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Wednesday 14 November 2018

Sligo Rising: Nurse Linda Kearns

Councillor Michael Clarke talks about the life of his grand aunt, Linda Kearns (1886 -1951), who was involved in the 1916 Rising, as a nurse and she was active during the War of Independence and the Civil War.

"When you are researching this you will find that the role that women played was downplayed quite a bit. What women did at the time, at that rank, was really suppressed and it wasn't recorded properly - where the men got the glory."

"Linda's mother was Nora Clarke and she would have been an aunt of my father. Her father was Thomas Kearns. He would be a first cousin of my grandfather on the Kearns side. She spelt her name without the 'I,'" and Michael continued, "her father and mother were Clarke and Kearns and my mother and father are Clarke and Kearins. It was actually the second time that cousins' married and the third time if you go far enough back.

She was from West Sligo, from Cloonagh in Dromard. Ray McSharry's mother was Clarke. Ray's mother and my father were brother and sister. Since Linda's time there has always been an elected member in the family in some shape or form."

"She was brought up on a small hill farm. It was a very small house and the ruins are still there. Her father, was just as you say, a nice type of easygoing farmer that wasn't really involved in any politics or anything like - a nice, quiet type of man. Linda's first cousin was Thomas Goff and he was shot in Beltra during the Troubles. Thomas Goff's house is beside the Kearns' homestead."

Michael talked about Linda's education and her nursing career: "As far as I know she got some type of scholarship to go Brussels and it may well have been through the Catholic church. At that time your best opportunity for education was to go to the priesthood or the nuns, as the farm there wouldn't justify that."

"She inherited money from the O'Connor Morris family in the midlands and she owned a car. There were very few people who owned a car back then." Linda was a nurse to Maurice O'Connor Morris and when he died on 11 February, 1916, he left Linda an inheritance of 2,500 pounds.

"She was active from 1914, when she was in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. She was with nineteen other nurses and they happened to all be involved in the Rising. She would have known Countess Markievicz at that point. She would have known Yeats and Lady Gregory and the people in that circle at that time."

"Linda went on to open a hospital on North Great George's Street during the Rising for the Irish Volunteers. After the British knew that she had the hospital opened they demanded that she nurse British soldiers." In her 1950 military statement she said that she treated two British soldiers and then the hospital was closed down.

"She then went behind the lines with a number of nurses to treat the wounded," said Michael. She described in her military statement, how she bought bandages and disinfectant from a nearby chemist, Toomey's and then put the Red Cross flag in the window.

"She was very close to Michael Collins and she drove him on many occasions," noted Michael. Her house, 29 Gardiner Place was one of the safe houses he used. "She also carried information letters to Kerry, to Cork, to all over the place, and to Sligo. And when the troops were to get motivated and to get active - she would drive around the country with details of targets to the different battalions." Linda noted in her memoir, that she sometimes became impatient with Collins, when he left her waiting in the car and she was often involved in the transport of 'eggs,' small bombs placed in egg cartons.

"She was a nurse," continued Michael "and she could have her car full of nursing equipment and she was going to attend to people, so she was getting through and her car would be full of arms, as well you know."

Michael described Linda's character: "Her father doted on her and she was very bright and intelligent. She had never had any fear and she had a great faith. I think that it wasn't in her genes or makeup to kill anyone. At the same time, she would have been there and I am sure she would have had to defend herself. She would have travelled with the individuals who were going to be taking people's lives. That was why her father was so amazed by her, as it wasn't part of her 'being' to carry arms or to be violent. It was more to protect and be friendly. It appeared her mother predeceased the father by quite awhile. I know it was devastating for her when her father passed away while she was in prison. I don't think she set out to be military active," explained Michael, "but because she had a car and because of her nationalist background around here in Sligo, she was someone that Collins plus Connolly could trust and rely on to carry out messages and she got embroiled in that way. I know her father didn't really believe that she would be - it wouldn't be her background to do that. Not as such. It was a republican area around here all right."

Linda's father died whilst she was in Armagh under court-martial in 1920. "At this time, she was a very high profile Republican when she was arrested here in Sligo." Linda was arrested for her involvement in an ambush at Cliffoney and Grange. She reported in her 1950 statement, that four policemen were killed and two were badly wounded at this ambush.

"It all comes to a head in 1920," explained Michael, "she is based in Dublin and also sometimes in Kerry." Also In her military statement, Linda described how Jim Devins, before they were arrested, led her in the dark, down to the shore at Lough Gill and asked her; "Have you taken an oath' and I said "No." She repeated the oath after him in the dark and described how she felt at the time, "It was thrilling and unforgettable moment in the dark of the night at the side of the road."

Michael Clarke noted that she was arrested because, "she was carrying arms here in Sligo." She was arrested with Jim (Seamus) Devins, Eugene Gilbride and Andy Conway, who were all in the car. "She was actually sent by Collins to get them moving in Sligo and to get into action against a target and it wouldn't be usual that she would be active in Sligo. She would come to deliver arms and to give instruction but on this occasion she was actually went out in the field to take part in the ambush. It was very unusual that she would be caught on active service in Sligo as she could have been in Kerry. She took responsibility for the arms, as if she didn't, both Devins and the other men would have been shot dead on the spot. She said she was totally responsible and that it was her car, and that some other men had left the ammunition in the car. She was sentenced to 10 years for her part in ambush in Sligo." In her military statement in 1950, Linda described how she was beat around the face and chest by a notorious RIC officer - a Black and Tan - called, Spud Murphy, a Cockney stationed in Sligo Barracks, and he caused permanent damage to her teeth.

"After her arrest" continued Michael, "she was sent to Sligo Gaol and then they took her by boat to Belfast. They didn't chance the roads in case they were hijacked. She had an armed escort of thirty soldiers. She was taken out to Sligo Bay by boat and she was in Belfast for awhile and then she was transferred to high security prison in Liverpool, Walton Prison." The soldiers on the boat thought she was the famous rebel, Countess Markievicz. In Walton, where on finding a worm in her food, the warden told that she should be happy that at least she had some meat in her dinner.

"She was in the nucleus with Collins and Connolly and she was actually with Cathal Brugha in 1922 when he was shot and mortally injured," explained Michael. Linda Kearns gave her own account of this incident: "He was shot in the hip, the femoral artery being severed," and she described how in the ambulance on the way to the Mater Hospital that she kept her, "… fingers on the artery, which stopped the flow of blood." He died two days later and she blamed the lengthy delay on the doctors attending to him for the cause of his death.

"I know talking to other cousins about her time in Belfast and Liverpool, that there was a lot of sleep deprivation and no food and bad food." Linda was unhappy to be locked up with criminals in an English jail, as they were not political prisoners. She went on hunger strike, to protest the adverse conditions in the Walton and after six months she was transferred to Mountjoy in Dublin.

"Back to Mountjoy Prison and that is where the breakout happened in October 1921 with Eileen Keogh, Mae Burke and Eithne Coyle, a Donegal nurse, who later became Mrs. O'Donnell."

"She was never afraid. She never felt any fear of prison or of death" said Michael. "She was ready to die at any stage. She befriended a priest that came into say mass and she got him to take out an imprint of a key for the the yard. She pressed it into the wax of a candle.

"Between seven and eight o'clock there was community time every night and all the doors were open bar this one door. At the time that they planned for the break, they were having a game of ladies soccer and it was Sligo against the rest of the country, that's what she said anyways. When they were playing football, the four women broke away. They weren't missed for half hour. Collins had arranged that a rope ladder would be thrown across Mountjoy wall at a certain time and they had to climb up the ladder and slide down a rope on the far side of it. They were brought to four different locations."

Linda was helped in her escape to a safe house by a doctor she had worked with before. "That was the big joke at the time that the British couldn't keep the Irish women in prison. After her escape from Mountjoy Prison she becomes a national hero," said Michael. The story made international news; 'Four Women Break Jail' was a headline in the New York Times on the 31st October, 1921.

Cllr Michael Clarke talked about the famous photograph of the three women standing on the Union Jack, armed and wearing full length belted coats; these were three of the escapees, Mae Burke, Eithne Coyle and Linda Kearns. "That was after she escaped from Mountjoy. They were in hiding down in Duckett's Grove, the IRA training Camp in Co. Carlow. De Valera seen the value in her and when it became safe in 1922 to 1925, she went to North America and she would go to different cities to make speeches and she returned hundreds of thousands of pounds to the growing national movement.

"She went to New York and all over North America and Australia. She was part of Sinn Fein until 1926 and then she joined Fianna Fáil. She was made a senator by de Valera because the amount of money that she generated for the movement."

Linda Kearns was one of five women elected to the executive of Fianna Fail when it was formed in 1926. She later became a senator and received several international awards on behalf of nursing organisations. "In the early 1940s she opened a retirement home for nurses, Kilrock House in Howth."

Her memoir 'In Times of Peril, leaves from the Diary of Nurse Linda Kearns from Easter Week 1916 to Mountjoy 1921,' was edited by Annie M.P. Smithson in 1922. "They say there are slight variations between that and her later military statement," said Michael. "She was a very active senator and she introduced livestock shipping to Sligo Port and she was involved in getting Sligo Port dredged. She asked de Valera not to re-nominate her after she finished her first term as she felt she wanted to go back to her nursing. She never thought of herself as a politician - nursing was her first love.

"She married Charles Wilson McWhinney, but the marriage didn't last long and they had one daughter, Ann. Ann died last year - aged 85." Linda Kearns was the first person to be awarded the Florence Nightingale medal in the Republic of Ireland. It was rewarded to her for her extraordinary services to her profession.

Like Countess Markievicz, Linda went on a extensive fundraising trips in America and Australia. A dress, she designed in the Celtic Revival style is on display in the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina. She wore this on her many fundraising trips abroad. She was also a great knitter and wrote a column for the Irish Press, about the home crafts, under the pen name of 'Penelope.' She died on the 5th June 1951 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

"They say she was very bright and very good company, and very humble. She was just a very good nurse. I am sure, she didn't set out to be the person she is in history," said Michael. Linda Kearns was proud of her military past, before she died, she said to her daughter, Ann: 'and I want you to promise you'll never forget you are the daughter of a soldier,' and according to Ann, 'she was prouder of that than anything else.' When asked whether the story of nurse Linda Kearns was well known, Michael answered: "I don't think so, for that simple point that the streets and the train stations are all called after men; Connolly, Cathal Brugha, Sean MacDiarmada - if a man did what Linda did - Sligo County Hospital would be called after him."

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