Friday, 7 March 2014

Kathleen Lynn – Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor

Kathleen Lynn – Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor. By Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh. The Academic Press, Dublin, 2006. pp XI+180. 

This review was written on February 2nd 2007.

Kathleen Lynn was born near Killala in Co. Mayo in 1874. She was the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman. The family later moved to Longford and finally her father, now a Canon, was invited by the Guinness family to care for the Cong parish in Co. Galway. Kathleen was clearly conscious of the poverty and deprivation of the local people at the end of the 19th century and she lived through much of the land wars which were then endemic. Following her primary and secondary education, she went to the Catholic University (Cecilia Street) where she qualified as a doctor and began general practice in Dublin.

Lynn soon became actively involved in the suffragette movement which brought her in contact with James Connolly who, with Theobald Wolfe Tone, was to become her political idol. She became a dedicated socialist and joined Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. During the Rising she cared for the sick and the wounded at City Hall where the trade unionist Seán Connolly was commandant. From that time she became a fervent republican and separatist, with a loathing of the British and the British administration. Her intense commitment to separatism was to continue for the rest of her life and was to form the most radical feature of her career. She bitterly opposed the Treaty, had contempt for the Free State and its leaders, and broke with de Valera when Fianna Fail was formed and when Dev and his followers entered the Dail in 1927. With her patriotism was an obsession.

St Ultan's Infant Hospital
She sought a secular, socialist republic. She was energetic, assertive, extreme in her political views and vigorously anti-establishment. Against these, however, she devoted her life, her talents and her energy to the care of her patients and to the alleviation of poverty and disease among Dublin’s poor. She was instrumental in founding St. Ultan’s infant Hospital, driven as she was by the high infant mortality which prevailed in the city, largely caused by infective gastro-enteritis which was endemic among infants. She acquired an international reputation through her hospital initiative, her social activities and her interest in Dublin’s poor and their appalling social conditions.

She had been elected to the first Dáil in 1918 and to the Sinn Féin Executive in 1917 when she was also elected as a vice-president of Sinn Féin, but her political career ended after she was defeated in the first 1927 election, almost certainly because she persisted in refusing to recognise Dail Eireann. Soon too she retired from the local Council in Rathmines where she had been a leading member. Hence her failure to have an impact on national and local politics.

Lynn was a lifelong and intimate friend of Madeleine ffrench Mullen who shared all her political and socialist views. Lynn left a detailed diary which extended for most of her adult life and which is now deposited in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. Among her many interests were teaching civics, cleanliness, healthy living and the virtues of fresh air for the young, and the importance of breast feeding. She supported the An Óige movement and left her cottage in Glenmalure to that organisation at the time of her death. She was close in her thoughts to nature and to-day would be a vocal environmentalist.

1936 - unbuilt design for St Ultan's hospital
Kathleen Lynn was a remarkable woman. Like Countess Markievicz, she was born into the Protestant Anglo-Irish tradition but became intractably opposed to the Crown and the British Empire. They and their co-religionist, Maude Gonne, undoubtedly encouraged the disastrous divisions of the Civil War. After 1916 she became alienated from her father and her family for a period of about seven years but, happily, before her father’s death they were reunited. Despite her political eccentricities, she was compassionate, deeply religious and philanthropic. On the last page of the biography the author states

Lynn lived for Ireland. However, her quiet strenuous work was quickly forgotten’.

Lynn's diary
I do not accept that Kathleen Lynn has been forgotten. She was a representative of a diminishing Protestant minority in Ireland and few of her co-religionists agreed with her political and socialist views. They were unlikely to think fondly of her. However, she is remembered by Lynn House, the headquarters of the Medical Council, by the hospital she founded (now the Charlemont Clinic), by the plaque which honours her in Glenmalure and now by this excellent and very well researched biography.

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