Around 12:45 p.m. on April 29, 1916, Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell left 15 Moore Street in Dublin to deliver the surrender message that would end the Easter Rising. Inside the house, where the division of Irish rebels under the command of Padraig Pearse had retreated, her comrades in arms watched her walk away through the bullet-riddled streets, fearing she would be shot down. But as she neared the British military outpost, the firing eased and Ms. O’Farrell accomplished her mission without injury.
Ms. O’Farrell’s act of bravery has become one of the iconic moments of the Rising, not so much for the act itself, but for how it was documented. In a photo of the surrender taken later with Pearse and two British officers, only Ms. O’Farrell’s boots were visible. When the photo was first published in a British newspaper, even the boots had disappeared.
Ms. O’Farrell claimed later that she deliberately stepped out of sight. But rightly or wrongly, “that photo” has come to symbolize the airbrushing — or “Eire-brushing,” as some have said — of women out of Ireland’s history. Now, as the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising get underway, a determined effort is being made to reinsert the lost stories of female heroism into the male-dominated narrative of the struggle for Irish independence. As these stories come into focus, the doctored image could be said to represent something more that has consequences to this day: the removal of women from a public role in the republic they helped bring into being.
Aside from a few stars like Constance Markievicz, who was second in command at the rebels’ St. Stephen’s Green outpost in Dublin, or the schoolteacher turned sniper Margaret Skinnider, most of the estimated 260 women who took part in the 1916 insurrection never found their way into the history books. In recent decades, several historians, mostly women, have worked to change that. Among them, as part of a government-funded commemorative effort, Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis have unearthed a wealth of information on the 77 women who were imprisoned for their role in the uprising.
The picture emerging from this research is one of women who were not just committed nationalists willing to die for Ireland, but also longtime campaigners for social justice who had been fighting inequality on many fronts: land reform, labor battles and women’s suffrage. These women wanted a fairer society in which they would have an equal say. In 1916, they had reason to believe that the republic they chose to fight for was the surest means to that end.
According to the historian Margaret Ward, Ireland “did something quite unique in 1916” to advance equality “that wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of the women before the Rising.” On a speaking tour in 1917, Ireland’s foremost suffragist, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, told audiences that “it is the only instance I know of in history when men fighting for freedom voluntarily included women.”
The progressive leanings of the Rising’s leaders were evident in the language of the Proclamation of an Irish Republic read aloud by Pearse on the steps of the General Post Office. Addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” it guaranteed “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens.” At a time when women in most of the world had yet to secure the right to vote, this guarantee was no trivial thing.
It took six days for British troops to quell the rebellion. Sixteen rebel leaders were executed soon after, among them Pearse and the movement’s greatest champion of equality, the socialist leader James Connolly. It would take six more years and much more bloodshed before Ireland won limited independence in the form of the Free State, in 26 of the country’s 32 counties. Although activism by women expanded rapidly during this tumultuous period, with membership of Cumann na mBan, the Irish nationalist women’s paramilitary organization, growing from between 650 and 1,700 in 1916 to as many as 21,000 in 1921, they were not rewarded for their efforts.
The equal rights language of the Proclamation did make its way into the 1922 Constitution, and Irish women over 21 achieved full voting rights that year. But with the progressives dead, the Free State government, heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, began rolling back these rights almost as swiftly as Elizabeth O’Farrell’s boots were erased from that photo.
Laws in 1924 and 1927 largely excluded women from sitting on juries. In 1932, a marriage ban was introduced that forced women who worked as teachers or civil servants to retire upon marriage. The 1935 Conditions of Employment Act limited women’s ability to work in industry.
But it was the 1937 Constitution, drafted under Prime Minister Eamon De Valera’s leadership, that sealed women’s fate for decades. As commander of the Boland’s Mill outpost in 1916, De Valera had been the only leader to refuse women’s participation in the Rising. Now with Article 41 of the Constitution, which reads “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved,” he closed the door on women’s progress in a more definitive way.
So, it is not surprising that just as Ireland is reckoning with the erasure of its first wave of feminism, a new one is surging, propelled in part by the commemorations. In November, when the Abbey, the national theater of Ireland, released its centenary lineup of plays, all but one of which were written by men, an “Estrogen Rising” erupted. The ensuing furor highlighted women’s underrepresentation in Irish theater, film, media and politics.
Even before that, reproductive rights activists struck a new note of militancy when they chained themselves last April to the pillars of the General Post Office to protest a 1983 constitutional amendment that equates the right to life of the unborn with the right to life of the mother. Dressed as suffragists, these women read out a revised version of the proclamation declaring the “right of all people in Ireland to ownership of their own bodies.”
In the same streets where Elizabeth O’Farrell walked through gunfire almost a century ago, these modern-day activists forged a link between their struggles and the unfulfilled hopes of sisters from another era. What women did for Ireland, and what Ireland has since done for women, deserve a fuller accounting.
Sadhbh Walshe, a journalist and former TV writer, is currently working on a play about the women of 1916.