Despite the crucial role many women played in the 1916 Rising, very few were given the credit they deserved. In fact some were refused a pension for many years because they were not ‘men’. In at least one case, the valiant role played by Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was simply airbrushed out of history.
Records from the Military Pensions Archive show that more than 200 members of Cumann na mBan, some who had sustained injuries and took risks with their lives participating in military action both during the Easter Rising and in the subsequent War of Independence, were refused a pension because the pension was only applicable ‘to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’.
Primary school teacher Margaret Skinnider was in her mid-20s when she was wounded early in the morning on April 26 1916. She was in the Irish Citizen Army, commanding five men, on a mission to ‘destroy houses in Harcourt Street to cut off enemy approaches’.
She was shot three times. Twice in the shoulder, and once with a bullet just missing her spine. She made a full recovery, and was active again in the Civil War when she was imprisoned for possession of a revolver from Christmas 1922 until October 1923. She served as quartermaster general of the IRA , and was involved in communications and purchasing arms.
However, when Margaret applied for the pension she was refused as she was not a man. The Army pensions office replied that the Pensions Act ‘is only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’.
Ten years later
Éamon de Valera wrote to the pensions office on behalf of nurse Linda Kearns MacWhinney, pleading that she should get a pension. She had transported guns from Hardwicke Street to the GPO, and had fought there ‘all through Easter Week’.
Later she took part in the War of Independence. She was sentenced to 10-year penal servitude, but escaped from Mountjoy in 1921. She was sent by de Valera to Australia in 1922, and to the US in 1924 ‘on a national mission’. But as she was not a man, the pensions board was unimpressed.
Even James Connolly’s aide-de-camp, Winifred Carney, who fought with him in the GPO, retreated with the garrison to Moore Street, and was jailed until the following Christmas, was also refused a pension on sex grounds.
This ludicrous situation was eventually rectified 10 years later when in 1934 the Military Pensions Act was widened to include women activists. But some woman still had to wait. Margaret Skinnider was still denied a pension until 1938.
Poor nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was simply airbrushed out of history. She had risked her life to carry messages to the British forces on behalf of the rebels, and had stood at the side of Padraic Pearse as he accepted ‘unconditional terms’ of surrender from the British forces commander, Brigadier General William Lowe.
Elizabeth O’Farrell was clearly regarded as an exceptionally trustworthy woman. Already active in the Gaelic League, and Cumann na mBan, she was introduced to James Connolly by Countess Markievicz on the eve of the storm. Just days before the Rising she was sent to Galway to deliver dispatches to Liam Mellows,
who had prepared several hundred volunteers to join the Rising.
When fighting broke out in Dublin, Elizabeth, with her friend nurse Julia Grenan, remained in the GPO caring for the wounded including James Connolly.
At 12.45 pm on Saturday April 29 she agreed to take a white flag and a Red Cross insignia to deliver the message to the British military that the rebels wished to surrender.
She emerged into heavy fire on Moore Street, which stopped when her white flag was recognised. Elizabeth was taken to Lowe who sent her back to Pearse at number 16 Moore Street, with a demand for unconditional surrender.
Pearse agreed. This time he accompanied Elizabeth back to General Lowe where he surrendered in person, and where the historic photograph was taken by a military photographer.
The photograph was published in the Daily Sketch a few days later with only Nurse Elizabeth’s boots showing.*
Someone must have thought that Elizabeth distracted from the moment, and the picture was more dramatic without her.**
Next week: Some notes on Alice Cashel, of Roundstone, Co Galway.
NOTES: *Looking closely at the photograph, the young officer standing beside Brig General Lowe (lighting a cigarette? ) is his son John who later became a Hollywood actor working under the name John Loder, appearing in such films as Gentleman Jim, Lady Godiva, and How Green Was My Valley.
**Brig General Lowe was not the worst of them. Despite his assurance that Elizabeth would not be arrested because of her help in securing the surrender, she was taken and held overnight at Ship Street Barracks. When he heard of her arrest, Lowe had her released and apologised to her.
Elizabeth remained active in republican circles all her life. She carried dispatches during the War of Independence. She lived with her friend Julia Grenan at Mount Street, Dublin, died June 25 1957, and is buried at the Republican plot at Glasnevin.