Trying to solve a mystery- How Hidden Heroes came about
My wife, Julia, was always told by her father that he had a cousin, Willie Parr, who fought in the 1916 Easter Rising. The stories told that he fought in the GPO, was imprisoned and died young with his health ruined as a result of hiding in ditches. It was said that de Valera either attended his funeral in Manchester or sent a wreath. Members of the family remembered seeing the card from the wreath which said: “May the Angels pipe you into heaven as you piped me into County Clare.”
I knew that the family were good story tellers, and I was warned that “everything they said was either exaggerated upwards or downwards”, but I also knew that family stories are usually based on fact even if the details may be confused.
We began by asking all the family whether they knew any more information or had any documents, but this drew a blank. We looked for records of birth, marriage or death but found nothing. There were a few Parrs but none seemed likely, and much of the early researching happened before the days of internet indexes.
I did look into the story of de Valera being piped into Clare and discovered that it was credible. He was elected as MP for East Clare in 1917 in a campaign that was hugely supported by helpers from all over Ireland. In Dublin, we discovered a wonderful photo of three pipers and Constance Markievicz leading a march during the campaign, but we couldn’t find anyone who knew the names of the pipers. Unfortunately we still don’t know if Willie was one of the pipers on the photo, but it did make the family tradition believable.
Yet none of the histories include anyone joining the Rising from Manchester. They talked about Volunteers sailing from Liverpool, Glasgow and London, the most famous being Michael Collins, but there was no mention of a contingent from Manchester.
Our first real lead came from the Irish Bureau of Military History who hold all the witness statements made by those who took part in the Rising and the War of Independence. The staff very kindly looked through their indexes and posted us a witness statement which included William’s name in a list of those who stayed at Larkfield Mill in Kimmage. This mill was owned by the Plunkett family and housed about a hundred Volunteers from England and Scotland. In the months before the Rising they were in hiding here, training and making weapons. When we first saw these documents they were not on the internet, but now are available to everyone providing a fantastic resource.
The Bureau also suggested we look to see if there was a pension file in William’s name. These were kept as confidential documents and were only open to relatives at the time. The file arrived just before Christmas 2011 and it was the perfect present for us. Included were details of William’s life and information about his wife and children, as well as a long, handwritten letter that his widow later wrote to de Valera, asking for his help. This letter shows that Margaret, William’s widow, obviously expected de Valera to remember him and also that he was more commonly known as Liam and that he used Power as an alias. She wrote, “When you went down to Clare on your first election, he was the man in your car with yourself and Larry Ginnell who played the pipes as you went in. He remembered that day with pride although there was another side as well. He was a great favourite with Larry Ginnell who used to call him “The Minstrel Boy” or “The Bard of Armagh” as he used to sing these songs.” It was so moving to read the very words of Margaret and it made us see Liam and Margaret as real people with their own hard lives and dreams. At that point it ceased to be a historical mystery to us, and became a matter of getting to know actual people whose courageous and sometimes tragic lives deserve to be remembered.
With this new information, we could now find and visit Liam’s grave in Moston cemetery, Manchester. It was a very sad and cold day. It was hard to imagine the turn out for him at his funeral in 1934, or the wreath from de Valera. The cemetery records gave us enough clues to search for any surviving relatives. We wrote to all the people with the right name in the area where his relatives had moved to, and miraculously received a letter from someone who had previously lived next door to Liam’s daughter. And then, at last, we heard from Liam’s daughter, Bernadette. The missing link had been added to the chain and Julia could finally meet her long lost cousins.
Meanwhile the Bureau of Military History had been beavering away putting witness statements and pension files on the internet. This produced more information about people in Kimmage who were from Manchester, but unfortunately several of the people listed as Mancunians turned out to be from Liverpool, London or Glasgow. Most usefully it revealed a review of republican activity during the War of Independence, written by Paddy O’Donoghue, the IRA leader who was sentenced to 15 years for treason felony in 1921. He listed four people from Manchester area who took part in the Easter Rising. “As far as is known the following took part in the Rising of 1916: Larry Ryan (now dead); William Parr and Gilbert Lynch and O’Dwyer of Brook St (formerly of Co Tipperary).” It was wonderful to be able to see Liam listed among his colleagues. It was, however, a bit worrying that the same Paddy O’Donoghue was later to write, in his witness statement, that no one in Manchester knew the Rising was happening until afterwards. It is hard to explain this but perhaps he was trying to protect people.
Although I have discovered no O’Dwyer who took part in 1916 and had links with Manchester, (please tell me if you have any information) the other three all have pension files so we can read what they, or their next of kin, told the pension board. All were given certificates of service but only Gilbert Lynch was awarded a pension. The other two, Liam Parr and Larry Ryan, had both died young and the pension board, which was notoriously ungenerous, could not be convinced that the premature deaths were connected with their service. All these files have been put on the internet with the exception of Liam Parr’s which has been sent to the family and is due to be released, I believe, in late 2015.
Further research has showed that Gilbert Lynch was stationed in the vicinity of the Four Courts during Easter Week where he was in contact with Redmond Cox. Redmond Cox also travelled from Manchester and made an application for a pension, but did not appear on O’Donoghue’s list. Now we had found four Manchester Volunteers. The basic building blocks of the story were in place.
As I continued researching the four individuals I discovered that Gilbert Lynch had written his memoirs and they had been published by the Irish Labour History Society. “The Life and Times of Gilbert Lynch” edited by Aindrias O’Cathasaigh, 2011. This book is a great read. Not only does it tell of Gilbert’s activities during the Rising and his life as a trade unionist and socialist, but describes him hearing James Connolly and Jim Larkin speak when they came to Manchester in 1913. Particularly wonderful for us was reading him talking about his time with Liam Parr. They had been friends in Stockport and Liam introduced Gilbert to his future wife, Sheila O’Hanlon, during the weekend before the rising. Sheila’s family had long been friends with Liam’s and she was to take an active part in the Rising and the War of Independence with the women’s organisation “Cumann na mBan”. Sheila also wrote a pension application.
Gilbert is the only one of the Manchester volunteers who recorded his memoirs. The others had pension applications and were mentioned in other documents, but I know of no reminiscences, diaries or letters that have survived. However we are fortunate that many of those who stood beside the Manchester Volunteers recorded their eye witness testimony for the Bureau of Military History. Between 1947 and 1957 surviving participants in the Rising, and subsequent war, were invited to contribute their testimony in an archive which was to remain confidential for many, many years, not being made public until 2003. I can think of no twentieth century rising or revolution which has such a body of eye witness accounts related by those who knew that their contributions would remain secret throughout their lives.
All the documents now available have meant that the stories of the Hidden Heroes can he told in either their own words, or the words of those who were with them standing shoulder to shoulder. I believe this makes for a vivid account of those days as the ordinary rank and file Volunteers experienced it.
Key Search Terms: Easter Rising, Dublin, 1916, Willie Parr, GPO, Pipes, Markievicz, De Valera, East Clare election, Liam Parr, Gilbert Lynch, Larry Ryan, Redmond Cox, sheila O Hanlon, Irish labour History Society, Larry Ginnell, Kimmage and Plunkett.