A Century of Women
The period between 1910 and 1920 witnessed some of the most turbulent events in Irish history as the Home Rule crisis intensified and suffragists, unionists and republicans all became involved in an issue of huge significance. Women were also engaged in the labour movement. With the advent of World War 1, women participated in both the war effort and also in anti-war campaigns. The 1916 Easter Rising was mainly focused in Dublin and Galway, but a small group of women from the north travelled to Dublin to warn the leadership of the confusion that existed in the north due to the countermanding orders published in the newspapers.
In 1918 the vote was granted throughout Britain and Ireland to women over 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. The 1918 elections saw two women standing for election for the first time, one in Dublin and one in Belfast, both representing Sinn Fein.
The suffrage movement reached a peak of activity with the start of militant action by those frustrated with the slow pace of reform. Many small suffrage groups were formed throughout Ireland. A militant suffrage society, the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), which took its inspiration from Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England, had been formed in Dublin in 1908. Members were imprisoned from 1912 as a result of militant actions when it became clear that women were not going to be included within the home rule bill and therefore would not have the vote in an independent Ireland. A small branch of the IWFL was formed in Belfast during the initial phases of the First World War, initiated by Margaret McCoubrey, but it did not last beyond 1915.
In Belfast, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS) held 47 open-air meetings in Belfast between 1912-13, but members moved on to join the Pankhurst organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, when it set up an ‘Ulster Centre’ in Belfast in October 1913. Between January and August 1914, there were a number of militant acts in the north, with seven women imprisoned in Crumlin Road jail – WSPU organisers Dorothy Evans, Madge Muir and Mary Larmour and local women Mabel Small, Maud Wickham, Lilian Metge and Dorothy Carson. Three years earlier, 1911, Louie Bennett had formed the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation as an umbrella organisation to link the groups together, By 1914 it had 26 affiliated societies. Altogether, it was reckoned that the Irish suffrage movement had an estimated 3,000 members. The northern secretary for the Federation was Dora Mellone, an English woman living in Warrenpoint.
During the period, women spinners and weavers began to organise in Belfast. Mary Galway worked with spinners through her Textile Operatives Society and, in 1911, James Connolly formed the Irish Textile Workers’ Union as the women’s section of the Irish Transport Union, seeking to organise women in the large linen mills of York Street and the Falls Road. The Irish Women Workers’ Union had been formed in 1911 in Dublin by James Larkin, with his sister Delia as organising secretary, but Connolly wanted women to be given union membership alongside men. The women went on strike, unsuccessfully, against short time and oppressive rules, in 1911. Maire Johnson, unpaid, was the first organiser, but Winifred Carney took over the role in 1912, earning a smaller wage than if she had continued to work outside the trade union movement. Ellen ‘Nellie’ Gordon, a doffing mistress in a spinning mill in east Belfast also began work with the union in 1912, becoming an impressive speaker at factory gate meetings and public meetings at venues like the Custom House. Connolly’s commitment to women’s equality was evident in his pamphlet The Re-Conquest of Labour, published in 1915, where he devoted a chapter to ‘Woman’, describing the double burden of work and home, ‘So her whole life runs – a dreary pilgrimage from one drudgery to another, the coming of children but serving as milestones in her journey to signalise fresh increases to her burdens, and declaring ‘None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter.’
When the Unionist campaign against the Home Rule bill going through the Houses of Parliament intensified, women joined in. On 23 January 1911 the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council (UWUC) was formed. The UWUC mirrored the position taken by Sir Edward Carson in their hostility to the suffrage movement. 234,046 members signed the Women’s Declaration against home rule in September 1912. However, because they lacked the vote, they were deemed by Unionist men to be ineligible to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. By 1913 the UWUC claimed a membership of between 115,000 and 200,000 members, making it the largest organisation of women in the whole of Ireland.
The formation of Cumann na mBan in 1914, the female counterpart to the Irish Volunteers, gave women throughout Ireland the opportunity to participate in militant nationalist activity, as nationalists prepared to defend the anticipated home rule against Unionist opposition. While Belfast members were the only ones in the north to be active in 1916, in the post-rising period, branches of the organisation were formed in Antrim, Derry, Newry, Tyrone, Mid/South Armagh, Omagh and Dromore. Members worked in tandem with the IRA during the war of independence and a number of the women served prison sentences in Armagh jail as a consequence.
During the Great War of 1914-18, women participated in the war effort in a wide variety of ways; in the Red Cross, in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (in which at least 18 died), as members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (which had around 4,500 Irish women), as collectors of sphagnum moss for surgical dressings, and as fundraisers for equipment and comforts for the troops. Some volunteered as munitions workers in Mackies factory. Life was difficult with rising food prices and short time working in the textile industry which suffered from a shortage of flax due to war conditions. While the wives of those in the forces received a ‘Separation Allowance’, there was much scrutiny of their behaviour and the threat of stoppage for those considered morally ‘unworthy’. Lack of equality, in wages and in war bonuses, led to a number of protests and strikes amongst factory workers and professional women such as teachers and shop workers.
What was known as the ‘Spanish flu’ swept across Europe in 1918/1919 and a total of 2 million deaths were reported. 20,057 people died in Ireland. During October-December 1918, Leinster and Ulster were the worst affected provinces in Ireland, with Belfast having the highest rates of 3.85 per thousand deaths. In the textile areas of Belfast, Derry, Lurgan and Lisburn, the working conditions of women textile workers, particularly those aged between 25 and 35, encouraged the rapid spread of infection.
Culturally, women were active as writers and artists. Marjorie Robinson from north Belfast was a gifted painter of miniature portraits. She returned to Belfast from London at the outbreak of war and had exhibitions in London and Belfast. Helen Waddell, educated at Victoria College and Queen’s University, had the first performance of her play ‘The Spoilt Buddha’ at the Grand Opera House in 1915. The suffragist, Elizabeth Priestly McCracken, wrote under the name L.A.M. McCracken and her book, ‘The Feminine in Fiction’, a pioneering study of how women were depicted in key works of fiction, was published in 1918.
By the end of 1920 much had changed, although women in the industrial workforce now faced a return to the home as men returning from the war claimed the right to their jobs and argued against the ‘dilution’ of wages caused by women in the workforce. Women over 30 with a property qualification had the vote; the first woman to be elected to Westminster was an Irish woman, Countess Markievicz (although she did not take her seat); women were in local government and nationalist women were active in resistance to partition as the Government of Ireland Act legislated for Ireland to be partitioned into two entities.
Ulster Women's Unionist Council is formed.
Women in York Street mill go on strike for 2 weeks but are unsuccessful.
James Connolly establishes the women’s section of the Irish Textile Workers’ Union with Marie Johnson first worker. Winifred Carney becomes secretary and Nellie Gordon organiser.
Dr Elizabeth Bell from Newry and Margaret Robinson of Whitehead is imprisoned in Holloway Jail, London, after throwing stones at department stores during suffragette protests.
Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation is formed. Dora Mellone, secretary of Warrenpoint and Newry Suffrage Society, heads the Northern Committee of the Federation.
Women in Ireland are admitted to county and borough councils as voters and as candidates.
The National Health Insurance Act Part I is introduced, providing for a National Insurance scheme with the provision of medical benefits such as sick leave, access to free treatment for tuberculosis, some relief for maternity and entitlement to treatment by a panel doctor.
International Women’s Day is honoured for the first time, on 19th March, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
In February, Christabel Pankhurst speaks at a meeting in the Grand Opera House.
Girls, in Belfast, become members of the Betsy Gray Sluagh, the only Fianna branch to accept females as members.
Windows are broken in the Post Office, Donegall Square, in protest at the defeat of a Home Rule amendment which would have given Irish women the vote.
James Connolly and Winifred Carney publish a Manifesto 'To the linen slaves of Belfast'.
From 1912-1913, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS) holds 47 open air meetings in Belfast.
Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) sets up the ‘Ulster Centre’ in Belfast.
WSPU organiser Dorothy Evans speaks at ‘very rowdy event’ in Queen’s College, with 40 suffragettes outnumbered by 200 male students.
Ellen Gordon represents Belfast linen workers at Irish Trades Union Congress in Cork.
Riddell Hall is established as a university Hall of Residence for women by Eliza and Isabella Riddell - the building itself will open in 1915.
Florence Hobson, architect, delivers a lecture on town planning at a meeting in Central Library.
March 8th is agreed as the date for International Women’s Day around the world.
WSPU declares war on Ulster Unionists after Sir Edward Carson retracts promise of votes for women in Provisional Government in Ulster.
IWSS disbands as members join the WSPU.
Abbeylands House, Whiteabbey, is burned to the ground by suffragettes in protest against Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Unionism; the first of many militant acts by WSPU in Ulster.
Lilian Metge from Lisburn and other WSPU members attempt to blow up Lisburn Cathedral.
Ellen Gordon represents Belfast linen workers at Irish Trades Union Congress in Dublin.
August - First World War starts and WSPU withdraws from Ulster in order to support the war effort.
Margaret McCoubrey tries to set up a branch of the Irish Women’s Franchise League in Belfast for women who oppose the war and continue to support fight for suffrage.
Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan forms, with the first meeting held in Bank Street.
Lady Carson opens an 86-bed, UVF hospital in Belfast in January.
Ulster Women’s Unionist Council present a fully equipped ambulance to the Ulster Division.
Nurses from County Tyrone travel to Pau, France, to work in a hospital established by Ulster unionists.
Margaret McCoubrey delivers an address to the Ulster Socialist Party on ‘The Chivalry of War’.
Seven women from Ireland, including Dora Mellone and Margaret McCoubrey, are chosen to attend Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague in April, but are unable to do so as the government refuses them travel warrants.
Edith, Lady Londonderry, forms the Women’s Legion in July, becoming the first women’s voluntary organisation to be accepted for military service.
Belfast Cumann na mBan members take part in the O’Donovan Rossa funeral parade in Dublin.
Sylvia Pankhurst visits Belfast as part of a campaign to support equal pay for women doing war work. She speaks at a suffrage meeting organised by Elizabeth Priestly McCracken.
Helen Waddell’s play ‘The Spoilt Buddha’ is first performed at the Grand Opera House.
James Connolly publishes his pamphlet ‘The Re-Conquest of Labour’
Easter Rising - Six Belfast Cumann na mBan members; Nora and Ina Connolly; Elizabeth and Nell Corr; Eilis Allen and Katheen Murphy - in GPO after the unsuccessful mobilisation of northern Volunteers in Coalisland. The six also act as couriers between Tyrone and Dublin.
Former suffragist, Dr Elizabeth Bell, travels to Malta to work for the British war effort.
In October, a meeting in the Ulster Hall demands equal pay and equal war bonus for women teachers. Julie McMordie, Margaret McCoubrey and Dora Mellone are among the speakers.
In November, Women in York Street mill stage a one-week strike for an increase in wages or increase in working hours. More join the Textile Operatives Society. Mary Galway is involved in the establishment of a Trade Board to regulate the working conditions of workers in the textile industry.
Twenty four local girls, employed in the pantomime staged by the Grand Opera House, after working for 56 hours and receiving 1/6d, go on strike in protest against the low wage they received. (According to the Belfast and District Trades Council minutes, January 1916).
Winifred Carney released from Aylesbury Jail in December.
Elizabeth Corr and May Wisely of Cumann na mBan are sent to represent Belfast women in Longford Election campaign, which is won by Sinn Fein.
All remaining political prisoners are released in June.
Margaret McCoubrey speaks on behalf of Women’s Peace Crusade at an open-air meeting in Bangor.
Representation of the People Act, enfranchising all men over 21 and most women over 30 (ratepayers or married to ratepayers), is passed by Westminster.
Women active in the anti-conscription campaign across Ireland.
Belfast Cumann na mBan organise visiting rotas for Republican prisoners in Crumlin Road jail after the ‘German Plot’ arrests.
In November, Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act enables women to stand for election.
Winifred Carney is the first woman to stand for election in Belfast; Carney is unsuccessful, but Constance Markievicz is elected for Sinn Fein in Dublin.
Belfast Suffrage Society changes its name to Women’s Political League ‘as members no longer suffragists but citizens’.
Ulster Unionist Julia McMordie co-opted to Belfast Corporation.
Belfast feminist, Elizabeth Priestly McCracken’s book, ‘The Feminine in Fiction’, is published.
The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act (1919) forces most women to leave their war-time roles and factories revert to peacetime production.
Sex Disqualification Act allows women to practice law.
Cumann na mBan, and other nationalist organisations, are declared illegal organisations and public meetings are proscribed.
Shipyard, gas, electricity and transport works in Belfast go on strike for a 44-hour working week. Strike ends after a month when workers granted a 47 hour week.
Government of Ireland Act (also known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill) is passed by the UK parliament with the intention of forming a six north-eastern counties institution of ‘Northern Ireland’ and a ‘Southern Ireland’ state comprised of 26 counties.
Local government elections in January and June. 43 women are elected throughout Ireland. Margaret McCoubrey is elected Labour councillor for the Dock ward, Belfast.
IRA campaign in the north begins with the burning of Belfast tax offices.
In July, a pogrom, against Catholics in Belfast, leaves thousands homeless and many as refugees.
In August, Dail Eireann sanctions a boycott of goods from Belfast, known as the ‘Belfast Boycott’. Eithne Coyle, Cumann na mBan activist from Donegal, holds up trains from the north and seizes Belfast newspapers.
Shelagh-Mary Rea, ‘Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell (1862 – 1934) - The First Woman to Graduate In Medicine And Practice In Ulster’, Ulster Medical Journal 2017;86 (3):189-195.
Myrtle Hill, ‘Women, War and Welfare: The Co-operative Crusades of Margaret Taylor McCoubrey, 1880-1956’, Familia, Ulster Genealogical Journal, no. 32 (2016), pp. 38-59
Maedbh McNamara and Paschal Mooney, Women in Parliament: Ireland: 1918-2000 (Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 2000)
Diana Urquhart, ‘Ora at Labora: The Women’s Legion, 1915-18’ in Gillian McIntosh and Diane Urquhart (eds) Irish Women at War (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010).
Margaret Ward, The Women of Belfast Cumann na mBan: Easter Week and After (Belfast: Failte Feirst Thiar, 2017) also online http://www.visitwestbelfast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/belfast-women-low-res.pdf
Helga Woggon, Silent Radical – Winifred Carney, 1887-1943: A Reconstruction of her Biography (Dublin: SIPTU, 2000).