Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was one of the many women who played a prominent role in the Easter Rising 1916. She was given the unenviable task of delivering the surrender notice when the leaders accepted their position was hopeless and decided to end the rebellion to prevent further casualties.
O’Farrell was born and brought up in Dublin and became a member of Cumann na Bman, the women’s auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers. She was stationed in the GPO during the Rising and nursed wounded Volunteers, including James Connolly who was shot twice by British snipers.
As the GPO caught fire following constant bombardment, Patrick Pearse decided that the women should leave the building for their own safety. O’Farrell and the other women all refused to go and persuaded Pearse to withdraw the order.
O’Farrell accompanied the rebels as they fled the flames of the GPO and set up headquarters on Moore Street. Pearse then asked her to deliver the surrender notice and she played a vital role delivering messages between the two sides.
She is buried in the Republican section of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. These words by Brian O’Higgins are on her gravestone:
When duty called on the field of battle,
She went, under orders, the foe to meet,
Bearing sadly, unfearingly, proudly,
The flag of surrender but not defeat.
This video, by Marcus Howard and Jean O’Donnell, features O’Farrell’s great grand-niece, Donna Cooney.
Donna reflects on Elizabeth’s role in the rising and the role she played in enabling the surrender and laying down of arms to proceed as smoothly as possible. She recalls how Elizabeth was present when the iconic picture was taken of Pearse surrendering his sword to General Lowe. There was widespread speculation that she was airbrushed out of the picture but Donna says it’s more likely that she stepped out deliberately, possibly to protect her family from later repercussions.
It was a decision she later regretted because she realised that her presence in such an important photo would have helped illustrate the important role played by women in the Rising, something that is often overlooked.
Elizabeth O’Farrell trained as a midwife after the Rising. Donna believes she was disappointed that the equal opportunities promised in the Proclamation of the Republic have not been fully achieved, even today.
Donna also expresses her own disappointment that Moore Street, where the rebels made their last stand and made the decision to surrender, is now full of commercial advertising and has little to remind visitors of its historic importance.
You can learn more about Elizabeth O’Farrell and hear more of Donna’s reflections in this video.
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