By Sheila O’Kelly
When the word ‘war’ is heard, automatically men in uniform come to mind and sometimes the women are forgotten. The reference to the ‘men’ of 1916 masks the role that women played in Ireland’s history.
It is imperative to remember that almost 100 women fought side by side with the men during the Rising.
Their duties were not confined to nursing or feeding the men as is often perceived. They were brave women, not only in time of battle, but in the war against disease and deprivation in the tenements of Dublin and in promoting the status of women.
Ireland’s history can boast of many such famous women but none so worthy of remembrance as Kathleen Lynn. She was born in County Mayo on 28 January, 1874, daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman. She had a comfortable childhood but at an early age was aware of the abject poverty and poor health of the local people.
It is said that this was what influenced her to become a doctor. It was a major decision at the time to choose a profession which was almost totally male dominated.
She was educated in Manchester, Dusseldorf and in Alexander College Dublin. In 1889 she graduated from the Catholic University medical school and in 1909 became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Kathleen was elected House Surgeon in the Adelaide Hospital. Her appointment was resisted by her male colleagues because she was a woman and her position was never ratified.
However it is said that she did work in the Adelaide Hospital, Sir Patrick Duns and the Rotunda Hospitals. She worked in the Eye and Ear Hospital from 1910 to 1916 and had a private practice in Rathmines.
During this time she became active in the Woman’s Suffrage movement and Republicanism. It was because of this she lost the support of her own family. During the Lockout in 1913 she supported the workers. She met Countess Markievicze while working in the soup kitchens and became friends with the Countess, James Connolly and de Valera.
Her dream was to end oppression of religion, gender and social differences.
At the Easter Rising 1916 she was Chief Medical Officer to the Citizen Army and she was second in command to the City Hall garrison. When Sean Connolly was shot she wrapped the Irish flag around his body and then took command of the Garrison until they were forced to surrender.
In 1917. Kathleen was released from British custody and in 1918, together with her friend Madeline French Mullen, she cared for the sick during the influenza epidemic.
Kathleen spearheaded the opening of Saint Ultan’s Hospital in Charlemont Street Dublin. Saint Ultan’s cared for children from the tenements concentrating on infectious diseases.
It treated children with tuberculosis while pioneering the use of BCG vaccination over 10 years before it was in general use and Ireland. In spite of all her hard work and commitment Kathleen never got to recognition or funding required to run the hospital. Ironically after it closed the hospital became a private clinic.
For those who knew her she was a remarkable woman who fought for justice, equality and for those less fortunate. In 1921 Kathleen was elected T.D for Sinn Fein but did not take her seat as she was opposed to the Treaty. She was Vice President of ‘Save the German Children’ and was instrumental in relocating many German children during WW II.
Kathleen Lynn died in 1955 and is buried in the family plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. She was buried with full military honours ,including a gun salute and the sounding of the Last Post.
Her Tombstone just reads,
Doctor and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons”
A plaque hangs outside a ward in Tallaght Hospital dedicated to Kathleen Lynn. Strangely enough it is a private ward – not altogether in keeping with a woman who spent all her life working to improve the lives of children and the poor of Dublin.