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: 5447

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

Comment by Mike McCormack on August 10, 2015 at 1:40pm

With all respect, I believe you may have the cart before the horse in paragraph four.  According to my research, on Easter Sunday 1900, 15 women met in the Celtic Literary Society clubrooms to present a blackthorn stick to Arthur Griffith for defending the outspoken patriot, Maud Gonne, from a maligning editorial.  The meeting turned to planning a ‘Patriotic Children's Treat’ to reward children who would boycott the children's picnic in Phoenix Park  planned to celebrate Queen Victoria's April visit.  More than 50 women enlisted on the committee which funded and sponsored the historic event with 30,000 children parading to an alternate picnic punctuated by anti-British speeches.  James Connolly called it ‘the first political parade of the coming generation. It was a great sight to see the little rebels taking possession of the city, a sight more promising for the future of the country than any we can remember!’  The funds left over were then used to start Inghinidhe na hEireann (in-EEN-ie na HAIR-inn) or Daughters of Erin – with Maud as President, to encourage all things Irish and boycott all things British.  Their feelings were expressed in their newspaper Bean na h’Éireann (woman of Ireland) edited by Helena Molony and advocating militancy, separatism and feminism.  Therefore, the anti-Victoria picnic was not 'one of the picnics arranged by Inghinidhe', it was the first and singular picnic that inspired the formation of  Inghinidhe na h'Eireann which ran many picnics afterward..

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 11, 2015 at 9:24am

Mick McCormack-- thank you for pointing that issue out to me ; have now inserted a piece that changes the ' foundation  Inghinidhe na hEireann 

Comment by Patrick Murphy on August 27, 2015 at 11:52am

Terrific article.  

A distant cousin of mine married Thomas Hunter.  Tom Hunter was a Captain in the 2nd Batallion and was with Thomas MacDonagh in Jacob's Biscuit Factory during the Rising.  Her name was Mary Ellen (aka "Maura", aka "Maire") Kelleher and she was the daughter of Cornelius Kelleher, a master carpenter in Glanworth, Cork.  I have found references in the Bureau of Military History archives to her having been a messenger during 1920 for Tom Barry and his operations in that area of Cork.  The reference mentions Tom Hunter specifically and this may be how they met, although Tom Hunter was from nearby Castletownroche and they could have met numerous ways.  Some time after Tom served in the Dail they married (1928) and settled on a farm in Glanworth.  Sadly, Tom died in 1932 of heart ailments stemming from his hunger strikes in Lewes Prison.  I have read correspondences between herself and the government involving his pension.  She never invokes her own service - as though it never happened.  Another woman mentioned as handling dispatches in that area of Cork was a "Miss Wilkinson," but I have not found who she was.  It was noted in Tom Barry's anecdotes that the operations of these two women "...lasted until late in 1920 when it became too serious."  Women were clearly involved at all levels of operations - national and local, if not in all roles.

Keep up the hard work!

Comment by Mike McCormack on August 28, 2015 at 11:16am

Kudos for a great article.  However, may I respectfully clarify paragraph 3 in that the women who met to present Arthur Griffith with a blackthorn were not part of Inghinidhe na hEireann as it didn't exist at the time.  From that meeting came the idea to host a 'Children's Picnic' for those children who would boycott the government-planned children's demonstration to welcome Queen Victoria -- not Elizabeth -- and they began to raise funds for that purpose.  The Children's picnic, as you say, was a remarkable success as was the fund-raising -- so much so that the leftover funds were used to organize Inghinidhe na hEireann.  The ladies then proceeded to promote the support of Irish products and the boycott of British goods until 1914 when they merged with Cumann na mBan.  Referencing paragraph 9, before leaving the Henry Street side of the GPO to seek shelter in Moore Street on the way to the Four Courts, Pearse ordered the women of Cumann na mBan to leave and all reluctantly did so except for Winifred Carney, Julia Grennan and Elizabeth O'Farrell.  Before they left, Pearse said, When the history of this fight would be written, the foremost page should be given to the women of Dublin who had taken their place in the fight for the establishment of the Republic.  He added that their presence has inspired the man, whose heroism, wonderful though it was, paled before the devotion and duty of the women of Cumann na mBan.  That is undoubtedly why  Brian O'Higgins, who fought in the Rising, later wrote:                                                                                         
All honor to Oglaig na hEireann; all praise to the men of our race
who, in days of betrayal and slavery, Saved Ireland from ruin and disgrace.
But do not forget in your praising of them and the deeds they have done,
their loyal and true hearted comrades The Soldiers of Cumann na mBan.
They stand for the honor of Ireland as their sisters in days that are gone,
and they'll march with their brothers to freedom: The Soldiers of Cumann na mBan. .  .  .  

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on October 10, 2015 at 7:32am

Just to say , that after doing all the research on the articles that I have written on  some of the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising Cummann na mBan; it has become clear to me [now 71 years of age] that is was what these very brave women who gave the time , some gave their lives,  who should be honored in the 100th Anniversary of the 1916 Eaters Rising . 

I woudl support what Patrick Pearse said [ your comment above ] added below 

When the history of this fight would be written, the foremost page should be given to the women of Dublin who had taken their place in the fight for the establishment of the Republic.  He added that their presence has inspired the man, whose heroism, wonderful though it was, paled before the devotion and duty of the women of Cumann na mBan

And ,, 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!

Lets hope that the Government of Ireland heed their history in 1916 




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