Cissie Cahalan: A tenacious public speaker for the vote and workers’ rights

Vote 100: The Dubliner was among a small cohort of working-class suffragettes

 

Cissie Cahalan (1876-1948), trade unionist and suffragist, was born in Cork in 1876. Little is known of her early life, other than that she was apprenticed to the drapery trade, and by 1906 was based in Dublin where she worked as a draper’s assistant in Arnott’s on Henry Street.

Her involvement with the trade-union movement began in 1906, when she first met Michael O’Lehane, general secretary of the Irish Drapery Assistants Association, at a meeting in the Rotunda which had been organised after the deaths of two women workers in a drapery shop on Camden Street. She subsequently joined the union and became an active shop steward in Arnott’s.

Always anxious to raise the profile of women within the trade-union movement, she also organised the Ladies Committee of the Dublin branch of the Irish Drapery Assistants Association, which held educational seminars and encouraged women members to participate at all levels.

As one of the movement’s few working-class members, she was rather unusual in suffrage circles; however, this did not prevent her becoming a key figure in the league

She became a regular contributor to the union’s journal, the Draper’s Assistant (later the Distributive Worker), from 1912. Her articles, which reflected the wide variety of her concerns, tackled issues such as women’s suffrage, the first World War and the need for greater gender equality in the workplace.

An enthusiastic and militant suffragist, she joined the Irish Women’s Franchise League around 1908. As one of the movement’s few working-class members, she was rather unusual in suffrage circles; however, this did not prevent her becoming a key figure in the league and, encouraged by Francis Sheehy Skeffington, she became a regular contributor to the weekly meetings.

In later years she often chaired these discussions. A tenacious public speaker, she subsequently took part in their open-air meetings throughout Dublin, at which she frequently raised the social and economic problems faced by working women.

She took part in the Irish Women’s Franchise League deputation that travelled to Navan for the town’s first suffrage meeting in November 1913, and in the following month participated in the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation’s conference in Dublin, where she was listed among the speakers at a discussion on women’s trade unions and the vote.

These heavy commitments inevitably took their toll on Cahalan: writing to her friend Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in December 1918, she referred anxiously to a possible breakdown in her health. They may have also affected her career, as her high-profile suffrage campaigning is thought to have resulted in her dismissal from Arnott’s in 1916.

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She subsequently joined the staff of Rowes on North Earl Street, but was again unemployed after the Easter Rising, when the shop’s premises were destroyed. In her free time she turned to acting, taking part in Charity, a play written and produced by union members, in December 1916.

By early 1917 she had been reengaged by Arnott’s, and in the period that followed, continued to juggle her work there with increasing union, suffrage, and anti-conscription campaigns.

She played a pivotal role in organising the strike at Arnott’s in which up to 450 workers fought successfully for a 30 per cent wage increase

She was elected to the committee of the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1917 and 1918, and the executive committee of the Irish Drapery Assistants Association in April 1918. Later that year she played a pivotal role in organising the strike at Arnott’s in which up to 450 workers fought successfully for a 30 per cent wage increase.

Present at the All-Ireland Labour Conference on Conscription as an Irish Draper Assistants Association delegate in September 1918, she campaigned for Constance Markievicz during the general election of that year. Cahalan went on to canvass for women candidates in the local government elections of 1920, by which point she was also heavily involved in the management of the suffrage paper, the Irish Citizen.

A staunch defender of mixed-sex unions, she was critical of the Irish Women Workers’ Union of Louie Bennett, which she saw as perpetuating gender conflicts within the labour movement. The two women conducted a debate on the issue in the pages of the Irish Citizen in 1919, Cahalan arguing: “If women in the industrial world want a place in the labour movement, they must seek it in the labour parliament, shoulder to shoulder with the men, and not in any separate organisation, apart and isolated.”

Rising steadily through the ranks of the Irish Draper Assistants Association, she was elected vice-president of its Dublin branch in March 1920, and from 1919 to 1921 represented it as a delegate at the Irish Trades Union Congress. In April 1921 she was elected president of the union. The first and only woman to hold such a rank within the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks, throughout her three years as president she oversaw the establishment of a minimum wage and an end to the living-in system.

She did not shy away from controversy, coming into conflict with the executive during the postal workers’ strike in 1922, when she threatened to resign over the union’s failure to endorse her directive that members should not deliver company letters during the dispute.

She was elected to the national executive of the Irish Trades Union Congress in 1922 and 1923; her resignation from the congress and the Labour Party in August 1923 (over their supposed lack of interest in the position of political prisoners on hunger strike) proved unpopular with Irish Draper Assistants Association members, who replaced her as president in 1924. She continued to work for the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks both as a shop steward and as an active member of the central council of the Dublin branch.

A staunch defender of mixed-sex unions, she was critical of the Irish Women Workers’ Union which she saw as perpetuating gender conflicts within the labour movement

In November 1932 she was again sacked from Arnott’s. Her dismissal, which was widely considered to be a form of age discrimination, led to a two-week strike at the shop, after which she was not reinstated but received nine months’ paid salary.

Soon after, she married the Co Down-born chemist John Wesley Burns, who was known in the feminist and pacifist movements. With their friends Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Kathleen Cruise O’Brien, with whom they often went hiking in the Dublin mountains, they formed part of a circle of radicals known as “The Pilgrims”.

She became a member of the Women’s Social and Progressive League (established in 1937 to redress the new constitution’s standpoint on women), and for a short time again contributed articles to the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks’ journal.

In the mid-1940s she worked as an assistant secretary in St Ultan’s hospital on Dublin’s Charlemont Street. She died on August 27th, 1948, in Dublin, and was buried beside her husband in an unmarked grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.

From the Royal Irish Academy Dictionary of Irish Biography, published by Cambridge University Press

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