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Saturday 21 September 2019

Tribute to women who won better life making shells for the battlefield


Prof Michael Stephens, left, with Becky Figueira, Co Down, and Paddy O’Brien, from Dublin, at the plaque unveiling. Photo: Damien Eagers
Prof Michael Stephens, left, with Becky Figueira, Co Down, and Paddy O’Brien, from Dublin, at the plaque unveiling. Photo: Damien Eagers

Alan O'Keeffe

Dublin women who made explosive shells during World War I were commemorated in the city yesterday.

Making deadly artillery shells for the battlefields of the Western Front brought a new lease of life for the women and their families.

Many of the women survived terrible hardships during the 1913 Lockout, but they were suddenly able to earn wages several times higher than the pay available to women in many other jobs.

The Dublin Dockyard War Munitions Factory on East Wall Road employed around 200 women.

These high-earning women, along with other women working in the munitions industry, were viewed for the first time as potential customers of upmarket fashion stores.

The women became known as 'The Munitionettes'.

Postcard of an Irish ‘Munitionette’ in England
Postcard of an Irish ‘Munitionette’ in England

A plaque marking their memory was unveiled yesterday at the headquarters of the Dublin Port Company, which is located on the site of the wartime shell factory. The company is planning several ways of marking aspects of the rich history of the city's docks, said a spokesman.

The plaque states: ''From 1916 to 1918, about 200 local women worked in the Dublin Dockyard War Munitions Factory making 18-pounder shells. For many, it was life-changing.''

Local historian Hugo McGuinness recounted the women's stories at a seminar on the era at the port company's offices.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of the women who were going from near-starvation levels to having great pay and good food," said Mr McGuinness.

"Everything was well organised. There was even a staff canteen which allowed many of the women to get a balanced meal for the first time in their lives," he added.

The highest pay was in the testing department, where women inspected the shells to ensure they were the precise sizes needed for the artillery guns.

Women in the testing department included Florence Lea, who had earned six shillings a week in a sewing factory, and now began to earn 50 shillings a week, or two pounds and 10 shillings, a week, he said.

Starting pay was 15 shillings a week and £1 a week for night work. Younger workers were paid less but the rates went up for older workers. There was also bonus money for high productivity.

"For the first time ever, working-class women in Dublin had disposable income. Big stores like Switzers began to advertise their fashion items and cosmetics to appeal to these 'Munitionettes'," Mr McGuinness said.

Most munitions industry jobs were officially reserved for women to allow men to be sent to the trenches as soldiers. But munitions industry chiefs marvelled at the superior hand-eye coordination skills of women as they all had experience of sewing, knitting and crocheting.

There were four big wartime munitions factories set up directly by the British government in Cork, Galway, Waterford, and Dublin. The Dublin factory in Parkgate Street employed 600 people, mainly women.

Commercial companies also set up six munitions factories in Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, and in the Dublin Docks.

The Dublin Dockyard munitions factory was set up by two Scotsmen, John Smellie and Walter Scott, who were involved in shipbuilding in Dublin. Their mainly female workforce came from East Wall, North Wall, Fairview, Ringsend and Sandymount.

All the shells made in the Irish munitions factories were sent to Britain to be filled with explosives before being shipped to the battlefields.

The British government believed that locating some munitions factories in Ireland would foster a ''war mentality'' and boost Irish recruitment into the army.

British munitions factories were desperate for Irish women workers and sent marching bands around Ireland to help sign up female workers. Thousands of women from the West of Ireland moved to England to work in the munitions factories where they were highly regarded as good workers.

The National Federation of Women Workers ensured that women in Irish factories benefited from the same high pay levels as their counterparts in Britain.

When the war ended, the jobs vanished, Mr McGuinness said: "The women were back to low pay jobs such as domestic service for six to eight shillings for an 80-hour week.

"But many of the women had saved up a lot of money - up to £200, which was enough to buy a house, set up in business, or to emigrate to America or Australia and many left Ireland for good.

"They realised their work was really worth something. It changed their lives," Mr McGuinness told the Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent

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