On this day in 1885, a very brave and unusual woman was born in Ireland. Elizabeth O’Farrell grew up to be a revolutionary in many ways. She had a long term relationship with another woman when that was unheard of, dangerous, and severely frowned upon. She was a great suffragist who championed equality and respect for women during an era when many women couldn’t even get an education at all. She saved many lives but put her own at risk over and over again during the Easter Rising of 1916 – and she rarely gets the credit she deserves for all of her courageous acts. Even now her shoes get more attention than the woman who wore them.
Elizabeth was born in Dublin 131 years ago today, and she studied to be a midwife and a nurse. She was a prominent member of the women’s Nationalist group, Cumann na mBan, and she was not a passive or timid person in any way. She trained under Constance Markievicz to learn how to use weapons and trained other women in first aid and field medicine, in order to provide care for the Irish Volunteers when needed. These were extremely capable women who could either take lives or save them, and many did both during the uprising in Dublin.
When the conflict began, Elizabeth and hundreds of other women spread out across the city to join the fight for Irish freedom. She was one of the many women in the General Post Office headquarters. Ms. O’Farrell regularly braved the gunfire and explosions to deliver messages between the leaders in the GPO and the other garrisons. Toward the end of the Rising, Patrick Pearse and the other leaders tried to dismiss the women, insisting that they find safety and leave the leaders and fighters to their own escape or capture. Elizabeth was one of three women who stayed with them as they tried to escape through the city. Another of the three was Julia Grenan, Elizabeth’s companion and partner, who had been in the GPO all week with her. They came under heavy fire during their escape and O’Farrell fell in the street as they ran. She probably would have died there if a man hadn’t rushed out of a nearby house to save her. When they returned, she found that many of the leaders were already inside. James Connolly was badly hurt and seventeen other wounded volunteers from the GPO were in the home. Elizabeth and the other women stayed the night to tend to Connolly and the rest of the injured, while escape tunnels were being burrowed through nearby buildings.
The next morning, the women traveled through the tunnels and waited to find out what was next. Elizabeth was soon sent to find or fashion a white flag – the international symbol of surrender. Pearse asked if she’d be willing to travel the streets once more to carry the surrender message to the English, and O’Farrell said yes. The men hung a white flag out the window in the hope that it would keep her from being shot, and she summoned the courage to go meet the opposing forces. Julia Grenan was hysterical as Elizabeth left because she was sure that O’Farrell would be killed on the journey. That has become an important fact in the years since, now that it is more widely known that the two women were lovers.
Elizabeth O’Farrell carried a tiny white flag and made it safely to the English troops. She told one of the officers that “The Commandant of the Irish Republican Army wishes to treat with the Commandant of the British Forces in Ireland.” When he tried to correct her, saying she meant the Sinn Feiners, she raised her head proudly and retorted, “No, The Irish Republican Army, and I think that is a good enough terminology”. The soldier was put off having to recognize the Army as such, and he did not like having to deal with a woman. He ripped the red crosses off of her uniform and had her searched. After a few stops and some long waits, she finally made it to General Lowe. He made it clear that only a full surrender would be accepted and he sent her back to relay the message. This back and forth happened a couple of times before Pearse returned with her, to make the surrender official.
The picture of this crucial moment in Irish history was seen worldwide. It has been reprinted hundreds of times, and it only shows the two men. The only sign that this brave woman was there, is that her shoes and the edges of her skirt appear in the bottom of the photograph.
There’s some controversy around that. For years, many have pointed to that photo as proof of how sexist the times were and how the media ‘erased’ Elizabeth O’Farrell from the photos because she was a woman. Others claim that she intentionally stepped behind Pearse, believing that he alone should be seen in the photo and that she regretted her decision later. Regardless, she is almost entirely left out of the moment – the very pivotal moment that would not have ever happened without her.
Elizabeth O’Farrell has been erased since too. In the film “Michael Collins” directed by Neil Jordan, her role in the surrender is depicted by a man, proving that sexism and the dismissal of women is still a problem. Luckily, there are alternate narratives that have been made by historians, playwrights, and documentarians that acknowledge her importance on that day.
After the surrender was complete, General Lowe wanted to use Elizabeth to deliver the message to all the other garrisons. Pearse asked if she would do this, and she consented. She braved the city numerous times to relay the surrender, ending up in the same courier position she had started in, dodging bullets the whole way. After her messages were delivered, she was arrested, despite promises by General Lowe to the contrary, and strip searched before being tossed into a cell. She managed to send a priest to General Lowe who ordered her release a few hours later. She did not serve a sentence for her role in the Rising, because she had been willing to travel with the news of the surrender.
Julia Grenan did serve a sentence but the two women stayed close for the rest of their lives. They are now buried next to each other in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.