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Elizabeth O Farrell and the Women of 1916: Part 2 by Michael Clemenger

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Michael Clemenger

Michael Clemenger

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Why were the republican women of 1916 whitewashed out of the subsequent history of the new Ireland? And, more particularly, why was Elizabeth O Farrell?

The answer lies in the way the republican women of the 1916 rising responded to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and the lamentable civil war that followed. The treaty was accepted by 64 votes to 57. But of the 57 votes against 6 of them were women. They included Maud Gonne, Countess Markievicz, Margaret Pearse the mother of Padraic and Willie, Mrs Kathleen Clarke – widow of Thomas Clarke, Kathleen O Callaghan – widow of the Lord Mayor of Limerick and Dr Ada English.

Countess Markievicz led the charge against the most important signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty – Michael Collins. She rejected his assertion that the Anglo-Irish agreement for a 26 county Irish republic was a stepping-stone to the eventual aspiration of a 32 county independent Ireland. She castigated him as being a lacky of British imperialism willing to take an oath of loyalty to the king of England and his heirs.

Margaret Pearse angrily rejected the notion that her son Padraic would have accepted the terms of the Anglo-Irish agreement. Following the civil war of 1922 – 1923 and the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins new leaders emerged in the form of WT Cosgrove and Eamon de Valera. Through their policies they set out to reduce the influence of women on the Irish political stage over the next 25 years.

In the 1923 general election called by Cosgrove, all 6 women TD’s who voted against the treaty lost their seats. This made Cosgrove’s task easier. He described these women as neurotic girls forever the opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Their minds were incapable of being changed. He believed that they should never have been actively involved in the front lines during 1916. His cabinet colleagues were of the view that women were unsuited temperamentally to be engaged in political discourse. Kevin O Higgins, as minister for justice, decreed that women should not sit on juries believing the subject matters under discussion in the courts would be too distressing for their delicate constitutions.

Over the 10 years of Cosgrove’s government the role of women in Ireland was clearly defined to be mainly in the home. There was to be no relief when in 1932 de Valera assumed power which he was to hold uninterrupted until 1948. His new 1937 constitution double downed on Cosgrove’s policies.  Mr de Valera strongly believed that the only true vocation of a woman in the emerging conservative Catholic Ireland was to be a good wife and mother by which she was ideally suited by God’s design.

He also stated that the moral purity of the women of Ireland as a collective was essential for the stability and wellbeing of the family. There was be no room on the political stage for fire brand national radicals such as Countess Markievicz.  Their new battlefield would be in the kitchen and the bedroom.In that capacity de Valera believed they would best serve the new Ireland.

It’s hard to imagine what Elizabeth O Farrell and Countess Markievicz (who died in 1927) would have made of the Ireland of Cosgrove and de Valera. They seem to have forgotten that both had fought in the Easter rising for the ideal of a 32 county Ireland with equal rights for men and women.

It is intriguing to imagine that the leaders of church and state in the era of Cosgrove and de Valera were not aware of the domestic arrangements of couples like Elizabeth O Farrell, Julie Grenan, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine Ffrench Mullen or indeed  the sexual  orientation of Helena Moloney or Margaret Skinnider.

Such matters would hardly have been spoken about in polite society or acknowledged by the political or church authorities. Consequently, it was easier to consign these women to the dustbin of history.

As I stood at the grave of Elizabeth and Sheila in the republican plot at Glasnevin cemetery it now made sense to me why many of my generation are unfamiliar with the heroic actions particularly Elizabeth O Farrell’s during the events of Easter week in 1916. I placed a bunch of red and yellow roses on their grave. While reading the inscription on the stone as follows:-

Elizabeth O Farrell of Easter Week died 25th June 1957

and her Faithful comrade and lifelong friend Sheila Grenan

I felt I was reclaiming her from the dustbin of history Was she confined there because of a love that dare not speak its name? I saw a man sitting in a hut inside the gates of Glasnevin cemetery when I asked him earlier for directions to Elizabeth O Farrell’s grave. He betrayed surprise. We walked together in the rain. He informed me that his grandmother and Elizabeth were first cousins.  While standing at the grave I saw another guide with 2 visitors standing a few feet from me and all I heard was the name Countess Markievicz. She had no headstone just a site number 5. He pointed along the path to a granite stone which contained the remains of Maud Gonne. The exquisite irony of that was not lost on me. I took two pebbles from Elizabeth and Sheila’s grave, a larger pebble from Maud Gonne’s and a tuft of grass from grave number 5 and placed them in a tissue. Before I left, I asked the staff member if Elizabeth and Sheila had many visitors. He smiled with a knowing smile. You will be back I suppose. I nodded. When I got home, I scribbled a few lines of a poem called A Homage to Elizabeth O Farrell.

A Homage to Elizabeth O Farrell

The love that dare not speak its name
Together in death as in life the shadow gone
Sleep well the sleep of eternal love pure
Nobody can judge you now

You belong to the Divine
The angelic chorus sings your song
Where is the judgefull eye
Amid the Hallelujah

I stand in homage at your grave
Those music words proclaiming
Elizabeth O Farrell of Easter week, Sheila Grenan
Faithful comrade lifelong friend

A deep calm descents upon this head
A half smile a smirk upon the face
Are you conversing with Pearse and Connolly
About the long lost golden dream

You lie close to comrades dear
Maud Gonne Countess Markieviscz
Them others scattered away away
The majestic hand of God at play

I take two pebbles from your grave
A larger one from Maud Gonne’s
A tuft of grass from number five
I have my shrine to take away

(c) Michael Clemenger

Read Part 1 of this article here.

About Everybody Knew:

Michael Clemenger was handed over as a baby to the unloving care of a religious-run children’s home. Aged eight, he was transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School.

Chosen as their ‘favourite’ by two Christian Brothers, Michael endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of both men. Brother Price struck at night, while Brother Roberts took pleasure in a weekly bathtime ritual. Although everybody at the institution knew, even the two Brothers’ ‘protection’ did not save Michael from merciless beatings by other sadistic men charged with his care.

Despite the unbelievable trauma of his early life, Michael emerged unbroken and determined to make something of himself. Everybody Knew is a story of remarkable spirit and courage.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

My autobiography was published by O Brien Press in 2009 called Holy Terrors. This book was subsequently published by Ebury Press in the UK and called Everybody Knew and sold well there and then in recent years it was translated into French and called Dans L’enfer de L’orphelinat. It has sold 90,000 copies to date and is still selling reasonably well in France. I have recently penned a number of plays and I have had them reviewed by the Abbey Theatre, some members of Trim Drama Group and Insight Theatre Group in Celbridge. The genre I write about is social life in Ireland from 1960’s onwards. Some of the titles are : – The Monoboy, The Night Jayne Mansfield came to Tralee, Return to Rockford, The Mission of Ballykinn, The Mist that Falls over Land, No is Never a Full; Sentence, The Riddle of the Stone, We had No Secrets and A Dying Business ( a short comedy). I am currently working on another play called The Lodger.

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