Friday 24 May 2019

Women in the nation’s capital struggled to survive – even before the Rising

Historian Ann Matthews on what life was like for women in Dublin

Ellen Byrne and her children were trapped in their home for days during the Easter Rising
Ellen Byrne and her children were trapped in their home for days during the Easter Rising

In 1916, Easter Sunday fell on April 4th, and the main preoccupations in Ireland were the Great War, the injured soldiers returning to Ireland and the setting up of Red Cross hospitals. But what was life like for the women of the city?


The spring equinox and the brighter longer days revealed the dust and grime of wintertime, and the imminent Easter holiday became the annual frenzy to clean out homes. It had become a vital part of every woman's life, whether she lived in a mansion, a comfortable house, employing servants, was a cottage dweller or lived in a Dublin tenement.

In the homes of the more wealthy it was an intense period of cleaning as the servant girls all returned to work after their one day off to visit their homes on Mother's day.

The mistresses of these homes also employed a daily charwomen to do the heavy work. Others who could not afford a servant might employ a charwoman one day a week.

For example, Mrs Caffrey who lived in Corporation Buildings worked as a charwoman. She was 31-years -ant daughter Christina, aged 22 months. She was paid the going rate of one shilling and sixpence a day plus extras. This meant she was probably given a meal, and some employers passed on their cast-off clothes to these women.

One of Mrs Caffrey's clients was a Mrs Connor, who owned a butcher shop at 5 Manor Street. She was a widow aged 88, her two sons ran the business, and they all lived above the shop, which comprised four rooms. Mrs Caffrey also worked for families in Prussia Street, Rathdown Road, Aughrim Street and Botanic Road. She earned 7/6 for a five-day week. Her husband a labourer brought home 10/- so the weekly family wage was 17/6.


The 'family wage' was and is still a working class concept because everyone who worked contributed to the home. Children of working class families generally left school at a young age to contribute to the family wage. The middle class were salaried and the artisan and lower working classes were paid weekly. For example, Éamonn Ceannt worked for Dublin Corporation and earned £250, which is just under £5 a week.

On his salary he could afford to rent his home, support his wife, and son, and keep a live-in servant. In contrast, James Connolly, general manager of the ITGWU, earned £2 a week (£104 a year). In 1916, his wife Lillie gave details of the family wage.

While he lived in Dublin his family lived in Belfast and the family wage was £5 8s. This was made up from James' pay, of £2, and remaining £3 8s came from his two daughters Nora and Ina, who worked in factories in Belfast. This was typical of many working-class families as the children went out to work early, and Connolly's children were bringing home the bulk of the family income was normal.

Connolly lived mostly in Dublin, at the house of Madam de Markievicz and paid for his lodgings. This meant that his two eldest daughters were keeping the family in Belfast.


The life of widows was to say the least precarious. The most well-known case of a descent into poverty is that of Sean O'Casey's mother, who lived in severe poverty in East Wall. There was no widow's pension and these women were generally left to survive as best they could. There were several widows' homes in the city run by the various religious charities.

My own grandmother, Ellen Byrne, was 33 in 1915. She had three children, an infant of eight months and two daughters aged 9 and 6. She was widowed in the wake of the 1913 Lockout and lived in Marlborough Street. That Easter weekend she enjoyed a brief respite from her daily life.

Mrs Byrne was a box maker and when her husband died, she went back to work at the Dublin Box Factory. She did not have an extended family and she was advised to put her children into an orphanage. She found a way around this and the Sisters of Charity in Gardiner Street came to her aid. Her two daughters attended the primary school run by the order in Gardiner Street and they had a crèche for infants of "respectable widows".

Every morning Mrs Byrne got the baby ready and the two girls made his breakfast and fed him, and then on their way to school they left him in the crèche. The girls were given dinner at school and after school, collected him, brought him home and took care of him until their mother returned from work. On this Easter weekend, they would relax and if the weather was fine they would go to Bray on the train.


After Easter 1916, life changed forever for these women. Christina Caffrey lost her infant daughter, Christina, when she was killed by a bullet outside their home. The infant was the second-youngest child to die that week.

Mrs Ellen Byrne and her children were trapped in their home in Marlborough Street and for days they went without food.

Her daughter Jenny had a lifelong abiding memory of that time because she thought she was going to die from hunger, or be shot dead. Nora Connolly lost her father, who was executed on May 12, 1916. Nothing would be the same again.

Ann Matthews is a historian and playwright.

Irish Independent

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