“Tell Mom I’m off to America”
The story of Lily Kempson and her fight for freedom
By Laura Friel
There were no cheering crowds. No relatives to weep and wave. No friends to bid a fond farewell. Elizabeth Ann `Lily’ Kempson, a 19-year-old unemployed factory worker from Dublin, stood alone on Liverpool docks about to embark on the most momentous journey of her life.
It was 1916. Only four years earlier the ill fated Titanic had sailed from Southampton amidst the furore of brass bands and headline seeking newspaper reporters. But this was Liverpool. A trading port which had built its reputation on `King Cotton’, the infamous triangle of slaves to the Americas, raw cotton to England and manufactured goods to the colonies. Slavery, transportation and forced emigration, Liverpool had seen it all.
The White Star Line, Britain’s most prestigious trans-Atlantic shipping company, had made its fortune during mass emigration in the nineteenth century. From 1840 to 1925 3,750,000 Irish men and women emigrated to the USA. Another million travelled to Canada and Australia. The `Olympic’ and `Titanic’ owed much of their magnificence to the misery of Ireland’s poor.
But there were no luxury cruise liners docked in Liverpool on that particular day. When Lily Kempson stood in line waiting to board a common cargo ship to New York she was not, as she appeared, just another emigrant. She was an Irish Rebel, wanted by the British authorities and on the run.
The heart of British rule in Ireland, Dublin city in the early twentieth century, held the dreary distinction of having the worst housing in Europe. In the north of the city, homes abandoned by the gentry who had moved south of the Liffey, had become tenement slums for the poor. Amidst the “ruins of grandeur” families lived eight, ten, fifteen, twenty to a room. It was not unknown for several families to share a single room. Without sanitation, inadequate heating and limited access to water the slums of Dublin rivalled the cholera infested hovels of Calcutta.
In the early 1900s twenty thousand Dublin families lived in one room accommodation. Five thousand families rented two rooms, of which almost half were in property condemned as unfit for human habitation. When Margaret Skinnider was shown “the poorest part of Dublin” by Constance Markiewicz, she wrote, “I do not believe there is a worse place in the world.” The street was “a hollow full of sewage and refuse”, she recorded, and the building “as full of holes as if it had been under shellfire”.
Born into the ranks of Dublin’s poor, Lily Kempson shared two rooms with her 92-year-old grandmother, her parents and eight siblings. Ravaged by hunger and disease, Dublin’s poor lived like war-torn refugees in their own country. “It was terrible,” Lily would tell her great granddaughter eighty years later.
Before dawn on 24 April 1916 Lily dressed quietly, mindful of those still sleeping beside her. On that particular Easter Monday morning, no one now knows if she chose to wear the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army. We know she had a uniform and had worn it before. A photograph of Lily taken in 1915 is still treasured by her 116 American-born descendants of today. Under a broad hat, a young woman stares unflinchingly into the camera’s lens. Her gaze is steady, her expression calm and resolved. A “dark Irish beauty,” Lily would later be described in the American press.
In a pocket close to her heart, a bunch of daisies adorns her uniform, a simple affirmation of her humanity and hope. No one woke as Lily left her sleeping siblings undisturbed in their dreams. Civilian clothing would have been her most likely choice. As a courier, the more unremarkable her dress the easier it would have been to pass unnoticed through the city streets. There were no goodbyes, no entreaties to take care. Leaving undetected, Lily would never return home.
In the early 1900s, the job market for women was “unattractive and small”. Large scale industrial development was restricted to the linen factories of Ulster where women and children could earn twelve shillings a week, half the wage of a male employee. In Dublin domestic service remained the main source of female employment. One notable exception was Jacob’s biscuit factory, a thriving industry in the heart of the city which employed over 3,000 women workers. But while a series of strikes in the North had improved wages, in Ireland’s capital the desperation of the poor allowed employers to keep hours long and wages small. A male day labourer could expect to work a 70 hour week for 14 shillings, women worked 90 hours for just over a third of a male wage.
The year Lily Kempson began working at Jacob’s, women workers at the factory went on strike for higher wages and won. It was 1911 and Lily was fourteen years of age. The biscuit factory strike was the first major industrial dispute involving women workers in the city. It was a lesson in collective action which many would never forget.
In the Great Lockout of 1913, women from Jacob’s factory were described as “amongst the most militant”. Spearheaded by business tycoon William Martin Murphy, the Lockout conspiracy sought to break the unions by starving the workforce into signing non-union agreements. Jacob’s strikers utilised their organisational skills to run mass soup kitchens at Larkin’s trade union headquarters Liberty Hall. Lily Kempson was most likely amongst the army of women who organised meals for 25,000 workers and their families.
At the height of the struggle, Lily was jailed for two weeks for trade union activities. With the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union on the verge of collapse, in the summer of 1914 an exhausted Larkin left Dublin for America. By October the task of rebuilding passed to Belfast organiser, James Connolly. Like Lily Kempson, many of the most militant women sacked from Jacob’s factory during the lockout would later join Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army.
In the fields of France, amidst the mud and blood of trench warfare, James Kempson would have been unaware of his daughter’s resolve as she walked through Dublin on that Easter Monday morning. Poverty and despair had driven James and two of his sons into a war where, beyond a meal and a few shillings to send home, they had little to gain. Poverty and hope spurred Lily to chose another set of dice with which to cast life’s chances.
When Lily arrived at Liberty Hall preparations for the Rising were already well underway, the banner proclaiming “Neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland” still adorning the building’s stone facade. Weeks earlier Constance Markiewicz and other women members of the Citizens Army, perhaps Lily amongst them, had stacked grenades and ammunition in the basement. Now this weaponry, already dispersed throughout the city, would be used to defend the proclamation of an Irish Republic. “We are going out to be slaughtered,” Lily overheard James Connolly remark to William O’Brien. “Is there no chance of success?” O’Brien asked. “None whatever,” came the reply.
The occupation of St Stephen’s Green by the Republican forces was “an act of suicide”, Frank Robbins, a fighter in the Irish Citizens Army would write in his `Recollections’. It “demonstrated how adversely our plans were affected by the lack of manpower,” writes Robbins. Commandant Michael Mallin “had actually to avail of the services of members of the women’s section…..Madame Markiewicz, Lily Kempson and Mary Hyland gave invaluable assistance”.
The initial plan for women to primarily take care of the wounded was scrapped. Attached to the Red Cross unit, Lily Kempson and her female comrades were swiftly incorporated within the main body of the fight. Lily was armed with a revolver. “Lily, you’ve got to use this, but be careful who you hit,” she remembered one of her comrades saying. “I will,” she replied.
A handful of women, who had already played a key role in securing access to the Green, set about evacuating civilians and guarding the gates. The insurgents dug in but they were unable to secure surrounding buildings because of a chronic shortage of personnel. It was a fundamental strategic flaw.
As dawn broke on Tuesday morning Lily was woken by the rattle of machine gun fire which cut through a summerhouse where she and her comrades were resting. The British had occupied the Shelbourne, a hotel overlooking the park. The insurgents would hold the Green for less than twenty hours. “If you’re any bloody good come in and fight for Ireland,” Bob de Coeur of the Citizen’s Army shouted from the Green to three passing Cumann na mBan women. They didn’t need to be asked twice.
The superior firepower of the British and the strategic advantage of the Shelbourne made evacuation of the park as inevitable as it was urgent. A line of retreat had already been secured. In an advance party of three men and three women, Lily Kempson had accompanied Constance Markiewicz and Mary Hyland to seize the College of Surgeons, a sturdy building overlooking the north of the Green. It was here the Green’s contingent would make their heroic last stand. Holding the ground for five days, they surrendered only after receiving a dispatch directly from the GPO.
Writing of Cumann na mBan and the GPO, Desmond Ryan in his account “The Rising” describes their courageous role. Ryan could equally have been describing Lily Kempson and her Irish Citizen Army comrades in the College of Surgeons, their experience was much the same. “Until almost the end, the Cumann na mBan shared the dangers, the fire, the bullets, all the ordeals of the fighters, in the most dangerous areas, on the barricades, through the bullet-swept streets and quaysides, carrying dispatches, explosives and ammunition through the thick of the fray…”
There is very little specifically recorded about Lily Kempson. She left no memoir, no diary, no written record of her life. Yet a careful search reveals snippets of information which taken together begin to weave the fabric of her story. Lily is recorded escorting an “important prisoner”, a possible British spy. Lily admonishes a young man in St Stephen’s Green she discovers “trying to go home”. “We’re all away from home now,” she prophetically tells him. A cart carrying bread is held at gunpoint as Lily seizes the contents to add to the rebels’ dwindling food supplies. She is sent from the Green to the College to retrieve and transport weaponry belonging to the Surgeon’s Officers’ Training Corps. At the Green she collects explosive devices to carry back to the College. In the College she helps tend the wounded and prepares food in the kitchens. Throughout the five day siege, she carries messages to and fro, avoiding bullets and evading capture. As the College contingent prepares to surrender Lily is chosen to carry the garrison’s last dispatches to addresses throughout the city.
Lily Kempson died at the age of ninety-nine. In her final years she attracted the attention of her local American press. Each Easter she briefly became a celebrity, “The Last Survivor”, as her story was retold.
In 1996, a few short months after Lily’s death, her great granddaughter wrote to An Phoblacht. She was hoping to compile a biography and was asking for advice. To my shame I did not find the time to reply. Happily, as a true descendant of her `feisty’ great grandmother, this did not deter Casey McNerthney and a pamphlet celebrating Lily’s contribution towards Irish freedom was published within the same year. In the immediate aftermath of The Rising, the Kempsons’ Dublin home was raided by the British army, but Lily had not returned. When Lily’s name appeared on a list of wanted suspects, it was time to leave. Using her sister’s passport, Lily travelled to England, boarded a ship to New York, then sailed on to Seattle.
Just before she left Dublin, Lily had spotted one of her sisters in a street, “Tell mom I’m off to America,” she called. Then she was gone.
Photo: Number 12 is Lily Kempson.