Goretti Horgan

Changing women’s lives in Ireland

(Part 1)

Until the last few years of the 1990s Ireland had the reputation of being the most sexually repressed country in Europe, where women were second class citizens and the Catholic church ruled virtually unchallenged. But things have changed fast. A national survey in 1973-1974 found that three out of four people thought sex outside marriage was always wrong. A survey in 1997 found that 21 to 24 year olds had, on average, had 13 different sexual partners. [1] In 1990 Dublin’s Virgin Megastore was fined £500 for selling condoms. In 1999 the Dublin government spent £500,000 promoting the use of condoms. [2] While Gordon Brown felt it necessary to get married to enhance his chances of becoming prime minister in Britain, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, lives openly with his (unmarried) partner who accompanies him on state visits as “first lady”.

The point of this article is to argue that these changes have come about not, as media commentators would have it, because of EU-inspired liberalisation nor, as feminists would have it, solely because of “the women’s movement”. Rather change has been generated mainly by shifts in patterns of production. In short, it is changes in capitalism that have led to changes in women’s lives, the family and attitudes to sex and sexuality.

Marxists argue that women’s oppression is rooted in our role in the reproduction of the next generation of workers. The way reproduction is organised depends on the way production is organised – women’s oppression can be ended only by overthrowing capitalism and bringing production under workers’ control. [3] The story of Ireland in the last 20 years shows there is nothing abstract about this analysis. It also shows the intervention of socialists can be crucial in ensuring progress.

Despite Ireland being synonymous with sexual repression, there was never anything “Irish” or inevitable about it. The reason women’s rights were so lacking can be traced to changes in the form of the family, and to the way reproduction was organised from the middle of the 19th century.



Family and famine

Marriage in Ireland up to 150 years ago was as informal as it is today for many “living as married” couples – the Penal Laws, which Britain had introduced in the mid-17th century making Catholics second class citizens, meant that, while the church was identified with the oppressed, it had little effect on the oppressed’s day to day life. In 1793 the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:1,587. [4] In 1840 it was 1:3,023. There were very few church buildings. [5] The church had little influence on family life or on sexual mores generally. This section examines how changes in women’s role in production following the Great Famine led to changes in how reproduction was organised within the family.

Before the famine attitudes to sex remained open, were often earthy, and celebrated women’s sexuality as well as men’s. The Midnight Court, a long poem written in Irish in 1780-1781, described an imagined court of women putting the men of Ireland on trial for being useless in bed. The poem, banned in its English translations until the last decades of the 20th century, gives some insight into attitudes to women’s sexuality. Here an older woman laments the plight of a younger sister, married to an old man with no interest in sex:

Line by line she bade him linger
With gummy lips and groping finger,
Gripping his thighs in wild embrace
Rubbing her brush from knee to waist
Stripping him bare to the cold night air,
Everything done with love and care.
But she’d nothing to show for all her labour;
There wasn’t a jump in the old deceiver.

The idea of women controlling their fertility was not the taboo subject it was to become. There was a folktale about St Brigid – supposedly a contemporary of St Patrick – who was renowned for her work with fertility in all its forms. Brigid met a young woman distressed because she was pregnant: “Brigid prayed, then she blessed the woman, laid hands on her womb, and the foetus miraculously disappeared”. [6]

Until the Great Famine of 1845-1851 the custom in Ireland, among all but the large farmer class, was to divide the land between all the sons in a family as they married. This could be done at any time, so people were able to get married very young. Early marriage meant many children and, from the end of the 17th century, a rapid rise in population. This rise was boosted by the very low rate of infant mortality which, as a result of widespread breastfeeding and the nutritional value of the potato, was below 10 percent – half that in most parts of Europe. [7] So, while the population was around 1.5 million in 1673, it had risen to 3 million by the 1750s and to 4 million by the 1780s. [8] This escalation continued in the early 19th century. By 1821 the population had reached 6,802,000; it rose to 7,767,000 in 1831 and 8,175,000 by 1841. [9]

At this time marriage for the majority was based on love and on the skills which each partner brought to the family – the man provided land and farming skills to grow the staple crop of potatoes, and the woman brought weaving and spinning skills which provided extra money to buy tea, sugar and whatever else was needed by the household. Her input to the agricultural work of the family was also important. Before the famine women made an essential contribution to the family economy. As late as 1841 women accounted for more than half of the non-agricultural workforce. Most of their economic independence was based on spinning wool, cotton and linen. But the growth of factory competition undermined this – between 1841 and 1851 the number of spinners fell by some 75 percent. Only in the Belfast region, where linen became a factory industry, did this work survive the combination of the famine and the industrial revolution. [10]

The famine decimated the rural poor. Almost a million died of starvation, while several million were forced to emigrate. Their tiny plots were taken over by the larger tenant farmers holding 15 acres or more. This large tenant farmer class was – apart from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy – the only class to survive the famine intact, and emerged as by far the strongest class in Catholic Ireland. In 1841 only 18 percent of landholdings in Ireland were of more than 15 acres. By 1851 51 percent of holdings were over 15 acres. By 1891 this had risen to 58 percent. At the same time the total numbers of holdings had fallen from 691,000 in 1841 to 570,000 in 1851 and 517,000 in 1891. [11]

These economic and social changes forced the workers and rural poor of Ireland to drastically alter their form of the family. For a generation before the famine the larger tenant farmer class had shunned subdivision of land and early marriage, as it struggled to achieve primitive accumulation of wealth. It was this which ensured its survival in the famine. [12] In the aftermath it became clear that if a repeat of the “Great Calamity” was to be avoided, the practices of the better-off would have to be adopted by the poorer classes. Thus the custom of dividing the land between all the sons in a family would have to be discontinued and the land passed on to one son only. Further the number of children born to families would have to be limited.

The role of the Catholic church was crucial to these changes in family life. The church was, in effect, the large tenant farmer class at prayer. Most priests came from this layer – Catholics who could afford to educate their children. In the early 19th century the cost of sending a son to Maynooth for the first year was £40 to £50 at a time when the average wage was about a shilling a day. In 1808, of the 205 students in Maynooth seminary, 78 percent were the sons of farmers – and it was only the larger farmers who could afford to send their sons there. [13]

The church provided the ideological basis for the sexual repression which ensured the pattern of late marriages and what came to be called “permanent celibacy” which was to become the norm in Ireland right up to the second half of the 20th century. Changing the sexual mores of centuries would be no easy task under normal circumstances. But the aftermath of a catastrophe which saw the population almost halve, from 8 million in 1841 to 4.5 million in 1861, was not a normal circumstance. Carrying on “normal life” after the famine was impossible.

In this situation the church was able to offer the traditional religious explanations for disaster and, by providing spiritual consolation to those who survived, to consolidate its position. This, together with the lack of a clear economic role for women, gave the church the opportunity to become intimately involved in Irish family life. The number of priests, drawn from the increasingly dominant strong farmer milieu, rose dramatically between 1861 and 1911 – a time when the overall population was declining. By 1911 the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:210. [14] In 1926 2 percent of all single males aged 45 to 54 were priests or monks. [15] The church preached the centrality of marriage and the family, the evils of all sexual activity not aimed at procreation, and held up the Virgin Mary as the model for all women. It offered women a new role: that of transmitters of the Catholic teaching that all sexual activity outside marriage, or not aimed at conceiving children, is evil.

In most countries the religious head of the household is the man. In Ireland, to this day, it is generally the woman. Women in the post-famine period were offered the role said to be the most important in society – bringing up children in the Catholic faith. To a large extent women had little choice in this. There was nothing else on offer and, in return for embracing the new morality, they received a level of respect, of status, even authority, which they could not otherwise have expected, given their changed economic role. This period also saw a tremendous explosion in devotion to the Madonna and in the practice of reciting the Rosary (a prayer to the Virgin). All over the country shrines of devotion to Mary sprang up. The Virgin Mother was the model for Irish women. The alternative was the convent or emigration.



Convent, emigration and permanent celibacy

Nuns made up one of the largest groups of women workers in Ireland right up to the 1970s. For many young women, faced with a choice of marriage or emigration, the convent seemed a place where it would be possible to have a job, respect and status. The number of nuns in Ireland increased eightfold between 1841 and 1901, despite a near halving of the Catholic population. This increase had started before the famine. At the beginning of the 19th century there were 11 convents in Ireland. Immediately after the famine the number stood at 91. By 1900 the number of convents had rocketed to 368 and the average size of each had grown. [16]

But becoming a nun was not an option open to all. Entry to the convent was expensive. Canon law stipulated that every entrant should bring a certain sum of money. In the mid-19th century the lowest acceptable sum was £200. The average dowry was almost £400. As a result, many nuns were from wealthy backgrounds. Most were the daughters of comfortable, large farmers or shop owners. By the end of the 19th century civil servants, clerks and other white collar workers were beginning to be able to find the dowry. In spite of the expense, one in 20 Irish women were entering the convent in the early 20th century. In 1926 some 4.9 percent of all single females aged 45 to 54 were nuns and lay sisters. [17]

For those with a vocation and no dowry, the only way to join a religious community was as a “lay sister”. These were known colloquially as “skivvies” and were, in effect, servants to the dowried nuns. Their habits included an apron and looked like a maid’s uniform. Like servants in the big houses, lay sisters ate either before or after and apart from the dowried nuns. While anyone who wants to be a nun is admitted to the convent today, the class distinction between lay sisters and “proper” nuns whose families could afford the dowry remained until the 1980s. [18]

Right up to the late 1980s huge numbers of Irish women chose emigration rather than live unemployed and dependent on their male relatives in this mean, narrow-minded, repressive society. About one third of emigrants to the United States from Europe as a whole between 1850 and 1950 were women. From Ireland the proportion was well over half. Most women who emigrated from Europe went as part of a family unit. The majority of Irish women emigrants were single and travelled alone (see Table 1). Ireland was unique in having more women than men emigrate, and the differences were dramatic. While there were between three and six times more men than women emigrants from some other countries, from Ireland there were almost twice as many women as men. [19]

Table 1: Sex of Five Groups of
Foreign-Born White Workers
Ten Years Old and over
in Six States of the US in 1920


& Wales
















Source: R.E. Kennedy, The Irish, Emigration, Marriage and Fertility (London 1973)

This pattern of mass emigration, especially of women, continued up to the last decades of the 20th century. In 1960, for example, of the women aged 15 to 19 in 1942 more than half were living outside Ireland. [20] Despite this, emigration was seen as a male phenomenon, largely because most emigrants went to Britain and many of these were married men whose wives and children remained in Ireland, keeping consciousness of these emigrants high. Women who went to England were more likely to be single and to stay away.

For those who eschewed the convent or emigration, the role of Virgin Mother was not always on offer. In 1926 some 26 percent of women remained unmarried at 45, compared to about 10 percent before the famine. Late arranged marriages meant that women, if they married at all, married men considerably older than themselves. Before the famine about 20 percent of husbands were ten years older than their wives. By the early 20th century the proportion had risen to about 50 percent. [21]

In the 1930s almost three quarters of 25 to 34 year old men remained single in Ireland compared to a third in England and Wales. In the 1960s half of all 25 to 34 year old men remained single compared with only one in five men in England and Wales. The higher rate of female emigration was a huge factor in this. In fact, at no time after 1881 were there enough single women to marry all the single men in Ireland. For most of the 20th century there were over 140 men for every 100 women in the 45 to 54 age group. In 1961, in rural areas, there were 244 single men for every 100 single women among 45 to 54 year olds. [22]

As these figures indicate, while life choices for women were very limited, things weren’t a bed of roses for men either. Told that women were an “occasion of sin” since the time of Eve, separated from them in school, church and social occasions, they were often frightened silly of their wives when their parents finally arranged a marriage – usually when the “boy” had passed 45. And those were the lucky ones. The official lunacy rate in Ireland quadrupled between 1841 and 1901. Up to the 1980s men – particularly those from the rural west – continued to have vastly higher rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals. [23]

Emigration, late marriage and permanent celibacy ensured that the population continued to decline until the mid-1960s. The population of the Republic reached a historical low of 2.8 million in 1961. The aim of holding the land together was met and the material and cultural level of Irish society rose. The Land Acts of the late 19th century had allowed tenant farmers to buy their land and the conditions for the basic accumulation of capital necessary for the development of indigenous capitalism were all in place.



The “carnival of reaction”

The strong tenant farmer class became the emerging capitalist class. With the tiny urban bourgeoisie, they were the group in a position to accumulate. After the War of Independence, when Britain withdrew from the 26 counties, they were the class which came to power in the South. Connolly had predicted that partition would bring a “carnival of reaction” North and South. Women in the North were needed to work in the linen and textile industry and did not suffer the same level of exclusion from the workforce as women in the South. Nonetheless, North and South, the sectarian, indeed confessional, nature of both states meant a heavy hand of sexual repression and severely limited options for women.

Much has been written about the sectarian nature of the Northern state. [24] Its mirror image in the South has usually been obscured by the North’s dark shadow. After independence the spectre of revolution haunted the island. The church moved to protect the interests of its long-time class allies and to legitimise the new “Free State”. Its allies reciprocated, making divorce illegal and banning even information about contraception. The chair of the Censorship of Films and Publications Committee was given to clerics, and the church’s grip on education and the hospitals was confirmed.

Less than a decade into the existence of the Free State, the needs of capital again coincided with Catholic teaching on the family. While in 1926 fewer than one woman in ten worked in industry, by the early 1930s this had more than doubled. Most of these jobs were unskilled and in new light industries such as clothing, food, drink and tobacco. But this growth in women’s employment was accompanied by economic depression and rising unemployment among men. [25] In 1935 Section 16 of the Conditions of Employment Act allowed the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass, to prohibit the employment of women in industry. It also fixed the proportion of women workers to other (male and child) workers and forbade employers to employ more women than men in cases where a ministerial order had been made on a specific industry.

When legislation was introduced in mid-19th century Britain restricting the right of women to work in certain industries, for example the mines, the reason given was the danger to women’s health. There was no such rationalisation in Section 16. It was a clear attempt to remove women from the workplace as a way of reducing male unemployment. It gave unlimited power, with no right of appeal, to the Minister of Industry and Commerce, and could have brought a blanket ban on women workers if the politicians so decreed. [26]

The Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) initially supported Section 16, prompted by the attitude of the leaders of the largest union in Congress, the ITGWU. At the ITUC’s 1935 Congress, held in the Guildhall in Derry, ITGWU senator Tom Kennedy argued that “it was the first measure to give male labour their rightful place in the new industries”. [27] Helena Molony of the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) responded, telling delegates that “it was terrible to find such reactionary opinions expressed ... by responsible leaders of labour in support of a capitalist minister in setting up a barrier against one set of citizens”. [28]

After discussions with the IWWU, in which the women offered a compromise agreeing to the allocation of specific work to women, Congress agreed that it had to oppose Section 16.

The Labour Party, however, gave it complete support in the Dail and the Senate, and argued against the introduction of equal pay for women as a means of ensuring that women would not be used as cheap labour in preference to men. When the Conditions of Employment Act was passed, with Section 16 intact, the International Labour Organisation in Geneva placed Ireland on a blacklist.

In 1937 the new constitution gave a special place to the church and also to women. The special place for the church was at the head of Irish society. The special place for women was in the home. This meant that women were expected to have a life outside the home only while waiting to get married. This ideology proved useful for a state that had neither the means nor the inclination to invest in social services.

It was a life of drudgery, isolation and grinding poverty for most working class women. With none of the labour saving devices common today, work in the home was physically exhausting and mind-numbingly repetitive. Just 30 years ago our mothers or grandmothers had to devote an entire day each week to the washing – and another day to ironing. Many had little choice but to find some work in the home to supplement the family income, often sewing, knitting, washing and ironing for better-off women. When the children were older and at school, they went out to clean the houses of better-off women.

Women were needed in the textile factories of the North and there their right to work was not restricted by legislation. With wages much lower than elsewhere in the UK, few men earned enough to support a family, and working class women had no choice but to work. However, the “carnival of reaction” meant working class women could not presume they would enjoy the benefits won by their counterparts in the rest of the “United Kingdom”. Every aspect of the welfare state which workers won in the years after the Second World War was resisted by the Unionist government in Stormont and Catholic bishops alike. [29]



Sex and childbearing

With the sexual repression of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had come the suppression of traditional methods of birth control. In the first edition of Peig, the story of an old woman’s life on the Blasket Islands in the extreme west of Ireland at the start of the 20th century, Peig explained that Blaskets women had controlled the number of children they conceived by fashioning a kind of cervical cap from beeswax. There is also some evidence that herbs and the bark of certain trees were used to induce early abortions. But all this information was suppressed and, although there were always midwives who were willing to help desperate women end intolerable pregnancies, most women came to accept that sexual activity and having babies were inextricably linked.

So sex became something that men sought and women feared. The jokes about sex being the price women paid for marriage and marriage the price men paid for sex reflected the reality of most people’s lives. Inevitably, contraception was always available to the better-off, who could go to the right doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm or travel abroad and bring supplies of condoms home. To this day a family with just two children is known in Ireland as a “gentleman’s family”!

Of course, for working class people, there were many contradictions. Sex was “the poor man’s opera” and many a poor woman’s opera: “There is no poverty between the blankets.” Constant childbearing was made worse by grinding poverty and dreadful housing conditions. Housing was expensive and grossly overcrowded. In 1926 half of all families in Dublin city and a third of all families in Cork and Limerick cities lived in “homes” of one or two rooms – at a time when the average size of a household was six or more. [30] Overcrowding remained a huge problem into the 1970s, so much so that “one family, one house” was one of the six demands of the early women’s movement.

The scandal of the majority of the population living in dreadful conditions was ignored by those who were doing well from property speculation arising from the housing shortage. The biggest building contractors have always been associated with Fianna Fail and could rely on the party to look after them, while church-made morality was seen to apply only to matters of sex.



Magdalen Laundries and Industrial Schools

While the price of sex within marriage was high, the penalty for sex outside marriage was exorbitant. If a working class woman became pregnant outside marriage, she had to leave her home in disgrace and go to one of the Magdalen Laundries or “Good Shepherd” convents. Her parents had no choice but to turn her out. Any parents who tried to stand by their daughters had the priest hammering at the door, telling them it was their Christian duty to turn their back on their child.

In recent years the truth about the abuse, even torture, of women and children in the laundries and “orphanages” has been revealed. “Pat” described her two years in a mother and baby home in 1963 and 1964:

You couldn’t get out of the outside gate, you just weren’t allowed ... Someone always made a run for it but they were caught and dragged back ... We were bad girls, we’d had sex. We were shamed ... Six weeks after your baby was born they reckoned you were fit for work. Most of the girls were put out in the farm, working in the fields or the gardens or with the pigs and cattle. Or they were put to cleaning. Girls worked in the dormitories, the laundry, the kitchens ... [31]

The nuns, with the collusion of the state, even sold the women’s babies. “Pat” told journalist Mike Milotte about the American couples who came to the home looking for a baby to adopt and her heartbreak when her son was taken to be adopted:

They had to be physically perfect, and none of the black babies that were there were ever selected ... No one ever discussed adoption with me ... I was just called over by one of the nuns and told he was going the next day ... I remember so clearly, bringing him down to the side door, hugging him, cuddling him and kissing him, and he was just swiped out of my arms by a nun. [32]

These offences did not take place in the dim, distant past. The now infamous Industrial Schools were still in operation as late as 1984. Most people over the age of 35 can remember being threatened as a child with being sent to one of these institutions if we didn’t behave.

The Industrial Schools, set up at the end of the 19th century, were known colloquially as “orphanages”. In fact, only about 5 percent of the children in them were orphans. The vast majority were there because of the poverty of their parents. Mary Raftery, the television producer who exposed the truth about the Industrial Schools, discovered that about 80 percent of all children committed to the schools and over 90 percent of the girls were detained under the category “lack of proper guardianship”. In practice, this meant the children of unmarried mothers, children who had lost one or both parents or whose families were unable to look after them due to poverty. In short, the Industrial Schools were “a crucial element in maintaining social control of the population”, a way of training servants and farm labourers for the Catholic middle classes and a method to “entrench and perpetuate a rigid class system in Ireland”. [33]

The Industrial Schools played a very important role in policing sexual repression. This is evidenced by the extraordinarily high numbers of girls in the Irish system compared to the UK. In 1933, for example, there were 1,123 girls in the system in all of Britain (population 40 million), as compared to a staggering 3,628 in Ireland (population 3 million). This was because many (poor) teenage girls were sent to Industrial Schools for the crime of being “sexually aware”. [34] Others were committed to the schools because of their mothers’ sexual activity. [35]



Health and education

With no health service and deep poverty, the number of children working class parents had to watch die was horrendous. Infant mortality soared. In 1926 in Ireland 120 of every 1,000 babies under the age of one died compared to six of every 1,000 today. [36] As late as 1949 over 50 of every 1,000 babies died before the age of one. One child in 16 born in 1949 did not live to see her or his fifth birthday. Diarrhoea and enteritis were the biggest killers of babies. Tuberculosis and other preventable and treatable diseases swept through the slums, killing older children. All these children died of poverty. [37]

The education system, too, was biased against the children of workers and the poor. While primary education was available free to those who could afford to buy books, paper and pens, and most people were at least semi-literate, secondary education was open to few. Children normally stayed in primary school until they reached 14 and then started work. Local authorities could provide scholarships, paid from the rates, for secondary school students. But local authorities were run by the business class who were not about to increase the rates just to help bright working class kids. As late as 1961 only 621 scholarships of this kind were available across the entire 26 counties. [38]

All primary schools were church-run. The overwhelming majority were managed by the Catholic parish priest, the rest by the local Church of Ireland parish. Successive education ministers reiterated their support for, indeed insistence on, church control of education. This “Catholic ethos” had a dreadful impact on the education of girls. Like their brothers, working class girls suffered discrimination, bullying and open snobbery from teachers, especially priests and nuns, if they managed to get some secondary education.

Eamonn McCann’s account of the treatment of working class “intruders” in Derry’s Catholic grammar describes a scene repeated in many Southern schools:

Priest in a maths class: “Where do you come from?” “Rossville Street.” “Oh yes, that’s where they wash once a month”. [39]

The bias in the education system was not only against working class children, but against all girls. Only a tiny layer of girls were allowed to aim for higher education. Most were taught to read and write, sew, cook and pray. Women were educated to be wives and mothers. This education began from the day they started school. As late as 1985 the curriculum at primary level stated that:

Separate arrangements in movement training may be made for boys and girls. Boys can now acquire skills and techniques and girls often become more aware of style and grace ... while a large number of songs are suited to boys, for example, martial, gay, humorous, rhythmic airs. Others are more suited to girls, for example, lullabies, spinning songs, songs tender in content and expression. [40]



The weakness of the Irish left

Other Catholic church dominated countries have had a healthy anti-clerical tradition on the left, so the capitulation of the Irish left has to be explained. At the start of the 20th century, with the church growing ever more militant, Ireland needed a left which would take the church on and defend the rights of women, and men, to sexual freedom. If the working class was to stand together, it needed an alternative view of women’s role and position in society. James Connolly, the giant of Irish socialism, might have been expected to provide such an alternative. Unfortunately, Connolly’s syndicalism led him to see the women’s question only in relation to economic issues. Unlike Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, Connolly did not regard the family and sexual freedom as areas of socialist concern.

Although he argued frequently against individual bishops and priests, Connolly did not see the Catholic church for what it had become: a defender of capitalism. Although a materialist, he believed religion belonged to the realm of the unknowable or was a product of our ignorance of nature. This, together with his belief that the Catholic church would not oppose a socialist movement that looked like winning, led him to argue that socialists should ignore the question of religion altogether. His Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) “prohibits the discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at meetings, public or private”. [41] He forbade discussion within the party of all questions relating not only to religion, but also to sexual relationships. Connolly’s total exclusion of these questions “sprang from the same theoretical source: namely that working class consciousness would passively reflect economic conditions and move spontaneously to socialism”. [42] The limitations of Connolly’s Marxism – his syndicalism – influenced the Irish left generally, severely undermining the ability of Irish workers to defend their own interests. The result was that socialists made more and more concessions to Catholicism. During the election of 1900 Connolly proposed that all ISRP members should attend mass!

This failure to challenge the church’s view of women and sexuality weakened the ability of workers to defend their economic position. A case in point is the Magdalen Laundries. They were, in essence, sweatshops served by the slave labour of the women imprisoned there without trial or release date. During the 1913 Dublin Lockout one of the strikers, Mary Ellen Murphy, was sentenced to one month in custody for “assaulting one of the girls employed by Messrs Jacobs by giving her a box on the face and calling her a ‘scab’.” [43] Because she was only 15 she could not be put in Mountjoy jail with the other strikers. Instead she was committed to High Park Convent in Drumcondra, where the nuns ran an Industrial School and Magdalen institution on the same site.

In demanding Mary Ellen Murphy’s release, both Connolly and Larkin used the language of priests and bishops against the women of the Magdalen institution. Instead of railing against the use of slave labour, with its inevitable undercutting of wage rates for workers in commercial laundries, they complained that Mary Ellen would be forced to mix there with “fallen women”. Connolly said that “when that girl was sent into that institution her character was foully besmirched and a damnable outrage committed”. He answered criticisms from the employers that he was exaggerating when he said the girl was in a “home for fallen women”:

... the girls of the reformatory were in the same chapel with the fallen women and in view of them, a partition only dividing them ... she was not forgotten by her friends, though the hell hounds of the capitalist system were trying to blacken her character. [44]

In portraying the women of the Magdalen Laundries as outcasts from the working class, instead of as the most oppressed of that class, Connolly failed to oppose the church in its mission to support capitalism in its exploitation of workers. This became clearer after Connolly’s death when the Magdalen institutions started to bid for work traditionally done by commercial laundries. Time and again the leadership of the Irish Women Workers’ Union complained that employers looked for cuts in wages and for longer hours without compensation. The employers argued that they could not pay their workers a living wage and compete with the institutional laundries. In the middle of the Second World War, when there should have been plenty of work, the IWWU had to write to the heads of the Magdalen Laundries urging them not to take work away from the commercial operations. While two Reverend Mothers had “friendly but inconclusive” talks with the IWWU, others did not even reply to the union’s letters. In April 1941 Bloomfield Laundry lost a military contract to the Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry and 25 women at Bloomfield were laid off. [45]

Connolly’s approach to the Magdalen women contrasted with the approach taken by Lenin and Trotsky to the prostitutes who organised themselves in the course of the Russian Revolution. To anyone who questioned the right of these women to be part of the workers’ councils, they pointed out that as the worst victims of class society, they had more right than most to help build an alternative. Lenin’s maxim that the revolutionary has to be “the tribune of the oppressed” was explained by Tony Cliff:

A revolutionary has to be extreme in opposition to all forms of oppression. A white revolutionary must be more extreme in opposing racism than a black revolutionary. A gentile revolutionary must oppose anti-Semitism more strongly than any Jew. A male revolutionary must be completely intolerant of any harassment or belittling of women. [46]

None of this takes away from the fact that, generally speaking, Connolly was a champion of women’s rights at a time when it was “neither popular nor profitable”. His essay – Woman, published in 1914 in The Reconquest of Ireland – echoed Marx and Trotsky with its assertion that “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”. And the women who worked closely with him in the ISRP, the trade union movement or the Irish Citizen Army were all unequivocal about his support for women’s liberation. His daughter Nora said he regarded women as complete equals and “saw nothing incongruous in a woman having a seat on an army council, or preferring to bear arms to winding bandages”. [47] The feminist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington said that when it came to the fight for women’s rights Connolly never failed to respond to a call for a meeting or a protest demonstration. She credited Connolly with ensuring that the 1916 Proclamation of Independence was addressed to both Irish men and Irish women and guaranteed equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens.

Connolly was always clearly on the side of women fighting to improve their rights as workers. But his insistence that socialists should not agitate on matters of religion or sex was to leave the Irish left with a legacy of weakness which was only overcome in the 1970s with the re-emergence of the non-Stalinist revolutionary left.




It would be wrong to give the impression that there was no resistance to the fierce repression that gripped Ireland for over a century. But resistance was difficult in a country which was underdeveloped, where church and state were so closely connected, and the left was weak. Many young people, especially young women, were glad to emigrate as a way to escape the unemployment and repression.

Maintaining their hold on the land might go a long way towards explaining continuing high rates of late marriage and permanent celibacy through the 1920s, 1930s and even up to the 1960s. But the inordinately high rates can only be fully explained in the context of women resisting their exclusion from the workforce. While married women were not allowed to work, over two thirds of younger women and more than half of older single women worked outside the family home. It is difficult not to conclude that many women, faced with the choice between a life of poverty and dependence in marriage or a relatively decent single life, decided to remain single. For anyone, man or woman, to marry meant two adults living on one wage: an immediate reduction in their standard of living. By the mid-20th century, when urban employment was, if not plentiful, at least common, the population was still declining. [48]

The church, which had so firmly endorsed postponement of marriage, was now concerned at the extent of late marriage. The modernisers around Sean Lemass, then Fianna Fail taoiseach, were clear that for Ireland’s economy to develop the population trends of the previous century would have to be reversed. Bishop Lucey of Cork made the church’s new view clear:

those who remain single through selfishness, or through over-anxiety about the future, or for any other such reason – for instance, the woman who does not want to give up her independence or her job, or the man who does not want the burden of supporting a home – are failing in their duty to god, themselves, and the race. [49]

We have seen above the resistance the IWWU mounted to the 1935 Conditions of Employment Act. They and other women’s groups also fought to remove the worst discrimination against women from de Valera’s 1937 constitution. [50] And, like working women and men throughout the world, Irish women rose up from time to time to fight against the poverty which blighted their lives and the lives of their families.

Apart from domestic servants and nuns, laundry workers made up one of the largest groups of women workers. From the IWWU’s earliest days laundresses were the most militant section of the union. In 1918 women in laundries worked over 50 hours a week, were paid between seven and ten shillings and had no paid holidays. In 1936 the 45-hour week had been won, a minimum wage of 32s 6d secured, and laundry workers had been the first to win a week’s paid holiday. The success of the laundresses inspired other groups of workers. In 1936 alone, at Ever Ready hours were reduced from 48 to 44; at the Post Office a 44-hour week was conceded and nurses won a reduction from 56 to 48 hours – but only in unionised hospitals. [51]

In 1945 the laundry workers went on strike for two weeks paid holidays a year – a demand not yet made by the best organised male workers. They had put in six claims for the fortnight between 1934 and 1945, stressing the dangers to women’s health in the hot, damp working conditions. Now, “worn out by prolonged overtime during the war emergency”, they voted overwhelmingly (94 percent) for strike action and instituted an overtime ban. The Federated Union of Employers (FUE) recognised that, if the women won, the rest of the workforce would demand parity. It asserted there would be no negotiations until the government declared a fortnight’s holiday as a national right. The entire union, from the shop floor to the paid officials, set out to win the strike.

Although the trade union movement was riven by internal dissent – in 1945 the ITUC had split – support for the women workers was immediate. The ITUC requested all affiliated unions to offer financial support to ensure that lack of resources would not force the IWWU to give in. Defeat, it argued, would “be little short of a tragedy and would constitute a standing disgrace to the Irish trade union movement.”

Picket lines were livened by the laundry workers’ song, to the tune of Lili Marlene:

Outside the laundry we put up a fight
For a fortnight’s holiday
They said we’d have to strike,
So we keep marching up and down,
As we nearly did for half a crown
We are a fighting people
Who cannot be kept down

After three months on strike the women rejected compromise proposals outright. In an open letter to members of the Oireachtas (parliament), strike committee chair Margaret McGrath reiterated the right of the women to “adequate leisure, a just wage and respect for personal dignity”. They would not be returning to work until “our just claims are justly met”.

Two weeks later the employers indicated that they were willing to reconsider. On 30 October the IWWU and the FUE agreed that “all women workers employed in laundries operated by members of the federation shall receive a fortnight’s holiday, with pay, in the year 1946.” The laundry women had opened the door. The rest of the working class poured through.



Economic development

The late 1940s and early 1950s in Ireland were years of stagnation and malaise economically and politically. The South was in a state of near economic collapse. Employment in agriculture continued to decline, while stagnant industry provided no alternative jobs. Protectionism had had been shown not to work but that fact had yet to be faced by the politicians. As a result, emigration had reached unconscionable levels, even by Irish standards. Of every 100 girls in Connaught aged 15 to 19 in 1946, 42 had left by 1951. Four out of every five children born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 emigrated in the 1950s. [52]

It was clear that a new economic orientation was needed. The alternative strategy chosen to replace protectionism was to use inward investment to inject a new dynamism into the Irish economy. The ground had already been prepared to welcome the multinationals. In 1949 the Industrial Development Authority was set up and Export Profits Tax Relief introduced in 1956. In 1955 the Irish government signed an agreement with the United States giving guarantees against the expropriation of the investments of US citizens or any ban on the reconversion of their earnings into dollars. The 1958 report of civil servant T.K. Whitaker, Economic Development, which in popular history is seen as marking the beginning of the new turn, was drawn up after unofficial discussions with the World Bank. The bank sanctioned the report prior to its publication. [53]

The new turn transformed the economy, and eventually the lives of women, in Ireland. The economy grew at a rate of 4 to 6 percent throughout the 1960s and jobs began to open up for women. The growth in the economy was accompanied by a big expansion in social spending. Access to healthcare was greatly improved with a choice of doctor scheme, and children’s allowance was paid for all children. Statutory redundancy payments and pay-related unemployment benefit greatly improved the lives of workers in insecure jobs. [54] As in Britain in the years after the Second World War, the economy demanded a more educated and secure workforce. As well as the rudimentary welfare state, in 1967 free secondary education was introduced. A basic grant system for third level education was introduced in 1972. Combined with other developments, particularly the arrival of the pill – which was available as a cycle regulator, even though banned as a contraceptive – these changes were to have a profound effect on the lives of Irish women.

The effect of the introduction of free secondary education was immediate. Only two out of five 19 year olds in 1960 had completed secondary education; in 1975 it was three out of five; by 1997 it was four out of five. Because there had always been some working class boys whose parents scraped enough together to educate them out of poverty, the introduction of free secondary education had a greater effect on girls than on boys. Between 1971 and 1981 the number of girls at secondary school increased by over 100 percent and the number at third level by 180 percent, compared with 94 percent and 60 percent for boys. [55]

Between 1961 and 1971 there was a slight decrease in the number of women in the labour force. Between 1971 and 1983, as emigration slowed, the total number of women at work grew by 34 percent – the number of married women in the labour force grew by 425 percent. In 1971 there were 275,600 women aged 15 and over in the workforce, of whom fewer than 24,000 were married. By 1983 there were 389,000 women in the labour force, of whom 128,000 were married. The removal in 1973 of the marriage bar in the public service made a clear difference. [56] Women’s earnings relative to men’s stayed the same from 1955 to 1971. In virtually all years average hourly earnings for women equalled 57 percent of the male average. Then between 1971 and 1984 female earnings rose from 57 percent to 68 percent of male earnings. Although equal pay legislation had been enacted in 1976, few employers granted equality unless it was forced on them through workers’ struggles. Much of the increase in average female earnings was due to changes in the kind of jobs women were able to get. [57]

Slow as these changes were, they started to chip away at the notion that everyone was happy living with sexual repression and church domination. Dissatisfaction and anger which had been kept firmly under the surface started to emerge. The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was founded in 1970 by a small group of mainly professional women, many of them journalists and/or socialists. Inspired by the civil rights movements in the US and the North, and the WLM in Britain and the US, it was at that time very much a movement for liberation for all women. Thus the six demands of the first manifesto of the Irish WLM in 1971 mainly related to issues that most affected working class women. They were:

  1. Equal rights in law.
  2. Equal pay and the removal of the marriage bar.
  3. Justice for widows, single mothers and deserted wives.
  4. Equal educational opportunities.
  5. The right to contraception.
  6. One family, one house. [58]

The first four of these demands dovetailed, at least to some extent, with the needs of developing Irish capitalism. The right to contraception and rights for mothers who had never been married, as opposed to widows and separated women, were more problematic as they involved going against the Catholic church. Providing single mothers with even the most miserly benefits would be seen as “encouraging immorality”.

The early WLM fell apart within a few years, partly through exhaustion, partly because of splits between those who wanted to get into “consciousness raising” and women-only issues and those who wanted to campaign on class demands like contraception and housing. Irish Women United was set up in 1974, mainly by socialists. In 1976 the Contraception Action Programme (CAP), an organisation of women and men, started to defy the law by selling condoms and spermicides. CAP members set up stalls at open markets, rock festivals, anywhere they could invite arrest. The police obviously had instructions to ignore the provocation. [59]

In 1979 Charles Haughey, then Minister for Health, introduced a bill to make contraception legally available to married couples “for bona fide family planning purposes only”. It permitted contraceptives to be bought legally – but only on prescription. He described the law as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. It has since emerged that at the time he was involved in a longstanding extra-marital affair. It was not until 1985 that the sale of condoms without prescription to over 18 year olds was legalised. Even then they were to be sold only through pharmacies.




1. Cited in T. Inglis, Lessons in Irish Sexuality (Dublin 1998), pp.10-11.

2. Irish Examiner, 4 December 2000.

3. For a full discussion, see L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989).

4. T. Inglis, Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society (Dublin 1987), p.117.

5. M. NicGiolla Phadraigh, Religious Practice and Secularisation, in P. Clancy, S. Drudy, K. Lynch and L. O’Dowd, Ireland: A Sociological Profile (Dublin 1986), p.147.

6. M. Ruane, The Irish Journey: Women’s Stories of Abortion (IFPA, 2000).

7. J.J. Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, 1848-1918 (Dublin 1973), p.6.

8. J.C. Beckett, The Making of Modern Ireland, 1603-1923 (London 1966), p.173.

9. G. O Tuathaigh, Ireland Before the Famine 1798-1848 (Dublin 1972), p.137.

10. J.J. Lee, Women and the Church Since the Famine, in M. MacCurtain and D. O’Corrain (eds), Women in Irish Society (Dublin 1978).

11. G. O Tuathaigh, op. cit., p.206.

12. J.J. Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, op. cit.

13. T. Inglis, Moral Monopoly, op. cit., p118.

14. E. Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy (London 1951), p.104.

15. R.E. Kennedy, The Irish, Emigration, Marriage and Fertility (London 1973).

16. C. Clear, The Limits of Female Autonomy: Nuns in Nineteenth Century Ireland, in M. Luddy and C. Murphy, Women Surviving: Studies in Irish Women’s History in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Dublin 1990), p.21.

17. R.E. Kennedy, op. cit.

18. C. Clear, Walls Within Walls: Nuns in Nineteenth Century Ireland, in C. Curtain, P. Jackson and A. O’Connor (eds), Gender in Irish Society (Galway, 1987).

19. R.E. Kennedy, op. cit.

20. NESC, The Social and Economic Impact of Emigration (Dublin 1990).

21. J.J. Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, op. cit.

22. Ibid., p168.

23. C. Curtain and A. Varley, Marginal Men? Bachelor Farmers in a West of Ireland Community, and A. O’Hare and A. O’Connor, Gender Differences in Treated Mental Illness in the Republic of Ireland, both in C. Curtain et al., op. cit.

24. See E. McCann, War and an Irish Town (London 1974), and M. Farrell, Northern Ireland: the Orange State (London 1976) for the best accounts.

25. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge 1989), p.190.

26. M. Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries (Dingle 1983), p.235.

27. Quoted in K. Allen, Fianna Fail and Irish Labour (London 1997), p.59.

28. Quoted in M. Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies: A History of the IWWU (Dublin 1988).

29. See, for example, L. McShane, Day Nurseries in Northern Ireland: Gender Ideology in Social Policy, in C. Curtain et al., op. cit.

30. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit.

31. Quoted in M. Milotte, Banished Babies: the Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business (Dublin 1997), pp.140-141.

32. Ibid., pp.144-145.

33. M. Rafferty and E. O’Sullivan, Suffer the Little Children: the Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools (Dublin 1999), p.26.

34. Ibid., p.28.

35. See, for example, the story of Mary Norris, ibid., pp.29-40.

36. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit., p.124.

37. Central Statistics Office, That was Then, This is Now: Changes in Ireland 1949-1999 (Dublin, 2000), pp.36-37.

38. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit., p.362.

39. E. McCann, op. cit., p.15.

40. Quoted in U. Barry, Who Owns Ireland – Who Owns You? (Dublin 1985), p.58.

41. K. Allen, The Politics of James Connolly (London 1990), p.28.

42. Ibid., p.4.

43. P. Murray, A Militant Among the Magdalens?, in Saothar 20 (1995), pp.11-54.

44. Ibid.

45. M. Jones, op. cit., p.176.

46. T. Cliff, Marxism on Oppression, in Marxism at the Millennium (London 2000), p.50.

47. Quoted in M. Ward, op. cit., p.224.

48. Ibid., p.13.

49. Quoted in R.E. Kennedy, op. cit., p.159.

50. See M. Ward, op. cit.

51. See M. Jones, op. cit., ch.12. The following description of the laundry workers’ strike is taken from that work.

52. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit., p.378.

53. For a full account of this period, see K. Allen, op. cit., ch.5.

54. Ibid., ch.6.

55. Ibid., p.35.

56. Ibid., p.36.

57. Ibid., p.39.

58. For an outline of the early history of the women’s movement in Ireland, see A. Smyth, The Contemporary Women’s Movement in the Republic of Ireland, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol.11, no.4, pp.331-341, or J. Levine, Sisters (Dublin 1982), ch.6.

59. See J. Levine, ch.14.


Last updated on 5.3.2003