In early 1916, a young Irishman was making secret plans to travel from England to Dublin to take up arms in an insurrection to achieve Irish independence. This was Liam Parr, a singer and bagpiper who was sometimes known as the ‘The Minstrel Boy” after one of his favourite songs. He was a Dubliner who had been living with members of his family in Stockport, near Manchester, but now he felt the call to fight for Ireland. While in Stockport, he had spent time with his elderly grandfather, George Costello, who had sailed from Dublin to New York when he was a similar age to Liam, and who had joined an Irish regiment and fought in the American Civil War.
Above, Liam Parr, photographed before 1916
This is the true story of Liam, the ’Minstrel Boy’ who fought in the Easter Rising, and George, his grandfather, who fought in the American Civil War.
George Costello was in his 70s and using a wheelchair when Liam was in Stockport. George must have been a fascinating character because so many memories of him have lived on in his family. I can visualise him captivating Liam with tales of his years in America, as he lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, close to the infamous Five Points District, until he chose to join the Union army in 1863 and fight with the Tammany regiment. He fought through the battles in Virginia until he was too injured to fight. Like so many Irish New Yorkers, he had joined the 42nd New York Infantry, which already a strong tradition of Irish republicanism among its soldiers. This regiment had not only collected $500 from its members for relief of distress in Ireland, but they had insisted that the money must be sent through a cleric who was well known for his Fenian sympathies. They wrote, “Rt. Rev. Dr. Keane being the first to acknowledge, by his reception of the remains of the patriot McManus, the right of the exile to a resting-place with his kindred in the land for which he struggled, and for whose welfare his last sigh was offered, we select him as the dispenser of our contribution towards the immediate relief of our suffering kindred in Ireland:” Terence Mac Manus had been transported to Australia for his part in the 1848 Young Irelander Rebellion.
George’s grandchildren tell us that he would be wheeled out in his chair, and that he frightened his relatives by producing a silver pistol, which he had brought back from the war, trying to fire shots either out of the window or across the Mersey. They say that they tried to hand in the guns at Stockport police station only to have them refused on the grounds that George had a licence so they were perfectly legal. His daughter took the law into her own hands by dropping them into the river. “If they ever dredged the river Mersey, I expect they’d find them.”
Stories still survive of George and his wife Mary living in a succession of rented houses that they would be continually flitting between to avoid the landlord. On one occasion, Mary moved while George was at work, and he only found the new address because he recognised the red blinds in the window. All remember Mary Costello in a long black dress and shawl and a policeman’s helmet perched on the mantelpiece as if it were some sort of a trophy.
While he was serving in Virginia, George, like most soldiers, passed the time on the march and during the long periods of boredom, by singing songs of his homeland. Many of these were ‘rebel songs’ such as "The Rising of the Moon," "A Nation Once Again," or "The Wearing of the Green," which commemorated previous Irish rebellions against British rule. A particularly common song seems to have been “The Minstrel Boy,” which was so well-known in America that, in true folk music tradition, it gathered another verse there, which was to be re-imported to Ireland.
I wonder if George taught this new verse to Liam while he was in Stockport. When they were both there, Liam was one of the men from Manchester who created the Manchester Company of the Irish Volunteers, which began training and drilling in 1914. The British government had promised very limited home rule to Ireland, but there was doubt whether this would ever happen because large sections of the Orange Order in the north of Ireland, backed by much of the British establishment, had created a private army, the Ulster Volunteers, determined to thwart this by any means. While the authorities allowed the Ulster Volunteers to be well supplied with illegal weapons, Liam and his comrades were always short of guns and fought the Easter Rising with rifles dating back almost to the days when George was fighting in Virginia.
George had chosen to volunteer for the Union Army in 1863 as a substitute for another man, James Corniston, who had been conscripted. He would have been given a substantial sum of money by the man whose place he took. This often amounted to $300, a year’s wages for a working man, but new recruits like George often lost it. It seems to have been common for professional gamblers to join the ships carrying new soldiers between New York and Virginia, with the object of swindling the soldiers out of their money. No one knows what happened to George’s commutation fee. He seems to have spent most of his life close to poverty, though this might have been related to him “drinking more than is good for him,” as a doctor wrote in one of his medical reports.
George's brother, who travelled from Dublin a few months after George, didn’t fight, but settled in America, setting himself up as a photographer in New Jersey.This makes me wonder whether George's photo was taken by his brother. George arrived at Brandy Station, the main camp of the army of the Potomac in late 1863 as winter set in and the roads became impassable for military action. Thus, George avoided combat until the following May. However, he probably wasn’t really that safe because more soldiers died of illness (usually of fever, dysentery or syphilis) than were killed by enemy action.
In May 1864, George was part of an army of nearly 100,000 in Virginia under General Ulysses S. Grant, facing a slightly smaller army of Confederate soldiers under General Robert E. Lee. The two armies fought for nearly a month in thick forest with rifles and cannons, without any conclusive result except leaving half of George’s comrades as casualties. A Confederate minie ball went through George's hand during the Battle of Spotsylvania. He was sent to hospital in Washington and then to Newark, New Jersey, and managed to avoid fighting again for the rest of the war. In New Jersey, he became a ward master (orderly), a post which was intended as light work for recuperating soldiers. This is probably where he met Mary Murphy, who was an Irish woman living in Brooklyn, who might have been visiting the hospital. We are not clear why she was in the hospital, though. Family tradition says she was a nurse, but the hospital only employed male nurses. They married in Brooklyn and George’s brother, and his wife, were witnesses.
The hospital gave George leave of absence to spend time in Brooklyn to marry, and then he was put in the Veterans Reserve Corps, a body of soldiers who were not fully fit and were given light duties away from the fighting. George’s section was stationed in Washington, D.C., as the war was ending. He would have been there when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, but there is no way of knowing exactly what he was doing. However, there is a family tradition that he was supposed to be guarding Lincoln but popped out of the theatre, perhaps for a drink, at the time of the shooting. George, like most of the the rest of the soldiers, was not demobbed for several months after the fighting ended, and many, including George, didn’t bother waiting, so there are some claims that George was accused of deserting then, but the claims were abandoned. I think so many people had simply gone home without waiting for permission that the authorities gave it up as a bad job.
George and Mary returned to Dublin, where they had 14 children and George tried to resume his previous trade as a coach maker but his wartime wound made this difficult. He eventually received a veteran’s pension from the U.S. government, and, in about 1891, George and most of the family moved to Stockport. Their oldest surviving daughter, Stella/Mary had recently married in Dublin, and she remained there, giving birth to Liam, her first son, in 1891. There is no proof that the grown-up Liam discussed his hopes for Ireland with his grandparents, but it would be surprising if he did not. George died in 1915 so did not live to hear the news that Irish independence had been proclaimed from the steps of the GPO in April 1916. His widow Mary outlived him until 1919.
Liam had travelled from Manchester to Dublin in February 1916 to meet with about 100 other volunteers from England and Scotland, who were at Larkfield Mill at Kimmage preparing for the planned insurrection. Here he was with another of the four Manchester volunteers, a man named Larry Ryan, and together they entered the GPO on Easter Monday. Liam was ordered to occupy the buildings across Sackville (now O’Connell) Street from the GPO. Here they set up a wireless transmitting station, which beamed out news of the insurrection. The rebels were a very small and poorly armed band, who were soon facing overwhelming odds as they were surrounded by 20,000 well-equipped British soldiers.
The experiences of Liam and his comrades make exhilarating, and sometimes tragic reading. We can read their eye witness accounts as they were encircled ever closer by vastly superior military forces and by approaching fire as much of central Dublin burnt to the ground. 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. They held out for nearly a week until they were forced to surrender “to avoid further civilian casualties.”
Liam and most of those who took part were arrested and sent to prison and internment camps around England and Wales. As Britain was still at war in Europe, the arrested rebels from England knew that they were at risk of being conscripted into the British army, which they had just been fighting. To avoid this, Liam and the others used false names and gave addresses in Dublin. This meant that they could not tell their families where they were and that they were safe. We don’t know if Liam was able to get a secret message to his grandmother or other relatives in Manchester, but the prisoners were visited by a sympathetic Irish MP, Larry Ginnell, who used hidden pockets sewn into his coat to carry illicit letters in and out of prison. Ginnell knew Liam well, and he is one of the men who used to call him ‘the minstrel boy.’
After his release, Liam and the other Volunteers continued working for Irish independence. In July 1917, he was one of those who helped de Valera’s election campaign in East Clare. Many years later, Liam’s widow wrote to de Valera to remind him about this. 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 of Larry Ginnell who used to call him the ‘Minstrel Boy’ and ‘The Bard of Armagh’ as he used to sing these songs.”
The details of Liam’s later role in Dublin during the War of independence and the Tan War remains unclear. Some of his activities were undoubtedly undercover, so few records will have been left. He worked in the 'insurance company' that acted as cover for Michael Collins’ intelligence activities, and was told to “lie low” on the eve of “Bloody Sunday,” when one of the IRA leaders had his bag captured in a British raid. He may have been implicated in plans to sabotage locks on the Manchester Ship Canal. Liam returned to Stockport where, his widow said, his family’s home was raided and “he was knocked about from pillar to post.”
After the treaty, Liam remained for the rest of his life in Stockport and Manchester, marrying and working as an insurance salesman and then a plumber in the Manchester area. He became a leading singer in his local Catholic church but never fully regained his health and died in 1934, aged only 42. He is buried in Manchester Moston Cemetery, and his grandfather George Costello is in Stockport Cemetery. George's gravestone reads, 'Of your charity pray for the soul of George A Costello -- Veteran of the American Civil War….' George Costello is my wife’s great grandfather and Liam is her cousin (once removed).
Together with relatives, members of the Irish community, and historians, we have been researching the small band of volunteers from Manchester who joined the Easter Rising. Sadly, very few people in Manchester or elsewhere knew about the courageous deeds of these men until we started looking into them. Their contribution to Irish independence had been completely forgotten by history. This is partly because Liam and his comrades who returned to England remained at risk of arrest for their entire lives, so they could never talk openly about their experiences even within their families. Some memories have been passed down through relatives but much must have been hidden and lost. Only now are we able to we tell something like the full story as the Irish government have released their pension files, so official documents can confirm what we have heard from family memories and the first-hand accounts of witness statements. We have produced a website as well as a book on the lives of the Manchester Volunteers. The book is titled “Hidden Heroes of Easter Week: Memories of Volunteers From England Who Joined the Easter Rising” (By Robin Stocks). You can access the website offering at https://hiddenheroesofeasterweek.wordpress.com
We hope that the book and the website will bring to light other half forgotten stories. Perhaps there are other people with memories of relatives who travelled to Ireland to join the Rising. We would love to hear from you if you can add to the stories we have discovered -- we will add any new information to the website and to new editions of the book.
Thanks, Robin Stocks