Elizabeth `Lily’ Kempson (1897 - 1996)

Irish Patriot, Labor Activist, Citizen Army Volunteer, Veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising.

 

Elizabeth Ann `Lily’ Kempson was born in Co. Wicklow, Ireland on Jan. 17, 1897. She was the fifth of nine children born to James Kempson and Esther Kempson (Moore). Her mother, Esther, who was born in Co. Wicklow, died in 1919 during the flu epidemic. Her father, James, who was born in Co. Carlow, died in 1940.  

The family moved from Carlow to Dublin when Lily was still a young child. They lived in abject poverty in a rundown 2-room tenement flat in Piles Buildings off  Golden Lane with their maternal grandmother. Golden Lane is located on the south side of the river Liffey close to the City Center.  At that time, housing conditions in Dublin for the working class were the worst of any city in the United Kingdom.

Educational opportunities available to Irish children, including Lily and her siblings, were tenuous at best. Although compulsory education for children, age 6 to 14, was mandated by the Ireland Educational Acct of 1892, several provisions contained therein, including one that required only 73 days of compulsory attendance, rendered the benefits of the Act marginal at best. In addition to that damaging provision, the Catholic Hierarchy objected on the basis that the Act subverted parental authority over children's education, a right, they claimed, existed in natural law. That claim had more to do with maintaining control over their flock; a task made easier with a less educated populace.  

Despite such obstacles, Lily managed to attain a good basic education; reaching a level consistent with a keen intellect and a good school attendance record.  Not all of Lily’s piers raised in the Dublin slums, grasped the true nature of their situation nor the social inequities that imposed on them an unjust and inhuman burden. Centuries of subjection had left them with a defeatist attitude, to the extent that they accepted vassalism as a fact of life, a burden to bear, a legacy not to be challenged.  Although born into the same social environment, Lily did not subscribe to that defeatist attitude; her involvement in the Dublin lockout of 1913 and in the 1916 Easter Rising bears testimony to that fact. 

Lily entered the work force at the age of fourteen, finding work at the nearby Jacob's Biscuit Factory on Peters Row.  At that time, working conditions in Dublin, as elsewhere in the industrial world, were atrocious. A sixty to eighty-hour work week, for low pay, under dangerous and unhealthy conditions, was the norm. It was worse still for women and children who were paid a fraction of what men were paid for the same line of work.

During a rally to unionize women workers in Dublin in the spring of 1911, Delia Larkin, James Larkin’s sister, condemned Jacob’s corrupt management for the debasement of their women employees.  After describing the degrading methods used by Jacob’s to humiliate and threaten the women and young girls working there, she concluded her speech by stating that:,
‘Jacobs & Co. have no qualms of conscience whatever as far as the workers are concerned; they are out to make a profit, and make it they will, even though it be at the cost of ill-health and disablement to the girls, women, and men of Dublin

On August 22, of that year, 470 bakers at Jacobs, led James Larkin, went on strike for better pay and working conditions. One day later, 3,000 women workers, including fourteen-year old Lily Kempson and eighteen years old Rosie Hackett walked off the job in support of the bakers. Due in part to women’s show of solidarity, the strike was settled with the workers gaining better wages and working conditions.  

After that shared experience, Lily and Rosie Hackett became close friends and comrades. They became members of Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and participants in two of the most historic events of the 20th century in Ireland;  the 1913 industrial lockout and the 1916 Easter Rising

On Saturday August 30, 1913, a dispute arose in Jacob’s factory when a lift operator refused to handle flour from Shackelton’s Mill where a strike was in progress. Jacob’s fired the operator resulting in a walkout by other members of the ITGWU. When some of the workers returned to work the following Monday, they found a notice posted on the factory door by the management stating that, 

it was reluctantly compelled to shut down for an unknown period of time’.

The reason for the ‘compelled’ shutdown was due to a ploy by Jacob’s, and over 300 other businesses in Dublin to break the ITGWU, by demanding their employees revoke their ITGWU membership and sign a pledge of fealty to their employers as a condition of future  employment. Their leader and instigator was William Murphy, the owner of Clery's Department store.

The ensuing lockout was the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history.  Early in 1914, after eight months, the lockout ended in, at best, a draw. Union workers gained nothing and, by the same token, a great number of businesses went bankrupt. The British government, who stood behind the employers, was the ultimate winner when thousands of laid-off workers joined its army only to be sent to the Western Front and to the far-off Dardanelles to defend their very own nemeses, the British Empire. 

Lily did not stand idly by and wait for the lockout to end to get her job back. As a member of the ITGWU she did picket duty and helped man the soup kitchens at Liberty Hall, the Union’s headquarters.  It was while working there that she met many of Ireland’s revolutionary women including Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Helena Molony, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, and many other fearless women who worked tirelessly day and night to help the families of the striker’s.  Most, if not all, of the women she met there would go on to become participants in the Easter Rising

In mid-November, during a stint on picket duty outside of Jacob’s, Lily approached a young woman strikebreaker (a scab) to ask her not to cross the picket line. A policeman who watched the exchange between Lily and the strikebreaker accused Lily of accosting the strikebreaker and placed her under arrest.  It’s doubtful if 16-year old Lily, laid hands on the woman, nonetheless, she spent a month in his majesty’s Mountjoy jail, a victim of imperial justice --- a very young “felon of our land”.

Needless to say, Lily did not return to her job after the lockout ended. Being a union member and an activist, no business would hire her, especially when they found out that she was a guest of British vassals in Mountjoy jail. With little prospect of finding work in Dublin, she journeyed north to Belfast hoping to find work there. James Connolly, whom she had met in Liberty Hall during the lockout offered her room in his home while searching for a job. During her unsuccessful job search in Belfast, she became a member of the Irish Citizen Army, a workers militia established by Larkin, Connolly and other ITGWU leaders in November of 1913, at the height of the lockout. The purpose of the workers militia was to protect demonstrating workers from attack by the police and hooligan strike–breakers brought in from English slums.

After returning to Dublin, Lily worked for the ITGWU out of Liberty Hall. 

On the morning of the Easter Rising, April 24, 1916, Lily left her home in the early hours of the morning and made her way to Liberty Hall, one of the five mustering points selected by the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Four hundred men and women of the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers assembled there under the overall command of James Connolly, Of these a detachment of about 100 men and women, under the command of Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz were dispatched to occupy St. Stephens Green. Lily was assigned to that group. During Monday afternoon they dug trenches and setup barricades at all entry points.
On Tuesday morning, Lily and her comrades came under fire from the nearby Shelbourne Hotel from British troops who had occupied the hotel overnight. At one point during the fighting, Lily prevented a volunteer from deserting by holding him at gunpoint and reminding him that they were in this together and no one was leaving. On Tuesday morning, Mallin dispatched small groups to occupy several buildings around the Green, including the College of Surgeon, located diagonally across the Green from the Shelbourne Hotel. Lily was assigned to that group.  Later on Tuesday when the situation on the Green became untenable, Mallin and the remainder of his contingent fell back to the College of Surgeons, For the remainder of the week, Lily attended to the injured, supported defensive fighting positions and ran dispatches back and forth between the College of Surgeons and the General Post Office (GPO).

The GPO was the Headquarters from where Padraic Pearse, James Connolly, Joseph Plunkett, Sean MacDermott, Thomas J. Clarke received dispatches from, and issued orders to the various garrisons. 

When the order to surrender was issued by Pearse on Saturday April. 28, Lily had left the College of Surgeons on a dispatch run to the GPO.  Although she avoided immediate arrest and detention, her mane was on the list of wanted Citizen Army members involved in the Rising  According to her own accounting in later years, she avoided the ensuing roundup of suspects by hiding in the Carmelite Church confessional that Saturday night and on Sunday morning mingled with the people attending Mass.

At some juncture in her escape saga, she managed to get possession of her sister's passport and make her way to the United States via Liverpool.

Her destination in the United States was Seattle in Washington State where an uncle lived.

Shortly after settling down there she met her future husband, Matthew McAlerney from Co. Down whom she married in February of 1917. 

This narrative is but a sketch of Lily Kempson early years in Ireland. She was a fearless soldier for Ireland's freedom and a champion for the working poor. She went on to live a full life in the United States where, together with her husband Matthew, raised and cared for a family of seven children, Though her work ethic and sense of social responsibility she contributed enormously to the American way of life.

During her long and fruitful life, she remained faithful to the Irish Republic, for which, she, as a young women, put her life on the line.   

Lily died on January 21, 1996 at the age of ninety nine, the last surviving Volunteer of the 1916 Easter Rising.

 -------------------------------------------------------------------------

Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


CEMETERY

NAME:     Holyrood Catholic Cemetery                   PHONE: (206) 363 8404

ADDRESS:   205 Northeast 205th Street, Shoreline, WA 98155


 

GRAVE MARKER

 

                                                                                                                                                     

Back to Biographies

 Posted: 01/17/2018