Margaret Keogh (In some sources Margaret appears as Kehoe, in others Keogh, but more on that below) has gone down in some history books as a Cumann na mBan activist shot on the first day of the Easter Rising in the chaos of the occupation of the South Dublin Union. One account notes that she was a “Volunteer”, who was “shot dead outside of the South Dublin Union”, while the Wikipedia page of Cumann na mBan repeats the claim of her membership. Yet while Nurse Keogh did die on the first day of the Easter Rising having displayed great bravery, it was not as a revolutionary republican.
Dublin’s workhouses, as Joseph O’Brien notes in his study Dear,Dirty Dublin, were the last resort of the very poor in the city. In addition to the overcrowded North Dublin Union in North Brunswick Street, which could accommodate some 2,700 paupers, the poor and sick came to rely on the South Dublin Union at James’s Street for assistance. Both the permanently destitute and those in need of emergency assistance came to the Unions, and it has been noted that by 1916 the South Dublin Union “housed about 3,200 of the poor and elderly and a large staff of doctors, nurses and ancillary workers.” While intended as workhouses, Maurice Curtis has noted in his history of the Liberties that “workhouses were also the inappropriate homes for many who suffered from long-term mental illness, becoming de facto asylums.”
While there are questions around whether it was morally right to occupy such a site, there was also the difficult question of just how it could be held if taken. The SDU was a sprawling 50-acre site, but Éamonn Ceannt of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers had only approximately 120 Volunteers at his disposal, as Professor Eoin MacNeill’s disastrous countermanding order had led to most of his Battalion not mobilising on Easter Monday for action. In addition to taking the SDU, Ceannt intended for his men to seize Roe’s Distillery in Mount Brown,Watkins’ Brewery on Ardee Street and the Jameson Distillery on Marrowbone Lane, not to be confused with its namesake across the River Liffey. Among the 120 who did show up to partake in the insurrection were W.T Cosgrave, later Taoiseach, and Cathal Brugha, who would die on the Republican side of the Civil War divide.
Reading about the poverty and hardships of those for whom the SDU was a home, either temporarily or on a long-term basis, it can be difficult to comprehend why it was seized. The logic of seizing it however, according to historian Paul O’Brien who has written a detailed account of the fighting in the area, was that “the South Dublin Union and its outposts were a major defensive position in the south-west of the city.” It was hoped that the Volunteers could halt British advances along the quays and from Kingsbridge Railway Station, and O’Brien has noted that “Ceannt knew that British reinforcements would be dispatched from Richmond Barracks,Islandbridge Barracks and the Royal Barracks.” Patrick Smyth, who worked a the SDU, remembered years later that:
The Volunteers on entering closed the gates and barricaded same. They immediately took over the buildings known as the board room and clerks offices and also a department called the orchard sheds and the Nurses home where Ceannt remained in command. No word was spoken to me.
The most intense fighting at the SDU took place early in the week of the Rising.While some rebel positions, such as Jacob’s factory, were largely left unmolested, the British made the decision to move against the SDU garrison, and unsurprisingly given the scale of the site they succeeded in occupying parts of the grounds of the Union in the very early stages of the Rising.
According to Brian Barton and Michael Foy’s account The Easter Rising, Nurse Keogh told Ceannt that “she was with them heart and soul.” Other staff members expressed similar sentiment, with some men attempting to enlist on the spot. Yet the horrible realities of military combat didn’t take long to make themselves felt at the SDU. Dan McCarthy, a young Volunteer on guard duty within the occupied complex at the Acute Hospital building, recalled that:
….to our surprise a British military party appeared in the corridor and we opened fire on them.Since there were only the two of us in it, having fired on the military party we decided to get out of the building… Evidently the British party was taken by surprise when we fired on them and they seemed to panic, lost their head momentarily because a nurse in full uniform opened the door and came down the stairs. They fired at her and killed her.
The men who fired upon Keogh were most likely of the Royal Irish Regiment, though it’s important to note the above is just one account of how Keogh died, with others in existence. In The Last Post, an impressive commemorative publication produced by the National Graves Association (NGA) in 1932, Nurse Keogh is included, and there it notes that “A Volunteer fell wounded outside the door of the hospital.Immediately a nurse rushed out to his assistance and as she bent over the wounded men she herself was fired upon and fell dead.”
Her inclusion in the NGA publication is significant. It was a republican production for a republican audience, and primarily focused on detailing the final resting places of those who had died in armed struggle for Irish independence. It was compiled by Mary Donnelly, a Cumann na mBan activist and a frequent contributor of historical articles to An Phoblacht, which the authorities viewed as the newspaper of the IRA.The inclusion of a civilian nurse is certainly unusual, but it notes that the account of her death “is inserted at the request of the Garrison of the South Dublin Union that when this little book goes forth it may carry remembrance of another name added to the Roll of Ireland’s noble women.” Nowhere did the publication claim she was a Cumann na mBan member, just that her bravery deserved recognition:
Nurse Keogh’s body rested first on a table inside the hospital complex, before it was buried in the grounds of the SDU.Annie Mannion, the Assistant Matron of the SDU, remembered that:
The general administration of the South Dublin Union was naturally thrown into a state of confusion during Easter Week. Patients who died during that week were buried in a temporary grave in the grounds, and had to be removed to a permanent place of burial after the evacuation.
If she wasn’t the Cumann na mBan revolutionary some studies of the Rising have painted her to be, then who was she? An Irish Times article in 1914 said she had been working in the SDU since 1897. Keogh came from Leighlinbridge in Carlow, and in recent times Carlow man Paul Horan has attempted to shine a light on this forgotten case. Horan’s interest in Keogh was sparked not only by the fact she came from his native county; he is Assistant Professor in Nursing at Trinity College Dublin. It turns out that Keogh came from quite a renowned Carlow family, and was the niece of the celebrated soldier Myles Keogh, “a captain in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry who perished in June 1876 alongside his commander George Armstrong Custer and about 220 troopers in Custer’s Last Stand.” His unusual spelling of the more common surname Kehoe is important to note. In some sources Margaret appears as Kehoe, in others it’s Keogh.
In spite of the very real dangers, unaffiliated women like Keogh did volunteer for nursing and other duties across the city. Aoife de Burca, who put herself forward for first aid duty upon the outbreak of the insurrection, remembered that in the very early stages of the fighting she was walking “along by Denmark Street, where I met a nurse of my acquaintance who told me her best friend, Nurse Keogh, had been shot dead in the SDU. I felt very sorry as I knew Nurse Keogh myself.”
The death of the innocent nurse was raised in Westminster by Laurence Ginnell, the Home Rule MP. He was told that “it had been definitely ascertained that this most regrettable incident was a pure accident.”
Today, Keogh is buried at Ballinabranagh Cemetery in her native county, and this year a commemoration is planned for her on the 26th March, and a memorial plaque will be unveiled in her honour. In the 1960s, a plaque was unveiled within the grounds of what is now St. James’s Hospital:
So, while she cannot be counted among the rebel dead, she was a woman who spent years of her life working alongside the poor and destitute of Dublin.She bravely went about her work as rebellion raged, and she too should be remembered this year.