Nurse Margaret Kehoe, The Rising's 'First Martyr'

Courtesy of Keogh Family
A descendant of one of the most heroic and dashing figures from American military history died in the fighting in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising, and was immediately commemorated, not without controversy, by republicans as the Rising's "first martyr."

Nurse Margaret Kehoe, slain during an exchange of rifle fire between Irish and British forces in South Dublin Union, was grandniece to 'Beau Sabreur' Myles Walter Keogh, a captain in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry who perished in June 1876 alongside his commander George Armstrong Custer and about 220 troopers in "Custer's Last Stand."

In Dublin on Easter Monday, April 24,1916, the first day of fighting during the Rising, Kehoe was on duty at the public workhouse and hospital. The 1916 Rebellion Handbook, first published by The Irish Times not long after the Rising, mentions Kehoe, more or less in passing, as an innocent bystander. She was "accidentally killed by a stray shot whilst discharging her duty." However, accounts vary as to how Margaret died in the bloody fight at the South Dublin Union, a place for Dublin's destitute, infirm and insane.

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The complex was spread over 50 acres and consisted of an array of buildings. Records show that in April 1916, 3,282 people, including patients, doctors, nurses and ancillary staff, were housed or working among the buildings.

Most sources and witnesses stated that Kehoe had been on duty that Monday in one of the hospital buildings, Hospital 2-3, as the battle raged all around. Six republican riflemen, who had been firing from a top floor on the British soldiers, vacated their position and there was a lull in the firing.

Nurse Kehoe decided to look into the safety of any patients or wounded on the lower floor. At the foot of the stairs, the corridor was occupied by two British soldiers kneeling out of sight, covering the open doorway with their rifles. As she entered the corridor, they both fired, killing her instantly.

A distraught colleague rushed to her aid but it was too late. Her body was placed on a table in the corridor. Shortly afterwards, Irish Volunteer Dan McCarthy, who had been badly wounded in the volley of gunfire that caused Margaret Kehoe to descend, was laid beside her on the table. McCarthy survived, becoming president of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) from 1921 to 1924.

The South Dublin Union
Eamonn Ceannt, the commander of the garrison, addressed the men afterward, and declared that the nurse was the "first martyr" of the rebellion, and asked the those present to remember her sacrifice. Ceannt stated: "She died for Ireland just as surely as if she'd worn the Volunteer's uniform."

Since her death, Kehoe has been claimed by republican sources as one of their own, a member of the Irish women's republican movement, Cumann na mBan. Yet the assertion that she was an active participant has never been verified by the canonical listing prepared for the National Graves Association, nor in any reputable sources of the 1916 Rising.

The ownership, as it were, of Kehoe's death remains disputed. Perhaps her fate -- doing her duty while caught in crossfire during the Rising -- provides an apt metaphor for the experience of women in the Irish revolution.

Margaret lived on the family farm at Orchard, Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, Myles Keogh's birthplace. She was buried in the Union grounds, where she was shot, but afterward her body was exhumed and reinterred in Ballinabranna cemetery, in her native parish of Leighlin. Commemoration ceremonies in honor of her memory and sacrifice commonly take place there.


This article was first published on the Irish Heritage Site,