Sunday, 16 April 2017

Elizabeth’s Vanishing Brogues: A Poem

By Kevin McMahon

Elizabeth O’Farrell was a member of Cumann na mBan, and acted as a dispatcher both before and during the Rising.  She was sent, under a white flag, to deliver the surrender to the British military on Saturday 29th April.  Despite the white flag, she initially came under fire, and was fortunate to remain unharmed.  Brigadier General Lowe demanded that Padraig Pearse deliver an unconditional surrender to him, personally.  He also admired Elizabeth’s courage, and insisted that she should accompany Pearse.  A press photographer captured the moment of this surrender, but Elizabeth, who stepped back, can only be glimpsed – her feet visible behind Pearse’s.

Later that momentous photograph was edited, to remove the offending legs and feet, and came to symbolise the eclipsing of the very significant role played in the Rising by many brave women, and even of the Revolutionaries’ vision of gender equality in a new Ireland.

This poem is about that photograph.

i.m. Elizabeth O’Farrell

The photograph of Elizabeth behind Pearse.
Twitter: National Museum of Ireland @NMIreland

A pair of tiny shoes – size four at most – 
Protruding from the hem of Pearse’s coat,
Was caught on film in the moment of defeat,
As Lizzie chose to step back in his shade.
A minor point of little weight you’d think,
But when the public tide flowed Padraig’s way
Such tiny flaws could humanise the myth,
So Lizzie’s brogues were airbrushed from the frame.

Elizabeth, I’m sure you couldn’t know
That you’d become a symbol of the shift
Of Proclamation pledges set aside
As Ireland was exchanging tyrannies.
So “civil liberties and rights for all”
And hopes of “cherishing” – was that the word? – 
“All children of the nation equally”,
Retreated for another hundred years
Behind the stole and veil, with downcast eyes
That failed to see the airbrushing of dreams.

The National Library of Ireland has an online 1916 exhibition. You can find the photograph of Elizabeth and Pearse, along with many others, in the section 'The Surrender'. You can find the section and access the whole exhibition here. 

Text © Kevin McMahon
Kevin has been a member of Manchester Irish Writers since 1998 – with a few years’ absence due to work commitments prior to his retirement!  He has contributed to the group’s publications “The Retting Dam”, “Stones of the Heart” and “Changing Skies”, and regularly performs at the group’s events.  He is a former winner of the “New Writing” award at Listowel Writers’ Week in Country Kerry, and has been shortlisted for a number of other awards for memoirs and short stories.  With Alrene Hughes, Kevin co-edited the publication of monologues arising from the “Changing Skies” project.  His scripts have been professionally performed in various venues, and he has had poetry broadcast on the BBC.

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