Born in Co Wicklow, Lily Kempson, trade union activist, lecturer, leader, as well as a rebel in the Irish Citizen Army, was the last surviving member of the Easter Rising of 1916.
Lily and her family moved to Dublin when she was young. She lived in poverty: eight members of her family lived in two rooms. Lily found work at Jacobs Biscuit Factory, but objected to the harsh child labour conditions. During the 1913 lockout, Lily, along with her friend Rosie Hackett and other Jacobs workers, went on strike for better conditions.
She lost her job because of the strike, and on 13 November 1913, Lily was sent to Mountjoy Gaol for her actions during the lockout. She raised bail after two weeks, and avoided a reform school by saying her age was 17 when she was actually a year younger.
Lily remained in the labour movement, working out of Liberty Hall in Dublin. In a May 1914 picture of the Delegates at the Irish Trades Union Congress in Dublin, Lily is pictured standing next to James Connolly.
Lily lived with the Connolly family in Belfast in 1914, going there after James Connolly told her she’d find work. When she was 17, Lily took an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic in Belfast. Though quite poor, Lily wanted a picture to commemorate the day. She and five girls who had also taken the oath stopped by Reid’s photography studio and rounded up enough money for a small, negative-size print. In the image, which is one of the few items she brought to Seattle after fleeing Dublin, Lily is sitting front and centre with James Connolly’s daughter, Ina, on her right.
‘And I still remember’, she wrote on the back of a reprint decades later.
When the Easter Rebellion started on 24 April 1916, Lily was part of the St Stephens Green Garrison under Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz – a woman she had known well from her time at Liberty Hall. Lily was armed with a revolver and took a pastry cart from a Jacobs worker who came through the park after the rebels had seized it. She also used the handgun to keep a Citizen’s Army man from escaping. “We’re all away from home now,” she recalled telling him.
Lily also served as a courier for Pádraig Pearse and the others rebels inside the GPO, and was part of the initial group that took over the Royal College of Surgeons, across from the park. The bullet holes from the British rounds fired can still be seen in the college’s columns. Lily was not captured because she was trying to deliver a message when she got word of the rebels surrender.
Frank Robbins, a fighter in the Irish Citizens Army, wrote of the Cumann na mBan in his ‘Recollections’, noting that Commandant Michael Mallin “had actually to avail of the services of members of the women’s section… Constance Markievicz, Lily Kempson and Mary Hyland gave invaluable assistance.”
Lily emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Seattle, and married Matthew McAlerney, who had just arrived from Co Down. The couple had seven children, Kathleen, Alice, Matthew, John, James, Betty and Peggy.
With Ireland’s Military Service Pension Act of 1934, Lily, then living with her family in Seattle, began receiving a pension of twenty pounds and two shillings annually for her service in the Irish Citizen’s Army during Easter Week. With each increase in the pension, which Lily received until age 99, she would write a note back.
‘The purpose of this letter is to thank the Irish Government for the recent 15% increase in my pension,’ Lily wrote in one of her last letters:
‘It is most gratifying to know that Ireland is concerned for the welfare of the veterans. Best wishes to the people of Ireland for peace and prosperity in the coming years.’
“Neither King nor Kaiser, But Ireland”, the story of Lily Kempson, is available by mail from Casey McNerthney, PO box 27462, Seattle, Washington, USA, 98125-2462
Photo: Front and centre is Lily Kempson, with James Connolly’s daughter, Ina, on her right, colourised by My Colorful Past