The forgotten heroines of the Easter Rising
Irish women were not cowering at home, invisible, as war broke out. They actively responded, whether fighting, supporting their families or coming to the aid of victims
Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell accompanied Patrick Pearse when he surrendered to the British at the end of the Easter Rising, but her feet are often airbrushed out, symbolic of how the contribution of Irish women have been written out of our history
Patricia Murphy: Except for a few medals doled out, the efforts of these brave women from all sides in 1916 were overlooked at the time and now largely forgotten. As I learned of their existence, they inspired me and I have featured them all in my children’s novel, The Easter Rising 1916 – Molly’s Diary
When I conjured up the character of Molly to tell the story of the 1916 Rising from the viewpoint of a young girl, I decided she was interested in medicine and first aid. It would give her a raison d’etre to be at the scene of the action. Research soon revealed it to be a rich vein. For not only was the medical response from doctors, nurses, ambulance brigade and ordinary citizens outstandingly brave and selfless, many of them were women.
Ireland was lucky to have several outstanding women medical pioneers in the early twentieth century. This was mainly due to Irish medical institutions being the first in these islands to accept women entrants. But there were also lots of ordinary women versed in first aid who responded to the crisis. For every man and boy who picked up a gun in the Rising and the subsequent guerilla war, a girl and woman packed a first aid kit or applied a bandage. They did so without fanfare, often braving the crossfire, some for their ideals, most treating both sides, all with courage.
As Ireland debates the shocking under-representation of women’s voices and views of the 1916 Rising, my character, Molly’s story albeit imagined, provides a window into girls and women’s experiences during this time. The Rising was never just about the lads. The women and girls of Ireland were not all cowering at home, invisible, as war broke out on the streets. They were actively responding to the cataclysmic events of Easter week, whether fighting, supporting their families or coming to the aid of those who needed it.
I was so struck by their contribution and their previous invisibility that I included many of them in Molly’s odyssey through the hotspots of the Rising. Some of the women who were prominent on the rebel side in Easter Week, such as Dr Kathleen Lynn, Linda Kearns and Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, have been acknowledged thanks to the efforts of mostly female historians. Cumann na mBan units who provided first aid have also been mentioned in dispatches. But other doctors such as Dr Ella Webb, a remarkable woman who won an MBE for bravery in Easter week, Elizabeth Huxley, the founder of scientific nursing in Ireland, countless members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Irish Red Cross all put their lives on the line in response to the rebellion. As Ireland gears up for its most sustained collective act of remembering in 2016, the work of all these women and girls needs to be written into our nation’s story
Perhaps the most important factor for the emergence of a number of distinguished women medics in Ireland was the fact that Irish medical institutions were unusually enlightened in educating and allowing women to enter the profession during the latter part of the 19th century.
Even if the decision to allow women to apply only squeaked through in 1877 by one vote, the King’s and Queen’s College of Ireland, later renamed the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) was the first body in these islands to allow women entrants. This was a breakthrough. They could now sit their examinations, register and get a license to practice medicine. In 1885 the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) extended its educational facilities to women and recognised the examination results from the London School of Medicine for Women. It was the first college in Great Britain and Ireland that allowed women to take its examination.
Perhaps in a poor island, where men could advance their careers in Britain, a doctor in petticoats was better than none at all. But it led to a generation of remarkable women doctors with strong ties to Ireland who acted as role models. In 1886, out of 50 women on the General Medical Council register, 44 had entered it through the Irish King’s and Queen’s College.
Dublin was also uniquely placed to respond to armed rebellion as it had already responded to the overwhelming medical needs of the Great War. As 200,000 men joined the war effort, women in Ireland responded by training in first aid and marshaling medical supplies.
Ireland was a centre for collecting sphagnum moss, which was used as bandages in the war, but was also a centre for soldiers recuperating from war wounds – helped by the Voluntary Aid Detachment, or “very adorable darlings” as they were known.
Thousands of Irish women were sent to marshes and bogs from the Bog of Allen to Donegal to collect bog moss for surgical dressings because of the shortage of cotton wool, which was used for explosives. -There were church groups, girl guides, even elderly women trooping five miles down mountains with bags of moss on their backs.
The dried moss had antiseptic and absorbent qualities, holding up to 20 times its weight in water. It was used to dress a wound and then kept in place until the injured person arrived at a hospital perhaps two or three days later. By the time the centre closed in 1919 over 900,000 sphagnum moss dressings had been sent to hospitals in various theatres of war, from Gallipoli to Mesopotamia.
The central sphagnum moss collection depot in Merrion Square was organised and managed by a committee of about 200 mainly women volunteers. Many of them had lost family themselves. “After the war they just went back to their ordinary lives. And it’s a terrible shame that they’ve never been recognised,” said Dr Clara Cullen of UCD in a BBC radio podcast. She is one of the few historians who have focused on their contribution.
Immediately after the declaration of war in August 1914, emergency classes were organised in the Royal College of Science in Merrion Street in various branches of military operations and also in first aid.
All over Ireland, women, both nationalists and those with family enlisted at the front, were busy learning how to make an Esmarch bandage and tie a knot for a tourniquet as well as home nursing – at least 3,000 in Dublin alone. First aid was a relatively new protocol formalised by the military on the Continent in the 19th century and only spread to civilians by the Saint John’s Ambulance in the 1870s. As hospital ships arrived in Dublin’s North Wall, with casualties from the front, they were met by contingents of the Very Adorable Darlings and Red Cross groups of both men and women.
Moral guardians approved of these homely practices among women because of fears of immorality in a Dublin flooded with soldiers and with so many menfolk fighting at the front. One can imagine that attending lectures gave young girls and women an excuse to get out of the house. Some of the most active participants were alumni of Alexandra College, a school that fostered pioneering women, along with the Catholic Dominican convent of Eccles Street.
Many of these knowledgeable females rushed to the barricades in Easter week, not with guns but with bandages. The VADs included Lilly Stokes, who left a lively account of being caught up in the action. Her lighthearted tone belies the fact that she was only out and about on Easter Monday because she was on duty.
A prominent minority was among the rebels. One of the most active lecturers in first aid was Dr Kathleen Lynn, feminist, socialist and extreme nationalist and chief medical officer for the Irish Citizen Army. Her comrades included her companion, Madeleine ffrench-Mullan, and Rosie Hackett, who ran a first aid tent in Stephen’s Green. The daughter of a Church of Ireland rector in Mayo, Dr Lynn was related to Countess Markievicz. At City Hall, one of her first acts was to pronounce Sean Connolly, the actor, dead. He was the first rebel fatality of Easter week. Trapped by sniper fire, she took command of the post and was jailed for her part.
Meanwhile in Merrion Square, another remarkable woman doctor was setting up a makeshift hospital in the headquarters of the St John’s Ambulance of which she was a lady superintendent.
Dr Ella Webb, a mother of two and wife of a Trinity College fellow, sent out messages at noon. At 2pm girls began to arrive, having made hazardous journeys through barricades. At 5pm Dr Webb was performing an amputation. She tirelessly organised all the women volunteers who flocked to help her. Women hauled mattresses and bedding, cleared heavy furniture and marshalled supplies. According to Lilly Stokes, these included former deadly enemies such as Mrs Earle, a Catholic suffragette, and Mrs. Duckett, a fine Protestant lady who both faced danger to collect supplies. In all, seven auxiliary hospitals were set up. Every morning Dr Webb braved the crossfire on her bicycle to oversee operations and respond to the hundreds of wounded and dying: rebels, soldiers and civilians.
Dr Webb was awarded an MBE for her work in Easter week, but it wasn’t her only accomplishment. She was famous for her study of infant mortality and for prescribing a teaspoon of Guinness for babies with gastroenteritis. She later went on to found Sunshine House for the care of sick children, initiate medical social work in Ireland and was closely involved in St Ultan’s children’s hospital founded by her good friend Dr Lynn.
Another medical pioneer who rushed to tend the wounded was Margaret Huxley, the founder of scientific nursing in Ireland. She ran the private nursing home “Elphis” in Lower Mount St and was closely involved with Sir Patrick Duns Hospital, which were both in the thick of the fighting. t Huxley was a scion of the famous English family that included TH Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his stout defense of the writer of On the Origin of the Species, and also Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian novel Brave New World. It is partly thanks to her that Irish nurses enjoy an exalted international reputation.
During the ferocious battle of Mount Street, when a handful of Irish volunteers took on a newly arrived battalion of British soldiers, Huxley joined the staff of the two institutions ferrying the wounded from the street to the hospital. There are vivid eyewitness accounts of white-clad nurses and doctors rushing on to the bridge and wading through rivers of blood and to rescue casualties.
It took from four in the afternoon until midnight. The exact number of casualties is still contested but at the time it was reported they rescued at least 79 men, both rebels and soldiers. It is estimated that mor ethan 200 British soldiers and officers were killed or wounded at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, with three Volunteer fatalities and at least four civilians.
During Easter Week, women also became stretcher-bearers – a formerly contentious issue resolved by women taking the task into their own hands. Even though the rebels, in general, did not fire on Red Cross, ambulances or hospitals, this was deadly work in a shelled city echoing with crossfire from jumpy soldiers and snipers. The head of the St John’s ambulance brigade in Ireland, Holden Stodart,lost his life in the line of duty. Yet countless men and women rose to take his place, braving their way through hazards. Glass lay everywhere. Tram and telephone wires were coiled in big loops; the streets were dark at night. “The stretcher bearers had to lie down and wriggle along the street, pulling their stretchers behind them.” Then make their way back with the wounded under crossfire.
Ordinary citizens also showed conspicuous bravery. One of the heroines who caught the imagination of the public was the “Gaiety Girl”, 18-year-old Louisa Nolan. During the Battle of Mount Street, “Miss Nolan went calmly through a hail of bullets and carried water and other comforts to the wounded men,” the Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook of 1917 noted.
She and Florence Williams, who tended the wounded at Dublin Castle, were among the very few women ever to receive the British Military Medal, for conspicuous bravery under fire. Florence brought wounded soldiers to the family home in Castle Street and scoured the city for supplies and bandages. Both of them had family fighting at the front. Louisa, the daughter of an ex-head RIC constable, lost three of her brothers during the Great War. Perhaps because they were honoured by the British, their names have slipped off the radar.
Even the rebel women who remained at the thick of the action had their contributions downgraded over time. These include Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell and her lifelong partner Julia Grennan, who spent all week in the thick of the action, tending the wounded and running ammunition and messages. Both were stationed at the GPO but not confined to it. O’Farrell famously brought round the surrender document to the rebel’s occupied garrisons. But what could be seen of her figure was airbrushed out of the surrender photograph of Pearse – a telling metaphor for how women have been erased from the official narrative.
Linda Kearns, who later escaped from Mountjoy Jail in the War of Independence and tended Cathal Brugha in the shoot-out at the Hamman Hotel, made an important contribution. The British closed down her makeshift hospital in North Great George’s Street in Easter Week because she treated rebels and soldiers alike.
This was only the beginning of her role in the struggle. As historian Liz Gillis has noted, “They were the invisible army of the Irish revolutionary movement and when the conflict was over they were the ones who lost the most in the new Irish State.” This may explain why so many of them supported the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.
But other shades of nationalist opinion also contributed in 1916. Cesca Trench, who left her reminiscences in diary form, was a Protestant artist who converted to the nationalist cause and changed her name to Sadhbh. On Easter Monday she loaded up with first aid supplies, sought out Eoin MacNeill and on Tuesday morning cycled into the GPO to remonstrate with Pearse about setting back the cause of nationalism. There, she by all accounts joined a veritable queue of women having a go at Pearse. These included Margaret, the sister of The O’Rahilly, who was so irate at the motorcar, which she jointly owned with her brother, being commandeered for the cause, she pinched him on the arm. Cesca later died in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. She viewed the Rising as a tragic mistake. We will never know what she would have made of the War of Independence.
Except for a few medals doled out, the efforts of these brave women from all sides were overlooked at the time and now largely forgotten. As I learned of their existence, they inspired me and I have featured them all in my children’s novel, The Easter Rising 1916 – Molly’s Diary. But the recent row over the poor representation of women playwrights and women’s voices at the Abbey brings their omission from the official narrative into sharper focus.
We compound the original neglect by failing to remember them as we mark the creation myth of our state. Surely the names of Ella Webb, Louisa Nolan, Kathleen Lynn, Margaret Huxley and Linda Kearns should also echo down the generations. By remembering their role in the road to the Republic, the commemoration in 2016 could mark the start of a whole new inclusive chapter in our nation’s story.
Patricia Murphy is the author of the children’s novel, The Easter Rising 1916 – Molly’s Diary published by Poolbeg. Her latest novel is Deadly Shot – Dan’s Diary - the War of Independence 1920-22
Cesca’s Diary 1913 - 1916 by Hilary Pile the Woodfield Press
Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism by Margaret Ward, Pluto Press
Renegades Irish Republican Women 1900-22 by Ann Matthews, Mercier Press
Women of the Irish Revolution by Liz Gillis, Mercier Press