Kathleen Lynn was an anomaly among women at the turn of the century in Ireland. She was extremely well educated, which was very rare for females at the time, and she was a doctor – not a nurse – which was an incredibly unusual profession for a woman of that era. She faced discrimination and difficulty in the field for many years due to her gender and it made her a strong suffragist and a very tough woman.
Kathleen met a lot of capable and determined ladies through the suffrage movement and one of them was her friend Helena Moloney. Helena introduced her to Irish Nationalism and they joined many organizations together. They also started numerous charities. During the Dublin Lockout of 1913, Ms. Lynn became incredibly politicized and she and Helena began working closely with James Connolly. Kathleen was appointed the Chief Medical Officer of his Irish Citizen Army – which was the only militant group that accepted men and women equally. She learned how to handle weapons and many other wartime skills while she trained the other women in first aid and field medicine in preparation for the Easter Rising of 1916.
When the Rising began, Kathleen was firmly ensconced in the City Hall battalion and prepared to be both a fighter and a doctor. She probably wasn’t expecting to take over the leadership of the battalion but she had to get comfortable with that idea very quickly when her commanding officer was shot and killed just an hour into the battle. She held the next highest rank and it fell to her to lead the group of fighters, which she did even as she tended to the wounded.
After the surrender, she was jailed for her role in the Rising. She immediately took issue with the food and the conditions in the prison. As a doctor she knew that the food was not up to dietary standards and the unsanitary conditions were appalling. She immediately staged a protest and tried to get prison officials to listen to her in a professional capacity. They refused and the attempt may have been one of her only failures throughout her long life.
After her release, she and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen (her longtime companion) set up Dublin’s first Infant hospital. She had already been advocating for the under-privileged in Dublin for years and she felt that opening Saint Ultan’s hospital was the best way to care for them and their children. The hospital was entirely staffed by women when it opened, and this was most likely because she wanted to give women in the medical field a place where they didn’t have to deal with the same discrimination that she had when she first became a doctor. The hospital was vital to the community and she saved hundreds of children and babies in the coming years.
She was also elected a Sinn Fein TD (Teachta Dála – a member of Irish Parliament) in 1923. She never took her seat though, because she had been against the treaty and did not consider the Irish Free State to be what she had fought for during the Rising. Eventually, her militant life quieted down as she continued to focus on equality, advocating for the poor, providing health care for children, and running her hospital. The facility grew quickly. Kathleen Lynn was one of the first doctors in Dublin to recognize that TB had to be eradicated from Ireland and she made St. Ultan’s a center for vaccinations against it, long before they were in widespread use. She also created a Montessori education wing in the hospital to help educate the children who were being treated there because she believed that education was the path out of poverty.
This amazing woman continued to practice medicine even as she approached her eighties. Her devotion to caring for others was the driving force of most of her long life. When she passed away on this day in 1955, hundreds of nurses and female doctors lined the route of her funeral procession. She was one of the few women of that time who was given full military honors when she was buried, in honor of her service to Ireland and the Republican cause.
She is buried in the Lynn family plot in Deansgrange Cemetery.