Despite the crucial role many women played in the 1916 Rising, very few were given the credit they deserved. In fact some women were refused a pension for many years because they were not men.
On Easter Monday 1916, Brigid Lyons, a young medical student at Galway University, was at home in Longford when news came that the Volunteers had staged a rebellion in Dublin.
She and her uncle travelled to Dublin the next day. Moving carefully through the streets and growing chaos, and eventually joining the rebels in the Four Courts, the scene of some of the week’s bitterest fighting. For three days Brigid and other women made tea and sandwiches and tended to the wounded as best they could.
When the order to surrender came the following Saturday, she described the silence that descended on the city as ‘louder than all the noise’; for her it was a ‘terrible, shattering , chaotic moment’.
They were kept overnight at the Four Courts, where a priest from nearby Church Street ‘lambasted us with abuse all night for doing what we did’. Brigid and the other women were transferred first to the barracks at Richmond Street, and then to Kilmainham gaol. As they walked through the streets under guard, the open hostility of the local women, many of whom had husbands fighting in France, terrified and surprised her.
From her cell she heard the executions of the leaders of the rebellion, and the horror of the sound of the dawn volleys stayed with her all her life. Because of her age the British authorities allowed Brigid to continued her studies in Galway.
Brigid Lyons, one of the many unsung heroes of the Irish struggle for Independence, was born in 1896 at Northyard, Scramogue, Co Roscommon, the eldest child of two daughters and one son of Patrick Lyons and Margaret (nee McGuiness ), a staunchly republican family. Her father was a Fenian, active in the Land Wars, who was imprisoned in Sligo jail.
Her mother died at the birth of the youngest child, and at the age of eight Brigid went to live with her mother’s brother Frank McGuiness* and his wife Kate who were childless. They were keen to support their bright young niece, at both the Convent of Mercy at Longford, and the Ursuline Convent, Sligo. Brigid flourished under her French teacher Madam Scholastica (Beatrice Dolan ), who encouraged her pupils in their future careers, saying ‘there was nothing in life a woman could not do if she put her mind to it.’ Brigid won a scholarship to study medicine at UCG in 1915. She joined Cumann na mBan in Galway, while still a teenager.
Now she was a more committed republican than ever. She joined other groups disrupting British army recruitment drives, destroying recruitment posters around Galway city, and organising fundraisers for the families of men imprisoned after the rebellion. Despite all the excitement she managed to complete her studies.
She rose to the rank of commandant in Cumann na mBan, and dangerously smuggled handgrenades by train to pass on to Longford IRA under the command of Seán MacEoin. Later when he was captured she managed to contact him and take messages from him to Michael Collins.
She had sided strongly with Collins and the pro-Treaty side, which led her into personal difficulties when she met anti-Treatyites in prison later, many of whom were former friends. Collins offered her a commission in the newly formed Irish national army, which she accepted, becoming the only female officer commissioned in the Irish army until 1981.
Unfortunately, she suffered a recurrence of childhood tuberculosis, which left her totally incapacitated. She was advised to travel to Nice in southern France, for her recuperation, where she met her future husband Captain Edward Thornton, from Co Mayo, also convalescing from TB. She was sent to Switzerland and spent a year under a new treatment, which she put to her advantage when she left the army in 1928 and was appointed assistant medical officer of health for schools in Dublin, based at the Carnegie welfare centre in Lord Edward Street. She worked there until her retirement specialising in pediatrics, where she pioneered early BCG vaccination schemes, which helped eradicate tuberculosis which was a scourge for many children in the Dublin tenements.
She and her husband married in October 1925, and had no children. Following his sudden death, she retired but had difficulty getting her pension. Records from the Military Pensions Archive show that more than 200 members of Cumann na mBan, some of whom 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 some ‘genius’ in the Department decreed that the pension was only applicable ‘to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’.
When Brigid applied for her pension in 1936, her account was not entirely accepted. The board of assessors disputed that her years of service were from 1916 to 1922.
She accepted what pension they gave her, but wrote to tell the board that their decision had caused ‘deep humiliation and bitterness’.
Brigid Lyons Thornton died, aged 91, in April 1987. She was buried at Toormore Cemetery, Foxford, Co Mayo, beside her husband. A guard of honour from the Western Command fired a graveside salute.
NOTES: *Her uncle Frank McGuiness was an ardent republican, who later became a friend of Arthur Griffith, and WT Cosgrove in Reading gaol, served as chairman of Longford county council, and was later elected to the Dáil and seanad.
I am taking the above from past Diaries, an essay by Cathy Hayes in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, and an article by Maeve Sheehan in the Irish Independent.
An exhibition of eight remarkable women who contributed to the making of modern Ireland, continues at the Galway City Museum.