Yesterday, on the 2nd April 2014, myself and my colleagues from the 6th Infantry Battalion that I am stationed with, got on board a bus at Custume Barracks, Athlone at 06:20hrs. We boarded the bus with freshly pressed shirts and polished boots, our official dress at the ready, our hair carefully and neatly wrapped in hairnets.
Our destination was to end at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin where we were to form part of the 32 strong, all female, Presidential Honour Guard that was to take place there at 11:30 that morning. The very first all female Honour Guard of its kind.
We met up with our colleagues from the Navy who are based in Cork and the Air Corp who are based in Baldonnell.
There among the gravestones of Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and Charles Stewart Parnell, we stood watch and we waited to be called in to place so that the ceremony could begin.
The drum beat started, our officer in command drew her sword and shouted out her orders, which we followed smartly, as we made our way towards the waiting crowd of spectators and media.
Outside the fence and barriers of the cemetery, the busy hustle and bustle of Dublin city continued in the background. People peered in the gates wondering what all the commotion was about and why the President was standing at someones grave.
Michael D. Higgins, the ninth president of Ireland, stood proudly at the entrance to Elizabeth O’Farrell’s grave. Like many women of her time, Elizabeth was committed to the cause of peace and the freedom of Ireland and she was a member of an organisation that was formed by the Irish women like her, that was called Cumann na mBan.
Elizabeth was a midwife who worked at Holles Street Hospital in Dublin, a very honest and worthy job of a woman who was clearly very devoted to whatever she did. When she was a member of Cumann na mBan, Elizabeth acted as a dispatcher before and during the Rising. She delivered bulletins and instructions to the rebels outposts around Dublin. She was one of the 3 women who remained in the G.P.O, until the very end. She cared for the many wounded including James Connolly with her friend and fellow nurse Julia Grenan.
However, Elizabeth will be more notably remembered for her deliverance of the surrender during the war of the Easter Rising of 1916.
At 12:45pm on Saturday 29th April 1916, she was handed a white flag with a Red Cross insignia on it and told to deliver the surrender to the British military. She walked out onto Moore Street into heavy gun fire, that abated when she waved the white flag.
The British sent her back to retrieve Padraig Pearse with a demand for an unconditional surrender. They both presented themselves to General Lowe and the surrender was completed. Elizabeth O’ Farrell can be seen in this picture below, partially obscured by Padraig Pearse. The photo has been much cause of speculation and scandal as there has been many versions of it where Elizabeth appears to have been removed.
Not only does this photo serve as evidence to a lack of their remembrance, but also the abandonment of recognising them in their vital role in the establishment of a free Irish state. You can understand why this has been met by complete and utter disrepute by many.
Many people suggest that Irelands history has been dictated in our books and our records. Some suggest aesthetics are at play. Some people say that the British removed her from the picture because Padraig Pearse needed her assistance to stand as he was badly wounded, and the “editing” was done to make it seem more “heroic”.
What cannot ever be edited from any picture or any official document that was submitted to the Irish National Archives, however, is the absolute and astonishing work these brave and heroic young Irish women did in the cause for Ireland.
Standing on the cobble stones of Glasnevin Cemetery, 100 years from the date of Cumann na mBans Anniversary, 32 women from the Irish Defence Forces stood shoulder to shoulder, their arms at the salute as the Irish flag is raised, finally, in honour and respect to the women of this organisation from every corner of the country that they came from.
A wreath was placed at one grave as a mark of respect and also a mark of remembrance from the government of today, for all that they done. Some of the women still haven’t been named but hopefully the ceremony added towards some humble gesture to everything they achieved for the Ireland that we know today.
It is a great pity that the women’s plight was seen as a subordinate one to their male counterparts, whom could not have survived without the support and logistical aid that was given them by the members of Cumann na mBan. They were ridiculed by many of their counterparts also, an example being The Irish Women’s Franchise League.
As 32 women marched off the parade ground and the ceremony came to a close, not one of us could imagine what it would be like for the women of Ireland if Cumann na mBan never existed, or if those committed and passionate women from that past generation didn’t believe in themselves, their cause or didn’t have the love they had for their country or their people. The sacrifices that they made and the changes they brought about in our history, allowed not just Ireland as a country, but the women of Ireland a voice and a platform that would carry on into a future where they could not be heard otherwise.
And they’ll march with their brothers to freedom – Katharine Tynan 1924