The Harp Without the Crown – Linda Kearns


“I think it is the most wonderful country one could ever see.” Quotation from Linda Kearns, Irish social activist, politician, and Irish Rebublican Army Nurse during the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, upon her arrival in Butte February 17, 1923.

Hello this is John Conlan, host of The Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of The Harp Without the Crown, where I will be discussing the visit by Linda Kearns to Butte in February of 1923.

Linda Kearns grew up in County Sligo Ireland and was trained as a Nurse and intended to serve in France during World War One. She was not particularly interested in taking an active role in the Irish Independence movement until she met Thomas MacDonagh, one of the seven leaders of the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, who was executed for his role in the Rising. That association changed her life forever as she put her nursing skills to use by establishing a Red Cross Hospital in Dublin that attended to civilians and military on both sides of the conflict. This was important work as there were civilian and military deaths totaling 485. There were also 2,600 wounded from the violence. She also served as a dispatch carrier for those occupying the General Post Office, the main site of the Easter Rising.

After the Easter Rising she became deeply involved in the Irish Independence movement. Using an inheritance from a former employer allowed her to purchase a car that was used for work as courier and transporter of rifles and ammunition to Irish independence fighters in the West of Ireland. While on IRA courier missions she dressed in her Nursing uniform to make it appear she was attending to medical appointments. This allowed her to escape detection at British checkpoints in Ireland for two years while distributing communications between the Dublin IRA Headquarters and its members in County Sligo in the West of Ireland.

However, she was eventually arrested November 20,1920 when her car was found to contain ten rifles, four revolvers, and 500 rounds of ammunition. Two of the rifles and a revolver were traced to the murder of British police officers in Ireland. Her arrest and conviction led to a ten year sentence of penal servitude that was served in several prisons. She considered the Walton Convict Prison in Liverpool the harshest environment. It was here that she survived on a pint of milk each day and eventually lost strength and experienced feelings of despair and depression.

A hunger strike at Walton Convict Prison forced prison officials to transport her back to Dublin to serve her sentence at Mountjoy Prison. It was at Mountjoy that she and three other women managed an incredible escape from the prison. A careless prison guard unknowingly left her keys unattended and the women used dental wax to make duplicate keys to open doors that led to a 25 foot prison wall. The women scaled up and then down the wall to a waiting rescue group of Irish Volunteers. Eventually Kearns made it to a safe house at an IRA Training facility in County Carlow, in Southeast Ireland.

It is remarkable that approximately two years after her escape from Mountjoy Prison, Linda Kearns visited Butte for several days beginning on February 17,1923. She was part of a delegation that included Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Kathleen Boyle. The delegation’s visit was a big event for Butte and was part of a 20 city American tour that brought them to the Empress Theater in Butte as well as Anaconda. Prior to their arrival, the Anaconda Standard described the delegation as ”Distinguished Women in Butte” and “Three Women of Note.”

Their visit addressed two issues confronting Ireland. The Butte Miner headline ”Talk in Defense of Dissenters and Destitute Families” perfectly described part of their Butte address. Kearns wanted to collect funds for the relief of the 13,000 Irish Republican Army prisoners held in prisons as well as their dependents, which totaled 40,000. She detailed her time spent in prison as an effective way to raise awareness concerning Irish prisoners and families.

The Anaconda Standard also described the delegation “being in Butte to defend those who have revolted against a Free State Government and are under Eamon de Valera’s leadership in conducting a guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland.” Linda Kearns viewed the recently enacted Irish Free State Treaty with contempt because it did not grant real Irish Independence. She used her time in Butte to drive home that point and to also expose English and American propaganda promoting the value of the Treaty. She explained that the Treaty committed the Irish to take an oath of allegiance to the King of England, allowed England to control Ireland’s seaports, and to maintain an army of occupation. She sarcastically told the audience in Butte “Ireland was given a Free State and has gotten her freedom…that is only the beautiful illustrated cover of a very vile book.” A Civil War broke out over the Treaty which further proved her point that the Treaty was not accepted by all of Ireland. Her traveling partner, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, stated “No Republican recognizes the Free State which represents less than a third of the elected representatives.”

Linda Kearns also addressed in Butte the controlling English press that only allowed censored and incorrect news about the benefits and beauty of the Free State Treaty. She was concerned that America and other nations were only getting filtered and biased reporting about events in Ireland. Ironically, the Anaconda Standard front page story appearing the same weekend of their visit detailed and glorified the Free State Government attempts to put down the Irish Republican revolt against the Treaty, which Kearns criticized while in Butte.

It appears that Kearns and her delegation were successful in bringing awareness to the Butte Irish community concerning the plight of Irish prisoners and the inadequacies of the Free State Treaty. Linda Kearns received a warm welcome from the Butte Irish community that wanted to hear the truth about the political and social conditions in Ireland. They were able to reach out to the public through packed audiences at lectures, banquets, and receptions thereby solidifying links between Ireland and the Butte Irish. Linda Kearns’ commitment to Irish prisoners and Irish Independence was rewarded as the Free State Treaty was replaced almost twenty-five years later when Ireland gained complete independence as a Republic in 1948.

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown.