it is like to be bored by someone else’s family tree.
However, I soon discovered that we had found something much more fascinating. Here was a wonderful cache of eye witness accounts of the experiences of growing up in working class Ireland and England, living through turbulent times and choosing to be at the centre of such an important insurrection. We have all read and argued about the events of history as told to us by the experts. It is an entirely different matter to hear the story from the rank and file rebels, who had no idea how the ‘experts’ of posterity would see them. The events become so much more real 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 to me.
I also found that studying the lives of just a handful of ordinary volunteers helped us see the world that the Rising grew out of and showed it in context. The years before the First World War are often called “the Great Unrest” because there was such an upsurge in grass roots industrial militancy that many establishment figures were fearful that it would develop into a more widespread revolt. The eye witness accounts we found described Irish nationalists who were also committed socialists who had campaigned for Jim Larkin and James Connolly and were also to work for conscientious objectors, and for ‘Hands off Russia’ in support of the Bolshevik revolution. They also worked among munitions workers who sabotaged equipment being produced for the Black and Tans, and among striking Liverpool dockers.
I was also pleased to see the developing role of women in what had been a very traditional society. 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.
I think this is a fascinating story which should be told. We don’t often have the opportunity to hear the story of our ancestors when they stood up together and took on the might of the most powerful empire of the world.
This book tells the tale of my relative, Liam Parr, and three other Manchester rebels: Gilbert Lynch, Larry Ryan and Redmond Cox. I have also included the story of Sheila O’Hanlon, whose life and experiences played an equally important part in the making of history. Sheila served throughout the Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War as a member of Cumann na mBan. Sheila was also a close family friend of Liam Parr. During Easter Week, he introduced her to Gilbert Lynch and they subsequently married.
After the Rising. Ruined buildings in Sackville/O Connell St which had been occupied by Liam Parr during Easter week.
Of these five people, only Gilbert Lynch wrote his memoirs and there are no diaries or reminiscences to help us chronicle the lives of the others. This is usually the case with members of the working classes, and is one reason why their place in the making of history is so often forgotten. It is a tragedy that there are so few published biographies of the ordinary rebels or soldiers to set amidst the shelves of those of the leaders.
Wherever possible this is the story of the Manchester rebels, told in their words, or those of Volunteers who were with them. It tries to relate their experiences as they saw them, rather than to give an analysis of the strategy of their leaders, as examined by a twenty-first century historian. I hope it captures some of the emotions, excitement, fear and exhilaration of those who participated in such momentous times. These were people who made history, but whose role was subsequently completely forgotten. This is an attempt to return a few of the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people to their rightful place in the chronicle of the Twentieth Century.
I hope it does them justice after all these years.
Hidden Heroes of Easter week-
Memories of Volunteers from England who joined the Easter Rising.
by Robin Stocks.