Nurse Margaret Keogh, the first civilian fatality of the Rising
In the very opening stages of the rebellion, Margaret Keogh was to become the first civilian fatality of the fighting.
A nurse at the South Dublin Union (SDU), she had been employed there since 1897, caring for some of the most unfortunate people in a city that knew great poverty and hardship. The SDU had been described as housing “thousands of the capital's destitute, infirm and insane.”
Over a sprawling fifty-acre site, the SDU would witness some of the fiercest fighting of Easer Monday, a day that was relatively quiet for many of the rebel garrisons. The task of seizing it fell upon Éamonn Ceannt, who commanded the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers.
To his great misfortune, he found a body of men that numbered approximately 120 at his disposal. In the confusion of the countermanding order of Easter Sunday, many of his men had stayed at home. He should have had a force of 700 men to call upon.
Why occupy the SDU? Given that it was home to some of the poorest inhabitants of the city, it may seem morally questionable to us today. The primary logic in seizing the site, historian Paul O’Brien maintains, was its location.
Having examined the fighting there in detail, he maintains that “the South Dublin Union and its outposts were a major defensive position in the south-west of the city.”
Ceannt and his men intended to make life difficult for British forces entering the city from Kingsbridge Station (Heuston Station to us today), and to attack reinforcements entering Dublin city from the Royal Barracks (Collins Barracks) and the Richmond Barracks.
Ceannt’s men moved into action calmly as the rebellion was beginning. One staff member at the SDU recalled that “they immediately took over the buildings known as the board room and clerks offices and also a department called the orchard sheds and the Nurses home where Ceannt remained in command. No word was spoken to me.”
Remarkably, Margaret Keogh did not abandon her position. One account has it that she informed Ceannt and his men that she was “with them heart and soul.” Regardless of that political sentiment, her first priority was the sick and infirm.
The Volunteers at the SDU were engaged in combat shortly after occupying the complex by members of the Royal Irish Regiment, while the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were also to become entangled in the fighting.
Dan McCarthy, a rebel on guard within the Acute Hospital building of the complex, recalled the tetchy atmosphere on the first day of the Rising, remembering that “to our surprise a British military party appeared in the corridor and we opened fire on them. Since there were only the two of us in it, having fired on the military party we decided to get out of the building.”
McCarthy’s account has it that the British party were “taken by surprise when we fired on them and they seemed to panic, lost their head momentarily because a nurse in full uniform opened the door and came down the stairs. They fired at her and killed her.”
This is one of several conflicting accounts that recounts the death of the nurse, but the fact remains that on the first day of the Rising, and in its earliest engagements, a nurse in full uniform fell dead in the grounds of the SDU.
Sadly, Margaret Keogh has inaccurately gone down in many history books not as a nurse, but rather a rebel participant. Academic publications, popular histories and even Wikipedia list her as a member of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers.
In reality, she hailed from Leighlinbridge in Carlow, and was a descendent of Myles Keogh, the celebrated American military leader who perished in June 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, better known today as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.
It was Myles who first adopted the unusual spelling of the more-common surname Kehoe, and Margaret appears to have used (or at least been known) by both variations. The confusion around her background may stem from the fact she was listed in The Last Post, a republican commemorative book first published in 1932, where it is noted Ceannt told his men that "Nurse Keogh was the First Martyr", and that he "asked the Volunteers to so remember her."
In recent times however, a new and intriguing argument has been made by Clare historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, author of a new history of the Truce period that marked the end of the War of Independence.
In his book, Ó Ruairc details the murder of another woman of the same name, shot on her own doorstep at Stella Gardens in Irishtown on 10 July 1921. An active member of Cumann na mBan, she is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery today, where her headstone notes she “died for Ireland.”
Nurse Keogh meanwhile is today buried in her native Carlow. While not a rebel, she showed great bravery in the opening stages of the insurrection, and deserves fuller recognition.
Donal Fallon is a historian and one of the writers behind Dublin history blog 'Come Here To Me'