The very forefront of the fight
Without the sacrifice and fighting spirit of thousands of working class women, the struggle against the Lockout could not have been sustained. Their role was critical in the movement. Their contribution and this proud legacy deserve special mention.
In Ireland, in the early decades of the 2oth century, women were fighting to improve their situation on several fronts. Women workers began to organise to take on their employers, and sometimes male workers and trade unionists, in their attempt to lift themselves from the bottom of the social morass that existed in cities like the Dublin of that time.
In parallel to that movement, many women were fighting to achieve the basic right to vote. The more militant and class conscious of the suffragists energetically supported the labour movement activists in the epic battle of the Dublin Lockout.
Women played key roles during the months of the Lockout, at every level of the struggle. Women struck, fought on the streets, went to jail and provided sustenance for strikers and their families. Women were to the forefront in the battles with the police and in looking after the welfare of the children and families of the strikers.
Locked out by their employer in the first momentous days of the conflict, the women workers of Jacob’s were the last to return to work, (those that were taken back), in March 1914.93 One of their number, Alice Brady made the ultimate sacrifice. The young 16 year old Jacob’s worker died in January 1914 as a result of injuries she received when shot by a scab in December on her way from Liberty Hall with a food parcel.94
Life is hard
For working class women in the Dublin of 1913, life was hard. Dublin was a city in decay and the worst manifestations of this malaise were to be found in the city centre tenements. These formerly grand Georgian buildings had been vacated by the middle classes in their exodus to leafier suburbs in Rathmines and Ranelagh. The majority of these landlords paid little attention to the needs of their tenantry. Even the employers’ apologist, Arnold Wright, described the Dublin slum as “a thing apart in the inferno of degradation”. Wright quotes the Government Inquiry into Dublin housing, conducted in November and December of 1913, which showed that, of 87,305 people living in 5,322 tenement houses, 20,108 families lived in one room flats.95For the men living in these conditions there was little release from this drudgery, with casual work in low paid employment, providing little respite. For women, particularly married women, employment opportunities were much fewer and were extremely lowly paid. The majority of young women worked in low paid employment. The 1911 census shows that in Dublin, a total of 9,500 women between the ages of 20 and 25 were working in all occupations, including teachers, domestic servants, shop assistants and factory and sweatshop employments – of these only 553 worked as teachers and governesses, while 2,500 worked as domestic servants, 1,500 as milliners and shirtmakers, with 453 in factories and the remainder in other low paid employments.96
In contrast, in Belfast, as early as the 1890s, 70,000 women worked in the linen factories. By 1910 two or three times as many women over men worked in the Belfast linen industry.97 Belfast was also where James Connolly set up the Irish Textile Workers’ Union, which had a predominantly female membership, as a constituent branch within the ITGWU in 1912.98
Organising the women workers
Mary Galway, an early pioneer in women’s trade unionism, and Jim Larkin came into conflict with Connolly over this move.99 Certainly, Galway, a hem-stitcher turned full time organiser for the Textile Operatives’ Society of Ireland (TOSI) who had led a successful strike of 8,000 textile workers in 1897, probably regarded Connolly’s initiative as competition for her own union. Larkin appears to have disagreed with Connolly as to how fully women members should have been integrated into the ITGWU and ordered that Connolly’s recruits should be transferred into the recently formed Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU).100
Initially the IWWU functioned as a semi-autonomous section of the ITGWU. It is suggested by some that Larkin may have supported the creation of the IWWU to offset opposition of more conservative male trade unionists, even within the ITGWU itself.101 There is still debate as to the reason for this degree of separation. William O’Brien claimed much later, in a letter in 1955 that was hostile to Larkin, that Larkin initially interpreted “persons” in rule 5 of the ITGWU as a “male only membership”.
In Dublin 1911, 1,500 worked in the sweated trades as milliners and shirtmakers.102 By 1914, 1,400 of the 4,000 members of the Drapers’ Assistants’ Association (DAA), formed in 1901 by Michael O’Lehane, were women. Women working in this industry were often locked in dormitories in their workplaces at night. There were fires in a number of department stores between 1891 and 1913 in which eight employees were killed. Following one such fire in Camden Street, the DAA journal commented that the staff “were trapped like rats in a cage”.103
Jacob’s was easily the biggest employer of female factory employees, with varying estimates of up to 3,000 women working for the company.104 The number of women workers listed in the Wages Book of the company for 1 September, 1913 was 2,175. 105
Desperate social conditions forced many women into prostitution, which was a much larger problem in Dublin than any other city in Ireland or Britain. At the turn of the century, the Dublin Metropolitan Police estimated that there were 1,677 women working as prostitutes, representing 2 per cent of the city’s female population as a whole and a much larger percentage of the adult women living in the tenements.
The levels of arrest for prostitution rose dramatically in 1912, which would seem to indicate, at the very least, an increase in the harassment of these women by the police. One horrible consequence of prostitution at the time was the fact that children accounted for 69 per cent of all recorded deaths from syphilis and gonorrhoea.106
Birth of the Irish Women Workers’ Union
When the IWWU was set up in 1911, the Irish Worker reported that “women workers in their thousands” turned up to launch the union at a meeting in the Antient Concert Rooms on Tuesday, 5 September. The Dublin Evening Mail recorded the capacity of the hall, (which is now known as the Academy and is in present day Pearse St), as “between 900 to 1000 persons” at its opening in 1842.107 James Larkin, who became president of the union, Constance Markiewicz, James Nolan and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington were the main speakers and Delia Larkin, who was to play a key role in the IWWU and during the Lockout itself, was present.
Delia Larkin edited a ‘Weekly Women’s Column’ in the Irish Worker which dealt with all of the broad issues facing women, from domestic concerns to the vital social and labour issues of the time. The impetus for the setting up of the union was a successful strike of 3,000 women over a pay claim against Jacob’s on 22 August.108
The presence of Skeffington as an advocate for women’s higher education and a leading suffrage campaigner, underlined the strong support of militant trade unionists for social and economic progress for women. Markiewicz declared that the new union would improve conditions for working women, help them to win the vote, and a chorus of cheering and laughter was provoked when she proclaimed “… and thus make men of you all”.109
While the women that worked in Jacob’s had better working conditions than many in the sweat shops in the city, their wages were still low, especially in comparison to their male workmates. Workers were paid according to age, sex and marital status. Married and older men (no. 1s) were at the top end of the scale, young men and boys next (no. 2s) and women, who were considered as mere contributors to a family’s overall income, came bottom of the wage scale, regardless of hours worked or tasks performed. For example, the average wage for Bakehouse Girls was 8 Shillings 2 Pence while Bakehouse Men No. 1 were paid 28 Shillings 7 Pence.110
George Jacob was a Quaker and, similar to other employers who were part of that religious group such as Cadbury and Rowntree in England, they regarded themselves as “model employers” with “model factories”. Despite their highly righteous self image, these employers were amongst the most strident opponents of the ‘Factories Acts’ in the nineteenth century, which sought to bring in minimum standards and work conditions.
Quaker employers were involved in many momentous industrial battles as new unionism evolved. Perhaps the most famous of these, alongside locking out workers in Dublin in 1913, was the pivotal 1888 match-workers’ strike when 672 match-girls struck against Bryant and May in London, led by Annie Beasant.111
There were regular articles in the Irish Worker complaining of problems in Jacob’s. In June 1911, a writer pointed to instances of girls being sacked for taking up collections for wedding or other presents for colleagues, while the staff were “terrorised” into giving donations for a wedding present for Jacob’s own daughter. Commenting on the “philanthropic firm of Jacob’s” sacking of workers with long service in the run up to Christmas 1911, Larkin wondered “did Mr George Jacob ever read Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol”.112
As awake as the men
A series of strikes were undertaken by women workers in 1912-13 as the IWWU began to organise and grow. In her ‘Women Workers’ Column’ in the Irish Worker, Delia Larkin summed up the growing militancy of women: “The women of Ireland are as awake as the men, they are weary of being white slaves who pass their lives away toiling to fill the pockets of the unscrupulous employers”.113
This was no false rhetoric, the majority of women workers were paid scandalously low wages, between 2 Shillings 6 Pence and 6 Shillings (13c and 32c) for a full week’s work. Sackmakers in Keoghs, with over 12 years service, were paid 6 Shillings a week. A short strike in Keoghs in May 1912 led to a pay rise. Despite the pittance they were paying, some companies tried to cut wages further.
According to Helena Molony, political activist, feminist and Abbey actor, the employers began a major campaign of intimidation to reduce even these low wages and attempted to force women to sign a commitment to stay away from Liberty Hall and the IWWU or else face dismissal.114 Strikes and disputes ensued in the Savoy Café, Pembroke Laundry and Maguire and Patterson.
While working women were beginning to demand their rights in the workplace, the suffrage movement was also campaigning vigorously for the right of women to vote. Links were built between militant suffragettes and the labour movement. James Connolly was forthright in his support for suffrage and keen to build links between the labour and suffrage movements. Writing in The Re-conquest of Ireland in 1915, he said:
“In Ireland the women’s cause is felt by all labour men and women as their cause … the labour cause has no more earnest and whole-hearted supporters than the militant women”.
Many women active in the suffrage movement supported the struggle of the workers in 1913 and performed important support roles during the strike. This support was reciprocation for previous labour support, as the suffrage paper The Irish Citizen commented on 6 September 1913:
“The men of Mr. Larkin’s union also frequently interfered, at the rowdy meetings in Dublin last year, to protect Suffragettes from the hooliganism of the Ancient Order of Hibernians – the body that is now organising the strike breakers”.115
When the Lockout began, women were very quickly involved in the affray. On Saturday 30 August, five days into the dispute, serious rioting broke out around Dublin city. Beginning initially at a football match in Ringsend between Bohemians and Shelbourne, in which some scabs were allegedly playing, fighting continued all the way up Brunswick Street into the city centre. A clerical colleague of Archbishop Walsh, Father Curran, witnessed some of the events. His description of some of the events is illuminating, both of his personal attitudes and of the role played by women and youth.
A box in the face
“At every street corner along Brunswick Street there were large groups of people, chiefly women and children of the degraded class … As the tram passed each group they … behaved like frenzied lunatics. They shouted coarse language and threats at the tramwaymen, and with violent gestures indicated the fate that awaited the ‘scabs’ … Not only men, but women with hair all dishevelled, and even young girls of 15 or 16, rushed and surged around the police. The women, indeed, almost eclipsed the men with their wild cries, shaking their fists in the very faces of the constables, hitting them on the back and pulling them and their prisoners about. One obsessed creature seized an empty coal bag and belaboured the constable to the utmost of her power.”116
Women were to the forefront of the fighting for the remainder of the evening. Women from the slum areas came out “armed with bottles and stones”. Some four or five hundred rioters were chased by police into Corporation Street and Foley Street, into Corporation Buildings. After some hours of back and forth battling, the police were eventually beaten back by the rioters, which included many women, at 1:20 am, having sustained 17 serious casualties.117
During 1913, 50 women were charged with assaulting a constable, 15 women were arrested in connection with indictable offences and 30 for non-indictable offences in relation to charges of intimidation. Two women were charged with indictable rioting offences. One of the tenants from Foley Street, Mary Ashbourne, was fined £2 or given the option of a month in prison.
The report of the Mountjoy Jail visiting committee for 1913 comments on the number of young girls sent to the jail in connection with the dispute.118 One of the youngest of these was Mary Ellen Murphy, a 16 year old Jacob’s worker from York Street, who was remanded for a week and then given a months imprisonment for
“…assaulting one of the girls employed by Messrs Jacob by giving her a box on the face and calling her a ‘scab’ on the morning of the 3rd [of November], and with acting in a similar manner in the afternoon of the same day when complainant was returning from dinner.”119
Transferred from Mountjoy because of pressure of space for women, Mary Ellen was put into a reformatory run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Drumcondra. Fearing that she had been put in their Magdalen Institution, Connolly denounced a ‘Sisterhood’, without naming the specific order, at a rally in Beresford Place.120
A photograph of 21 jailed IWWU members taken on the steps of Liberty Hall and entitled ‘Freedom’s Martyrs’, shows just how young most were.121 Many of these have not been individually identified but they are thought to include: Kathleen Lynn, Jennie Shanahan, Bridget Brady, Mollie O’Reilly, Bridget Davis, Annie Norgrove, Emily Norgrove, Bessie Lynch and a Ms. Connolly. Delia Larkin and Lily Kempson are the only subjects definitely identified to date.122
On the morning of the city centre riots, Saturday 30 August, a notice had been put up in Jacob’s forbidding the wearing of union badges in the factory. George Jacob insisted that the wearing of union badges was intimidating non-union workers. A shipment of flour was delivered from Shackleton’s, another company owned by a Quaker situated in Lucan, which had locked out workers who were members of the ITGWU. Three men in the mixing lofts refused to handle the flour and were dismissed. The Bakehouse firemen did not turn up for work on Sunday, 31 August. According to the report in the Irish Worker on 6 September:
“On Monday morning three girls wearing their union badges were approached by Jacob’s tool, Miss Luke, and told to remove their badges. They refused to do so and were dismissed.”
On Monday, 1 September, 670 men and 303 women, essentially the ITGWU/IWWU membership in the company, absented themselves. This represented 63 percent of all the male employees, most of whom worked in Bakehouse production. While a much smaller percentage of female employees came out, significantly 60 percent of these also worked in the Bakehouse.123
Jacob reacted by closing the factory for two weeks, reopening it on 15 September insisting that no members of the ITGWU would be re-employed. On 15 October, six weeks into the strike, the company records show that 645 of the original female workforce had not returned to work, despite the company’s ultimatum that they would be sacked.
More pluck, more endurance, more solidarity
As yet, very little detailed historical follow-up seems to have been done on the working class women strikers of the Lockout. The women that stayed out were amongst the most vociferous of the strikers, ever present at demonstrations, pickets and involved in much anti-scab activity. Of these, Rosie Hackett was the most well known.
Hackett had been a leading lay union organiser in the factory and was amongst the hundreds that were never given their jobs back. Hackett went on to work closely with Connolly in Liberty Hall. Working alongside Delia Larkin, she organised a workroom in Liberty Hall that provided work for those women victimised for their role during the Lockout. Rosie Hackett marched out with the Citizen Army at Easter 1916.124
A ‘Ladies’ Committee’ was set up by Delia Larkin to feed the families of strikers. Many feminists, initially motivated by a desire to assist these efforts in Liberty Hall, became more involved in the labour movement. Louie Bennett, who along with Helen Chenevix and Helena Molony, were soon to become the leadership of the IWWU, began her involvement by assisting in Liberty Hall. She later wrote,
“At that time I belonged to the respectable middle class and I did not dare to admit to my home circle that I had run with the crowd to hear Jim Larkin, and crept like a culprit into Liberty hall to see Madame Markievicz in a big overall, with sleeves rolled up, presiding over a cauldron of stew, surrounded by a crowd of gaunt women and children carrying bowls and cans.”125
Dora Montefiore, socialist and feminist, was amongst the initiators of the ill-fated scheme to bring children of strikers to the homes of sympathisers in England for some relief from deprivation. Montefiore had come to Dublin to support the strikers and, along with Grace Neal, former organiser of the Domestic Workers’ Union and fellow American Lucille Rand, worked in the soup kitchens of Liberty Hall.126
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of women enthusiastically fought the good fight in 1913. Working class women, no longer content to be the “slaves of slaves”, battled bravely against the tyrannical employers, the state, the police, the courts and the Church. Remaining on strike until March 1914, the women of Jacob’s were amongst the last to sue for a return to work. Unfortunately, given the grinding poverty in the city, the company had by this stage replaced most of the strikers. Between four and five hundred women never returned to their former jobs. Dozens, like the young 14 year old Lily Kempson, were imprisoned.127
Delia Larkin put in enormous efforts to find alternative employment, setting up the IWWU Dramatic Society initially, but attempting then to build the Irish Women Workers Co-operative Society which struggled to survive in the gloomy aftermath of the dispute. James Connolly, along with Helena Molony, Rosie Hackett and Jennie Shanahan continued to try to provide work in Liberty Hall when Delia Larkin was forced to return to Liverpool.
Some 500 members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union were among the mourners in the funeral procession for Alice Brady on 3 January.128 Speaking at the funeral, Jim Larkin paid tribute to the women of 1913:
“In their seventeen weeks’ fight, no section had shown more pluck and endurance and solidarity than the women workers”.129
By Ray McLoughlin
93 Newsinger, Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement, p. 105.
94 Workers’ Republic, 29 May 1915.
95 Arnold Wright, Disturbed Dublin: The Story of the Great Strike of 1913-14 (London, 1914), p. 29.
96 Marget Ward, ‘Suffrage first, above all else – An account of the Irish Suffrage Movement’, Feminist Review, No. 10 (Spring, 1982), pp 21-36.
97 Mary Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies, A History of the Irish Women Workers Union (Dublin, 1988), p. 3.
98 Alison Buckley, ‘ ’Let the Girls Come Forth’: The Early feminist Ideology of the Irish Women Workers’ Union’ in A. Hayes and D. Uruqhart (eds), Irish Women’s History (Dublin, 2004), p. 105.
99 R. C. Owens, A social history of women in Ireland 1870-1970 (Dublin, 2005), p. 194.
100 Ibid., pp 194-9.
101 Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies, A History of the Irish Women Workers Union, p. 4.
102 Ward, ‘Suffrage first, above all else – An account of the Irish Suffrage Movement’, pp 21-36.
103 Owens, A social history of women in Ireland 1870-1970, pp 196-7.
104 Theresa Moriarty, ‘Larkin and the Women’s Movement’ in Nevin, James Larkin, Lion of the Fold, p. 96. ; Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies, A History of the Irish Women Workers Union, p. 2.
105 Patricia McCaffrey, ‘Jacob’s Women Workers during the 1913 Lockout’, Saothar, vol. 16 (1991), pp 118-129.
106 Yeates, Lockout, Dublin 1913, pp 53-4.
107 Patrick J. Stephenson, ‘The Antient Concert Rooms’, Dublin Historical Record, vol. 5, no. 1 (1942), p. 7.
108 Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies, A History of the Irish Women Workers Union, p. 2.
109 Buckley, ‘ ’Let the Girls Come Forth’: The Early feminist Ideology of the Irish Women Workers’ Union’, p. 104.
110 McCaffery, ‘Jacob’s Women Workers during the 1913 Lockout’, pp 118-129.
111 Michael Rowlinson, ‘Quaker Employers’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, no. 6 (1998), pp 163-98.
112 Newsinger, Rebel City: Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement, p. 27.
113 Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies, A History of the Irish Women Workers Union, pp 5-6.
114 Ibid., p. 9.
115 Nevin, James Larkin, Lion of the Fold, p. 94.
116 Yeates, Lockout, Dublin 1913, p. 50.
117 Ibid., pp 56-7.
118 Ibid., pp 96-7.
119 Peter Murry, ‘A Militant Among The Magdalens? Mary Ellen Murphy’s Incarceration in High Park Convent During the 1913 Lockout’, Saothar, vol. 20 (1995), p. 41.
120 Yeates, Lockout, Dublin 1913, p. 412.
121 ‘National Archives of Ireland’,
122 ‘Freedom’s Martyrs Project’, (http://womenworkersunion.ie/?page_id=231).
123 McCaffrey, ‘Jacob’s women workers during the 1913 Lockout’, pp 122-3.
124 F. Devine and M. O’Riordan, James Connolly, Liberty Hall and the Easter Rising (Dublin, 2006), pp 75-83.
125 R. C. Owens, ‘Louie Bennett’ in M Cullen and M. Luddy (eds), Female Activists: Irish Women and Change, 1900-1960 (Dublin, 2001), p. 44.
126 Nevin, James Larkin, Lion of the Fold, p. 98.
127 Ibid., p. 100. ; ‘Irish women workers union’,
128 Irish Times, 5 January 1914.
129 Nevin, James Larkin, Lion of the Fold, p.101.