It’s one of the defining moments in Irish history. A tight-lipped, proud in defeat Padraic Pearse stands stiffly in front of an almost farcically relaxed General Lowe. It was Easter Monday 1916 and the leader of a disastrous uprising had surrendered unconditionally after just four days. It’s a good photograph but there is one thing very, very odd about it. There are three people but eight feet. Elizabeth O’Farrell was actively involved in the 1916 uprising and stood proudly by Padraic Pearse’s side as he delivered his surrender. However, the conservative media of the time didn’t think it was appropriate for a woman to be seen outside the home and erased her from the photograph, but left out – or left in – a tiny pair of details. Nurse O’Farrell’s disembodied feet remain in one of our best known historical photographs as a reminder of all our forgotten heroines.
This is the centenary of the year that gave us our trade unions. Led by James “Big Jim” Larkin, the workers organised and went on general strike for better pay and conditions. The employers then united and locked-out all of their unionised workers. The dispute went on for four months and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) is usually the only group to be credited for the events of 1913. But if behind every great man there is an even greater woman, it follows that behind every army, or union, of great men, there must be an army of greater women.
The Irish Women Worker’s Union (IWWU) was set up in 1911 with the aim of not only winning better working rights for Irish women but also of fighting for the right to vote and to improve women’s status. Within weeks of setting up, the IWWU was involved in a dispute over pay in Jacob’s Factory, one of Dublin’s largest employers. A key figure in the dispute was Rosie Hackett, at the time just 18 years old, who organised and galvanised 3,000 workers to come out in strike. The workers won the dispute but two years later Jacobs tried to force three young women to forsake membership of the IWWU and remove their badges. Their refusal cost them their jobs but arguably initiated the strike of 1913, as by the end of the day over 1,000 workers had come out in sympathy. Dockworkers then refused to handle any of Jacob’s “tainted” goods. It was this event that catalysed the general strike in 1913, showing that the workers would unite and stick together. And during the lock-out, a city of starving workers were kept fed and alive by women who manned soup kitchens in Liberty Hall – in fact, the general health of the average Dubliner improved during the strike despite the terrible hardship, on account of the soup kitchens.
One hundred years on from 1913, it’s time to remember our forgotten heroines, and give them the credit and the thanks we owe them. There is a campaign to name the new bridge over the Liffey after Rosie Hackett (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rosie-Hackett-Bridge-Campaign/109664749219687?fref=ts) and an IWWU commemoration committee has been set up (www.womenworkersunion.ie).
I wrote my play “Scabs” to remind people of how brave the striking workers of 1913 had to be, and of how much they suffered in the hope of winning better rights for their children. The play’s female character, Nora Casey, is both very much of her time and very much ahead of it. She is feisty and passionate, a leader with the IWWU. But although she is a strong and respected leader of women, she could never, due to her gender, lead men. At one point she asks a male trade unionist “So you don’t mind the women organising – as long as we’re organising a [soup] kitchen for the men?” Despite being brave and very intelligent, she works as a factory girl. Due to her gender and lack of class status, she had no other choice, apart from prostitution. She is a suffragette and prepared to take a stand for rights for her and her daughter, but her own family, even her female relatives, don’t support her. Nora fights for rights for her daughter, but her own mother wishes more than anything that Nora would stop “makin a show of herself on the streets.” Her husband, also a trade unionist, is utterly devoted to her but will never understand the desperation that drives her, simply because he can not comprehend how Nora’s gender has held her back and hurt her. She loves him, but she refused to take his name when they married, and is not afraid to talk back. Despite her love for her daughter, it’s hard to tell if she would have chosen to have children or not, had she been alive later when that choice was possible.
Nora Casey is not real. I made her up. But I made her up in the likeness of women like Rosie Hackett and Delia Larkin, women who weren’t afraid to stand up and speak out at a time when women were told to be silent. She is my tribute to the brave women whose faces and names have been forgotten, but to whom we owe so, so much.
Scabs runs from 4th-6th July in the Pearse Centre, Pearse Street, at 8.30 pm. Tickets are €10/8 and are available from the 10 Days in Dublin box office
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/292368224232739/
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