Friday 30 September 2016

The nurse and the furrier who were Rising heroines

The stories of the women of the Rising reach across the decades to resonate with Irish women standing on their shoulders today, writes Maeve Sheehan

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

RISKING HER LIFE: Social activist Elizabeth O’Farrell
RISKING HER LIFE: Social activist Elizabeth O’Farrell
Elizabeth's boots are just visible as she delivered Pearse’s surrender to General William Lowe on Moore Street during the Rising

One was a nurse and the other a dressmaker and furrier. One was the daughter of a docker, the other of a joiner. They went to convent schools together, became social activists together, and rebels together. They were working women who crossed paths with their sisters in society's upper echelons at gatherings of Cumann na mBan.

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Despite their modest backgrounds, Elizabeth O'Farrell and Julia Grenan - along with James Connolly's secretary, Winifred Carney - were the only women trusted to stay behind to treat the wounded men on Moore Street as shells crashed around them and surrender loomed.

Elizabeth was chosen for the pivotal and risky task of delivering Padraig Pearse's surrender to General William Lowe on Moore Street under gun fire, while anxious Julia stayed behind. Elizabeth and Julia were also life partners, who lived together until Elizabeth's death in 1957, and who are buried together in the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.

In the centenary year of 1916, all the women of the Rising are finally being remembered for their roles in the events, across books, street theatre and performance art. The lives of 77 women imprisoned at Richmond Barracks following the Rising are chronicled in a book by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis. In the documentary Seven Women, to be broadcast on RTE tonight, the actress Fiona Shaw tells the stories of seven women volunteers, including one who kicked in the windows of the GPO in order to get in on the action.

The latest is Irish artist Jaki Irvine's tribute to Elizabeth O'Farrell and Julia Grenan, commissioned by the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It's a piece of performance art, involving bag pipes, the music of soldiers.

The stories of the women of 1916 reach across the decades to Irish women standing on their shoulders today.

Jaki Irvine came upon Elizabeth O'Farrell when a row erupted a few years ago over the air brushing of her feet from the photograph of Pearse's surrender to General Lowe.

"I became curious about the missing feet in the photo," said Irvine. She began researching the story of Elizabeth O'Farrell, peeling back the layers of her life to the relationship at its kernel, with Julia Grenan, a relationship that "amazed" her.

Irving was so drawn to their story that she wrote a novella called Days of Surrender, which was published in 2013.

Elizabeth O'Farrell was born at City Quay, the daughter of a dock labourer. Julia Grenan, the daughter of a joiner, lived in Lombard Street. They were friends since childhood and were both educated by the Sisters of Mercy. Elizabeth became a midwife. Julia was a furrier and dressmaker.

Their journey towards republican activism began when they joined the Gaelic League, the Irish Women's Franchise League, the Irish Women Worker's Union, and later Cumann na mBan. Constance Markievicz is said to have trained both women in the use of firearms.

The nature of their relationship was, naturally for that time, not public knowledge. But neither was it entirely private. Irvine also recounts the statement from the volunteer who was dispatched to tell them that the Rising was to proceed. Julia and Elizabeth were in the same house. "She spoke of waking them up, of Elizabeth coming down the stairs and Julia following down later," she said.

According to Irvine, when Elizabeth faced the gun fire to deliver the message of surrender, waving her white flag, the wounded James Connelly tried to sooth the anxious Julia, reassuring her that Elizabeth would be fine.

Their roles during the Rising were as couriers, delivering dispatches and ammunition, and nursing the wounded. When the GPO went up in flames on the Thursday of Easter Week, O'Farrell and Grenan, and James Connolly's secretary, Winifred Carney, refused to leave.

In an interview for RTE recorded before her death, Julia Grenan recalled how Pearse ordered the women to leave as the GPO went up in flames. "It was a request, he said, but now, he said it's an order," she said. "But fortunately, Winnie Carney and Elizabeth O'Farrell and myself were selected to go with the men to Moore Street. So we did that."

At Moore Street, O'Farrell and Grenan nursed the wounded. The leaders decided to lay down arms and Pearse chose O'Farrell to deliver the message on the basis that a woman was less likely to be shot down. In her account of the surrender, she described walking the streets, waving her white flag, bullets whistling around her, the intermediary delivering the conditions of surrender.

She stood beside Pearse on that Saturday afternoon as he capitulated in person to General Lowe. The moment was captured by a British photographer, but he failed to capture Elizabeth.

Many years later, she told Cistercian monks that she deliberately stepped behind Pearse when the shot was taken. Only her boots were visible when the photograph first appeared; even these were later erased from view.

Elizabeth O'Farrell described the surrendered troops lining up on O'Connell Street that Saturday night. But she did not join them. Instead she was taken overnight to a room above the National Irish Bank on O'Connell Street by a Lieutenant Royall, so she could resume delivering the surrender order to other units the next day.

He "provided me with supper, and procured a bedroom for me at the top of the house, in which I was fairly comfortable and slept well. Lieut. Royall sat on a chair outside my door all night. About 6 o'clock on Sunday morning I arose.

"On looking out of the window I saw about 300 or 400 volunteers and Miss Grenan and Miss Carney, who had left the Post Office with me, lying on the little plot of grass at Great Britain Street in front of the Rotunda Hospital, where they had spent the night in the cold and damp.

"All their arms and ammunition were piled up at the foot of the Parnell Statue. I had only just finished dressing when I was told I was wanted downstairs by Captain Wheeler to take round the orders to the other commandants."

Despite assurances that she would not be arrested, Elizabeth was imprisoned at Ship Street Barracks, stripped and searched. She was later released and brought to see General Lowe, who apologised. Her partner, Julia, remained in Kilmainham jail until May 9 of that year.

Julia and Elizabeth lived together for many years at 27 Lower Mount Street in Dublin, staunch republicans who in later years denounced the Treaty.

Sunday Independent

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