The extra-ordinary story of the Volunteer from England who joined the Dublin Easter Rising and was imprisoned in New York.
This is Larry Ryan who secretly travelled from Manchester to Dublin in 1916 when he heard that a rebellion was being planned. He fought right through the Rising, having been one of the first three to storm the Dublin’s General Post Office, the headquarters. He remained in the centre of the rebellion until the surrender, when he was sent to prison camps in England, and then in Wales. When he was released he continued working for Irish independence until he was arrested and imprisoned again, this time in the notorious ‘Tombs’ prison in New York.
Larry Ryan is one of the forgotten volunteers of Easter Week whose contribution to history had been forgotten for a hundred years. We are hoping that, now that we have been able to start telling his story, others with information or memories will come forward to add to the picture. Perhaps, there are people living somewhere in the Irish diaspora, who have heard tales about a mysterious relative, whose doings are almost lost in myth. We have been able to discover the story of our relative, Liam Parr who was a close comrade of Larry Ryan, only because we listened to the tales told us by our elderly relatives. Perhaps there are other stories waiting to be told before they fade away.
On Easter Monday 1916 several hundred rebels massed outside Liberty hall In Dublin ready to launch a rebellion to try to achieve Irish independence.. A large contingent of these was Irish exiles, coming mainly from England and Scotland. One was Larry Ryan, a slightly built 24 year old with blue eyed and dark brown hair. As he was in the front rank, outside the General Post Office , did he know that his life, and the story of his nation was about to change for ever?
Lawrence Ryan was born in 1892 in Pendleton, Salford, Manchester where his Waterford born father was working as a clerk and book keeper. His mother was from Liverpool and all his brothers and sisters had all been born locally, but the family preserved a strong commitment to their Irish Identity. In 1909 Sean MacDermott and Liam Mc Mahon came to a meeting of the Manchester Circle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the descendents of the Fenians) at the Ryan house where they discussed the best ways of procuring arms and ammunition for a future rising.
Lawrence’s father remonstrated his Irish identity in 1911 when he completed the census form in Irish, which is extremely rare in England. He defines himself as a ‘ rather than a a’ British Subject’. At that time Lawrence (usually known as Larry) was working as a clerk for a coal merchant who ran a canal haulage business with a wharf close to Manchester Piccadilly Station.
Larry became a nationalist young man and joined the Manchester Company of the Irish Volunteers when it was formed in 1914. Scores of men from the city used to buy cheap 9d railway excursion tickets on Sundays from Manchester to the moors where they would train and drill. Among the others was Liam Parr who is my relative.
When war began in 1914 th Volunteer’s instructor advised them to join the British army telling them, “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.” Larry declined the advice and in early 1916 decided to travel to Dublin to prepare for the planned insurrection. At the same time, a group of several dozen women in Manchester launched a r branch of ‘Cumann na mBan’, the women’s volunteer organisation which ran in parallel with the male Volunteers.
Larry arrived at a disused mill at Kimmage on the outskirts of Dublin which was to be the base for about a hundred ‘refugees’ (as they were known) from England and Scotland. They were to spend about eight weeks there preparing for a rising, but when they got there they found the facilities were pretty rudimentary. One remembered,” They had an agricultural boiler and tried to make a stew. George Plunkett came in to the house to ask his sister how long it took to boil potatoes, She told him three quarters of an hour to which he said, ‘Well, they should be boiled now, it’s three hours since they started. “
They soon learnt and one said, “The food was simple , wholesome and plentiful; the breezes blowing through the mill made us hardy and hungry.” The menu must have been limited because one resident remembered singing a mealtime chorus,
“ there is a happy land not far away,
Where we get bread and jam three times a day”
Provisions were dependent on what supporters could secretly provide.
James Connolly’s eldest daughter, Nora, was active in the youth group, Fianna Eireann in Belfast. She visited Kimmage and organized supporters in Belfast to provide tobacco, and groceries
In Dublin, “Members of Cumann na mBan were requested to obtain old tweed costumes to be converted into sleeping bags for the men.
“There were no baths, and few disinfectants. Existence became most uncomfortable; a dry shampoo against a wooden stanchion was not much of a palliative”
“George Plunkett, was in charge of us. His bed , like ours, was a bag of straw on the hard boards.. He was a gentle soul and it seemed inappropriate for him to be in charge of a pretty hard crowd.” Gradually the camp developed into a” sort of commune, it being the case of ‘first up best dressed. ‘No one had any personal possessions; all belonged to the community and when Larry Ryan required a cigarette he could be heard shouting frantically ‘Say, have we any cigarettes?’
Most of the day times were spent making grenades, preparing bullets and even making pikes as the rebels had a very meagre supply of weapons to launch a rebellion .
“…… we even attempted to make a gun……..George Plunkett wanted a long range buckshot gun, which simply could not be made out of a piece of malleable iron piping-. The charge was doubled and jammed tightly, I have heard of Peter Pan losing his shadow and getting it back again. When that gun went off I thought I had lost my zenith…” “As soon as the charge was exploded it went to pieces, innumerable tiny fragments of metal flying in all directions. It was indeed miraculous that no one was hurt. One piece of metal came right over the building and went through the conservatory window. Miss Plunkett, who just then emerged from the house, casually asked if I knew who had thrown the stone that broke the window.”
The Volunteers remembered working hard, but also enjoying their time together. One remembered Larry Ryan always trying to slip away for an afternoon ‘nap’. “The boys soon became aware of Larry’s weakness in this respect and a jazz band, with tin cans supplying ‘the effects’ was organised to disturb his slumbers. Larry in time became accustomed to this and slept in spite of the din of the march past. More drastic measures had to be resorted to, so one day a large flat case which was lying in the yard was carried into the room and sleepy Larry, together with the mattress and blankets was lifted clean onto it. A few of the more stalwart members then hoisted the case and proceeded to carry it down the stairs, while a jazz band played the Dead March in Saul. When the procession was about half way down the stairs the O.C. (George Plunkett) was observed coming up to investigate the cause of all the commotion. The procession immediately dispersed, the ‘pall bearers’ dropping their burden which slid down to the next landing a few feet away and deposited itself at the feet of Captain Plunkett. Larry emerged from his improvised coffin with a deep yawn much to the amusement of the Captain.”
The garrison usually worked or trained from reveille at seven until ten most nights, but they also managed to enjoyed some evenings of leisure. “ Many a pleasant night was passed in song and music, for the ‘garrison could boast of a violin, piccolo, melodeon and a good few singers, and last but not least we had a versatile comedian in Joe Good. One ‘turn’ of Joe’s that always provoked laughter was his impersonation of George Robey.”
The Plunkett family who lived in the house adjoining the mill had been looking for a trustworthy book keeper to sort out their accounts. “That afternoon a very tired young man arrived from London. This man was of medium height and I thought not remarkable until I looked at his eyes…. This was Michael Collins and no one ever had a better clerk…. He was shrewd, serious and downright, very quick and clear… His social manner was not so good and he often offended people who did not understand his sincerity.”
This included members of the Kimmage Garrison who were working on munitions.”. He aggressively tried to hurry us, and even to instruct us, but displayed a lack of the most elementary knowledge of mechanics and made himself unpopular by his aggressiveness. I was impressed by the sense of hurry and earnestness but he was abusive to us.”
As Easter approached some of the volunteers were sent to lectures by James Connolly or Padraig Pearse. “I received an invitation to a lecture on street fighting by James Connolly, and he gave a vivid description of battles fought in city streets in Mexico and how such fighting should be carried on. I little thought that our time was near.”
On Easter Monday Larry and the rest of the Kimmage Garrison were told that the Rising was on and they were to go by tram and foot to Liberty Hal, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. They then marched up Sackville Street to the GPO where they were ordered to ‘charge’. Larry Ryan always said that he had been one of the first three to enter the GPO.
Larry spent the whole of the rebellion defending the rebel’s HQ, the GPO building., It is likely that he was with other members of the Kimmage Garrison guarding barricaded windows on the first floor. However as flames engulfed the building he retreated with the others to Moore Street. He was there while the painful arguments raged about whether to surrender. According to Joe Good, “When some of the men were told of thr surrender, they were furious, especially our London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow men- the hard core of the Kimmage garrison.” Larry Ryan was one of this hard core.
However they unhappily agreed to the surrender and were arrested. When Larry was questioned he told them that he was L Ryan and his home address was 4 Portobello Harbour, Dublin. He knew not to admit to having lived in England as he would have been conscripted into the army he had just been fighting against.
The remains of Sackville Street/O’Connell Street after the Rising.
The next night Larry was marched to the docks and put on a boat to mainland Britain. He spent the next six months in various prisons in England and Wales. He was also sent to London for interrogation, but the details have not been released by the authorities.
After Larry was released he worked as a merchant seaman on the ships crossing the Atlantic between Liverpool and New York. He was one of the seamen who smuggled republican figures like de Valera to America and brought shipments of arms and ammunition from the USA to Ireland. While he was doing this he was apprehended by the New York police and imprisoned in the notorious Tombs Prison in the Lower East Side of New York. This is the same gaol which housed Liam Mellows, as well as numerous gangsters during the prohibition years. Liam’s period in the Tombs broke his health and he was said never to fully recover.
After his release and the Treaty, Larry returned to Ireland where he worked as a clerk for the Free State army. He played no part in the Civil War apart from working for the procurement department of the army.
He was still working for the army in 1924 when he was admitted to hospital and died suddenly of nephritis .. His mother said that he had only been sent to hospital to have a tooth extracted but that he had died ‘from the effects of the hardships he had endured.’ He was aged only 30.
When he died his possession consisted of
2/6 (12.5 pence or about 10 cents) in cash,
1 wooden pipe,
1 Fountain pen,
1 Key on a ring,
The life of Larry Ryan resembles that of so many other ‘ordinary’ volunteers who paid a very high price for their courage and commitment, but who have almost vanished from history. We only know about the Manchester Volunteers because local enthusiasts have collected their family stories, and studied the archives to preserve a part of our history that had nearly been lost for ever.
We have told the stories of Larry Ryan and the other Manchester volunteers in a book and website https://hidenheroesofeasterweek.wordpress.com
The book is available from the website, from good bookshops and from Amazon.co.uk. It is called ’ Hidden Heroes of Easter Week- Memories of volunteers from England who joined the Easter Rising’ by Robin Stocks.
We have only been able to produce this book because so many relatives and historians have shared their knowledge. We would love it if others would feel encouraged to do the same, or to share their information with us. We have still not found any relatives of Larry Ryan, or anyone with more information about Larry’s time in New York. Please contact us if you can help. Thanks.