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hidden history

Eirebrushed - the woman 'written out' of Irish history (and why this isn't unusual)

Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was ‘airbrushed’ out of an important photograph from 1916.

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ALL THAT REMAINS are her feet: Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was effectively airbrushed out of history when a photograph of her from the 1916 rising was manipulated.

A member of Cumann na mBan, she was a dispatcher during the Easter Rising for the rebels.

She was a midwife at Holles Street Hospital, and a fierce Republican who stayed in the GPO throughout the rising, and cared for the wounded.

But Nurse O’Farrell was ‘airbrushed’ out of history when her shoes were all that were left remain in the photograph of the 1916 surrender, in which she appeared alongside Padraig Pearse.

photo (21) Brian Merriman Brian Merriman

O’Farrell’s story is told in Eirebrushed, a new play by Brian Merriman which asks: ‘Can a flawed person be a hero?’.

In the play, Pearse, Roger Casement, Elizabeth Gore Booth and O’Farrell return a century after the Rising to find how their Ireland of equal citizenship has turned out.

Starring Killian Sheridan, Diana O’Connor, Joanne Loague and Stephen Gibson, Eirebrushed tackles the issue of freedom from oppression that inspired a generation to rebel a century ago – and today.

Hidden history

Merriman told that the play brings the historical figures into the Ireland of 2014 and examines what they might make of it.

Merriman looks at what they are recorded as saying and writing back in the early 20th century, and through that explores their possible reaction to Ireland today.

It all began last year, when Merriman was in Glasnevin cemetery and saw Elizabeth O’Farrell’s grave – he literally stumbled over it – and the inscription “her lifelong companion and friend Sheila Grenan”.

He thought this might have meant the women were in a relationship, and had this confirmed by a biographer of Eva Gore Booth.

Merriman said that O’Farrell was “remarkable” in her involvement in the surrender.

She literally grabbed a red cross and a white rag and walked out into Moore St where they were killing people, and looked at the general in the eye.

Not only was she airbrushed out of the photo, but she was effectively written out of the usual depictions of the surrender. “The amazing thing was none of us learned about her,” said Merriman.

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The play is a four-hander, exploring issues such as identity, being a free person, and what a “Republic of equals” actually means.

“Did we replace the British aristocracy with papal princes?” Merriman asks. “Did we replace a political oppressor with a conscious oppressor? Now that all of that is unraveling, is there now space to look at that?”


To be gay is something that “would have been abhored in the Ireland of 1916″, said Merrimen. The sexuality of Pearse, Roger Casement, Elizabeth Gore Booth and O’Farrell is examined in the play.

The play looks at how Roger Casement was treated, for example, because of being homosexual.

At the end of the play, the characters “address the modern generation,” said Merriman. For this, he uses their own words.

Here’s O’Farrell’s story in her own words, which includes her memories of the surrender.

Airbrushed photos in history

There is a long history of photographs being tampered with or airbrushed.

For example, Stalin had his enemy Nikolai Yezhov removed from a photo of the two of them:

Voroshilov,_Molotov,_Stalin,_with_Nikolai_Yezhov Wikimedia Wikimedia

The_Commissar_Vanishes_2 Wikimedia Wikimedia

18th US President Ulysses S Grant had his face put on someone else’s body, in a new location, for this Civil War-era photograph:


The mystery is solved by the US Library of Congress here.

This photograph of Abraham Lincoln is his head on politician John Calhoun’s body:

c1860-Lincoln Four And Six Four And Six

Adolf Hitler had Joseph Goebbels airbrushed out of this 1937 photo (except his left shoulder):

1937-Hitler Four And Six Four And Six

Mussolini was obviously a bit sensitive about having a handler deal with his horse, so he airbrushed him out:

1942-Mussolini Four And Six Four And Six

You can catch Eirebrushed at the New Theatre, 5-10 May at 7.30pm and 2.30pm on Bank Holiday Monday (5 May) and Saturday (10 May). Tickets are €10/15 

Read: The story of the 1916 Rising told by both sides (with a little Irish dancing)>

Read: An Post plan two-storey extension of GPO ahead of 1916 anniversary>

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