Friday 18 October 2019

Guns for hire: our sisters in arms

As the British pumped cash into making better artillery for the war effort, Irish women were cashing in with high-paid factory jobs, writes Damian Corless

The Dublin Dockland War Munitions Factory in East Wall, which employed hundreds of local women, nicknamed 'Munitionettes'.
The Dublin Dockland War Munitions Factory in East Wall, which employed hundreds of local women, nicknamed 'Munitionettes'.
The Kynoch plant in Arklow, Co Wicklow.

When the government issued its first "Recall To Work" notices in the aftermath of the Rising, the workers most urgently needed were those in the "Food, Munition and Coal Trades". Just weeks earlier, scores of Irish men and women had taken the mailboat to England, lured by an advert that appeared in the Irish Independent advertising jobs "in connection with a new munition factory" across the Irish Sea. Jobseekers were enticed with the prospects of: "Good wages. Time and quarter Saturday afternoon. Time and a half Sunday. Five shilling bonus for good timekeeping."

Thousands of Irish already formed a sizeable chunk of the 80,000-strong workforce at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal in London where Edward Curran, later to become one of Ireland's biggest industrialists, was making his first fortune supplying giant furnaces to mould howitzer brass shell cases. And while the scale of the armaments business on this island in no way compared, it still formed part of a war economy here that provided much-needed job opportunities while paying far higher wages than the norm, especially for women. With men needed for the trenches, the War Ministry had slapped a low recruitment quota on men and boys.

While Ireland's biggest arm of the British war machine, the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, remained largely an all-male preserve, women were in demand to manufacture uniforms in Dublin, Limerick and Belfast, aeroplane cloth and blankets at scattered locations, and leather military bits-and-bobs in Antrim and the Mayo town of Foxford.

While industrial accidents were common enough in all of these occupations, by far the most dangerous work involved the manufacture of bullets, shells and grenades. But despite the risks, the good money made munitions jobs the most coveted.

But these high-paying jobs were not won easily outside of industrialised Belfast. One year before the Rising, the British had suffered devastating losses at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. A post-mortem on the disaster showed that Britain's shells were damp squibs compared to those of the Germans, with as many as one-in-three so badly made they didn't even explode on impact. The British now pumped huge resources into making better artillery, but as this arms race began, Ireland - beyond industrialised Ulster - was left at the starting line. The Nationalist MP for Dublin Harbour, future Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne, lobbied hard for munitions jobs in the capital, and by the time of the Rising, the Dublin Dockland War Munitions Factory in East Wall and the National Shell Factory by the Phoenix Park had been set up, giving employment to hundreds of locals, mostly women. These women were nicknamed 'Munitionettes'.

With a whiff of rebellion in the air, securing a job giving access to high explosives usually involved providing good personal references. Many factory recruits were the wives, sisters and sweethearts of Irishmen in the trenches. By the time of the Rising, five new "national munition factories" were operational or in the set-up phase. These were in addition to the long-established Kynoch's explosive plant in Arklow and Waterford's Cartridge Factory.

Young women used to taking home as little as two shillings a week as lowly housemaids or shop assistants could now earn 10 times that sum assembling munitions. While the union movement in Ireland had taken a severe trouncing from employers during the Great Lockout of 1913, the Munitionettes were unionised by the increasingly powerful British-based National Federation of Women Workers, who forced Irish employers to honour the £1 (20 shilling) government minimum wage for the sector. With overtime and bonuses, some female workers at the Liffey Dockland Munitions Factory were said to bring home an unheard of 50 shillings per week.

Employing more than 2,000 at the time of the Rising, the country's biggest explosives factory, Kynoch's, had been rescued from the doldrums in the 1890s when an engineer suggested that it branch into producing cordite. This new explosive had been developed by Alfred Nobel, who'd invented dynamite some 20 years earlier. For centuries, gunpowder had been used as the explosive charge in bullets and shells, but cordite packed more punch, and was less vulnerable to heat or wet, making it safer for workers to handle and store.

That, at least, was the theory. In the years leading up to 1916, Kynoch's suffered many casualties - including several fatalities from explosions and acid burns, to the point where it eventually made sense to open its very own hospital next door.

But even while the casualty list grew, the spin-off in jobs and spending power made Kynoch's a key part of Arklow's economy. Most of the new workforce spilled in each day from the town's hinterland with others arriving by train. A hundred-strong garrison of soldiers stood on round-the-clock guard duty.

As the workforce at Kynoch's soared from a couple of hundred pre-war, to a couple of thousand at the time of the Rising, Arklow's traders and B&B owners prospered, while the boom in the town's pub trade became a big worry for those running the explosives plant. Concerned that the drinking habits of workers could hamper productivity or worse, management came to an arrangement with the publicans to curb weekday opening, with the pubs shutting from 2-5pm and calling last orders at 10pm.

A German U-boat attack, rather than drink or sabotage, was initially blamed for an explosion in the Arklow plant that killed 27 workers and injured six in September 1917.

The blast happened at 4am, midway through the night shift. Had it occurred during the day, the death toll would have been far higher. Ruling out the submarine theory, the inquest delivered a verdict of accidental death, while one employee speculated that cloth hankies left to dry out on scorching steam pipes had caught fire, igniting the blast.

In the closing months of the war, as the British contemplated victory over the Germans and mounting unrest in Ireland, the process of dismantling our munitions factories began at a brisk pace, and by 1919 they had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

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