2018-04-24-2019-03-20 --- 2019-03-20 17:32:22--18
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LOT :120
Estimate EUR : €3,000.00 - €5,000.00
Auction Date : 24-04-2018


A photograph of Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell standing dressed in Cumnan na Bman uniform; together with another photograph of her family (2)



Elizabeth OFarrell (1884 - 1957) trained and worked as a midwife in Holles Street Maternity Hospital. In 1906 she joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) a radical republican organisation founded by Maud Gonne, which in 1914 would merge with the newly formed Cumman na mBan.

As the womens branch of the Irish Volunteers, OFarrell played an active role in the 1916 Rising. OFarrell was a dispatcher during the conflict, heading first to Athenry on Easter Monday before returning and reporting to the GPO for duty. She worked alongside her close friend Julia Grenan, who between them carried out the difficult and dangerous tasks of delivering food and ammunition to the various Irish volunteer strong holds around the city and providing medical attention to the wounded. Unusually, when the other women volunteers along with the injured were evacuated to a safe house on Moore Street, OFarrell, Grenan and another female volunteer Winifred Carney, a suffragette and Irish independence activist, remained in the GPO.


On the realization that they could not hold the GPO for any longer, the remainder of the troops retreated to the aforementioned safe house. On Saturday 29th April, O'Farrell left Moore Street armed with a "small white flag" and a red cross on her arm and apron to deliver Pearse's message to General Lowe. When Lowe insisted on an unconditional surrender, she delivered the order along with Pearse to Lowe and his son, ADC Lieutenant John Lowe. An amateur photographer serving with the British Army captured this moment, which took place on Parnell Street between Moore Street and Moore Lane.



There is a fascinating sequence of three photographs (National Museum of Ireland), presented almost as a triptych, which shows the gradual alteration, and eventual removal of OFarrell from the famous image of Pearses surrender to General Lowe. In the original press photograph her feet and skirts are clearly visible beside Pearse while he obscures her upper body and face from view. In the next image the expressions of soldiers faces have been changed and by the third, OFarrell has been expunged from the image entirely. Allegedly, O'Farrell gave an account of the event in May 1956 to the Cistercian monks of Roscrea explaining that she deliberately hid from the camera, an act that she subsequently regretted.


However, the notion of OFarrell as a dispensable figure, permeated by her removal from the image, fails to acknowledge her importance in carrying the note to General Lowe, making the initial contact, which led to the event in question. OFarrell subsequently braved the dangerous city streets in order to deliver the instruction to the other commandants throughout Dublin. An act which seems more in keeping with a 1957 Irish Press report, following her death, which referred to the roles of OFarrell and Grenan during the fighting, as running, the gauntlet of the military snipers. The notion of being written out of history or simply not included in the accounts of historical events seems less final than the physical removal from a photographic image. The deliberate interference with an image, captured and immortalised on film as a true and lasting record, is a remarkable act of denial.



This act, which has been deemed in recent years as, historical airbrushing, is an interesting expression of how womens roles during the 1916 Rising was visualized in the decades to come. Immediately following the rising the Catholic Bulletin's 1917 description of the women's activities, focused on the less dramatic, or in a sense less pivotal, rendering the individual women to the roles of assistants rather than active participants in the rising. The emphasis was placed on their roles as caregivers, tending to the needs of the wounded and dying, offering comfort, nursing in all of its many capacities such that the men could fight on heroically. A position which the Catholic Church and in turn the Irish society were more comfortable in adopting when it came to the troublesome question of womens involvement in the planning and execution of this violent uprising.


This image of Elizabeth OFarrell in her Cumann na mBan uniform with rifle in tow, is strikingly different from the carefully orchestrated image of female volunteers in the years following the Rising. Women in the De Valera era of the Free State were comely maidens at the fireside, not political activists. But in fact this is what OFarrell was right up until her death in 1957. She never fulfilled her traditional female role of marrying or having children; instead she continued to work as a midwife while also being active with Cumman na mBan during the Civil War and the War of Independence. She was staunchly apposed to the Treaty and hostile towards the Free State. OFarrell and Grenan raised money during and after the Civil War for the families of anti-Treatyite prisoners, and she remained involved in Republican politics until her death. It is important to note that similar to her male counterparts, who had fought for an independent Ireland, she was to become increasingly disillusioned with the reality of the Irish Free State post-1921. A reality, which must have been further compounded by the disadvantage of her gender, as the efforts towards womens liberation and the suffragette movement, were largely suppressed in favour of highly conservative and patriarchal society. The image of OFarrell, which has proliferated our cultural consciousness, has always been of her in the nurses uniform, rather than military dress. This photograph goes some way towards the act of rewriting her and many other women back into the history of the fight for Irish Independence.


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