On this day sixty-nine years ago, Ireland said goodbye to one of its fierce daughters. Elizabeth “Lily” O’Brennan was one of three revolutionary sisters in the O’Brennan clan, and was a true believer in the cause of Irish freedom. She fought for it even when it cost her her own.
All three of the girls were infused with a profound love for the arts, history, and culture of Ireland. They had ties to many influential rebels and Lily and her sister Fanny (later known as Áine) helped create a local chapter of the women’s Nationalist organization, Cumann Na mBan. Kathleen O’Brennan, their other sister, went to the United States where she championed a few radical causes, including Irish Nationalism. Lily and Fanny stayed in Ireland and formed a closer bond, especially after the Easter Rising of 1916.
Fanny adopted the name Áine and she married a quiet revolutionary named Éamonn Ceannt. He was a prominent member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and would later become one of the leaders of the Easter Rising and its director of communications. When Lily reported for duty as the Rising began, she had a school bag full of medical supplies, water, and a desire to help and fight. She was assigned to the Marrowbone Lane Garrison where she was under the command of her brother-in-law. She stayed active for the entirety of the insurrection and when it ended, she was one of more than seventy-five women who were arrested and sent to Kilmainham Gaol.
It was rumored that Lily and the other women would be sent to Jamaica to carry out their sentences but that didn’t happen. Lily was released on the same day that her brother-in-law was executed in the prison yard below her cell. She was one of the first prisoners to realize that the gunshots they kept hearing were the executions of the Easter Rising’s leaders but many in the prison refused to believe her. Unfortunately she was right. Éamonn’s execution hardened her resolve to keep fighting for Ireland in whatever way she could while she helped her newly-widowed sister. One of the many ways Lily helped in the aftermath of the Rising included mapping cemeteries so that the graves of Irish volunteers and patriots could be easily recognized and maintained. She and Áine sent letters and personal mementos to America to aid their sister Kathleen’s Irish Nationalist fundraising efforts in the US. They went to work caring for wounded volunteers and their families, even though their own had been destroyed. Both sisters became active in politics. Lily rose through the ranks of Cumann na mBan and Sinn Fein. She was a judge in the Dáil Éireann and was Arthur Griffith’s personal secretary. In this capacity, she was sent to London as part of the delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Lily was adamantly against the terms of the Treaty and when it was ratified she stayed true to her Republican ideals. She carried secret messages, helped hide and care for Anti-Treaty volunteers, and wrote Republican articles for the newspapers. Lily also helped to open a hospital in Dublin, volunteered for the Irish White Cross, and continued her own fundraising as well. She filled every moment of every day with underground activities that furthered the Irish cause until she was arrested again in 1922 and imprisoned for nearly a year. She devoted much of that time to becoming fluent in Irish and she helped organize a jailhouse Easter Rising commemoration ceremony. She gave a speech that remembered the rebellion and honored her brother-in-law and the other leaders of the Rising.
Lily began writing full time when she was released from prison in 1923. She wrote short stories in Irish and English, newspaper articles, and a few plays. She penned a book based on the Land League as well and helped to start the Catholic Writer’s Guild. Slowly she began to withdraw from her previous revolutionary circles. Lily wrote for the rest of her life.
Tragedy struck the O’Brennan clan again in May 1948. Kathleen and Lily O’Brennan died within weeks of one another. Kathleen passed away on May 12th and Lily died on the 31st. Áine must have been devastated by both of their losses but she lived another six years before she joined them. The revolutionary sisters are all buried together in Deansgrange Cemetery in Dublin.