Part One: Women Workers In The 1916 Rising
18th March 2016
In 1916, large numbers of women were beginning to take part in active politics, although they still did not have the right to vote. These women came from diverse backgrounds and united in common causes such as suffrage, the rights of workers, and cultural activities including the revival of the Irish language and music.
Words: Sinéad McCoole
The revolutionary years in Ireland (1900-1923) coincided with a change in women’s position in society. In 1882 the law, which had deemed a wife her husband’s property, was repealed. More women were in the workforce in positions of influence as teachers, nurses, doctors, and in administration as typists and clerks.
Women from all of these professions were ‘out’ in the 1916 Easter Rising alongside those who worked as shop assistants and factory workers. It was the women who were working in factories that led the way in Ireland in the fight for rights and social justice through the labour movement.
Women went on strike and their demands were met – the time for organised solidarity had arrived. In 1910 Rosie Hackett (1892-1976) was one of the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory’s 2,083 female workers. In August, the 17-year-old packer went on strike for better pay and conditions – she was known for her outspoken support of her fellow workers. Rosie was born and raised in Dublin’s inner city, close to the bridge spanning the River Liffey, which now bears her name. She represents the ordinary worker who saw the value of collective action.
Two weeks after the famous Jacobs strike, Rosie cofounded the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU), along with Delia Larkin. This was an all female union with members from a wide range of occupations including confectionery makers, laundry workers and flower sellers. Inspired by the leadership of James Larkin and James Connolly, the strikes became more frequent.
In 1913 there was another strike in Jacob’s Factory and this time Rosie was left unemployed. She went to work in the worker’s cooperative and was active in Liberty Hall, when over 20,000 Dublin workers took part in what became known as the ‘Lockout’. It began in 1913 and continued until the early months of 1914. Women came to Liberty Hall to assist with the distribution of food to the strikers and their families.
One of these women was Countess de Markievicz (1868-1927) an artist and an actress, who came to the national, social and labour causes in her forties. This leader of women was born Constance Gore Booth in London and her family had an estate at Lissadell in Sligo where she spent much of her childhood.
In 1900 she married an artist, the Polish Count de Markievicz, but became known to her contemporaries as ‘Madame’ and in more recent generations as ‘the Countess.’ During the Lockout she addressed meetings and assisted at the soup kitchen in Liberty Hall. She later told how her time in Liberty Hall gave her an insight into social conditions prevailing in Dublin and she was consumed with “an intense desire” to end these conditions and “replace them with a just social order.”
Contemporaries recall her “dressed in trousers and smoking cigarettes. … working day and night collecting funds and serving meals in the food kitchen. Her home has become a sort of refugee camp for all those who had got into trouble with the police.”
In November 1913 the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) or worker’s militia was formed as a defense corps for the protection of the workers at strike meetings. By 1914 the ICA, then under the leadership of James Connolly, had become an ‘Irish Revolutionary Army’. It was the first Irish Army to admit women to its ranks and give them equal status and the gender neutral term of ‘citizen’ was used.
In 1915 Connolly wrote: “None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them … In the march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to fight them off, … the women’s army forges ahead of the militant army of labour.”
When some of the men complained that the women’s section would be an encumbrance in the event of an uprising James Connolly responded that if none of the men turned out, the fight would go on with the women.