You might have heard the tale about nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell’s feet.
O’Farrell is famous because she brought Pádraig Pearse’s surrender note from Moore Street to the British army as the Easter Rising fizzled out. Later, her feet were airbrushed out of photos to show Pearse surrendering alone.
History books these days highlight her role. But few of them acknowledge that she was gay.
For some time, there has been a push to paint back into history women like O’Farrell (and their feet). Now though, as the centenary approaches, it seems there’s also an effort to acknowledge that some of these women were gay.
Politicians these days are keen to remember the heroes of 1916. Some have taken extra care to credit the women involved in the rebellion, as they have often been overlooked in the past.
At this month’s Dublin City Council meeting, Fianna Fáil councillor David Costello put forward a motion asking that the women of the republican organisation Cumann na mBan who took part in the 1916 Rising be remembered.
Costello asked the council’s heritage officer to encourage the naming of public amenities after Cumann na mBan members. Ideally meaning their names will be used for public buildings, housing developments, roads, bridges and parks.
As councillors around the room spoke in favour of the motion, its terms began to broaden. Independent councillor Nial Ring asked that the motion include the female members of the Irish Citizen Army.
Eilís Ryan of the Workers’ Party said it was important to highlight those who have fallen through the cracks of history, and added to the list the members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and the gay women who took part in the Rising.
“Recently, we were doing a project on renaming the bridges of Dublin after significant women,” said Ryan. “It was only afterwards that I noticed the number of them that were actually gay – people like Kathleen Lynn and Elizabeth O’Farrell, who lived for the entirety of their lives with their partners. That’s another aspect of their history that I think is remarkable for the time and I don’t think it’s remembered.”
At that council meeting, the motions and amendments passed.
During the Easter Rising, there were women in all the outposts except Boland’s Mill, where Eamon de Valera wouldn’t let them fight, says Mary McAuliffe.
A lecturer in women’s studies at University College Dublin, McAuliffe is working on a project about the women involved in the 1916 revolt. Her aim is to commemorate all 77 women involved, especially those from working-class backgrounds, who are often overlooked.
At that time, in Ireland, for most women, “domesticity was the order of the day,” says McAuliffe. “You got married and you had children. That was a woman’s life.”
But not everybody followed this path. Those were radical times, during which “women were making choices about not only their politics, but how they would live their lives,” says McAuliffe.
Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench Mullan met in Liberty Hall during the 1913 Lockout. Lynn was one of the first women in Ireland to graduate as a doctor.
Well-educated, middle-class feminists, they both joined the Irish Citizen Army and Lynn was a captain when it took over City Hall with the Irish Volunteer Force during the Rising.
When Seán Connolly – who was leading the rebels there – died, Lynn took over as a senior officer along with Helena Molony, who was bisexual.
Both Lynn and ffrench Mullan were jailed for their roles in the Rising. Their letters to each other while they were interned demonstrated their love.
“Then they spend their lives together,” says McAuliffe. “They lived together. They founded St Ultan’s Hospital together in 1919.”
Not everyone reads these women’s relationship this way. But McAuliffe believes the historical records support her view.
In Lynn’s diary, which catalogues their lives together, one entry talks of a New Year’s Eve where they shared a kiss at midnight. Another describes the two women getting into bed together to warm each other up after swimming.
McAuliffe argues that Elizabeth O’Farrell and her fellow nurse Julia Grenan were a couple as well.
These two rebels were based in the GPO on O’Connell Street during the Rising. They cared for the wounded, including James Connolly.
After days of fighting, the rebels moved to Moore Street, where Pearse decided to surrender.
“When Elizabeth was going to bring out the surrender flag, Julia Grenan talks about the fact that she was terrified and anxious watching her step out onto Moore Street, where there were bullets whizzing around,” says McAuliffe.
The two women are buried together in Glasnevin Cemetery, and their gravestone reads “Elizabeth O’Farrell . . . And her faithful comrade and lifelong friend Sheila [Julia] Grenan”.
“They are always called lifelong friends. But they lived together all their lives, they devote their lives to each other, and to the same principles, the same politics,” says McAuliffe. “They were buried in the same grave together and I think here we have another couple”.
Until now there’s been no trace of LGBT groups commemorating the gay and lesbian rebels of 1916, but she believes they should. “We all have to claim our patriots,” she says.
School books highlight the fact that Roger Casement was gay.
After being arrested in 1916 for smuggling weapons for the rebels’ cause, he was sentenced to death. Though knighted and held in high regard, British officials discredited his character by publicising his homosexuality and his personal “black diaries”, which held the proof.
And McAuliffe believes one of the reasons past historians ignored homosexuality when writing about the 1916 Rising was because it was seen as negative, and criminal. If a historian suggested somebody was gay, it was considered an accusation, she says.
“You needed way more proof for this than you needed to call a relationship between a heterosexual couple, which could be based on a look or a poem or a throwaway line in a memoir,” she said.
But today, if you use the same standards of proof for both gay and straight couples, it’s fairly obvious they were together, she says.
As well as purposefully ignoring homosexuality, sometimes historians just wouldn’t see the obvious, adds McAuliffe.
It was illegal for men to have sex at the time, but not for women. If women lived together, people presumed they were just friends who never managed to find men to marry.
“So a lot of female couples could hide in plain sight without anybody questioning it,” says McAuliffe.
“A Wonderful History”
Last year, the founder of the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, Brian Merriman, put on a play called Eirebrushed.
At first, he had planned simply to write about Elizabeth O’Farrell’s erasure from history. But when he stumbled upon her grave in Glasnevin, he realised she was gay.
Merriman believes the mention of Julia Grenan on the gravestone was “a real radical act”, very forward-thinking when it was engraved in the 1950s.
Encouraged by this discovery, he broadened his play to focus not only on O’Farrell, but also on Casement, Eva Gore-Booth (Constance Markievicz’s sister, who was a lesbian) and Pearse (based on his poetry, many historians believe he was gay).
“It’s a wonderful history,” says Merriman, pointing out that the two people to surrender in the Rising were gay. “I’m surprised we were never blamed for that,” he jokes. He also notes that Lynn was the first lesbian elected to the Dáil.
Merriman will bring Eirebrushed back in May for the centenary. And there may be another play on the subject as well, but that’s not set in stone yet. “That’s our commemoration of 1916,” says Merriman.
Since Merriman’s discovery of the gay and lesbian rebels involved in the 1916 Rising, he sees the proclamation’s call for equal rights in a different light.
“It was about personal freedom and national freedom,” he says. “They are intertwined.”