Bomb girls & revolutionaries
The war economy in Ireland between 1914 and 1918 changed the lives of many women as well as providing key skills for republicans, according to historian Hugo McGuinness.
On 4th August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany, bringing Ireland into the First World War. While Irish revolutionaries were thinking “Britain’s difficulty is Ireland opportunity” – the same thought was occurring to industrialists, politicians, and even many trade unionists.
There was very little industrialisation in the country outside of Belfast. Many saw the war and the armaments industry being created as the opportunity to finally industrialise the country, backed by government funding.
Lobbying began with Dublin MP Alfie Byrne claiming Ireland contributed £15 million in war taxes and got little in return. The Chamber of Commerce in Dublin set up an All-Ireland Munitions and Government Supplies Committee which undertook a survey of Dublin’s existing engineering workshops in April 1915 and suggested what uses they could be adapted for in order to win war contracts.
However, of the 1,369 war-related contracts offered by August 1916 by the British government, only 24 or 1.27% went to Irish companies and most of those went to the Harland and Wolfe Shipyard in Belfast.
By May 1917, nearly 16,320 Irish people were working in munitions factories in England, attracted by persuasive advertising campaigns offering higher wages. Agents of leading manufacturers visited Ireland on recruiting drives, leading one Limerick writer to comment that local girls believed “money could be picked up on the floors of English Shell Factories as easily as shells on the Irish sea-shore.”
Shell and hand grenade factories had been set up in Belfast early in the war and following further lobbying efforts it was announced that the government was to set up a National Shell Factory at Park Gate Street, Dublin, in 1915. At much the same time the Lee Arrow Company at Clarke’s Bridge in Cork and the Dublin Dockyard Company independently secured shell-making contracts.
The drive to bring men into the armed forces meant that regulations stated that only 5% of munitions manufacturing staff could be male. Twelve girls were recruited by the Dublin Dockyard Company and sent to the Vickers Company in Barrow on Furnace, northern England, for training. They would in turn train the rest of the girls recruited for the factory and the first 50 girls recruited for the National Shell Factory at Park Gate Street. Much of the machinery for the factories was sourced in England.
The Dockyard Company recruited most of their workforce from the local area. The factory worked two shifts, the recommended standard following experiments at Vickers in 1916, with a target of 2000 shells per week. In a short time they were producing 3000.
One of the early recruits of the National Factory was Christine “Molly” Maguire. Born in London to Irish parents, she had been schooled in Belfast. As industrial relations problems grew in the factory, Maguire made contact with the British National Federation of Women’s Workers and began to unionise the shop. The NFWW was aware of the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) but they felt (and the IWWU agreed) that they were better placed to represent women in the munitions industry. Aware of the opposition to British unions coming to Ireland, the NFWW stated: “A unanimous decision was arrived at with responsible sections of thought in Dublin that the munitions workers occupied a different position from the workers in the ordinary industries and should be organised into a Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers as they felt that without the strength of the Federation behind them, little could be done to secure equality of treatment for the workers in the Irish National Shell Factories.”
Maguire was made NFWW National Organiser and spread the union not only to the Dockyard Factory but also to the National Factories which had opened at Cork and Galway, and the Cartridge Factory at Waterford.
In March 1916, twelve controlled establishments in Ireland had been referred to the Ministry of Munitions with regard to women’s wages. However, nothing was done following representations by the Engineering Employers Federation in relation to the lower cost of living in Ireland. In July, the ministry specifically exempted 11 Irish establishments, allowing them to pay below the general British rate.
In May 1917 the NFWW secured an agreement with the ministry to place the wages of Irish women in the munitions industry on an equal footing with their British counterparts, an increase from 18 to 24 shillings per week and from 23 to 30 shillings for night shift work. In November 1917 a further increase of 5 shillings was awarded by the ministry and immediately the Engineering Federation lobbied for an Irish exemption. This was refused.
Following a strike and lock out of women at the National Factory in September 1918 they achieved the right to have women shop stewards negotiate on behalf of women workers.
At full production, the National Factory employed 809 (of whom 531 were women), the Docklands Company around 200. As the employment of women was somewhat novel, the Ministry produced numerous advisory booklets which examined such diverse subjects as the nutritional health needs of women workers, factory ergonomics, and guidelines for the efficient design and management of a staff canteen. The Women’s National Health Association of Ireland produced a booklet on “War and the Food of the Dublin Labourer” showing up the deficiencies of the normal diet for industrial work and how to correct it. A report by Dr. Stanley Kent on “Industrial Fatigue” led to the decision that the factories should only work six days a week as workers “resting on the seventh” were “capable of longer and sustained effort” and had much higher productivity than those who worked the full week without a break.
A contemporary description of the docklands factory described how the girls appeared to enjoy their employment. The writer claimed that modern machines required “delicate handling” or “skill rather than muscle” and the girls being of “superior order” had taken an “intelligent interest” in the work they were turning out.
The owner of the Docklands factory, Scotsman John Smellie recalled that “the 200 girls employed soon became highly efficient, and were quick in adapting themselves to machine work, and to all the engineering operations of shell turning, including working to gauge limits of but one or two thousandths of an inch.”
The munitions the women produced were of a high standard. Smellie claimed that many of the girls had fathers, uncles, brothers, or neighbours, serving at the front and had read letters sent back home telling how shells had exploded in the hands of gun-crews due to poor manufacture.
For most ‘bomb girls’ the economic freedom working in the factories brought was life-changing. The sudden increase of disposable income was enough to attract cosmetics companies such as Pomeroy Skin Food, Ven Yusa Oxygen Face Cream, and the Oatine Company to distribute their products, targeted at munitions factory workers, in Ireland. Sean O’Casey found the impact of the Dockyard factory significant enough to mention it in his play “The Silver Tassie”, where one character is said to have plenty of money she earned working there. Mrs Ryan, a district nurse writing in the State of Public Health Report for 1916 claimed that many women nursing new-born babies chose to work in the shell factories to stretch family incomes and meet the extra expenses involved.
Women such as Florence Lea from Sandymount went from being a dress-maker apprentice on 2 shilling per week to a munitions worker earning 50 shillings for a 48 hour week by 1918. Similarly 16-year-old Mary Johnson from East Wall, not only found earning a man’s wages gave her independence but allowed her to make a significant contribution to the family household budget as the cheap nutritional meals provided at the Dockyard factory significantly contributed to her disposable income. During World War II, when times were bad in Dublin she moved to Birmingham to work in munitions as an experienced veteran along with others from the community. (Perhaps it was a new sense of economic freedom during these early years that persuaded to also pursue a career as a Tivoli dancer).
Labour problems at the National Factory were constant, with several strikes over non-payment of bonuses and conditions. There may also have been a more political element to the problems. Joe Good, one of a number of members of the IRA who would work at the National Factory in 1918, claimed it was their policy to “get the greatest possible amount of wages whilst doing the least possible amount of work – without getting fired.” At least five workers died in work-related accidents at the National Factory.
In contrast, the Dockyard factory was only affected by one strike and the most serious accident experienced there was when a woman lost a finger when it was caught in a lathe.
The infamous police undercover agent ‘Chalk’ had reported in April 1916 that four members of the Citizen Army were working at the National Factory. These would appear to have been Joe Vize, Matt and Joe Furlong, and another volunteer named Moloney who had all come over from London. About a week before the Easter Rising, Vize walked into work smoking a pipe which he refused to put out. He was instantly dismissed. The others then walked out in sympathy with him. They were surrounded by armed guards but were not intimidated by the bayonets being thrust at them, and simply walked out of the factory.
They were called up before a munitions employment tribunal but the Rising intervened before any action could be taken. Significant numbers of Volunteers and Citizen Army men worked in the Dublin Dockyard Company and Dublin Port generally so it’s likely that there was a similar infiltration of the Dockyard Munitions Factory in the run up to the Rising.
During the Easter Rising the girls a the National Shell Factory all reported for work and, despite heavy fighting, produced 800 shells during Easter Week. The Dublin Docks and the shell factory were shut down during the Rising.
The political turmoil in Ireland also affected Irish munitions workers in England. One incident involved Irish women working at a shell factory in Hereford in England. The women sang Sinn Féin and republican songs all day long and cast aspersions on the “Tommies” at the front. The English girls began to wear red and blue colours to which the Irish girls responded by wearing green, white and orange. The episode culminated in a pitched battle at the local train station one Friday evening and 20 Irish girls were dismissed and sent home in order to restore peace and productivity. An echo of such conflict can be seen in a photograph of the National Factory in Dublin where what appears to be a republican flag sits beside a Union Flag to inspire the female workers.
A total of 648,150 shells were produced by the Dockland Company before, with the war at an end, was closed in April 1919. The girls were laid off, and the factory and its contents put up for auction. The other factories in Dublin, Cork, Galway, and Waterford followed over the ensuing months. The involvement of the British based NFWW trade union in Ireland also came to an end in 1919 with its entire operation passed over to Louis Bennet, the new leader of the IWWU.
Despite all the lobbying by Irish politicians and business groups, the munitions industry’s impact on the economy was short-lived. As the Secretary of the All Ireland Munitions and Government Supplies Committee, Edward J. Riordan, put it: “The eyes of Irish businessmen were opened to the hopelessness of their expecting to receive anything like fair-play from English officials either high or low.”
Aside from the women who for a few brief years saw their working status enhanced and their right and ability to represent themselves recognised, the main beneficiaries of the short-lived munitions industry were arguably the IRA. The organisation used the factories as a training ground for operations such as the underground bomb and hand grenade factory set up at 198 Parnell Street in 1919. A number of IRA men who operated this venture had previously worked at the National Shell Factory. The training and experience they had received would prove extremely useful as the War of Independence got underway. Even some of the equipment used at the factory was bought by the IRA during its closing down sale to equip their deadly new enterprise.
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