Kathleen O’Brennan is one of three revolutionary sisters whose lives were totally changed by the Easter Rising of 1916. Her sister Lily was heavily involved in the Rising and the cause of Irish freedom and her other sister Aine, became an Easter Rising widow when her husband was executed for his role in the revolt. Kathleen wasn’t in Ireland at the time of the Rising – but this didn’t stop her. She fought for Ireland from the United States earning a difficult reputation and a spot in the history books of her own.
Kathleen (or Catherine or Kit, depending) landed in America in 1914 as a journalist and a lecturer. She was unable to return to Ireland before the Rising due to wartime restrictions on travel, so she stayed in the US speaking to “ladies of leisure” about the Gaelic league and Irish art and culture. Her demand grew after the Rising because of her family ties to it and her lectures became more about Nationalist politics than anything else. This drew the attention of the American authorities, who began to keep tabs on Kathleen’s activities and whereabouts. She did not make it any easier for herself when she became associated with Dr. Marie Equi, a radical feminist and member of the socialist/anarchist group, the Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W.).
Bert Haney, Oregon’s Attorney General, described Kathleen as being “engaged in spreading Irish Nationalist propaganda” and stated that she was “the daily consort of IWW leaders and speakers.” Her ties to the radical group were noted by various organizations who rescinded their invitations to speak and many prominent Irish activists wanted nothing to do with her complicated reputation. Kathleen’s close relationship with Equi was another mark against her because while homosexuality was not technically a legal issue at the time, it certainly was a societal one.
Interestingly, it was Dr. Equi who instructed O’Brennan to stick to Irish politics, despite not having a great interest in them herself. Kathleen had been adding inflammatory statements about the US and other parts of the world to her speeches, and Marie reminded her to stick to her own fight. Perhaps Dr. Equi felt that the IWW didn’t need the extra attention that the fiery Irishwoman was getting…or perhaps she just didn’t want to lose her lover. Either way, she kept Kathleen on point until her own arrest. Marie Equi was charged under the Espionage Act, and although Kathleen was already under surveillance, she led the charge to free the radical doctor. For this the American law enforcement community labeled O’Brennan an anti-patriotic subversive and in 1919 they arrested her.
There was a deportation warrant attached to O’Brennan’s file, but the authorities didn’t force her out of the US right away. Kathleen remained in America where she tried to start an auxiliary branch of the Irish White Cross and helped to develop the Women’s Irish Education League. Eventually O’Brennan returned to her homeland on her own and she appeared to leave politics behind for the most part. She had some powerful and dubious acquaintances in Dublin (most notably, Éamon De Valera and the controversial Mahr family) and she may have passed secret messages here and there but her continued role in Irish politics (if she had one) is less well-known. She led a seemingly quieter life and focused on her writing.
Kathleen’s play “Full Measure” debuted at the Abbey Theatre. She continued to write plays and articles for various publications in Ireland for the rest of her days and had limited but decent success in her career. She died on this day in 1948, just a few weeks before her sister Lily. They are buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.