SEATTLE -- Seventy-four years ago this month, Elizabeth "Lilly" McAlerney captured a place in history. On Easter Monday, she carried a gun at the birth of an independent Ireland.
Born 93 years ago as Elizabeth Kempson, the widowed McAlerney now lives in a retirement community in Seattle.
Periodically, the Irish government writes to ask whether one of the few survivors of the Easter Rising remains alive and well. Apart from some hearing loss, her answer is a vigorous yes.
McAlerney's small apartment is decorated with pictures of her family, a framed map of Ireland and medals awarded by the Irish government, which has sent her a monthly pension since 1939.
Exiled from Ireland in late 1916, she came to Seattle and married Matt McAlerney, another Irish immigrant. They had seven children who then produced 34 children, leading to "well over 50" great-grand- children, as she put it. Matt, who worked for a railroad, died in 1981.
Lilly is blessed with a memory extraordinary for its recall of names, dates and places. These days, she has trouble walking but no trouble telling stories. Both hands go up and make fists as she punches the air to emphasize a point.
McAlerney used to lecture to history classes at universities in Seattle but has outlived some of the historians who invited her. Women in her family, she said, live a long life while the men do not survive their seventies.
On April 24, 1916, the Irish Volunteer movement and the trade union Citizen Army proclaimed a republic independent of British rule and seized parts of Dublin. The Rising was suppressed quickly but set in motion events that led to the 1921 treaty lifting British rule for all but six Irish counties.
A spokesman for the Irish Embassy in Washington said there are 442 pensioners from the Rising and the Irish War of Independence of 1917-1921. He did not know how many of them live in the United States.
In 1916, McAlerney was a feisty union worker in a Dublin cookie factory who had done prison time for labor protests. She and many others viewed British rule as oppressive and a cause of Irish poverty. One of seven children, she slept on the floor of a two-room house in Dublin, where her father worked for the railway.
The Rising began when word went out on Easter Sunday that something big would happen soon. The British captured Roger Casement, a rebel leader attempting to smuggle arms from Germany, delaying the Rising for a day and limiting to Dublin what had been planned as a national revolt.
McAlerney, then 19, arose early on Monday and went to her union hall, where she was told to join a group that would try to seize St. Stephen's Green, a small public park. Other rebel groups met elsewhere and were dispatched to strategic points, including Dublin Castle and the General Post Office, symbols of British rule. Many of the rebels, who numbered fewer than 1,700 and were ill-equipped, expected to be killed as they faced 5,000 British soldiers supported by artillery. McAlerney recalls being afraid and being told by James Connolly, one of her Citizen Army leaders: "We are going out to be slaughtered."
McAlerney was among 10 men and three women sent to St. Stephen's Green and said one of the men handed her a revolver, telling her, "Lilly, you've got to use this, but be careful who you hit."
Some men in her group had been drinking to suppress fear. The park was full of people, including many foreigners in town for a horse-racing festival. A man sold ice cream from a cart. McAlerney and her cohorts heard shots, then heavy gunfire from across town where people were being killed at the Post Office.
One man at St. Stephen's Green suddenly lost his revolutionary zeal and started to leave. McAlerney said she lifted her revolver and pointed it at him. No one was leaving, she heard herself ordering him. History was in motion; it was too late to quit.
"I want to go home," McAlerney recalls the man as saying.
"You can't," she replied. "We're all away from home now."
Eventually, her group crossed the street next to the park, stopped a bakery truck and seized food at gunpoint. They entered the Royal College of Surgeons. From the rooftop, they could see fire and smoke from the Post Office.
Since the fighting was elsewhere, the group decided to disband before being discovered by police. McAlerney said she returned the gun to one of the men and headed home, passing through several police checkpoints.
When she got home, she found that her mother had been out borrowing money to send her to the United States. Her mother had decided that day that her daughter should be out of harm's way.
The Post Office was held for one week. McAlerney worked as a courier for the men inside, ducking to avoid police snipers on rooftops. She also worked as a potato peeler to help feed trapped rebels.
After the Rising was suppressed, the government posted a notice listing rebels to be executed or exiled. Lilly Kempson was named publicly as one to be sent away.
Later that year, she took a boat to America, winding up in Seattle and living with two uncles who sailed merchant ships bound for Alaska and China.
Before she left Ireland, however, her family had one more fighting experience. Police arrived one night, searching for weapons. As they rummaged through the house, they came to the room occupied by McAlerney's grandmother, Esther Moore Kempson.
Esther, 92, sat up in bed and denounced the intrusion. She made an effort to get out of bed to scold the police, who immediately left.
The grandmother had reason to be indignant. Several rifles were stored under her mattress.
"She was an old warrior," McAlerney recalled.