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A scene from the 1924 box makers strike in Dublin

Klara-Maeve O'Reilly | Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies


One day in early summer 1924, Bridie Hanratty, having finished work, left O’Reilly’s (no relation to author) box making factory, in Poolbeg Street, and cycled towards Tara Street. A group of women standing nearby on a street corner, saw her, put one and one together, and started heckling her as she pedalled past them. Why did they take issue with a woman on her way home?


For the hecklers, the problem with Bridie finishing work at O’Reilly’s was obvious: the box-making factory close to the river Liffey was, at the time, on strike by the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) over plans to reduce wages. Other Irish box makers such as Cherry, Smallridge’s, and the Dublin Box Company were on strike as well. For strike-breaking Bridie, the moral weighing scales of her neighbours and acquaintances came down on the wrong side. She had to cycle through a chorus of shouts and heckles. Bridie heard Sarah Melia, who lived just around the corner but did not work at O’Reilly’s herself, call her a “scab” and yell “Bridie, did you get that new hat yet?”. Kathleen Black, also standing on the street corner, later would say that she heard differently.


The Irish Women Workers’ Union calling the strike was founded in 1911 by, amongst others, Delia Larkin, Jim Larkin, and Rosie Hackett. Until its amalgamation with the Federated Workers Union in 1984, the IWWU was singular among Irish unions for only organising women and being run by women. Its organisational base was mainly working-class women in Dublin city, usually Roman Catholic, employed in printing, box-making, as shop girls, or in commercial laundries.


A picture of the IWWU members and their banner stood together outside a building.
Fig. 1. Group picture of IWWU members on the steps of Liberty Hall in Dublin, ca 1914. The woman in the middle of the front row is Delia Larkin (National Library of Ireland, no restrictions).

The strike at O’Reilly’s had been called by the IWWU over two lines of conflict: union representation and wages. In February 1924, the IWWU had argued with the employers, newly organised in the Trade Board, that the positive prospects in the box making industry hardly warranted a reduction of wages. The union argued that ‘through the increase of the sugar-confectionary and boot trades under Protection’ demand for paper boxes would rise. ‘Protection’ was shorthand for the protective duties on imported goods introduced by the Cumann na nGaedheal government of the newly independent Irish Free State in 1923. The Irish Civil War, which had followed on the heels of the Irish War of Independence, had petered out barely a year previously, and the economic situation for workers in Dublin was difficult, to say the least.


In early March 1924, the IWWU rejected the reduced rates set down by the Paper Box Trade Board on the grounds that the IWWU had not been invited to the meeting, leaving the workers “inadequately represented”. On 23 April they lodged a formal rejection of the new rates on behalf of workers at O’Reilly’s and the Dublin Box Company. The Trade Board responded by asking for “the full names and address of each Objector”, twenty-two all in all. The list can be accessed in the IWWU collection at the Irish Labour History Society archive in Beggar’s Bush, Dublin. For those interested in the lives of working-class women, this archive is a rare treasure throve as documents on Dublin working-class lives, especially of women and children, have come down to us in fragmentary form, if at all.


This is the case for Bridie, Sarah, and Kathleen. Sarah Melia had grown up down the road from O’Reilly’s, on Townsend Street with her sister Mary and three brothers. In the 1911 census no occupation of her mother Mary is listed, whereas her father William is given as a skilled labourer, specified as ‘Electrical’. In 1911, the Melias lived in 180 Townsend Street and shared the house with the Fitzpatricks and the McLoughlins, who each had five children as well; all in all twenty-one people lived in six rooms. Sarah was probably the youngest of the three women involved in the 1924 heckling scene. We don’t know if she still lived with her family in 1924. Even less is known of Bridie and Kathleen. Neither was an IWWU member. The 1911 census lists three Bridget Hanrattys in the city of Dublin, two married mothers, and one ‘Servant Domestic’ working for the Eardley family in Rathmines. This third Bridget had moved to the city from County Louth and would have been 36 years old in 1924. The 1911 census does not list any Kathleen Blacks in the city, but one ‘Catherine Black’, born in 1889 and working locally as a ‘Domestic Servant’ at a boarding house for dock workers on City Quay, run by Mary Farrell. It cannot be said with any certainty whether these 1911 individuals were the same people as the Bridie and Kathleen of 1924. That all three were on first-name terms could be an indication that in 1924 Bridie and Kathleen lived locally, perhaps in the City Quay ward or down towards Ringsend.


For working-class people like Bridie, Sarah, and Kathleen, the years between 1913 and 1923 were tumultuous politically and economically. In 1924, the young Irish Free State was defined by delayed and insufficient industrialisation and subsequent underemployment, transient work, and high emigration. Widespread poverty meant that poorer families often depended on the wages of more than one person and that few had savings. It is impossible to fathom today why Bridie decided to break the strike, but most likely economic pressure was a factor. As she was not an IWWU member, the strike possibly offered her an opportunity to enter O’Reilly’s wage sheets if she hadn’t worked there before.


What clearly emerges from the street corner scene is a sense of the moral code among local workers that working as a ‘scab’ was morally reprehensible and a breach of the loose, but nevertheless recognisable, understanding of class solidarity. Bridie was far from being the only suspected ‘scab’, a practice that O’Reilly’s was known for at the time and which the IWWU sought to scandalise with leaflets (see Fig. 1). No IWWU members appear to have been standing at the street corner when Bridie cycled past. That the group still heckled, either humorously as Sarah did or with more malign “scab” calls, indicates the wider judgement on strike breaking within this community.


A photograph of an IWWU leaflet.
Fig 2. 1924 Leaflet of the IWWU issued during the box-makers strike to raise awareness of scab labour (Irish Labour History Society Archive, IWWU collection, Box 72; all rights retained).

In wider Irish society workers like Bridie, or the women organised by the IWWU, were like a puzzle piece that did not fit into the broader picture of nationalist imagination of Éireannachas (Irishness) hinging on Irish women – on their motherhood, faith and domesticity, ideally in rural, Catholic and Gaelic-speaking homes. As recent commemorative and historical work shows, southern Irish society could be a dangerous and lonely place for women (and children) perceived to disrupt this ideal version of Irish femininity. Still, in 1926, roughly one-fifth of women in the Free State were in formal employment. Organising working women had been a thorny issue for Irish unions in the first two decades of the century. Despite a long tradition of ad-hoc militancy in localised labour disputes, female labour tended to be recognised as an economic necessity only for the working classes, and even then, was considered somewhat an aberration, not only by male trade unionists. Some IWWU leaders, like Louie Bennett, somewhat paradoxically referred to IWWU members as a ‘menace’ to the male Irish worker, or more precisely, his wage level.


In a way, Louie Bennett’s quote and career illustrate the plurality of female trade unionism, not least in terms of class and religion. Bennett was an unlikely activist, a young woman from a middle-class family who had first involved herself in the struggle for women’s suffrage, and relief efforts during the 1913 Lockout. Rare for the time, she had access to third-level education, like her co-religionist and deputy Helen Chenevix. For both, their personal faith as Anglicans and middle-class backgrounds translated into an understanding of their work for the IWWU as quasi-charitable and an overall reformist outlook. In a sense, they were the proper and respectable face of the IWWU, and their upbringing was seen to be an asset in their negotiations with politicians and employers who usually shared their background. Internally, however, this way of doing labour disputes stood in conflict with more radical members, of which Helena Molony is the best known. Molony, a grocer’s daughter and actress at the Abby Theatre, had taken over after Delia Larkin left for England in 1915. She was a well-known republican, and feminist militant, and had also participated in the 1916 Easter Rising.


Regardless of internal friction the IWWU called the box makers strike to “maintain a bare Living Wage for Women”. The strike went on for over seven weeks, would eventually involve more than 120 women, and was one of a series of strikes called by the unions since the end of the First World War to varying degrees of success. The 1918 general strike against conscription, and the 1920 general strike in support of Republican prisoners on hunger strike in Mountjoy prison in Dublin, were followed by several smaller strikes like the 1923 farm labourers strike, and the Dublin dock and gas strike in the spring of 1924.


Even reformists such as Louie Bennett grappled with the socially conservative streak in the post-independence Cuman na nGaedheal governments. In the emerging state, the social and fiscal conservatism of Cumann na nGaedheal translated into the use of armed forces to crush strikes or other forms of trade union militancy. In 1923, both the Gardaí and the army had been set against strikes by farm labourers against planned wage cuts. The trade unions, facing such a government and post-revolutionary political climate, experienced internal conflicts, and splits in the 1920s, as well as declining membership numbers, all of which resulted in shrinking room to manoeuvre. For the IWWU, a small union with a narrow organisational base, such worries could quickly become existential. After six weeks of strike, the IWWU argued in the press that the employers had not only refused to engage with the union in a conference on the dispute but was also ‘using the most unfair methods to lure the workers away from the unions’. From over 5000 in 1918, IWWU membership halved by the end of the 1920s, before recovering to about 6000 in the 1940s.



Figs. 3 & 4. IWWU Leaflet issued during the 1924 box-makers strike (Irish Labour History Society Archive, IWWU collection, Box 72; all rights retained).

After the difficulties of the 1920s the IWWU was, overall, considered a success story by its members, winning reductions in working time, wage rises and, perhaps best known, the right to a second week of paid holidays during the 1945 Laundry Strike. For its members, the success or failure of the various industrial disputes does not seem to have had effect on their loyalty of their union. For example, when the Conditions of Employment Act was passed in 1936 – put forward to restrict the times during which women were allowed to work (after 8am but not during the night) and women’s rights to engage in waged work at all – IWWU membership numbers rose, although the union failed to prevent the bill. The campaign against it, in which the IWWU played a major role, appears to have further bolstered the perception among working women that, in the words of Mary Jones, ‘a union ‘run by women and for women’ (w)as most likely to protect their threatened interests’.


In 1924 the heckling of Bridie Hanratty ended as a court case. Sarah Melia had to defend herself at the District Court in Dublin against charges of conspiracy and breaking the peace. Kathleen Black was called as a witness. In the end, Justice E. J. Little convicted Sarah for a breach of peace, fining her 40 shillings, but dropped charge of conspiracy with regards to the heckling. The court case hinged on the question Melia allegedly had shouted at Hanratty: ‘Bridie, did you get that new hat yet?’. Sarah Melia denied having shouted this at all. Kathleen, on ‘friendly terms with Hanratty’, agreed and recalled how ‘when Miss Hanratty was out of employment she expressed a wish […] that the strike would be soon over, and she would get a new hat’. This humorous re-telling of the story, aiming to downplay what had been a moral-cum-political altercation, was only partially successful. One wonders how these three women interacted with each other after the court’s ruling as they moved through the closely knit social fabric of inner-city Dublin neighbourhoods.


 

Further Reading:


  • ­­­­­­­­­­­­­Fischer, Clara, ‘Gender, Nation, and the Politics of Shame’, Signs, 41.4 (2016), pp. 821–43

  • Jones, Mary, These Obstreperous Lassies. A History of the Irish Workers’ Union (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

  • Owens, Rosemary Cullen, A Social History of Women in Ireland, 1870-1970 (London: Macmillan Press, 2005)

  • Regan, Nell, Helena Molony: A Radical Life, 1883-1967 (Dublin: Arlen House, 2017)

  • Smith, James M., Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)


Klara-Maeve O’Reilly is a post-doc with the “Religion and Urbanity” research group at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt. She holds an PhD in Russian and Slavonic Studies from Trinity College Dublin, having worked on popular opinion and memories of the collectivization in the early Polish People’s Republic and the German Democratic Republic. Currently, her research interest lies with working women in early twentieth century Dublin and the interplay of gender, class and city.


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