Suffragist, revolutionary, social campaigner, politician and medical doctor Kathleen Lynn kept diaries 1916-1955. The extracts here cover her involvement in the independence struggle and the first 30 years of independent Ireland. Source-wise, they’re important for Irish women’s history but more significantly they allow us hear her “own voice as she speaks about her activism, her network of close female comrades and friends, and her relationship” with her lifelong partner, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen.
They show Lynn’s life brimmed with “activity, energy and deep commitment to her beliefs”. A radical, socialist and feminist, when women’s role was seen as marriage, motherhood and domesticity, she was devoted to her patients, committed to better housing and education for the poor and devoted to her Church of Ireland faith.
Following involvement in the 1916 Rising, she was active in fighting the “Spanish Flu” pandemic and co-founded St Ultan’s Hospital for Infants in 1919, recorded British atrocities during the War of Independence, opposed the Treaty, was medical officer to anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War and was elected a TD in 1923. She refused to join Fianna Fáil, lost her seat in 1927 and devoted most of her time to St Ultan’s.
Determined to introduce better standards of medical care for mothers and children, she brought good practices from abroad, researched deeply on TB (fighting it was central to St Ultan’s work, in which Dr Dorothy Stopford Price played a huge role), and sought to improve public health and housing. She was initially optimistic about de Valera’s rise but his 1937 Constitution’s clauses on women’s role deeply disillusioned her.
The death of her beloved ffrench-Mullen in 1944 was a terrible blow but friends and family helped sustain her. She had battles with the Catholic Church on family medical care but had a complicated, fraught relationship with Noel Browne (she felt insufficient credit was given to Stopford Price in St Ultan’s in combating TB and was wary of his Mother and Child Scheme). Looking back, she wondered had the vote or independence improved women’s lot at all.
The editors’ conclusion that “she is a woman worth knowing through, and in, her own words” is indisputable and it’s good that they didn’t alter or correct her spelling or phrasing, which makes the experience of reading her diaries more authentic.