Lily Kempson, aged 99, the last surviving participant in the 1916 Easter Rising, dies in Seattle, Washington, on January 22, 1996. Born into the ranks of Dublin’s poor, Elizabeth Ann `Lily’ Kempson shares two rooms with her 92-year-old grandmother, her parents, and eight siblings.
Early on the morning of April 24, 1916, Lily dresses quietly so as to not disturb the other family members. Leaving undetected, Lily never returns home.
When Lily arrives at Liberty Hall, preparations for the Rising are already well underway. Weeks earlier Constance Markiewicz and other women members of the Citizens Army, perhaps Lily amongst them, had stacked grenades and ammunition in the basement. Now this weaponry, already dispersed throughout the city, is to be used to defend the proclamation of an Irish Republic.
The initial plan for women to primarily take care of the wounded is scrapped. Attached to the Red Cross unit, Lily Kempson and her female comrades are swiftly incorporated within the main body of the fight. Lily is armed with a revolver. A handful of women, who have already played a key role in securing access to St. Stephens Green, set about evacuating civilians and guarding the gates. The insurgents dig in but they were unable to secure surrounding buildings because of a chronic shortage of personnel.
As dawn breaks on Tuesday morning, Lily is awakened by the rattle of machine gun fire. The British have occupied the Shelbourne, a hotel overlooking the park. The insurgents hold the Green for less than twenty hours. Throughout the week-long siege of Dublin, Kempson acts as a courier for Patrick Pearse and the other men inside the General Post Office (GPO).
The superior firepower of the British and the strategic advantage of the Shelbourne make evacuation of the park as inevitable as it is urgent. A line of retreat has been secured. In an advance party of three men and three women, Lily Kempson accompanies Constance Markiewicz and Mary Hyland to seize the College of Surgeons, a sturdy building overlooking the north of the Green. It is here the Green’s contingent makes their heroic last stand, holding the ground for five days. They surrendered only after receiving a dispatch directly from the General Post Office. As their contingent prepares to surrender, Lily is chosen to carry the garrison’s last dispatches to addresses throughout the city.
In the immediate aftermath of The Rising, the Kempsons’ Dublin home is raided by the British army but Lily is not to be found. Lily makes the decision to leave Ireland when her name appears on a British list of wanted suspects. Using her sister’s passport, she travels to England and boards a ship to New York. From New York, she then sails on to Seattle where she meets and marries a fellow Irishman, Matt McAlerney. They have seven children, 34 grandchildren, and 116 great-grandchildren by the time Lily passes away.
In her final years she attracts the attention of the local American press. Each Easter she briefly becomes a celebrity as her story of being the last survivor is retold.