Lily Kempson McAlerney and the 1916 Easter Rising

The story of Lily (Kempson) McAlerney and her role in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Lily Anne (Kempson) McAlerney was born in County Wicklow, Ireland on Jan. 17, 1897. When she died in Seattle, four days after her 99th birthday, she was the last survivor of the 1916 Easter Rising, the week-long armed insurrection in Dublin that fought for an independent Ireland.

Lily and her family moved to Dublin when she was young. She lived in poverty: eight members of her family lived in two rooms. Lily found work at Jacobs Biscuit Factory, but objected to the harsh child labor conditions. During the 1913 lockout, Lily, along with her friend Rosie Hackett and other Jacobs workers, went on strike for better conditions.

She lost her job because of the strike, and on Nov. 13, 1913, Lily was sent to Mountjoy Gaol for her actions during the lockout. She raised bail after two weeks, and avoided a reform school by saying her age was 17 when she was actually a year younger.

Lily remained in the labor movement, working out of Liberty Hall in Dublin. In a May 1914 picture of the Delegates at the Irish Trades Union Congress in Dublin, Lily is pictured standing next to James Connolly.

 Lily and James Connolly, May 1914, Dublin.

Lily and James Connolly, May 1914, Dublin.

Lily lived with the Connolly family in Belfast in 1914, going there after James Connolly told her she’d find work. When she was 17, Lily took an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic in Belfast. Though quite poor, Lily wanted a picture to commemorate the day. She and five girls who had also taken the oath stopped by Reid's photography studio and rounded up enough money for a small, negative-size print. In the image, which is one of the few items she brought to Seattle after fleeing Dublin, Lily is sitting front and center with James Connolly's daughter, Ina, on her right.

"And I still remember," she wrote on the back of a reprint decades later.

When the Easter Rebellion started on April 24, 1916, Lily was part of the St. Stevens Green Garrison under Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz – a woman she had known well from her time at Liberty Hall. Lily was armed with a revolver and took a pastry cart from a Jacobs worker who came through the park after the rebels had seized it. She also used the handgun to keep a Citizen’s Army man from escaping. “We’re all away from home now,” she recalled telling him.

Lily ran dispatches to the General Post Office, and was part of the initial group that took over the Royal College of Surgeons, across from the park. The bullet holes from the British rounds fired can still be seen in the college’s columns. Lily told her family she was not captured because she was trying to deliver a message when she got word of the rebels surrender.

 Lily (Kempson) McAlerney, Aug. 1914, Belfast.

Lily (Kempson) McAlerney, Aug. 1914, Belfast.

In a lecture to an Irish history class, Lily recalled that she couldn't go back home because she thought the neighbors would turn her in. So she went to a Carmelite Church -- likely the nearby Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church where Lily had her First Communion -- and hid in the confessional.

"So I sat in the confession box all night," Lily said. "Then in the morning people are all coming to mass, you got out of the confession box and you're part of the people going to mass." 

From there she eventually went home, took her sister’s passport, and at some point fled to Liverpool. From there, she boarded a ship to America using her own name.

Riding on the ship Philadelphia, Lily arrived at Ellis Island on July 9, 1916. She took a train to Seattle, a place where her uncle worked on ships. After staying with him briefly, Lily lived in the Madison Valley and found work as a housekeeper. Lily was at a gathering of Irish immigrants off Yesler Way in October 1916 when she met Matthew McAlerney, a 27-year-old from County Down who emigrated in 1911 and found work on the railroads where CenturyLink and Safeco fields are today.

Lily and Matt were married the morning of Feb. 20, 1917 at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill, and resided at 2809 E. Madison Street after a brief honeymoon at the Hotel Sorrento. They had seven children: Alice, Kathleen, Matthew, Jim, Betty, Peggy, and John. Lily, who loved her many great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, also found work making lunches for Seattle public schools, and babysat one of her great-grandsons at age 92.

Lily didn’t miss a beat, and read both Seattle newspapers until the week she died.

 Lily's 98th birthday party, Jan. 1995, Seattle.

Lily's 98th birthday party, Jan. 1995, Seattle.

With Ireland’s Military Service Pension Act of 1934, Lily, then living with her family at 613 32nd Avenue in Seattle’s Central District, began receiving a pension or twenty pounds and two shillings annually for her service in the Irish Citizen’s Army during Easter Week. With each increase in the pension, which Lily received until age 99, she would write a note back.

“The purpose of this letter is to thank the Irish Government for the recent 15% increase in my pension,” Lily wrote in one of her last letters. “It is most gratifying to know that Ireland is concerned for the welfare of the veterans.

“Best wishes to the people of Ireland for peace and prosperity in the coming years.”