Women's work

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

In 1905, Mary Ann Kelly persuaded her adoring husband to sell his Kilkenny farm and buy her a drapery shop in Rathangan, Co Kildare. She was not unusual in her aspiration. The number of women drapers in their own right (not the wives of male drapers) rose by 40 per cent between 1891 and 1911.

More Irish girls and women than ever before, of all social classes, were leaving home regularly to take part in some kind of public life – work, schooling, buying and selling, activism and entertainment. Trades of all kinds struggled against the ready-made goods in shops, but female dressmakers and milliners (often working for and in drapery shops) held their own, as demand for reasonably priced, fashionable women’s clothes soared.

While factory workers and servants saved their finery for their time off, teachers, nurses, secretaries, clerks in offices, telegraphists and telephonists needed to look presentable all day, every day. Their numbers rose dramatically in the quarter-century before the first World War.

National school teaching was the great career opportunity for girls from skilled working-class and small-farming backgrounds in Ireland. On-the-job training was sometimes paid, and scholarships increasingly available, so the burden on low-income parents was bearable. The first female president of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (1912-14) was Catherine Mahon from Birr; her parents were domestic servants. (National teaching was a lifelong job; the marriage bar was only introduced in 1933 for those qualifying on or after that date.)

Nursing was another lifelong career opportunity; a trained nurse could work in a hospital or on a private basis in the community, or for the Poor Law Union or Lady Dudley or Jubilee nursing associations. Women in jobs like these were the backbone of the cultural, political and social organisations that sprang up all over the country from the 1890s.

Annie MP Smithson, who took part in revolutionary nationalism and later became a prominent trade unionist and popular novelist, was a community nurse in the first two decades of the 20th century. Women from Jacobs Mills took part in the 1916 Rising, and factory workers on the island as a whole were also active in “war work” in 1914-18, nationalist organisations and Ulster unionism. In Dublin, Limerick and Cork they attended Irish classes and took part in amateur dramatics.

Women’s factory work was mostly concentrated in the spinning mills and weaving and shirt factories of Belfast and Derry, which employed tens of thousands of women. Textiles also employed Munster women, though on a much smaller scale; the main factory employment of women outside Ulster was food processing of various kinds – biscuit-making, confectionery, jam-making and butter-blending. Meanwhile, “monster houses” (department stores) in cities and towns hired attractive and well-spoken young women as sales assistants. They usually lived-in, in dangerously cramped dormitories, and were on their feet for 12-hour days with only short breaks – but considered their jobs more desirable than domestic service.

Desirable or not, domestic service occupied 30 per cent of the Irish female workforce on the eve of the first World War. Always the default occupation for girls whose parents could not afford to put them to a trade, service could be a good or a bad job, depending on the employer’s sense of responsibility and the servant’s ability to learn on the job and “better herself”. Unless they were especially skilled (eg as a cook or a ladies’ maid), women did not usually remain in service beyond their late 20s.

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