Dr Kathleen Lynn

Rebel doctor

Kathleen Lynn was born in 1874 in Killala, Co Mayo,  one of the poorest parts of Ireland. Her father was a Church of Ireland rector for the area. Her mother was a relative of Countess Markieviez ( who was involved in the struggle for Irish independence and was the first women elected to the House of Commons )  A few years later the family was transferred to Cong, Co. Mayo were the wife of the local landlord, Lady Ardilaun, became a benefactor of the young Kathleen.

Kathleen’s experience of the poverty and illness in Co. Mayo inspired her to be pursue a career in medicine and in 1899 she graduated with a medical degree. She was the first women in Ireland to undertake all her under-graduate training in the country. However being a woman meant there were limited opportunities to pursue a typical career pathway. Kathleen left for the USA for further training before returning to Ireland to establish her own practice.

By this stage Kathleen was involved in political affairs being an executive member of the Irish Women’s Suffragette and Local Government Association and  also a member of the British Women’s Social and Political Union. As well as promoting women’s suffrage, both of these bodies pursued a wider agenda of social reform.

In 1913 a general lockout / strike engulfed Dublin which resulted in a number of stand-up battles between the strikers and the police.  While the leadership of the Irish nationalist movement viewed the strike with suspicion, many socially concerned progressives such as Kathleen Lynn  threw their lot in  the strikers. And many of them went on to join the Irish Citizens Army (ICA), a workers’ militia which was formed after the strike ended to provide protection to workers in future disputes. Kathleen Lynn became the Chief Medical Officer of the ICA

Led by James Connolly, the Irish Citizens Army was one of the main contingents that took part in the armed Rising in Dublin in 1916. Kathleen Lynn a member of  ICA unit that captured part of Dublin Castle and she took command of the unit when its leader, Sean Connolly, was killed. The Rising was crushed within a week and Kathleen was one of 77 women detained by the Crown Forces. She was deported to England where she was under semi-house arrest before returning to Dublin in 1917.

On returning to Dublin she continued to be part of the struggle for Irish independence and wider social reform including speaking at meetings in favour of the Russian Revolution. She became vice-president of Sinn Fein and was elected a member of Dail ( Irish parliament) in 1923.  But Kathleen was becoming disillusioned with Sinn Fein’s drift towards partaking in the Dail and its broader conservative approach to the problems facing Ireland poor.

In 1919, along with her life partner Madeline ffrench Mullen, she was a instrumental in opening St Ultan’s Hospital in Dublin which, in the first instance, concentrated on the appalling state  women’s and children’s health. Returning soldiers from World War I brought with them a range of venereal diseases which was largely ignored by mainstream health services and St Ultan’s was often the only institution that would provide care. As this legacy began to fade St Ultan’s took the lead in tacking TB which ravaged the slums and working class districts of Dublin. As well as providing care St Ultan’s also instituted the one of first TB vaccination campaigns in Ireland. Kathleen was also determined that St Ultan’s would also become a centre for providing opportunities for women doctors and in paediatric care.

A commemorative plaque has recently been unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, at the site of the hospital. Details can be seen here, with some photographs.

By the 1930’s Kathleen was promoting the idea of Irish National Children’s Hospital which included the idea of amalgamating a number of hospitals involved in children’ services. However the this was not well received by either the new post-independence political establishment or the Catholic Church authorities – not least because of Kathleen’s radical reputation and her adherence to the Church of Ireland.

Kathleen died in 1955. She was laid to rest following a military funeral due to her service in the 1916 Rising with members of the Irish Citizen’s Army forming part of the guard of honour.

Brian Gibbons