Elizabeth O’Farrell was born in Dublin in November 1884. In 1906 she joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann and along with her lifelong friend Julia Grenan she also joined Cumann na mBan, the women’s branch of the Irish Volunteers.
As plans were put in place for the Easter Rising of April 1916, Elizabeth and Julia were sent around the country as couriers delivering important information.
When the rebellion began on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916 several women were in the General Post Office in Dublin. As casualties mounted, Julia and Elizabeth tended to the wounded. When the order came to evacuate, the two women decided to remain behind.
On Saturday 29th April the decision was made by Pádraig Pearse to surrender. Elizabeth O’Farrell joined the Citizen Army and the Volunteers in the GPO garrison to work as a nurse and wore an improvised red-cross uniform. She had initially walked up Moore Street to a British army barricade carrying a white flag and had been taken to meet General Lowe. Her mission was to request talks between the rebels and the British. Later she took Pearse’s orders delivering surrender orders to various IRA outposts around Dublin telling them to lay down their arms and line up on O’Connell Street.
Despite Lowe’s assurance that she would not be taken prisoner, due to her part in organising the surrender of the rebels, O’Farrell was held overnight at Ship Street Barracks. When he learned of her arrest, Lowe had her released and apologised to her.
Elizabeth O’Farrell deliberately avoided being clearly identified in the famous photograph which was taken at a side angle by a British army photographer; something she regretted later in life when it became an iconic image of the Easter Rising.
According to an account of the incident she gave to the Cistercian monks of Roscrea, in May 1956, O’Farrell stated that she deliberately hid from the camera, When O’Farrell saw a British soldier getting ready to take the photograph she took a step backwards behind Pearse so as not to give the enemy press any satisfaction. In later years she regretted not being pictured.
The image was published days later in the Daily Sketch and the lower part of O’Farrell’s dress and her boots are clearly visible. Should someone have wanted the photograph to be “airbrushed”, then all traces of O’Farrell would have been removed.
She remained an ardent republican for the rest of her life and worked as a midwife in the National Maternity Hospital.
Elizabeth O’Farrell died in June 1957 and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery alongside Julia Grenan.