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Sisters in arms during the Rising


Family pride: Donna Cooney with a photo of her great grand aunt, Elizabeth O'Farrell

Family pride: Donna Cooney with a photo of her great grand aunt, Elizabeth O'Farrell

Family pride: Donna Cooney with a photo of her great grand aunt, Elizabeth O'Farrell

It was one of the most dramatic moments of the Easter Rising when Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell waved the flag of surrender that brought the rebellion to an end. Yet, according to her great grand niece Donna Cooney, that's only part of the story.

When Padraig Pearse decided to evacuate the women from the GPO for their own safety after a week of heavy fighting, Elizabeth, along with Winifred Carney and Julia Grenan, refused to leave. They tended to the wounded there and during their retreat to Moore Lane with "bullets raining from all quarters", according to her own witness statement.

She cooked for the volunteers who burrowed through the night from house to house, and when Pearse could see the fight was over, Elizabeth was chosen to request talks between the rebels and the British. And later, as agreed with Pearse and General William Lowe, commander of the British forces, it was she who delivered the order to surrender to rebel commands around the city.

In return for her co-operation, Lowe promised she would not be imprisoned and appointed an officer to drive her to the various garrisons. En route to Boland's Mill, however, the driver left her at Butt Bridge, claiming it was unsafe to go any further, so Elizabeth set off alone with no protection from the gunfire whistling all about her.

"I had to take my life in my hands several times," she said. At one point she described the military lined across the top of buildings "screaming at me to go back, but I kept on waving my white flag and the paper".

And when she finally reached her destination, De Valera refused to accept the order from anyone other than his superior officer, Commandant MacDonagh.

Elizabeth set off for Jacob's factory to deliver the message to MacDonagh. While there, two volunteers asked her to bring £3 in silver to their mother, and another entrusted her with £13 he'd saved to get married. The next morning, her coat was taken, the money confiscated, and she was marched to Kilmainham Jail as a prisoner.

Outraged, she informed prison officers that, when released, she would "publish to the ends of the earth how General Lowe kept his word of honour".

Lowe apologised the following day for the mistake and, while many in the same circumstances might consider themselves lucky to walk free, the bold Elizabeth asked, "What about the money that was taken from me? There was £16 taken out of my pocket."

Lowe ordered the officer to return the money immediately and Elizabeth went on her way, reporting later that she found General Lowe "most courteous".

After the Rising she became a midwife in Holles Street, opened her own nursing home and died in 1957 at the age of 72. She never married and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery along with her lifelong friend Julia Grenan, which led some to wonder if the pair's relationship was more than one of friendship.

"I don't think so," says her great grand niece, Donna Cooney. "Elizabeth had been engaged to an engineer, but he took a job abroad and she didn't want to leave her beloved country. She devoted herself to Ireland instead of having a family of her own.

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"She and Julia had been to school together, both became nurses, and during the Rising, they witnessed people being shot all around them. That leaves an indelible mark. These days soldiers are offered counselling to deal with post-traumatic stress, but these were different times. Elizabeth and Julia experienced the horrors of war together. They were sisters in arms. It must have been therapeutic for them to be able to confide in each other and not bottle it up for the rest of their lives."

Donna is extremely proud of her plucky great grand aunt, whose indomitable role in the Rising is celebrated by the entire extended family.

"I come from a long line of strong women," she says. "We grew up believing we could do and be whatever we wanted, just as Elizabeth did."

Elizabeth became disillusioned by successive Irish governments however, none of whom delivered the equality for women, she felt, that had been promised in the Proclamation.

"Once all the fighting was over and the Treaty accepted, Irish women were pretty much sent back to the kitchen and told to forget about equal status. That was not what Cumann na mBan had expected or fought for."

Donna is determined to celebrate the contribution made by all the women and men who rose for Irish freedom. As PRO for the 1916 Relatives Association, a voluntary group of over 1,700 members and growing by the day, she's busy planning events and working with many other centenary commemoration bodies. She's also involved with the Save Moore Street campaign.

"The Government bought Numbers 14 to 17 Moore Street, but the rest was in the care of NAMA who sold to developers. The Save Moore Street campaign hopes to raise enough money, both here and with the diaspora, to buy the properties back and protect the entire terrace. This is the scene of the surrender, an urban battlefield site of exceptional historical significance and the OPW would do an excellent job of preserving it. We're realistic about time frames - this is not something to be done for next year, but to have a workable plan in place, with funding put aside for estimates each year… that would be a wonderful legacy to leave behind for future generations."

For further information visit www.1916relatives.com

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