The Rainbow in the Rising: 1916

From Issue 2 of An Spréach Magazine: Continuing our theme of the unsung heroes of 1916 we turn to focus on the brave volunteers whose sexual identity goes unmentioned. May they serve as further inspiration for us all and in particular our fellow Republican activists within the LGBTQ community.

Kathleen Lynn & Madeleine ffrench-Mullen
Born in Mayo in 1874, Kathleen Lynn was one of the first female qualified doctors in Ireland. She was both a socialist and feminist, who come the rising would assume the role of chief medical officer. Her partner, born in Malta in 1880, was Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, the daughter of a British Naval Officer.

The pair first met through Inghinidhe na hÉireann during the 1913 Lock Out. A period during which ffrench-Mullen organised soup kitchens whilst Lynn offered first aid education and free medical assistance to striking workers and their families. Both women joined the Irish Citizen Army (ffrench-Mullen a lieutenant) and would perform integral life-saving roles during the Rising.

On Easter Monday the pair would find themselves at separate posts, with Lynn being based at City Hall (which backs onto Dublin Castle, HQ of the British Army), whilst ffrench-Mullen was ordered to College Green to assume command of the fifteen Citizen Army women who set up a medical station and field kitchen.

Kathleen Lynn would amazingly take the rank of commanding officer inside City Hall after the death of Sean Connolly. Under her leadership the sixteen men and nine women inside managed to hold the building for a single day, which given the close proximity of City Hall to British army headquarters was no small feat.

Imprisoned together within Kilmainham gaol, ffrench-Mullen would write that “as long as we are left together, prison was somewhat bearable”. When separated following her transfer to Mountjoy gaol, Lynn recorded that despite the improved conditions of her new cell: “I would give £10,000 to be back in Kilmainham with Madeleine.” After many more decades of activism, the two would live together in Rathmines until ffrench-Mullen’s death in 1944.

Elizabeth O’Farrell & Julia Grenan
Childhood friends, both O’Farrell and Grenan were born in Dublin in 1884 and would mature alongside one another both politically and personally all their lives.

Strong Republicans and gaeilgeoirs they joined the various organisations in Dublin such as the Gaelic League, the Irish Women's Franchise League and the Irish Women Workers' Union. Together in 1906 they joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann, and went on to become volunteers of the Inghinidhe branch of Cumann na mBan soon after its creation in 1914. They were involved in major campaigns of action against British Army recruitment drives in Ireland, and under Markievicz were trained in the use of firearms. Like many other brave women they would find themselves deeply embroiled in the battle against the bosses during the 1913 Dublin Lock-out.

During the rising they acted as both dispatchers and nurses, being sent around the bullet-torn streets of Dublin during the week with despatches, food and ammunition hidden in their long skirts to stations at Boland's Mill, Powers' Distillery, Jacobs' Factory, St. Stephen's Green and the Four Courts. They administered aid to a wounded James Connolly, and alongside Winifred Carney refused to evacuate the GPO following Pearse’s orders that Friday that all women and wounded leave.

Present within Moore Street, it was O’Farrell that was chosen to seek the terms of surrender from the British. Grenan watched from the doorway as O’Farrell emerged into a street burdened by British gunfire. She was taken to Brigadier General William Lowe who sent her back to Pearse with the demand for unconditional surrender. Pearse agreed and, accompanied by O'Farrell, surrendered in person to General Lowe. Arguably O’Farrells most famous moment, it would become victim to the counter-revolutionaries of the ‘saor stat’s historical revisionism, with the iconic photo later popularised with O’Farrell’s feet airbrushed from the image to show Pearse alone.

Imprisoned for their part, both women upon their own respected release resumed their lives and activism together. Struggling against British occupation and patriarchal oppression within the 26-county state until their deaths. Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell are buried together in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Helena Molony
Another female Republican hero, who  requires no further introduction, Helena Molony is an unsung bisexual hero of this band of rebels. Molony throughout her life had a number of relationships with different men, but it was with psychiatrist Evelyn O’Brien that she spent her last 20 years loving. Feminist historian and author Marie Mulholland cites that the minute evidence of their relationship is a result of O’Brien’s family destroying all of Evelyn’s personal papers after her death in an apparent effort to hide their relationship which of course would have been actively persecuted during the time.

Roger Casement
Undoubtedly the most renowned member of the 1916 queer pantheon is Roger Casement, whose very sexuality was weaponised against him and ultimately the reason he too would be executed for his role in the rising. Being held in high esteem within the Empire, he was regarded as the father of 20th century human rights investigations for his reports on the treatment of the indigenous people of the Congo and Peru, work that would earn him a knighthood. It would take the publication of the ‘Black diaries’ by the British government to silence efforts to have his death sentence commuted. These diaries contained personal accounts by Casement of his sexual encounters with men during periods of his life. Criminalised for his sexuality and his actions in supplying weapons to the brave men and women of 1916, Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London, on the 3rd August 1916.