Women's Museum of Ireland

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  • 9 June '15

    Eva O’Flaherty - Achill's Forgotten Heroine

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    Mary J. Murphy tells the story of Eva O'Flaherty, a prominent member of County Galway’s landed gentry in the 19th century who trained in millinery and, after stints in Paris and London, settled in Achill Island in the early 20th century.

    Eva O’Flaherty was born in Caherlistrane’s Lisdonagh House in County Galway, into landed gentry and to avid Catholic nationalist parents. Eva’s father Martin O'Flaherty had defended John Mitchel during his 1848 Treason/Felony trial and her mother, from the O'Gormans of Ennis clan, came from staunch green-blooded stock also. Mary Frances Barbara O'Gorman Lalor O'Gorman O'Flaherty (to give her her full name!) was the daughter of Daniel O'Connell’s colleague, Richard O'Gorman; the sister of Young Irelander, Richard O'Gorman Jr; and the niece of Purcell O'Gorman. Purcell was O'Connell’s ‘second’ for his famous 1815 duel with D'Esterre.

    In the 1880s and 1890s, Eva O'Flaherty lived in Limerick and later Dublin where she went to school in both Mount Anville and Alexandra Colleges. She studied millinery in Paris at the end of the 19th century, where she knew Countess Markievitcz, and had a millinery emporium on Sloane Street, London, in 1913. Prior to World War I Eva was a well known beauty in the Café Royal, mixing with an eclectic intellectual artistic milieu, many of whom visited her in later years in Achill. During the course of research we have learned that senior London-based, Tuam-born IRB figure Dr Mark Ryan, was a ‘mentor’ of sorts to her when she lived in the UK capital in the years spanning the end of the 19th century.

    She was an involved but strangely historically elusive figure in the pre-Rising flurry and flux. Through Limerick family connections Eva knew the Dalys - the family of Kathleen Clarke who was then married to Tom Clarke. Eva corresponded with Kathleen and other notable Republican women such as Dr Kathleen Lynn and Máire Comerford all her life. She had moved to Achill in 1910, opening St Colman’s Knitting Industries in Dooagh which would proved much needed employment for local women for almost fifty years and co-founding Scoil Acla with poet, journalist and, later, politician, Darrell Figgis, Colm O’Loughlainn and Anita McMahon. Figgis had visited Achill circa 1913 to learn Irish and would be the leader of the Volunteers there in April 1916. In his biography from the 1930s, Desmond Fitzgerald’s wife, Mabel, alludes to “Miss O'Flagherty”, (sic), Darrell Figgis and ‘the Achill crowd’, illustrating that she, Eva, was part of that set in her time, elusive and all as her tracks are through history.

    By 1914 Eva was a member of Cumann na mBan in Dublin, with Louise Gavan Duffy. She may have been one of the sixteen couriers known as ‘basket-women’ during the Rising - so called because they carried messages in the baskets of their bikes. Eva would cycle in from the city’s outskirts, bluffing her way past sentries by bursting into tears and claiming to have a sick relative in need. These couriers were chosen by Kathleen Clarke and Sorcha McMahon at the behest of Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott. Solicitor Henry Comerford has said that his father William told him that after the Rising Eva O'Flaherty had become ‘mixed up with Maud Gonne and those busy-bodies who were involved with the prisoners’, presumably the forerunner of the Women’s Prisoner’s Defence League.

    After her hectic experiences in Dublin, Eva settled back into life in Achill, where artist Paul Henry became a close friend and where writer Graham Green played cards regularly in her home. Such was Eva O’Flaherty’s contribution to the fledgling Irish state that President Eamon De Valera sent Senator Mark Killilea as his government representative to give the oration at her funeral in Donaghpatrick graveyard in April 1963. Her coffin was draped with a tricolour and she received military honours. Some of those who were there, like Caherlistrane’s Brendan Gannon, who was involved in her funeral arrangements, and now-retired solicitor Henry Comerford, (who looked after her legal affairs), recalled the extent to which Senator Killilea extolled Eva’s fullsome 1916 and Cumann na mBan activities.

    An intriguing mixture of a fashionista and an intellectual with a heightened political awareness, her former nurse Mary Jo Noonan summed Eva up very succinctly: ‘She was unique. Beautiful, witty, good fun and young at heart until the day she died (at nearly ninety). She joked about having the ferocious O’Flaherty temper, liked me to read the Oxford Book of Verse to her over breakfast, and was a real rebel at heart, in a nice kind of way’.

    Eva O'Flaherty: Achill’s Forgotten Island Heroine by Mary J. Murphy is available from Achill Tourism