Unionising Women Workers
Irish Cultural Heritage, Irish Women's History

Ireland | The Challenges in Unionising Women Workers in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Trade unionism in Ireland stretches as far back as the 1700s.  By 1800 the labour organisations of Irish workers had taken root, but many attempts were made by employers and local and central governments to stop the Irish workers’ efforts.  Despite this, improvements in the working conditions for certain skilled workers were seen.  One such improvement was the average working week reduced from seventy two hours a week to fifty four hours a week.  However, some traditional crafts-men didn’t benefit from these improvements.  In 1894 the Irish Trade Union Congress was established.  Its aim was to be a collective representative of organised Irish labour (D’Arcy, 1994).  The labour movement and trade unionism in Ireland was beginning to change by the early 1900s thanks to Jim Larkin.  Larkin was an organiser for the British dockers’ union and came to Ireland from Liverpool in January 1907.  Within two years of his arrival he was dismissed by that same union over a disagreement on policy and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.  Due to its rapid expansion, many employers felt hostile towards the union.  This culminated in the 1913 Lockout in Dublin (Bardon, 2009; Cunningham, 2012).  

In post-Famine Ireland women had few opportunities for employment aside from domestic service or agriculture.  Towns provided some additional work for women compared to the countryside.  In towns, shop work, office work or low-grade factory work were available, while poorly paid agricultural work was the only means of employment in the countryside.  Conditions were more prosperous in Ulster for women workers with opportunities in the linen and shirt-making industries.  New job opportunities arose in the early twentieth century for middle-class women with the expansion of professional and white-collar employment like teaching and nursing.  More and more young and unmarried women were employed as clerks, typists, book-keepers and secretaries.  However, this was to benefit those living in the larger urban areas (Cullen Owens, 2005).   

There were many attempts to unionise women workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  In 1880 the Trade Union Congress was hosted in Ireland for the first time.  One hundred and twenty delegates attended the conference in Dublin, eight of which were women.  Of those eight, two were from mixed unions and six were from the new women’s unions, the majority being from the stitching trades.  Four women delegates attended the first Irish Trade Union Congress in 1894.  A number of motions were hotly debated, including the attempt to form women’s unions in the textile and other industries.  It was noted during the debate that the organisation of women was necessary and support from Irish trade unionists was called upon (Moriarty, 2005).  In 1911, after three thousand women at Jacaob’s biscuit factory in Dublin went on strike for better pay, the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union was established.  The IWWU was founded under the umbrella of the ITGWU with Jim Larkin as the president and his sister Delia Larkin as the secretary.  The union represented all women workers regardless of the industry or type of employment they were in and played a pivotal role in improving pay and working conditions for such women.  Larkin entered the world of trade unionism, a predominantly male endeavour, and over the next four years she gave her all to the IWWU.  It’s thanks to Larkin and other women like her, such as Mary Galway, Louie Bennett, Helena Malony, Rosie Hackett and Cissy Cahalan that women began to be organised through women’s sections, branches and committees (Cullen Owens, 2005; Moriarty, 2006).  

However, those trying to unionise women workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced many challenges along the way, mainly because of the type of work women were engaged in, the change in the nature of the work, the resentment of men towards women who felt that their place was in the home, and women’s own attitudes towards unionising women workers (Cullen Owens, 2005; Cunningham, 1995).

As previously mentioned women had few opportunities for work and certain types of work were more prevalent in certain areas of the country.  In Connacht the economic situation was grave and this severely impacted the domestic industry.  The 1891 Census records that 26.5% of women in Connacht over the age of 15 had an occupation.  Of that 26.5%, 27% were found to be employed in domestic service.  Around 27% came back as ‘farmers’.  15.7% of women were working in the clothing and textile industries.  Of those over 15 who were occupied 14.4% returned as ‘scholars’; while 2.5% were employed as teachers.  More women from urban areas came back as employed than those from rural areas.  36% of women in Galway were employed; in Tuam that number was 37%; in Sligo, 38%; Ballinasloe, 41%; while in Loughrea, 46% of women put down in the Census returns that they were working.  It was difficult to organise women workers due to the type of work they were engaged in.  Many domestic servants worked alone and those who worked in large households were answerable to their superiors.  Working as a shop assistant was more respectable than being in service but had the same restrictions with harsh live-in conditions.  Of the textile workers who managed to survive in the west of Ireland, they owed a great debt of gratitude for the work that they did to the charitable efforts of titled ladies and religious orders (Cullen Owens, 2005; Cunningham, 1995).

Belfast had a thriving linen industry during the 1890s with an estimated 70,000 single and married women workers employed.  These women worked as spinners, weavers and stitchers, some even worked from home as outworkers finishing pieces that were produced in the factories.  However, with industrialisation came deplorable working conditions.  One woman who was instrumental in the unionising of the linen women workers was Mary Galway.  Galway was a hem-stitcher and in 1897 she became the secretary for the Textile Operatives Society of Ireland.  Nine other unions in the linen industry were in existence at the time of her appointment, not one allowed women to join.  Galway fought for many improvements including better wages and working conditions, the removal of fines, the implementation of safety procedures and the appointment of a lady factory inspector.  Galway was also gravely concerned by the working conditions of the outworkers.  Many women and children were working outside of the factory environment in their homes hemming, stitching, embroidering, and making handkerchiefs and shirts.  These outworkers were outside the remit of workplace inspection and so were vulnerable to exploitation.  This led to Galway demanding all sweated labour in factories and homes to be brought under the new trades’ board.  The trade board was established in 1915 with the aim to standardise pay and working hours (Cullen Owens, 2005).  Galway had an ambitious task on her hands in unionising women workers.  There was a strong relationship between the workers and the employer.  Much like the shop assistants and domestic servants, the linen workers were expected to reside in the accommodation provided for them by the employer.  This accommodation was part of a wider complex of schools and social centres.  In return employees were expected to be loyal to their employer.  The family custom of daughters following their mothers into the factory further tied the strong relationship and made it easier for employers to evict workers from the factory-owned accommodation.  Altogether this put workers off even considering joining a union (Collins, 1991).

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the nature of women’s work was changing making it a challenge to unionise women workers.  From the mid-nineteenth century the domestic textile industries shifted from being a home-based enterprise to a factory environment.  Low-cost ready-made clothes were starting to be mass produced thanks to new technologies like steam-powered looms and the sewing machine.  This was also helped by the development of department stores or ‘monster houses’.  More women and children were being employed and a system of outworking was implemented (Cullen Owens, 2005).  During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there were more opportunities for Irish women to earn money through the expansion of the butter trade.  However, the introduction of creameries, combined with mechanisation and the employment of male labourers was influential in the decline of the domestic butter trade (Daly, 1981).  Seeing the fall of the domestic butter trade, women were determined to keep control of their ‘egg-money’.  The system in place for selling eggs directly to ‘higglers’ or local shopkeepers worked well and made it easier to carry out their housework as well.  Selling or exchanging eggs with the local shopkeeper or ‘higgler’ meant that these women were being recognised for the role they played in the home, which was largely ignored at the time (Cullen Owens, 2005).

From the end of the nineteenth century there was a fall in the number of domestic servants employed in Ireland.  In 1891 there were 72,000 more female domestic servants than in 1911.  It could be argued that the reason for this is not a lull in the demand for servants but that young women were less inclined to put up with a life in service.  It’s possible that it might have been more beneficial for a woman to be a homemaker to a male relative than be a domestic slave, with less restrictions and more independence (Bourke, 1991; Cunningham, 1995).  The majority of women workers were transitory, only working out of necessity to supplement the main income and would return to full-time household duties when conditions improved.  A high percentage of the transitory female workforce were young girls.  In 1881 over 40% of employed women in Dublin were under the age of 25.  The transient nature of the work made it difficult to organise women (Daly, 1981).

The resentment of men towards women was another challenge in unionising women workers.  Women often took low paid jobs to help supplement the family income.  This drove down the wages, leading to a lot of male workers feeling very angry and believing that women had no business working and their place was in the home.  As such many trade unions didn’t recruit women workers (Daly, 1981).  Moreover, the introduction of the ITGWU into the Trades’ Council didn’t change the Trades’ Council’s attitude to women workers.  In Galway no provision for women workers was made by the National Union of Dock Labourers, although nearly every male general worker was a member.  During the 1913 general strike  in Galway, workers of the Galway Woollen Mills faced lockout.  While the men were enlisted in the NUDL, the women, who were equally locked out and the majority of the workforce, were left unorganised (Cunningham, 1995).

Not all men, however, were against unionising women workers.  One such man was the socialist James Connolly.  Connolly was well aware of the poor working conditions that women workers of the Belfast Mills had to endure.  As a result he attempted to establish a new women’s branch of the ITGWU for them, called the Irish Textile Workers’ Union.  This led him into a rivalry with Mary Galway’s union and because of this Jim Larkin ordered that the women be transferred to the IWWU.  All in all there was a strong resistance to unionising women workers (Cullen Owens, 2005).

Women’s own attitudes towards unionising women workers was also a factor.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the ideal to be a lady of leisure or a home-maker spread through prosperous middle and upper-class women in Irish society.  This ideal led to the downgrading of the working woman.  By the end of the nineteenth century a wife who earned an income was only acceptable among those on the lower rungs of the working class ladder and among farm labourers (Daly, 1981).  The idea of a working woman as being less than eventually permeated into the psyche of some working women.  2,604 women were employed as seamstresses and shirt-makers in Dublin in 1871.  These women worked ten hours a day over six days a week in small workshops or in their employer’s home.  Working conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary, and employers were skillful in avoiding existing legislation.  A campaign to improve the seamstresses’ working conditions was already underway.  The campaign managed to gain some short-term improvements but the inability for the seamstresses to unionise could be viewed as them feeling apathetic.  This was the view also of Cissie Cahalan, one of the few working class women that were part of the Irish suffrage movement.  Cahalan argued that the management of trade unions would always fall into male hands unless women stop being apathetic and take responsibility for themselves (Cullen Owens, 2005).

Marriage, procreation and child-rearing were considered very important in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Ireland.  Women working outside of the home were met with some hostility.  However, not all women were afforded the ‘luxury’ of being able to stay at home and rely on others to bring in an income.  Many women had to work to supplement the family income, but the prevailing view was that it was unacceptable to work after marriage.  Even Louie Bennett, an important figure in the women’s trade union movement, expressed this contradictory opinion (Daily, 1981).  The following is a quote from Bennett’s 1932 Presidential Address to the Irish Trade Union Congress as cited by Daly (1981, 79):

“The modern tendency to draw women into industry in increasing numbers is of no real advantage to them.  It has not raised their status as workers nor their wage standard.  It is a menace to family life and in so far as it has blocked the employment of men it has intensified poverty among the working class.”

Despite this Bennett worked tirelessly to further the cause of working women.  Bennett was part of the suffrage movement but her start in trade unionism came in 1916 when Helena Malony, feminist, separatist, and officer of the Irish Citizens’ Army sought her help in re-organising the IWWU.  Her views were often expressed in the Irish Citizen with the following quite cited by Cullen Owens (2005, 62):

“The rapid development of organisation in the Irishwomen’s world of labour is the best possible contribution to the whole cause of feminism.  There can be no real freedom and independence of women until they are economically free.”

Bennett felt that working conditions were more important to women than wage increases and argued for more women factory inspectors, as only one of the four appointed by the Free State government was female.  It was often questioned if a separate union for women workers was still the best way to organise them.  Bennett maintained that women needed a separate union because men wanted to keep women in subordinate positions and if women were part of a mixed union men could obstruct  much needed reform for them.  Bennett would still be advocating for co-operation between women a year before death in 1956 (Cullen Owens, 2001).

In conclusion many challenges were faced in unionising women workers.  The IWWU performed amazing feats to gain better working conditions for groups like laundry workers.  Nurses in psychiatric hospitals seem to have gained superior conditions compared to their counterparts in general nursing who refused to become involved in full-scale trade union activity.  The large numbers of women employed in domestic service, working on farms or in small shops, didn’t see much improvements in working conditions, while any narrowing of the difference between male and female wage rates wasn’t really seen until the 1970s.  Irish society itself had to change before the trade union movement or working women could achieve any dramatic change in their position (Daly, 1981).

If you enjoyed reading this article consider supporting me on Ko-fi to help with the upkeep of the website. Thank you.


Bardon, J. (2009). A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes.  Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Bourke, J.  (1991). ‘The Best of all Home Rulers: The Economic Power of Women in Ireland, 1880-1914.’  Irish Economic and Social History, Vol. 18, pp. 34-47.

Chuinneagáin, S.  (2016). ‘Catherine Mahon.’  Studies in Irish Radical Leadership: Lives on the Left.  Eds. O’ Connor, E. and Cunningham, J.  Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 94-105.

Clear, C.  (2018). ‘Social Conditions in Ireland 1880-1914.’  The Cambridge History of Ireland, Vol. IV: 1800 to the Present.  Ed. Bartlett, T.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 145-167.

Collins, P.  (1991). ‘Mary Galway.’  Labour History News, No. 7, pp. 14-15.

Connell, J. E. A.  (2013). ‘Irish Women’s Franchise League and Irish Women’s Workers’ Union.’  History Ireland, Vol. 21, No.1, pp. 66.

Cullen Owens, R.  (2001). ‘Louie Bennett.’  Female Activists: Irish Women and Change, 1900-1960.  Eds. Cullen, M. and Luddy, M.  Dublin: Woodfield Press, pp. 37-60.

Cullen Owens, R.  (2005). A Social History of Women in Ireland, 1870-1970: An Exploration of the Changing Role and Status of Women in Irish Society.  Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Cunningham, J.  (1995). Labour in the West of Ireland: Working Life and Struggle, 1890-1914.  Belfast: Athol Books.

Cunningham, J.  (2012). ‘Something that is New and Strange: The 1911 Trade Union Congress in Galway.’  Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 64, pp. 169-182.

Curry, J.  (2011). ‘Delia Larkin: ‘More Harm to the Big Fellow than any of the Employers?’’  Saothar, Vol. 36, pp. 19-25.

Curry, J.  (2014). ‘Labour Lives, No. 16: Rosie Hackett, 1893-1976.’  Saothar, Vol. 39, pp. 77-80.

D’Arcy, F.  (1994). ‘Irish Trade Unions before Congress.’  History Ireland, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 25-30.

Daly, M. E.  (1981). ‘Women in the Irish Workforce from Pre-Industrial to Modern Times.’  Saothar, Vol. 7, pp. 74-82.

Kennedy, C.  (2016). ‘Women and Gender in Modern Ireland.’  The Princeton History of Modern Ireland.  Eds.  Bourke, R. and McBride, I.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, pp. 361-381.

Moriarty, T.  (1995). Work in Progress: Episodes from the History of Irish Women’s Trade Unionism.  Dublin: Irish Labour History Society.

Moriarty, T.  (2001). ‘Mary Galway.’  Female Activists: Irish Women and Change, 1900-1960.  Eds. Cullen, M. and Luddy, M.  Dublin: Woodfield Press, pp. 9-36.

Moriarty, T.  (2006). ‘Delia Larkin: Relative Obscurity.’  James Larkin: Lion of the Fold.  Ed. Nevin, Donal.  Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, pp.428-438.

Regan, N.  ‘(2001). Helena Molony.’  Female Activist: Irish Women and Change, 1900-1960.  Eds.  Cullen, M. and Luddy, M. Dublin: Woodfield Press, pp. 141-168.

Smith, B. (1992). ‘Cissy Cahalan.’  Labour History News, No. 8, Autumn, pp. 14-17.


Members of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union on the steps of Liberty Hall c. 1914 (NLI, KE 204).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.