Mary Ellen ‘Nell’ Humphreys (1871-1939) was the daughter of Richard Rahilly and Ellen Mangan from Ballylongford, Co. Kerry. She was the sister of Michael Rahilly, who called himself The O’Rahilly, and who was shot during the Easter Rising. In 1895 Nell married eye surgeon David Humphreys.
According her daughter Sighle, Nell, in 1916 a forty-five year old widow with three children, was only interested in caring for her family, tending to her garden and saying her prayers. Nevertheless she was arrested shortly after Easter Week that year. The Humphreys’ house in Northumberland Road had been pointed out to British soldiers as a house of rebel sympathisers.
On 9 May 1916 Nell was taken to Kilmainham Gaol and then transferred to the Female Convict Prison, now Mountjoy West Prison, along with eleven other women whose offence, as listed in the prison committal register, was ‘rebellion’.
Nell Humphreys’ involvement in the Rising was restricted to her going into the G.P.O. on Easter Monday to see could she persuade her nineteen-year-old son Dick to come home. He was there with his uncle Michael and refused to budge until his mother persuaded Padraig Pearse to get involved; under pressure Dick agreed to leave.
Nell had previously asked the nuns in the Poor Clare Colletine Convent on the Simmonscourt Road for medals of the Mother of Perpetual Succour and prayer leaflets called the Volunteers’ Shield. She gave these to Pearse to give out to his men in the firm belief that they would protect them. Years later, members of the Humphreys family met men who said that they still had some of the medals that Nell gave to Pearse that day.
As a result the events of Easter Week Humphreys’ life changed; she was radicalised by the death of her brother Michael and the imprisonment of her son. She became involved in the struggle for Irish independence and for the equal representation for women which was enshrined in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. She joined Sinn Fein and Cumann na mBan.
Humphreys found herself back Mountjoy Prison, and in Kilmainham, during the Civil War where she continued to draw strength from her devotion to the Mother of Perpetual Succour, including during her hunger strike. She engaged her fellow inmates in nightly prayer vigils at altars she erected in both institutions. She would call them to pray by banging on an enamel plate with a spoon. The representation of the Mother of Perpetual Succour become an icon for the women of Cumann na mBan inside Mountjoy prison but also for their supporters on the outside.
On 27 March 1939 Nell Humphreys placed an order with the Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios for a triptych window to contain the image of the Mother of Perpetual Succour. This window was to replace the original window in the chapel of the Female Convict Prison which had been damaged by gunfire during her internment there in the Civil War.
The archives of the Harry Clarke Studios, which include correspondence with Mrs Humphreys, are in the Library and much of the material may be consulted online at Digital Collections.
Nell Humphreys’ window was installed in October of 1939. Members of her family were present when the window was blessed and dedicated to the women of Cumann na mBan*. She herself was not present; she had died in June and never saw her beautiful memorial.
*The plaque which recorded this dedication is currently not in situ.
Dip History European Art (TCD)
Purser prize Scholarship 2003