Speech by Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar At the opening of Elizabeth O’Farrell House

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24 November 2016


Mrs Higgins, Secretary General, Staff,
I’m delighted to welcome you here this evening. This is an important day for the Department, but it’s also important for the memory of an often-overlooked Irish Republican, Elizabeth O’Farrell.


I am particularly pleased to welcome our special guest, Sabina Higgins, and I’m looking forward to hearing her own reflections on the life of Elizabeth O’Farrell.  I understand she is a great admirer of her life and her convictions.


I also want to extend a warm welcome to her relatives: Patrick Kenna, Alan Ward, Ian Kelly, Maria Fitzpatrick, and Donna Cooney, who are with us this evening. You are most welcome.


Before we move on to the main event, I want to talk a little about the history of this building, and tell you about the Department’s work in this location.
Recently a number of staff members moved from Oisín House to a new home here. They include the Department’s own medical assessment service, which comprises a Chief Medical Officer, Deputy Chief Medical Officer and 29 Medical Assessors. They provide medical opinions to help Deciding Officers to assess, process and review applications and claims for short-term and long-term illness and disability schemes. So the move was the perfect opportunity to set up a corporate HQ for the medical review and assessment service.


The move allowed the Department to develop a modern medical facility with seven dedicated in-person examination rooms for Medical Assessors, and a team of Nurse Assistants to conduct assessments.


The building also houses the Department’s Homeless Service.  As you know, its staff are highly experienced and provide income support, advice, and advocacy for clients accessing the service.


All in all, the new facility here is a significant improvement for clients and for staff, providing a professional service in a bright modern environment.


But this is also a fascinating building in its own right. We are fortunate to have a detailed architectural history thanks to architect Jessica Lange, who is here with us this evening.  Jessica tells us that the site evolved from nine separate plots in 1773, until 200 years later it had become two buildings on the same site.


The Commissioner of Valuation has reproduced some Ordnance Survey maps of the area from around the 1890s and early 1900s. These show the original properties and lots where Elizabeth O’Farrell House now stands.  They also show some interesting features from that period including the original Dublin tramlines.


Not so far from here, a new set of tramlines is being laid, as work on LUAS Cross City enters its final phases. I’m pleased to have played a role in the decision to finally link up the two LUAS lines as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2011. Trams will run again on these streets from next year.


Interestingly, those early Ordnance Survey maps also tell the story of the growth of nationalism. We can see how someone wrote on to the map to change the name of Great Britain Street to Parnell Street.


The building here today in North Cumberland Street was originally built for commercial use in the 1950s. It is typical of the hundreds of buildings developed by the new State between the 1950s and the 1980s. The buildings that remain here today are more than 50 years old and most are still in use.


Of course, the story of any building is much more than a history of bricks and mortar.  The people who lived and worked in these streets and buildings over the last few centuries are just as significant, and just as interesting. Ricard Crosbie is one former famous resident of North Cumberland Street. The first Irishman to take a manned flight, he began by experimenting with animal passengers. One early venture sent a slightly bewildered cat on a long journey across the Irish Sea, only to be rescued by a passing ship near the Isle of Man.


Crosbie eventually made several attempts at manned flight in which he took to the skies in highly combustible hydrogen balloons. One of these took off from Leinster House, but unfortunately ended in rescue from the Irish Sea by a Dun Laoghaire barge.


By the time we reach the early 20th Century, Census records show that the residents of this area had changed from solicitors and barristers to railway workers, coal men, fish sellers and labourers. In fact, the 1901 and 1911 census records reveal that many residents could not read or write.


And it’s no surprise that North Cumberland Street and its residents were at the heart of the events of 1916.


I am very pleased that this new modern facility in North Cumberland Street will enhance the fabric of this most historical street in this centenary year.


At this point it’s appropriate to say something about Elizabeth O’Farrell herself, an Irish Republican and Patriot. Too often, women have been sidelined in Irish history. Elizabeth O’Farrell was one such, having played a key role in the Easter Rising, including a spell in the GPO.  She was a courier, performed a nursing role, and hid ammunition under her clothing to smuggle it into the College of Surgeons.
There is a famous photograph of O’Farrell beside Pearse, as he surrendered on Moore Street. It’s famous because it appears she has been airbrushed from the picture. Only her feet remain. Historians disagree on whether she was deliberately removed, or whether it was the way she was positioned, but her absence is symbolic of the absence of women from Irish history for too long.  Even in the film Michael Collins, oddly she was replaced by a male actor. So in this decade of centenaries, 100 years later, it’s a privilege to be here today to remember her and dedicate this building to her.


She was a remarkable woman.  Her closest friend and lifetime companion was Julia Grenan, and they both served in the GPO. We may never know the exact nature of their relationship, but it is enough to say that when they died they were buried in the same grave together in Glasnevin Cemetery. Their gravestone reads: ‘Elizabeth O’Farrell… and her faithful comrade and lifelong friend Julia Grenan’.


It is another part of her story that we should not allow to be forgotten or set a side.  And we should not be afraid of the parts of the story that might not fit into our narrative about Irish history. Elizabeth O’Farrell went on to oppose the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and she remained hostile to the Free State after the Civil War.  For her the story did not end in 1916. Nor in 1922. Looking back I would not share Elizabeth O’Farrell’s views on the Treaty, or the Irish State that was created at that time, but I respect the complexity of Irish history, and the challenges that faced the men and women who lived during this period.  They were not easy choices.  We do not have to agree with everything they believed, but we honour them best when we approach the past with honesty, empathy, and respect. We do that today.


To quote from Hamlet: ‘She was a woman: take her for all in all’.


But now I’d like to hand over to our star attraction, who knows much more about Elizabeth O’Farrell than I do, and who also has a personal link. Sabina Higgins featured in the 1966 RTE drama, Insurrection, and she played the part of Julia Grenan. Thank you for being here and we look forward to your words.




Last modified:24/11/2016