The Story of Mary Anne O'Doherty née Kelly, or 'Eva of the Nation'

The Nation newspaper is founded

The Nation newspaper, in which Eva was first published as a teenager, is founded.


Around 1825, the girl who was to be known to the world as 'Eva' was born in Killeen near Portumna, East Galway. Christened Mary Anne Kelly, she was the daughter of a wealthy gentleman-farmer with nationalist sympathies. At the age of only fifteen, this precocious child sent her first verse to Gavin Duffy, founder of The Nation.

Down Britannia, brigand down!
No more to rule with sceptred hand:
Truth raises o’er thy throne and crown
Her exorcising wand

Kevin O'Doherty Mary took the initial pen-name of Fionnuala, before becoming ‘Eva’, the name by which she is best known today. Within three years of sending her first poems to Duffy, the young girl had become romantically involved with another Young Irelander, ‘Saint’ Kevin Izod O’Doherty, a lawyer’s son and assistant surgeon who had begun his medical career treating fever victims. According to his later description on a prison ship, O’Doherty was nearly six feet tall, with a fresh complexion, brown hair and whiskers, a broad forehead and a small chin. Pat ‘Nicaragua’ Smyth, a fellow Young Irelander, described Eva as ‘tall, with daydreamy eyes and wonderful black hair reaching to her knees’. The young writer had come to Dublin to visit Gavin Duffy and John Martin in prison, chaperoned by a Miss Bruton,. While staying at Killeen House, Eva witnessed the escape of John Blake Dillon to America. ‘He had only gone off a short time when we were that night invaded by police and the magistrate. Our house was ransacked from top to bottom.’.

Kevin O’Doherty was also on trial for sedition; in his defence, his lawyer Isaac Butt claimed his ‘nerves were shocked’ after working in the fever sheds. The jury were unable to reach a verdict. Ultimately, Lord Clarendon sent a priest to encourage O’Doherty to plead guilty, sparing him from judgment, but after speaking to Eva in the garden at Richmond, he decided to stay true to his principles, in return for which she would be true to him. He was consequently sentenced to ten years transportation, packed off so abruptly in June 1849 that he never had the time to write a farewell letter to Eva.

Eva was still in Galway when the United Irelanders were convicted under the Treason/Felony Act, which had made it illegal to state publicly that the Union between Ireland and Great Britain might one day be dissolved. Her response ran:

For one – for two – for three –
Aye! Hundreds, thousands, see!
For vengeance and for thee
To the last!

In July, Gavin Duffy was arrested under the New Felony Act for articles in the Nation which demanded ‘blood for blood’ and called on Irishmen not to let ‘this moment for retribution… pass by unemployed’. Eva had contributed a poem to this edition, casting Thomas Meaghar as ‘Silken Thomas’ on the model of the original rebel, the Earl of Kildare. ‘Our silken Thomas may be seen, all glorious from afar.’

The Nation was revived in September 1849, still under the leadership of Gavin Duffy. Eva’s poems conveyed her sense of loss for ‘Saint’ Kevin:

How I glory, how I sorrow,
How I love with deathless love,
How I weep before the chilling skies,
And moan to God above!

She continued to write for O’Doherty when he had arrived in Australia and could receive copies of her verse:

Yes, pale one in thy sorrow - yes, wrong’d one in thy pain
This heart has still a beat for thee – this trembling hand a strain.

Come, wild deer of the mountainside! Come, sweet bird of the plain!
To cheer the cold and trembling heart that beats for thee in vain!
Oh! Come, from woe, and cold, and gloom, to her who’s warm and true,
And has no hope or throb for aught within this world but you.

O’Doherty remained completely true to Eva. John Mitchel described him as ‘sometimes gloomy and desponding and the mood is on him for a few minutes. There dwells in Ireland (I should have known it well, though he had never told me), a dark-eyed lady, a fair and gentle lady, with hair like the blackest midnight; and in the tangle of those silken tresses she has bound my poor friend’s soul; round the solid hemisphere has held him and he drags like a lingering chain.’ After his early release from his sentence in 1854, he stayed in Australia for a while to visit the goldfields in Victoria, possibly to accrue some capital before marriage. In March 1855, he travelled illegally back to Britain on the James Baines. He was spotted by a doctor from Ballarat, Alfred Carr, who was determined to tell the Home Office of O’Doherty’s arrival; but O’Doherty was still able to reach Ireland, where he picked up his inheritance and planned his marriage to Eva. In July, the Sub-Inspector of police at Galway let Dublin Castle know that ‘it was whispered abroad that a strange gentleman was staying with the Kelly family.’ Eva’s parents helped the young couple travel to London and then to Liverpool, where they were married on August 23rd in Moorfields Chapel. The pair then moved on to Paris. Gavin Duffy wrote to O’Doherty that ‘a man going to marry his first love and then to live in Paris has nothing to desire in the world’. They would later undergo a second marriage at the British Consul, to give their children civil legitimacy.

John Martin, Eva’s mentor, was also living in Paris. Eva spent many evenings with him, and would later write that ‘of all the friends I have known, none have been more genuinely or delicately kind’ than he.

A week before Eva was due to give birth for the first time, she and her husband returned to Dublin via Liverpool. The child was a boy, who they called William. At the time of the birth, O’Doherty was still in hiding, but within only a fortnight an unconditional pardon for himself, William Smith O’Brien and John Martin was granted. The family could then live openly in Ireland. Eva and William returned to Killeen in East Galway while Kevin studied for exams to become a surgeon.

However, all was not completely well. The relationship between the O’Dohertys and Kevin’s two brothers was strained. The brothers failed to share Kevin and Eva’s spiritual and political ideals. Eva wrote to John Martin in 1857, complaining that: ‘[William] is still persisting in the course he first adopted – the irritation this man is causing [Kevin], I know, is one cause of his being ill… John I scarcely blame, for he is passive – a mere tool in his brother’s hands – the women are small and spiteful’. Despite the tensions at home, Kevin went on to become a Fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons, working as a medical practitioner and a lecturer in anatomy and physiology. Eva, meanwhile, suffered under the dull reality and physical strain of her life as wife and mother. By August 1858 she had given birth to a second son, Edward. She wrote to John Martin complaining of  ‘many tormenting troubles of the mean and earthy sort which, by the way, more acutely try a body more inclined to live in the moon apart from such influences, than even the sable woes of tragedy.’ The following year she became a mother for the third time, to a boy named Vincent. Fortunately she still had some outlet for her writing,  paid a pound a page by ‘Lietch Ritchie, Messrs Chambers’ literary hack’.

Eva was pregnant with a fourth son, Kevin, when she and her husband left Ireland by boat for Australia, where he was to work as a physician. The family stayed with friends in Melbourne while her husband went ahead to Sydney to open his consultancy. Eva joined him in 1861, and continued to write poems about her yearning for the homeland.

O Ireland of the springtime fairest!
O Ireland of the murmuring streams!
…Across that waste of waters shining,
The exile flees to thee again!

O’Doherty would become a surgeon of renown, working with the Brisbane Volunteer Rifle Corp. He was to be a public health reformer of some influence, and honorary surgeon at the Ipswich Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children. In 1867 he was elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly; five years later, he promoted the first Public Health Act to become law in Queensland.  Time did not pass quite so comfortably for Eva. Living in a rough wooden house and coping with sweltering heat, she gave birth to another two children, neither of whom survived their first year. While Kevin was prepared to drink the Loyal Toast, at dinner parties, Eva remained more true to her original principles, and kept pace with Irish and Fenian politics through her contacts by John Martin. She spent her days running stalls to raise funds for hospitals and school. When James Stephens founded his Fenian newspaper, The Irish People, in 1863, Eva sent a poem:

Oh! Ye dead, – ye well beloved dead!
Great souls, fond hearts, that once were linked with mine,
Across the gulf that yawns between us dread,
I fling the longings that invite a sign –
a faint, faint shadow of your presence.

However, a prominent writer at the People, Thomas Clarke Luby, believed the role of women at the paper should be limited. In his view, ‘the influence of woman appears in its grandest form, when a true and noble housewife endeavours to sustain and cheer, in the dark hour of trial and discouragement, the hopes and faiths of her husband.’ Devoid of chances to be heard, Eva settled with supporting her husband in his medical and political careers. She pitied the ‘poor Fenians, who are now breaking stones in the jails of England or pining in the jails of Ireland’. Her husband lost interest for a time in Irish nationalism, devoting himself instead to campaigning against ‘blackbirding’ – the brutal practice of enslaving Melanasians on the cotton and cane-sugar plantations of Queensland. His interest was rekindled after sectarian riots in a town called Warwick, where Orange supporters attacked the followers of the successful Catholic candidate. O’Doherty and two Protestant friends founded the Hibernian Society, which encouraged tolerance rather than radicalism: ‘Here’, said O’Doherty, ‘the British constitution is not an empty name’.

The sons of Eva and Kevin were keen sportsmen, with William taking first place in a skiff at the Brisbane regatta in 1873. Kevin junior would one day play rugby for Queensland. There was also a daughter, Gertrude.

By 1875, the couple’s politics had changed sufficiently to allow them to celebrate the centenary of a man O’Doherty had once rebelled against, Daniel O’Connell. Eva wrote a poem to be chanted in St. Stephen’s cathedral:

Led by his prophet might
Rose ye to manhood’s height,
Flashing the sword of right,
Forth from its sheath!

Two years later, while Kevin O’Doherty was promoting another Public Health Bill in the Queensland Parliament, Eva had gone travelling with the two eldest sons, William and Edward. William was to study dentistry in Philadelphia while Edward took on medicine in Dublin. Eva was given a welcome by the San Francisco Monitor who called her ‘Eva of the Nation’, and she went on to publish a book of verses, which she dedicated to ‘the Felons John Mitchell and John Martin’. Most of the poems took Ireland as their subject matter, although one was dedicated to Queensland:

But ah! Upon the bright expanse,
The glory of a clime Elysian,
‘Tis but a cold and soulless glance
That meets the gazer’s vision.

O’Doherty continued his support for Irish affairs, running an Irish Land League in Brisbane and raising funds for the famine of 1879. By this time the family were wealthy, living in a villa known as ‘Frascati’ after an area in Dublin. Kevin and Edward worked from the house as doctors, William as a dentist. Sadly, their good fortune was not to last when the older Kevin once again became involved in politics, throwing his weight behind the campaign for Home Rule. Visiting Ireland, he was granted the Freedom of the City of Dublin and was honoured by a banquet attended by Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1886, O'Doherty was present at the House of Commons for the reading of the Home Rule Bill. Eventually, he was forced to return to his practice in Australia for financial reasons, where he found that constant attacks from the local press had eroded its value. Eva was to comment later that supporting Parnell ‘was a very losing game for a professional man, but the doctor was not one to count the cost.’

The following year O’Doherty took up a post in the hardy gold-mining town of Croydon, North Queensland, but Eva did not accompany him. Returning later to the family, their financial circumstances paired with a world recession forced them to sell the house. Tainted by his Home Rule connections, O’Doherty found himself struggling to earn sufficient money. Eventually the Queensland government stepped in by granting him three part-time medical roles. His passion for public health remained, and he was still campaigning for it in 1893, promoting the establishment of a colonial Board of Health.

Tragedy was soon to catch up with the family. Vincent, a manager at the National Bank, was killed in a street accident in 1890. Two years later, Edward’s four-year-old daughter died, and William passed away not long afterwards. The younger Kevin and Edward both died in 1900 – Kevin of pneumonia and Edward in an accident. Only one of Eva’s eight children remained – the daughter, Gertrude. During this time, the elderly couple were living in a Brisbane boarding house, where Kevin worked on a process to restore and preserve previously frozen meat. He applied for a patent for his invention, but it was not enough to help the family financially. The couple then moved to a suburb called Rosalie, in Queensland, to live in a wood-framed house on stilts. Kevin’s eyesight failed, but he was fortunate enough to be supported by three young colleagues, who took on his cases and gave him the fees. After his death in 1905, at the age of 81, Eva was to struggle on for another five years. She had only her daughter to rely on, who brought home a meagre wage as a state typist.

Nonetheless, Eva was still a woman of strong passions. She was offended that the Redmond brothers had not sent a message of consolation on the death of her husband, which was particularly irksome as William Redmond was in Queensland at the time. By good fortune she came to the attention of a priest, Father Hickey, who helped her to publish a book of her poetry, and then encouraged her to write sketches of the Young Irelanders and their champions, including the poets Mary and Speranza who had also written for the Nation. In Eva’s view, the Rising had been ‘misnamed’ – ‘No rising. No plans or order – no leader. The hour had come in all probability, but not the man. Certainly there was one man who had been suffered to be seized as a felon – John Mitchel – who held practical views.’ She always believed that the opportunity had come when John Mitchel was led through the streets of Dublin as a prisoner, igniting public outrage. ‘The people were then ready – filled with rage and enthusiasm. They were held back by their leaders.’

Eva also claimed herself to be the writer of the treasonable articles Alea Jacta Est and The Tocsin of Ireland. By implication, the other women writers had been cowardly for not owning up to the articles they had written. She was also scathing about Gavin Duffy, who had earlier seemed to her full of ‘abounding vitality’, but who later passed through ‘the mill of modern social conventionalism’. Also mentioned was Lucy O’Brien, wife of William, who had been angered by Eva’s articles about her husband’s poor health in Australia.

The book of poems sold well; Father Hicky commented that ‘you have, I think, left to the reading world of your countrymen a work that will last many year and a day.’ Money was also raised for Eva within several Irish communities in Australia, including a ‘Eva of the Nation’ fund in Queensland.

Eva’s memoirs were still unfinished when she died from influenza in May 1910, aged eighty. She was buried alongside her husband under a monument paid for by the Irish community, with the inscription:

Physician and muse, man and wife!
They came from Ireland’s shores.
Through adversity their light shone brightly,
Inspiring all on whom it shone.

Monument to Kevin and Eva, Brisbane © Rod Peart

Monument to Kevin and Eva at Toowong Cemetery in Brisbane