Kathleen Lynn was born in 1874 in Killala, County Mayo, one of the poorest parts of Ireland. Her father was a local Church of Ireland rector, and her mother was a relative of Countess Markieviez, the first women elected to the House of Commons and a linchpin in the struggle for Irish independence.
A few years after her birth the family relocated to Cong, County Mayo. There Lady Ardilaun, the wife of the local landlord, became a benefactor of the young Kathleen.
Kathleen’s experience of poverty and illness in County Mayo inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. In 1899 she graduated with a medical degree as the first women in Ireland to undertake all her undergraduate training in the country. However, woman had limited opportunities to pursue a typical career pathway. Kathleen sought further training in the USA before returning to Ireland to establish her own practice.
By this stage Kathleen was involved in political affairs. She was an executive member of the Irish Women’s Suffragette and Local Government Association, and a member of the British Women’s Social and Political Union. Alongside promoting women’s suffrage, both of these bodies pursued a wider agenda of social reform.
In 1913 a general strike engulfed Dublin. There were battles between 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 weight behind the strikers. 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 was a member of the ICA unit that captured part of Dublin Castle. 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 placed under partial house arrest before returning to Dublin in 1917.
On her return 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 became disillusioned with Sinn Fein’s drift towards partaking in the Dail and its broader conservative approach to the problems facing Ireland’s poor.
In 1919, along with her life partner Madeline Ffrench Mullen, she was instrumental in opening St Ultan’s Hospital in Dublin, which prioritised improving the appalling state of women’s and children’s health.
Returning soldiers from the First World War brought with them a range of venereal diseases which were largely ignored by mainstream health services. St Ultan’s was often the only institution that would provide care. The hospital later took the lead in tackling TB which ravaged the slums and working class districts of Dublin. St Ultan’s instituted one of the first TB vaccination campaigns in Ireland. Kathleen was steadfast in ensuring that St Ultan’s provided unmatched opportunities for women doctors and those wishing to provide paediatric care.
A commemorative plaque was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Dublin in June 2022, at the site of the hospital.
By the 1930s Kathleen was promoting the idea of an Irish National Children’s Hospital, amalgamating a number of hospitals involved in children’s services. It was not well received by both the new, post-independence political establishment and the Catholic 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 dedicated to her service in the 1916 Rising. Members of the Irish Citizen’s Army were included in her guard of honour.