A good year to remember Rosie Hackett, a fighter for workers’ and women’s rights

Opinion: A doughty fighter who helped reorganise a union that represented 70,000 women

One hundred years after an ordinary young Dublin woman played an extraordinary role in the remarkable events unfolding around her, Rosie Hackett is back to make another little bit of history, this time at the start of the 21st century.

Rosie died 37 years ago after a life dedicated to her fellow workers, city and nation. Raised in humble circumstances, like many Dubliners she experienced the deprivation of tenement living. Rosie was, however, a natural leader and risked her livelihood, liberty and life itself to fight for the causes she believed in. She lost the former two on occasion and was fortunate to escape with the latter once or twice.

She was a tenacious fighter for the rights of all workers, but especially women. Through her links with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, the Irish Women Workers’ Union and Irish Citizen Army she helped secure conditions many of us now take for granted.

It has been suggested recently that she might have been embarrassed by making Dublin City Council's shortlist for the naming of the new Marlborough Street bridge ahead of James Connolly.

That may be right – it would be nice to think all five nominees would consider themselves unworthy – but it is hard to imagine Connolly, a firm supporter of workers’ rights and women’s rights, already honoured around the city, would not support his friend and colleague in becoming the first woman to have a bridge over the Liffey named in her memory. On this, the anniversary of the 1913 Lockout, there could hardly be a more appropriate choice.

Rosie, christened Rosanna, was born in 1892 in inner city Dublin. In 1901, she was living in a two-room rented flat, with six other family members and a lodger, in a tenement on Bolton Street. Later, at the time of the 1911 census she was living on Old Abbey Street – yards from the site of the new bridge.

Jacob's strike
She worked as a packer in a paper store, then became a messenger for Jacob's Biscuits. Conditions were so bad at the factory that Jim Larkin said they would send the biscuit makers "from this earth 20 years before their time".

On August 22nd, 1911 Rosie helped organise hundreds of Jacob’s women who withdrew their labour in support of male colleagues who were striking; with their help, the men won better conditions and a pay rise. Two weeks later, Rosie co-founded the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) with Delia Larkin. She was 18.

As the 1913 Lockout began, she helped mobilise the Jacob’s women. When tram workers went on strike, in August, Jacob’s workers came out in solidarity and, like others, were locked out by their employer.

During the Lockout, hunger and poverty were widespread. Rosie, with other IWWU members, worked tirelessly to help the strikers, setting up soup kitchens in Liberty Hall.

In 1914, Jacobs sacked her for her role in the Lockout. She worked as a clerk in the IWWU in Liberty Hall, alongside Delia Larkin and Helena Molony. There she became connected with the Irish Citizen Army.

With Constance Markievicz, Michael Mallon and others, she was in the Irish Citizen Army battalion in Stephen's Green and the Royal College of Surgeons during the Easter Rising. She was also in Liberty Hall as the first 1916 Proclamation was being printed and later told of having given the first copy to James Connolly.

Following the rebels’ surrender, she and the others were brought to Kilmainham Jail and imprisoned for 10 days.

In 1917, on the anniversary of Connolly’s death, the ITGWU hung a banner from Liberty Hall, saying: “James Connolly, Murdered May 12th, 1916.” The police removed it but, with Helena Molony, Jinny Shanahan and Brigid Davis, she made another. They climbed to the roof, nailed the doors shut and stacked coal against the windows. Rosie later bragged that it took 400 policemen to take down four women.

After the Rising, Rosie revived the IWWU with Louie Bennett and Helen Chenevix. At its strongest, it organised over 70,000 women and won an extra week of paid holidays for all workers after the 1945 laundry strike. In 1970, after 60 years of service to the labour movement, she was awarded a gold medal. Six years later, she died aged 82.

This, the centenary year of the Lockout, is ideal to commemorate Rosie's role in the fight for workers' rights. She is intrinsically linked to the area around the new Marlborough Street Bridge. Naming it in her honour would also be a fitting recognition of the contribution working class women have made to modern Ireland.

Jeni Gartland is a founding member of the Rosie Hackett Bridge Campaign. Dr Mary McAuliffe lectures at UCD's School of Social Justice and is the president of the Women's History Association of Ireland