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Women at War: Ireland's forgotten heroines of the era


British nurses assist in an operation in France during World War I. Getty Images

British nurses assist in an operation in France during World War I. Getty Images

A Red Cross recruitment poster.

A Red Cross recruitment poster.


British nurses assist in an operation in France during World War I. Getty Images

TENS of thousands of women across the island of Ireland threw themselves enthusiastically into the war effort, yet very little has been written about them.

Fionnuala Walsh, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Trinity College, whose great-grandmother was one, is determined to set the record straight.

"I had always known my great-great uncle had served but it was much later I discovered that my great-grandmother served with the Red Cross as a voluntary nurse during the war. This got me thinking about what women did during World War I and why there was so little information out there," she explained.

Her extensive research into Irish women in the Great War has uncovered fascinating detail about the impact of the war on Irish women.

"Within women's history in Ireland there has been a focus on the nationalist, republican movement and women's role in that and on some high-profile women but at the expense of the vast majority of women, who just kept their heads down and got on with the job."

Aside from being used in recruitment propaganda, many women became actively engaged from the beginning.

Fionnuala's great-grandmother was one of more than 6,000 women from the island of Ireland who were involved in the British Red Cross, St John's Ambulance and associated work during the war.

An estimated 2,000 women became Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) and were posted to the frontline or to hospitals nursing wounded soldiers in the UK or Ireland.

They nursed soldiers in the midst of the unspeakable horrors on the front, often with little or no training or equipment.

Thousands of women also left domestic life for the first time to work in munitions and other factories. In rural areas, women took to the bog lands in droves in search of sphagnum moss, which was in huge demand for the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot.

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At its height, the depot had more than 6,000 female workers spread among 81 sub-depots across the country.

"Its purpose was to manufacture and supply dressings, bandages and other surgical appliances for hospitals treating wounded soldiers.

"One of the major activities was the collection and treatment of sphagnum moss to use as surgical dressings to replace cotton wool, which was in short supply during the war.

"This was no easy task. The collector had to clamber over wet, boggy ground, often in adverse weather conditions, to secure the moss," explained Fionnuala.

Dressings from Ireland ended up in hospitals in France, Italy, Egypt, Salonika, Palestine and India.

More than 2,000 workers, mainly women, found employment in the five national munitions factories that were set up in Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Galway during the war.

Further employment came through contracts that were awarded to Irish companies for the manufacture of such items as aeroplane cloth, uniforms and Foxford blankets.

At the Lambkin Snuff and Tobacco Factory, on Merchant's Quay in Cork, business thrived during the war years as the mainly female staff worked on mixtures and plug tobaccos from the war office to send to various expeditionary forces. It is said that the women often put love notes inside the tobacco tins.

Many more women opted for volunteer work. Thousands enrolled in the Irish Women's Association, preparing soldiers' "comforts", including cigarettes, knitted hats, gloves and socks, for parcels being sent to men in Prisoner of War camps in Germany.

There were also the so-called "morality police", comprising of groups of middle-class women who patrolled the streets of Dublin and Belfast to ensure the "separation women" were not behaving improperly.

These were the women in receipt of separation money while their husbands served on the front.

But there were some positives too, with notable strides made towards gender equality during this period. Significant numbers of women joined trade unions while on the domestic front, living standards rose and poverty levels fell.



See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.