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Diarmaid Ferriter: Name children’s hospital after Kathleen Lynn

Republican activist in Rising also made pioneering contribution to healthcare

Kathleen Lynn was committed to a republic of equals; “the infant has no politics” was one of her mantras

Dr Kathleen Lynn was one of a number of Irish republican women who, this month a hundred years ago, had a serious battle on their hands. Sinn Féin had been transformed during the year into a formidable countrywide force, attracting many young recruits. The Sinn Féin convention held in the Mansion House in Dublin in October 1917 was partly about unveiling the new leadership of the party and demonstrating, through the presence of up to 1,700 delegates, its confidence and reach. Lynn and some of her colleagues had an additional agenda: to ensure the party would live up to the promise contained in the proclamation of 1916 of “equal rights and equal opportunities” for all citizens.

During the earlier part of 1917, politicised women, including those who had participated in the 1916 Rising, had grown increasingly concerned about the dangers of marginalisation. In May, they met and formed the League of Women Delegates. They requested representation at senior level within Sinn Féin, not only because of the risks women had taken for the republican cause or the necessity of their involvement with continued struggle, but also because of the need for their ideas on social problems that would be confronted in an Irish Republic to be taken on board. Their request was refused.

Equality

A month before the convention the women met in Lynn’s home and she was charged with the task of demanding that the role and contribution of women be recognised by the convention, but the best they could get was a commitment that four “ladies” would be co-opted onto the executive. Only 12 women were selected as delegates to the Mansion House convention but they did succeed in getting a resolution passed: “That the equality of men and women in this organisation be emphasised in all speeches and leaflets.”

The extent to which the men took these quests for equality seriously, however, was revealed by the degree to which republican women were subsequently belittled. By the time of the Civil War, women such as Lynn, who opposed the treaty, were being castigated as irrational, extremist and almost deranged. PS O’Hegarty labelled them “the Furies”, while Kevin O’Higgins suggested they were “hysterical young women who ought to be playing five-fingered exercises or helping their mother with the brasses”.

What Lynn had done instead of that in previous decades was earn her medical degree, work in St Patrick Dun’s and the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear hospitals (she specialised in ophthalmology), aided the afflicted in soup kitchens during the 1913 Lockout, served as medical officer to the Irish Citizen Army during the 1916 Rising and endured imprisonment. She was also elected to the Dáil in 1923 as an anti-Treaty candidate.

In the midst of all this, she established St Ultan’s Hospital for infants at Charlemont Street in Dublin in 1919 with her confidante Madeleine ffrench-Mullen to provide both medical and educational facilities for impoverished infants and their mothers, underlining the seriousness with which these women took the point made in 1917 about tackling social problems. This was at a time when paediatrics had a low status in the medical hierarchy and when the infant mortality rate in Dublin city was 153.5 per 1,000.

There were many other women associated with the hospital and it prioritised the elimination of tuberculosis; one of its most important legacies is associated with Dr Dorothy Stopford-Price, who began working at St Ultan’s in 1923 and was the first person to introduce the BCG vaccination to Ireland; and staff also promoted breast feeding and healthcare classes for mothers.

Church suspicion

Multidenominational and independent, St Ultan’s aroused the suspicion of the Catholic Church. In 1935, Dr Edward Byrne, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, opposed the amalgamation of St Ultan’s with the National Children’s Hospital in Harcourt Street on the grounds that in such a united institution the “faith of Catholic children would not be safe” and because “there is a widespread attack on Catholic morals through the medium of medicine”. Lynn was a committed Church of Ireland member.

Lynn’s legacy is significant for many reasons, not least her – and the way she battled sectarianism and prejudices faced by women and the poor, as well as her medical and social work for Irish children.

Recently, Prof Mary Morgan, the new president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and the first woman to hold that position, suggested the possibility of naming the new children’s hospital after Lynn, an idea also promoted by ophthalmologist Tim Horgan as entirely fitting during the decade of commemorations. The name unveiled during the week for the hospital – Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Ireland – has quite rightly been derided and it should not be too late to row back on such an inappropriate and unimaginative decision when there is a chance to give the hospital a name inextricably linked with genuine republicanism and the treatment of sick children.