Emily, a cameo embroidered by Tina O’Rourke

This blog is about a little known historical figure Emily M. Weddall (1867 -1952), born, Emily Arabella Maynard Burke in Edenderry, Co. Offaly into a clerical family. Emily attended the Irish Clergy Daughter’s School in Dublin, where she was educated to a high standard for the times. Besides the customary academic subjects she was tutored in art, music and needle work and languages, the latter in which she excelled.

In the early 1890’s Emily was accepted into Sir Patrick Dunn’s Hospital, Dublin to train as a nurse. Her time there was spent under the stewardship of Margaret Rachel Huxley. The pioneering nurse revolutionised Irish nursing just as Florence Nightingale did in Britain a generation before. Emily completed her training with world class nursing skills affording her the opportunity to travel with her career. Fluent in French and as a fully trained nurse, Emily worked in France, Germany and and Russia. During her travels two significant events occurred in Emily’s life, meeting the man she would eventually marry, Captain Edward Weddall of Pocklington, Yorkshire and witnessing the treatment of political prisoners in Russia, which awakened her social conscience and the budding revolutionary within her.

On her return to Ireland Emily became involved in the cultural revolution of the early 1900’s. She played a small part in the Celtic Revival and became a member of the Gaelic League, formed in 1893. She mixed in both circles, counting W. B. Yeats, John Millington Synge, Douglas Hyde, and then little known Patrick Pearse among her friends. In April 1905, she made a brief trip to London to marry her longtime friend/sweetheart, Captain Edward Weddall. The newlyweds made Ireland their home, first Dublin and then to the remote but very beautiful, Achill Island. Emily had connections to island through her late father, who was spent time in the Colony as a missionary in the 1840’s. The link to the Mission helped her procure Rockfield House, once part of the Mission. The couple lived in their island idyll for less than three years, until Captain Weddall suffered a stroke and died.

Gaelic League Oireachtas 1913, Emily Weddall 5th from left. (Courtesy of Galway Town Hall)

Emily, whose family had all passed away, was completely alone, apart from her sister, Miriam who lived in Australia. With good friends and the support and kindness of the Achill people she got through her grief. With ample resources and time on her hands she was free to indulge her passion, for the Irish language and culture. In 1910 she commissioned a hall to be built in the village of Dooagh to house social activities especially cultural ones. The following year Emily along with Darrell Figgis, Eva O’Flaherty, Anita McMahon, Charlie, Barrett, Francis Hugh Power, Colm Ó Lochlainn and Domhnall Ua Ríoghbhardáin founded the Irish language summer school, Scoil Acla.

The year before she ran into trouble with the Vestry Committee when she applied to erect a large Celtic cross over her late husband’s, grave in the church yard of St. Thomas’ of Dugort. The then powers that be denied her request at first, but Emily never one to give up, got in touch with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who intervened, allowing her to proceed with her plan. The cross, designed by William Pearse, brother of Patrick was erected on Captain Weddall’s grave. It still stands in full splendor, only slighted eroded by the harsh weather of Achill, a little known but integral part of the Celtic Revival that took place on the island.

Edward Weddall’s gravestone, designed by William Pearse in St. Thomas’ Church Achill

At the end of August 1913, Scoil Acla wound up for the final time, although the founders including Emily did not know it at the time. The next year WWI broke out putting an end to many public gatherings. The outset of the war coincided with an emerging nationalism that had some of its roots in the cultural revolution. Emily, swept along with that wave, joined Cumann na mBan in April 1914, the female auxiliaries of the Irish Volunteers, formed at the end of the previous year. The cultural revolution informed the ever growing sense of nationalism, in which Emily was deeply involved in.

On Easter Monday 1916 a group of rebels took the GPO, and other key buildings in Dublin, they held out for almost a week, but were forced to surrender, resulting in the leaders being executed. Among them were Emily’s friend’s Patrick and William Pearse. Emily as a member of Cumann na mBan, had made an attempt to join in the rebellion. Making her way from Achill to Dublin, she was captured and sent to prison at Tullamore Gaol, until the insurrection was over. She later got a chance to participate in the quest for Irish freedom, during the War of Independence, and was imprisoned for her involvement.

The year after the 1916 Rising another insurrection took place, thousands of miles from Ireland that had a strong and lasting on effect on Emily’s life. In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 Emily lost her income from shares in industry there. She was left all but penniless. Luckily she had her nursing career to fall back upon. She still found it hard to make ends meet and was forced to sell Rockfield House to pay off her debts. After years of of living where ever she found employment, she retired back to Achill, the only place she truly called home.

Settling in a little house on Keel’s Sandybanks, which the people of Achill helped build for her. In her small drawing room she frequently received prominent people from the arts and political world, as well as her good friend’s Eva O’Flaherty and Anita McMahon, both of whom settled in Achill. Enjoying good health into old age Emily was a familiar figure at the islands many social events, particularly fund risers for the island’s pipe and drum bands, which she always supported. Even though Emily had little material goods to spare she always was on hand to support those she considered that life had treated unfairly. She often wrote letters to people of influence, on their behalf, almost always solving their problems. Eventually old age caught up with her, forcing her to retire to a nursing home, St. Mary’s of Ballsbridge in Dublin.

She died in 1952 at the age of 85 and is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery close to many of her old friends and comrades. In her adopted home of Achill Island she was never forgotten. In 1985 Scoil Acla was revived by a new generation, who shared her and her fellow founding members passion for the Irish language and culture, particularly music. The summer School runs for a week every summer and often offers various classes and tutorials all year round.

In November 2012, sixty years after her death, members of Scoil Acla paid Emily the ultimate tribute of placing a headstone in her previously unmarked grave. The elegant monument is inscribed with her ‘epitaph’, “Failte Roimh Geach Gael”. The words roughly translates into English as – Welcome to all Irish people. Emily’s immortal words were taken from a sign, hung on her gatepost at Rockfield House during the heady days of the Celtic Revival.