Elizabeth O'Farrell: Nurse and Rebel -- Airbrushed From Irish History

Elizabeth O’Farrell was born in 1884 at 33 City Quay, Dublin, to Christopher and Margaret O’Farrell [nee Kenneah]. Her father died when she was a small child, so this left her family not only bereft but financially insecure. Not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, nor having the comfort of working father’s wage coming in every week, her mother struggled to keep her family fed and clothed. From a very early age Elizabeth was very aware that money was a real issue in her household, so as soon as she could she got a job in Armstrong’s printer’s factory in Amiens Street, not far from her home. Bringing in that extra money that was so badly needed, she took to studying Irish history at home.

By the time she was 19, she made the decision to become  a nurse, knowing all too well that this decision would leave the family financially short, her logic being that as a nurse she would benefit the family more when she was qualified. When she qualified as a nurse, she then went to work in Hollis Street Hospital, Dublin, as a midwife, long before midwives became the norm for maternity births. In this era, babies were most commonly born at home with a ‘handy women ‘present. [Read That’s Just How It Was.]

In 1900 fifteen women belonging to the Celtic Literary group including Maud Gonne [founder] – met in the Celtic Literary Society Rooms in Dublin. These women for the most part were from a middle class background. The original intention of this meeting was to provide a gift for Author Griffiths of a Blackthorn stick for his gallant defense of Maud Gonne,  as he supposedly broke his own while litterley   ‘trashing a society newspaper editor[ Figaro] over the head with his own blackthorn stick’ for maligning his friend Maud Gonne - who had been accused as British spy. This meeting turned into something more than a present organizing meeting.  From this meeting a more profound worthwhile enterprise of renewing children’s beliefs in their own history and culture grew. More than fifty women enlisted on the  newly founded committee, which then went on too fund and sponsor all kinds of other events .  The Patriotic Children’s Party was thus established,  it became a focus for these women - and money was raised all over Dublin to try and counteract ‘the visit of Queen Elizabeth’ - who was visiting Ireland to support and encourage recruits from Ireland to join the British Army to fight in the Boer War. This picnic took place on the Sunday after Wolfe Tones Commemoration [leading Irish revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen].  A parade was led by Gonne from Beresford Place to Clonturk Park with well over 3,000 people for a picnic, with sweets being handed out to children on the way.  After the picnic; an anti-recruitment speech was delivered to try and counteract Queen Victoria’s and the Government's recruitment drive. The funds left over from this picnic, were then used to formally establish Inghinidhe na hÉireann  [Daughters of Ireland], This very public picnic cemented their place in Irish history and the subscriptions that were left were used to fund other events for the poor of Dublin and not least supporting the men and women of the 1913 ‘Dublin Lockout.’

Given the publicity that  this event and all its connotations with republicanism; by 1906 O’Farrell became smitten with the portrayal of what Inghinidhe na hÉireann  [Daughters of Ireland], founded by Maud Gonne in 1900, had to offer, which was a radical Irish nationalist women’s organisation, in pursuit of Irish freedom from British rule. By 1914, Inghinidhe na hÉireann had merged with Cumann na mBann, and she immersed herself in all that this organisation stood for. For the most part, all of the women who joined both of these organizations were from working-class backgrounds, girls from poor families. In Helena Molony's words, “most of the founders were of middle-class Catholic background, chiefly members of the Irish classes of Celtic Literary Society. … They rest were all working-class girls. They had not much gold and silver to give to Ireland. Only willing hearts, earnestness and determination."

So determined were Inghinidhe na hÉireann to provide the Dublin children of Ireland with the culture of their Irish history and language, they would hold picnics in Phoenix Park and daily soup kitchens for the poor children to instill into them the need for Ireland’s culture and heritage to be educated [food  to feed the body, knowledge  to feed the soul ; this being a very good way of bringing in the young and the not so young, to learn].

Determined to put all her skills and knowledge to good use, O’Farrell was trained by Countess Markievicz in army-style drill and weaponry and organized the training of women to assist in any given situation where medical intervention may be required. O’Farrell also took part in the military training of young recruits into Fianna Eireann – a paramilitary nationalist scouting movement founded by none other than her friend Countess Markievicz. This was a deliberate attempt to instill the culture, history and language of Ireland into young minds that would be more receptive to learning about their history than adults  

So it was against this background of Irish rebel republicanism that Elizabeth O’Farrell would find herself in the  company of Patrick Pearse, James Conneoly, Eamonn de Valera, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Thomas Clarke, Maud Gonne, Countess Markievicz (pictured), Sinéad O'Flanagan [later to become de Valera’s wife]  et al. It was also through her involvement with Inghindhe na hÉireann that she would meet Julia Grenan, who would become her lifelong companion and inseparable friend.

Having claimed her place as a reliable and trustworthy member of both Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBann over many years, O'Farrell was then appointed as a dispatch carrier by the Irish Military Council. So that when the Easter Rising was discussed and then postponed for that fateful Easter Sunday morning,  it was O'Farrell that was trusted to take the 24-hour postponement to Athenry, County Galway, where she delivered the message, that the Rising was to take place on Easter Monday morning at noon. As soon as she arrived back in Dublin, she and Julia Grenan immediately installed themselves in the General Post Office [GPO] to take on tasks assigned by the Irish Military Council. During her time in the GPO, both she and Grenan, combined with the other women of Cumann na mBan, assisted the men --  handing them weaponry, and cleaning wounds. In general terms, they proved to be a steadfast group  providing food, water and support to those fighting in the GPO. Both she and Grenan offered their services to take much needed ammunition to the Royal College of Surgeons, where Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz were based. This was a very dangerous and risky mission in the face of sniper fire, the police and the British army, who were all armed with rifle and pistols surrounding Dublin. They did it, however, and lived to tell the tale. This earned them the respect of all the Irish combatants.

By the late Thursday afternoon it became evident that the General Post Office could not be held any longer; it became untenable even to the most hardened of the Irish Military Council. Rifle fire, bomb’s and explosions and the subsequent fire blazing in the GPO, had all but destroyed the building. The decision was made by the council that they would need to find a suitable place to hold their ground until a more permanent solution could be decided. They made the decision to take shelter in Henry Street, adjacent to the side entrance of the GPO. So Commandant Pearse ordered all Cumman Na mBann members to leave, with the Volunteers and the rest of the Irish Military Council. Winifred Carney, Julie Grenan and O’Farrell, however, remained with Pearse-  with Pearse’ being the last to leave.

Under heavy fire, they managed to relocate to Henry Street via the Henry Street back entrance. From the GPO to Moore Street, barricades were blocking the way, and sniper fire impeding their way forward. In these terrible conditions, O’Farrell tripped and fell. A man [later named as Séan McGarry} ran out of Gorman’s shop to lift O'Farrell from the ground and managed to pull her into the shop, despite the gunfire from all around Moore Street . Here she found some of the Irish Military Council with James Connolly on a stretcher in the middle of the room. She asked him how he was feeling. He replied, "bad, the soldier who wounded me has done a good job for the British Government." Just then the rest of the Provisional Council came in. Three other wounded Irish Volunteers and a wounded British soldier also lay on the ground. 

After tending to the wounds of all the men, with Pearse assisting her to lift the British Officer into a comfortable position to be treated, she retreated to be with the other women. Pearse took up a position beside Connolly with McDermott and the others surrounding them. In hushed tones, they were deliberating their next move, knowing that for them it was pretty much all over.  All night this discussion took place and they decided they would surrender -- to save the lives of more Irish citizens.

Commandant Séan MacDermott ordered a white flag to be hung outside, a global acknowledgement of surrender. Having then been brought into these discussion, O'Farrell volunteered to take the white flag and the surrender order to the British army. At 12:45 p.m. that Saturday, O’Farrell left Gorman’s shop with the white flag in her hand, holding it aloft. She walked to the end of Henry Street, noticing on her way the hat and revolver of O'Rahilly, a Volunteer, on the ground. She was, however, charged with delivering a very important message, so had to hurry on. She gave her message to the officer in charge, who at first told her to go back and get her two women friends, then changed his mind. He then sent another officer with her to see the commanding officer of the British Army on Great Britain Street [now Parnell Street].  Her message was simple: “The commandant of the Irish Republican Army wishes to treat with the commandant of the British forces in Ireland”.

The commandant of the British forces did not want to recognize the Irish Republican Army, so said instead, you mean the Sinn Feiners. O’Farrell replied to this by stating: " No, The Irish Republican Army, and I think that is a good enough terminology". Asking if Pearse required a stretcher, O’Farrell answered no, it is James Connolly who needs a stretcher. The Commandant then told another officer to take the Red Cross off the front of her uniform and off her arm and take her to be searched, as she was a spy.

Now treating her as a spy, O’Farrell was taken into the National Bank [now the Bank of Ireland] on the corner of Great Britain Street and searched thoroughly. After finding only scissors, bread and sweets on her person, she was transferred to Tom Clarke's shoe shop as a prisoner. All of these procedures took about one and a half hours in total.

Then another military man came to see her. She learned that he was, in fact, General Lowe (pictured), commander of all the British forces in Ireland. She gave him her message from Commandant Pearse, he advised her however,that he would ‘not treat’ at all until Mr. Pearse [not calling him Commandant] would surrender unconditionally. Treating her with the utmost courtesy and respect, like a true gentleman, she was taken by car with the first officer and General Lowe to Great Britain Street. He gave her half an hour to deliver the note that General Lowe and dictated to Pearse. O’Farrell arrived at Moore Street at 2.45 P.M. . Pearse then wrote back to General Lowe, when she arrived back with her note from Commandant Pearse  to General Lowe ;  he was vexed with her for being one minute over the half hour.

He was also vexed with Pearse's reply, though O’Farrell of course did not know what the content of that message was. In a stern voice, General Lowe advised her in strong terms to tell Mr Pearse ‘that he will not treat’ until Mr. Pearse surrenders unconditionally and that Mr. Connolly follows him on a stretcher. Back again with Pearse, O’Farrell delivered the message from General Lowe, and once again she had to be back within a half hour time frame, telling Pearse that General Lowe had advised her that hostilities would start again if she was not back within half an hour.

By approximately 3.30 p.m. on that fateful Saturday, General Lowe received Pearse at the top of Moore Street in Great Britain Street. One of the British officers who had been a prisoner in the General Post Office was asked to identify Pearse, but he could not. Pearse then told the young officer that he [Pearse] was in the Post Office. The young British officer said to him, ‘I did not see you in there.'

General Lowe then advised Pearse that he would allow the other commandants to surrender, stating that he knew that Countess Markievicz was down there.  Pearse replied ‘No, she is not.' At this point, the Easter Rising of 1916 was effectively over.

Pearse who had always respected O’Farrell's commitment to the Irish Republican cause, made another request of her, to deliver the surrender order to all the outposts around the outskirts of the city. Accompanied by a Capuchin monk and three British soldiers, she brought the order to surrender to the insurgent positions throughout Dublin.

O’Farrell spent several months in prison after the Rising, with General Lowe interceding on her behalf for her to be treated with clemency. She had been of great assistance to Lowe in managing the final hours of the Rising, and so intervened on her behalf. On her release, she went to live in Fatima House, in Bray, County Wicklow. 

She remained very active in Republican politics for the rest of her life, with her companion and friend Julia Grenan. 

O’Farrell died in 1957 and is interred with her lifelong friend Julia Sheila Grenan in a grave near O'Connell's circle in Glasnevin

 (Pictured: A replica of the Irish War of Independence / Black and Tan medal that was issued to IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Eireann members.)

Airbrushed out of photographic history, her feet are the only part of her that was ever seen in the photos of the surrender standing beside Pearse. Over the years however, even her feet have disappeared from these historic moments.

The Elizabeth O’Farrell Foundation was established in 1967, and a memorial plaque was placed at Holles Street Maternity Hospital . A foundation grant was put in place to support post-graduate studies in the field of nursing. By 2003, another plaque was placed and unveiled in City Quay Park.

Her life has been depicted in several plays and TV dramas, including RTE’s "Insurrection." Director Neil Jordan, however, omitted her from his film "Michael Collins, " where her role in the surrender is portrayed by a man. Shame, oh shame!

Once again, I endorse the words of Fearghal McGarry, Queen’s University, Belfast. He notes: “There could be worse ways of commemorating Ireland’s revolution than restoring these forgotten women, and the lost ideals that inspired them, to prominence.” Amen to that!


Views: 5799

Tags: 1916, Easter Rising, Irish Freedom Struggle, feminism, film, medicine, nursing

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on July 30, 2015 at 6:17pm

Excellent article. The detail is incredible and so informative. Great to see the women being remembered and brought back to life.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on July 31, 2015 at 5:08am

Thank you Anthony John Breann - as always 

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on August 5, 2015 at 7:53am

First this is an excellent article and long over due.  Certainly Elizabeth O'Farrell and Winifred Carney should be remembered and 2016 is an opportunity to correct their unjust absence from the story. 

I would though like more history on the photograph, for while an apt metaphor, I find it hard to believe that a person already so obscured would be targeted to be airbrushed out for who they were.  Also look at the second photo, O'Farrell's feet have actually moved and become more, not less prominent!  Also the stance of the second soldier and his feet are slightly different;  I  question if photos 1 and 2 are actually the same picture or if 1 and 2 are not two photos snapped moments apart?  Photos 2 and 3 look the same with 3 heavily retouched and my suspicion is that someone in restoring the photo got a little over zealous with the Photoshop ( with sincere if misguided motives) as they "cleaned up the image" and wound up erasing history in the process.  So this excellent  story disturbs me on two levels, one on how Ms. Farrell has been denied her due but secondly how in this digital age we may be doing future historians a disservice by being able to digitally altering primary sources..

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 5, 2015 at 9:30am

 Neil F. Cosgrove - The description under the photos would agree with your opinion. I have found several photos in different sources all showing the same photos . Whether or these these other sources,have used the same photos to highlight their narrative on the subject they were writing about; is unknown to me .

As you can see by the text under the Photos - they are  -Images Courtesy, National Museum of Ireland  Decorative Arts & History - Kilmainham Gaol  

How and why, they would have them in a National Museum is beyond my scope of research. However, it is really hard to imagine that the Cumann na mBann women would be airbrushed out of history.

It is only the men of 1916 who have become prominent in Irish History, if you read my other articles on the 1916 Easter Rising you will find that only  a few have had iconic status ascribed to them .. Patrick Pearse ; James Connolly ; DeValera [ and he only has had iconic status since he became the President of Ireland ]. For myself ; when I started on this journey of  highlighting the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising ; I am ashamed to say that I had not been aware of all the leaders who had played such a tremendous  role in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Tears were running down my face as I was typing the text ; even though I had written a book about my Grandmother and  her stories; some of these hero's feature in her Biography  I just wasn't prepared for the emotional outpouring that I felt  while writing about them ; so young so brave ; even when writing her story. 


Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on August 5, 2015 at 10:21am

Just to be clear, I am fully, 100% on board that more should be done to recognize the women of 1916.  While I was aware form several histories of Elizabeth O'Farrell, especially her unbroken defiance in her exchange with the British Officer in delivering the request for terms of surrender, I was always left wanting more and this article helped fill the gap.

As to the removal of information in the image, I don't know which would be sadder, if it was done deliberately or out of ignorance (in some ways I fear ignorance worse as it is more likely to fly under the radar). I think in providing one valuable lesson you have actually provided two.  It would be an interesting area of inquiry for someone with photo interpretation skills to look at these images to see if they are variations of a common parent, or two or more distinct photos separated in time by moments.

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on August 5, 2015 at 10:46am

Excellent article.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 5, 2015 at 12:32pm

Thank you again John Anthony Brennan

Neil F Cosgrove.-- I would agree that it would take a expert in the field of Photography  - to interpret the images to determine  what timeframe all three were taken at . I would hazard a guess that even if they were taken at the same time ; or even if they are the same photo; with airbrushing completed  over several years; then it had to be someone who knew what they were doing ; or someone whose task it was to airbrush O'Farrell out of the photo.

If anyone out there has any answer to this ; please let me know !   

Comment by EireHistorian on August 6, 2015 at 8:11am

With respect, Elizabeth O'Farrell is not interred in the Republican plot in Glasnevin. Elizabeth O'Farrell is interred with her lifelong friend Julia Sheila Grenan in a grave near O'Connell's circle in Glasnevin. http://thesearchforanneandmichael.blogspot.ca/2010/04/tombstone-tue...

Both women are among those women whose history is celebrated in Sinéad McCoole's 'No Ordinary Women', published in 2003. 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 7, 2015 at 3:55pm

Eirehistorian ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, my apologize if that is the case ; I researched several site and other material and they all said that she is buried in the Republican Plot. Given the evidence of the link you provided ; I will certainly put this matter right straight away 

 Thank you 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 7, 2015 at 4:04pm

 Have now re-read what I had written ,and both she and Grenan are indeed buried in Glasnevin Cemetery ,  near O'Connell's circle in Glasnevin Cemetery  

 Thank you for making me aware of the fact= that while they are buried in Glasnevin Cemetery , Will triple and double treble all my research now. treple 


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership

Start a Business Today!

Adobe Express:
What will you create today?


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2024   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service