Agnes O’Farrelly was a mighty woman in the realm of aademia during a time when that was highly unusual. She was a suffragette committed to improving the role of women in society and a staunch supporter of the Irish language. She has the important distinction of being the first woman to publish multiple novels in Irish. She was not a native speaker and did not learn it until she went to university – in fact, she was the reason that language lessons were revived there. Eoin MacNeill was her mentor in the language and eventually he sent her to the Gaeltacht area in the Aran Islands to further her education in Irish. Though she did not speak it from birth, this trip only reinforced her love for it. Eventually, she became a professor in Modern Irish and she continued speaking, teaching, and writing it for the rest of her life.
Ms. O’Farrelly presided over the inaugural meeting of Cumann Na mBan in Dublin, however she did not stay involved for long. While she was in favor of an independent Ireland and a supporter of Irish Nationalism, she felt that the women’s organization should be dedicated to arming and supporting the men of the Irish Volunteers, rather than joining the fight directly. It may seem like a peculiar stance for someone who wanted equal rights for women but she also believed in peace. As Cumann Na mBan became more militant in their own right, she withdrew from her leadership role and returned to academia – still fighting for women and an independent Ireland in her own ways, such as reviving the language and history, becoming an influential member of the Gaelic League and convincing other women to join her.
In 1916, she used her powerful gift of the written word and her scholarly position in an attempt to save her good friend Roger Casement from execution. She started a petition and sent a lot of correspondence but in the end, she was unable to persuade the authorities to spare his life. In 1922, she was part of a group of women who tried to convince the IRA leadership to avoid the upcoming civil war. That too, failed. Despite these setbacks, Agnes O’Farrelly remained influential in Dublin for many years and continued to be one of the most prominent female activists of the time.
Her devotion to the Irish language, to education, and to peace left little room in her life for romantic attachments. She remained an independent woman her whole life and never married. She died on this day, Nov. 5th, in 1951 and was buried in Deans Grange Cemetery. Her funeral was attended by many former colleagues, students, political activists, authors, rebels and the Taoiseach himself. She is remembered for being one of the most profound advocates for the Irish language in recent memory and has been credited for being one of the reasons that the number of women in academia swelled greatly at the time and ever since.