Dr Kathleen Lynn – The forgotten woman of Irish history


Despite being one of the most influential Irish women of the early 20th century, Kathleen Florence Lynn has been quietly written out of the Irish history books.

Was it because she was a woman?  No, it can’t be that – after all we hear quite a bit about Constance Markievicz, Maude Gonne-McBride, Madeline Ffrench-Mullen, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, etc.

Was it because she was a Protestant in what was perceived as a largely Catholic Irish rebellion?  No, it can’t be that either – since Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth) was a member of the Church of Ireland.

Or was that because after the 1916 Rising, she simply refused to stay at home, have a few children and be quiet?

In an age where women were not encouraged to have a career or speak out, she achieved both.

She was an active social reformer, humanitarian, suffragette, feminist, nationalist, republican, a TD, local councilor, and a leading medical practitioner who made a significant contribution to Irish healthcare despite constant harassment from the Catholic Church.

The following is a timeline with details gleaned from a number of sources :-


1874 – born in Cong, Co Mayo, the second child of Robert Lynn, a Church of Ireland clergyman

  • The family home was in Ballsbridge but she spent her summers in Cong
  • She learnt “chonas chaint as Gaeilge” from the local people and listened to their stories
  • Joined Conradh na Gaeilge, an organisation founded by fellow protestant Douglas Hyde

1899 – graduated from Cecilia Street (the Catholic University Medical School)

  • Her medical degree was awarded by the Royal University of Ireland (now UCD)
  • Also educated in Manchester, Düsseldorf and Alexandra College, Dublin

1903 – Lynn lived in 9, Belgrave Road, Rathmines from 1903 to her death in 1955

  • Shared her home with her life-long friend and confidante Madeline Ffrench-Mullen

1909 – became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons

  • First ever female surgeon in Ireland, despite much opposition to her qualifying
  • Worked on the staff of Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital and at the Rotunda Lying-in Hospital
  • Also, ran a private practice from her home in Rathmines

1910 – first ever female resident at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital

  • Very influenced by the Suffragette movement in Britain and the USA
  • Active with other Irish feminists / suffragettes, e.g. Maud Gonne McBride, Madeline Ffrench-Mullen, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and others
  • She was refused a post at the Adelaide Hospital because of her gender

1912 – Dublin Lock Out

  • Met with and was very much influenced by James Connolly
  • Set up the soup kitchen in Liberty Hall with Constance Markievicz during the Lockout
  • Also provided medical services to the sick during this important early labour struggle.

1913 – Irish Citizen Army

  • Appointed Captain of the Citizen Army Medical Corps
  • Organized the collection of medical supplies
  • Gave lessons in first aid to Cumann na mBan for the imminent armed rebellion
  • Attained the rank of captain, although never drilled with the Citizen Army

1916 – Easter Rising in Dublin

  • Carried the Starry Plough from Liberty Hall to the GPO in front of the combined rebel forces
  • She was chosen because she was a woman, a doctor, a protestant and a suffragette (thus expressing the type of Worker’s Republic Connolly had envisaged)
  • Resumed her front-line role as Captain of the Medical Corps of the new Army
  • Sent to Dublin City Hall to attend to the wounded, she pronounced Seán Connolly dead (the first IRB fatality of the rebellion)
  • As most senior (surviving) officer, she surrendered the City Hall garrison on 30th April
  • Rather humorously, Lynn described herself to the arresting officer as “a Red cross doctor and a belligerent”
  • At first, the British refused to take the surrender from a woman
  • After surrendering, the British military authorities simply asked the 10 women to ‘go home’ (When they refused, many, like Kathleen Lynn, were sentenced to death)
  • She spent the rest of the week in Ship Street Barracks, later moved to Kilmainham Gaol.
  • Soon after, being considered too valuable to be imprisoned, she was placed under “house arrest” until August 1916
  • She later discovered that her family made representations for her not to be incarcerated
  • They also declared her ‘a lunatic’ for taking part in the Rising

1917 – General Election

  • Moved back to Dublin in early 1917
  • Resided in Grosvenor Road, Rathmines, in a house owned by Joseph Plunkett’s family
  • Continued as an activist in the republican struggle as a member of the IRA
  • Also active in Sinn Féin party, serving as vice-president of the executive in 1917
  • A leading figure in Cumann na dTeachtaire (the league of Women delegates)

1918 – Lynn helped organise Markievicz’s successful election campaign while she was in prison

  • In the Liberties area of Dublin, there was a large concentration of women
  • 2,500 women worked in Jacobs’ biscuit factory and were staunchly Trade Unionist
  • Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons
  • The Republican MPs later withdrew and set-up the independent First Dáil
  • Lynn was appointed Minster for Labour in the revolutionary separatist administration

1919 – Established Saint Ultan’s Hospital, with her friend Madeline Ffrench-Mullen

  • St Ultan’s was managed entirely by female doctors (males were employed for specialties)
  • As a result the hospital provided much needed opportunities for female doctors
  • Many of the most prominent Irish female doctors of the period worked there with Lynn.
  • St Ultan’s provided medical and educational facilities for impoverished mothers and infants
  • St Ultan’s was initially set up for the treatment of babies under one year of age (Infant mortality rate in Dublin at the time was one of the highest rates in the world)

1922 – Newly formed Free State reverts to traditional Catholic values

  • Cumann na mBan considered ‘unseemly’ by a deeply conservative Irish establishment (and also a significant threat to the security of the state)
  • The Catholic hierarchy in Ireland urged all women to desist from revolutionary activities
  • Lynn not a member but most of her friends were active in Cumann na mBan

1923 – The Free State government banned Cumann na mBan in January 1923

  • Free State government opened up Kilmainham Jail as a detention prison for suspect women
  • Lynn, like many of her female friends, vehemently opposed the Treaty (knowing it would divide the working class along religious lines, creating two sectarian states)
  • She assisted the anti-Treaty forces in every way possible throughout the Civil War
  • She was bitterly disappointed at the defeat of the republican forces in the Civil War

1926 – Fianna Fáil founded by de Valera

  • Joined alongwith Constance Markievicz and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (despite still being a Sinn Féin TD for Rathmines)

1927 – General election

  • Organised the funeral of Constance Markievicz who died in early 1927, aged 59
  • Lost her Dáil seat

1934 – Promoted the work of Maria Montessori (who visited St Ultan’s in 1934)

  • Established a Montessori ward in the hospital

1937 – New Constitution

  • Her initial enthusiasm for Fianna Fáil waned when de Valera made his peace with the Catholic Church (women were relegated to the home to have children and be servants to their husbands)
  • Lynn and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington fought a hard battle to get amendments to the new constitution (to include express acknowledgement of the rights of women)
  • de Valera said of women: ‘they are at once the boldest and the most unmanageable of revolutionaries.’
  • Lynn then left Fianna Fáil to concentrate mainly on her contribution to medicine

1937 – Dr Dorothy Stopford-Price introduced the BCG vaccination for TB (first in the British Isles)

  • Controversially, Archbishop McQuaid objected St Ultan’s giving free BCG vaccines
  • St Ultan’s would later become the headquarters of the National BCG Committee.

1940 – Allowed St Ultan’s Hospital to cater for older children (one of the first Children’s Hospitals)

  • Increasingly became embroiled in battles with the Catholic Church
  • John Charles McQuaid (a sectarian bigot) had no control over St. Ultan’s but he constantly tried to dictate their ethics
  • McQuaid forbade Catholic nurses from working with Protestant nurses
  • McQuaid objected to the all-female staff in the Hospital
  • McQuaid also accused Kathleen of explaining the fertility cycle of women to the uneducated, which he interpreted as “interfering with God’s will”

1942 – Vice President of “Save the German Children”

  • An organisation to find homes for German children in Ireland during the Second World War

1950 – Became an adviser to Dr Noel Browne when he was Minster for Health

  • He also was to fall foul of the arch-conservative McQuaid
  • The Irish Medical Council named its “Lynn House” Head Quarters, in Rathmines, after her

1955 – died at the age of 81 (having worked until she was 80 at St Ultan’s)

  • She was buried with full military honours
  • The Irish Citizen Army provided a guard of honour for her (Surgeon General in their army)
  • Members of the 7th Eastern Battalion fired three volleys over her grave
  • A bugler sounded the Last Post

I would very much like to see the proposed new National Childrens’ Hospital named after her.  It would be a fitting acknowledgement of her contribution to modern Ireland on so many levels – but especially that of modern medicine and modern hospital care.

Please sign the petition to support the naming of the new National Children’s Hospital for Dr Kathleen Lynn.  https://www.change.org/petitions/an-taire-sláinte-the-minister-for-health-ireland-to-name-the-new-children-s-hospital-in-honor-of-dr-kathleen-lynn

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