Remembering Kathleen Lynn

Second Reading

Fr Kevin Hegarty

In 1906 Frances Kennedy turned up to sit her arts examination in the Royal University of Ireland, an institution that preceded UCD. Her entry into the examination hall caused consternation. At that time there were separate venues for men and women.
Frances arrived at the place allotted to her but she had been incorrectly listed as Francis, the male form of the name. She had no difficulty sitting the exam with the men but the supervisor had. He designed a comic solution to the problem. she was allowed to remain in the hall but screens were placed around her to isolate her from the male students. I am not making this up!
The story is recorded in a book ‘from new men to new women’, a collection of reminiscences of female students in UCD from its earliest days until the 1960’s. In the late nineteenth century female students were a barely tolerated novelty in university education in Ireland. The Royal University opened its doors grudgingly to women in the 1880’s. Trinity College did not follow until 1904. Young women today, accustomed to out performing their male counterparts in the leaving certificate, must find this bizarre, like a strange tale from an antique civilization. Since women gained the vote in 1918 in the British Isles, there has been a gradual expansion of the role of women in our society, though much still remains to be done. Even those addicted to nostalgia about the old ways in Ireland will probably admit that the development has enriched us. There is nothing positive that can be said for patriarchy. As the feminist theologian, Joan Chittester puts it: “Where patriarchy exists humanity walks on one leg, sees with one eye, and thinks with half its brain and it shows.”
Don’t we know it in the institutional Catholic Church, one of the last male bastions in the developed world. It is only now that we are coming to some understanding and knowledge of the contribution of women to Irish history. Traditional textbooks fail abysmally to do justice to the female experience.
The story of one woman from county Mayo has recently come to the fore. She was Kathleen Lynn who played a significant role in the social military and medical history of twentieth century Ireland. She was involved in the 1916 rising. As part of the centenary celebrations of the rising next year, arts groups in Mayo intend to hold an exhibition illuminating her life and achievements. The initiative is supported by the Arts Council and Mayo County Council.
Kathleen Lynn was born in Mullafarry, near Killala, in 1874, the second eldest child to the local Church of Ireland clergyman, Robert Lynn and his wife Catherine. Later, the family moved to Cong.
The late nineteenth century was a harsh time in Mayo. The poverty Kathleen witnessed as a child helped mould her social conscience.
She studied medicine at the Catholic University Medical school. She was a successful student, coming first in physical anatomy in 1896. After she graduated she did postgraduate research in the USA. She encountered male opposition after receiving her first Irish post in Adelaide Hospital. Male doctors refused to work with her. In 1904 she set up as a GP in Rathmines.
Her political odyssey began around the same time. She joined the Suffragette Movement to campaign for votes for women. She moved from suffragism to socialism and then to republicanism. During the 1913 lockout she worked in the soup kitchens. There she came to know intimately the poverty of the Dublin working class.
She joined the Irish Citizen Army and as chief medical officer she played a prominent part in the 1916 Rising. Stationed in City Hall she took over as leader when the officer in charge was killed. After the Rising she was imprisoned in Kilmainham and Mountjoy prisons. She opposed the Anglo Irish treaty of 1921. Elected as a Sinn Féin TD in 1923 she soon became disillusioned with politics. For the rest of her life until her death in 1955, she devoted herself to the care of children in St Ultan’s Hospital which she founded in 1919. She deserves inclusion with Gráinne Uaile and Mary Robinson in the pantheon of great Mayo women.