Friday 28 October 2016

They gave everything for their country and were then overlooked

Female Volunteers of 1916 had to fight for recognition

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Bravery: Countess Constance Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn at Earlsfort Terrace in 1921. The photo is part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection – this and other photos are available to view and purchase at
Bravery: Countess Constance Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn at Earlsfort Terrace in 1921. The photo is part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection – this and other photos are available to view and purchase at
Dr Brigid Lyons Thornton. Photo: The McGuinness Collection

In a Ballsbridge hospital in 1980, an elderly woman of failing health clung to the military service pension that she had earned in another era.

  • Go To

She was Dr Brigid Lyons Thornton, the first woman to get one; £123, 19 shillings and two pence per annum for 8.264 years of service to the Irish State between 1916 and 1923, paid in monthly instalments.

In August of 1980, the manger of the Bank of Ireland branch on Baggot Street Bridge wrote to the Department of Defence on her behalf. The customer, "who is very elderly and who is a patient in the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, informs us that she is entitled to a military service pension but she cannot recall when she received the last payment and whether or not she negotiated it". She was "no longer capable" of looking after her affairs, he wrote, and "tended to lose cheques".

Nevertheless, in 1982 the Department of Defence was still sending her forms to fill out. When Dr Lyons didn't return the forms, the department wrote to the gardai in Donnybrook, where she lived.

"She informed the garda who called to see her that she did not sign the Pensions Declaration Form because she objects to paying the postage to return the form to the department," the superintendent wrote back.

The department was still after her for forms when she died aged 91, in 1987. Her doctor wrote back, saying she died on April 17, Good Friday, "RIP". Her coffin was draped a Tricolour when she was buried in Mayo on the 71st anniversary of the Rising.

Although she was famous in her day, few would have remembered her role in the historic events of Easter week 1916 and the battle she later fought for her military service pension. Only in recent decades have she and others like her received the recognition they deserve, their stories told in the annals of the Irish military archives online.

Like Elizabeth Butler, the fictional character in the RTE drama Rebellion, Brigid Lyons was a medical student at the time of the uprising, but unlike her, she did not come from a wealthy Dublin family.

Originally from Longford, her uncle and aunt paid for her education and she enrolled in medicine at University College Galway.

During Easter Week of 1916, she piled into a car with her uncle and his volunteers to join the rebellion.

"I came to Dublin from Longford on learning of the outbreak of the rebellion and went to the Four Courts, where I rendered first aid to the wounded, cooked etc, until the surrender, when I was arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham til 10th May."

From her prison cell, she could hear the barrage of shots each morning as the signatories to the Proclamation were executed.

Lyons returned to her studies in Galway but continued her involvement there, "despatch-carrying, transfer of arms etc... in both Dublin and Galway during these years and she was at all times in the confidence of headquarters".

In 1923, she was the first and only woman commissioned to the Free State Army with the rank of first lieutenant, charged with treating "lady prisoners". But a year later, she was demobilised after contracting TB.

From her Swiss clinic, she applied for a military service pension and caused heated political debate. Prejudice lingered in the new government. The pension legislation designed to compensate those who fought from 1916 to the civil war didn't specify women.

In the Dail, a Colonel Moore said they had "sacrificed themselves more than men", many had "suffered in mind and body" and were "broken down from the work they did".

But President WT Cosgrave apparently did not recognise Dr Lyons "pre-truce service" and said that a precondition of the pension was membership of the national army.

"There was only one lady in the national army. She was a doctor. I believe she has no pre-truce service," he said. The situation "does not arise".

When Dr Lyons was approved for a pension in 1926, it was withheld by the Army, which urged the Minister for Defence at the time to consult the Attorney General.

"Does the Military Pensions Act contemplate the grant of a pension to a lady in any circumstances whatsoever?" it asked.

The unfairness of this was not lost on the many ordinary women Volunteers who had to wait until 1936, when the legislation was extended to include members of Cumann na mBan, for their pension.

One such was Nora O'Daly, from Fairview, who was proud of her contribution to 1916 and later gave a vivid account of it to the military pension assessors. She was sent on an intelligence mission to the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park on Easter Saturday with her friend, Bridgie Murphy.

"Bridgie and I got into conversation with an Irish guard, a Lance Cpl, who had to remove his belt before he would be allowed step over the barrier running around the fort. We were wearing Connaught Rangers and Fusiliers badges, which he offered to clean for us (we had just slipped them on). We gladly accepted the offer, he brought us up on Magazine Hill, into the fort for a 'Soldier's Friend' (cleaning kit) and while he shone the badges we elicited in the course of a chaffing talk a great deal of valuable information, such as numbers in fort, changes of guard, visits of officers, layout of magazine stores etc, which knowledge was of value in planning the Magazine Fort attack on Easter Monday."

On Easter Monday, O'Daly was at St Stephens Green and tended to the wounded until they were "evacuated under fire to the Royal College of Surgeons" on Thursday.

She treated: "Doherty (riddled with machine gun fire); Murray (bad face wound, projectile entered base of brain, was sent to hospital at surrender and died there). She also named Ms M Skinnider for "body wounds". (Margaret Skinnider was refused a disability pension for her injuries effectively because she was a woman). Nora O'Daly was arrested and joined Brigid Lyons and many other women incarcerated in Kilmainham jail.

When she 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".

Sunday Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice