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Caitriona Clear: Everyday Working Life in The Revolutionary Era; Two Case Studies.

Thursday 27th May, 2021

A Uachtaráin, a chairde,

It is a great honour for me to be here, participating in Machnamh, and to hear the inspiring talks that have gone before us.

Margaret O’Callaghan has pointed out that people living 100 years ago in Ireland didn’t know what was to come after, and that we cannot evaluate their experiences as if they had this knowledge. But neither did they look backward and see themselves as inhabiting a depressed and gloomy ‘post-Famine Ireland’.

The people who came of age in Ireland in the years 1891 to 1921 experienced dramatic transformation in all aspects of everyday life. The numbers of men and women working in shops, offices, factories, workshops, transport and communication, schools and hospitals - increased by thousands, at a time when population was falling.

These are raw numbers, not proportions. For example, there were over 7,000 more clerks in Ireland in 1911 than there had been 20 years earlier, and over 10,000 more teachers. And over 16,000 workers in the new field of telecommunications in 1911, and these numbers continued to grow.

All these workers, and others like them, had to present themselves for public view every day, and the resulting need for respectable and hard-wearing clothing and footwear created an unprecedented countrywide demand for dressmakers, tailors, cobblers, and drapery shops; more jobs, in other words. And however poor their working conditions – and we have been hearing about how poor some of those working conditions were - waged and salaried workers had set time off. And therefore you had seamstresses, shop assistants, factory workers and railway guards, clerks, teachers and telegraphists learning Irish, or first-aid, rowing on rivers, kicking footballs, making novenas, playing in bands, and of course, as we now know well, joining trade unions and other organisations.

Irish people were still on the move out of Ireland – emigration figures remained high in this 20 year, 1891-1911, this period – but the young and the single of both sexes were in a state of perpetual motion. By 1900, almost the entire country was criss-crossed by railway lines, big and small, which enabled people to cover not only long, but also comparatively short everyday distances for work and for leisure, all over Leinster, Munster, Ulster and in southern and eastern Connacht. Gaps in transport provision were made up by the bicycle, increasingly affordable to people of all classes.

The two people whose lives I am going to use to illustrate the social changes of this period were writers: The novelist Annie M.P.Smithson and the poet Francis Ledwidge. They were different from each other in almost every way – gender, religious background, social class, occupation, geographical origin, even length of years – Smithson lived into old age, Ledwidge died young. I am not being flippant when I say that there were some distinct advantages to being female in the first two decades of the 20th century, anywhere in the Western world. You had less chance of being killed in combat, although I know Linda is going to talk about a different aspect of that.  

But both Smithson and Ledwige were active adults in the decade of war and revolution. Both were nationalists, both were trade unionists and crucially, both developed the confidence to express themselves creatively.

And by the way, I am not making any literary judgements on either of them, even though they are writers, both of whom I enjoy in different ways. I’m interested in them, today, as exemplars of their time.

Annie Smithson was the older of the two. Born in 1873 in Dublin, into a middle-class Protestant family which gradually fell on hard times, by the age of 21 she was that familiar figure, the non-earning daughter helping her overwhelmed mother to rear a young family. A sympathetic aunt helped her to get away to train as a nurse in London and in Edinburgh. Smithson returned to Ireland in 1900 to become a Jubilee nurse, one of those key apostles of public health, and over the next three decades worked on the district in Down, Clare, Offaly, Donegal, Mayo, Waterford and Dublin city. She became a Catholic around 1907, and around 1916 became an Irish nationalist, joining Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence.

Her first best-selling novel, entitled Her Irish Heritage, was published in 1917, and it was directly about the female revolutionary experience. Smithson went on to write 19 more best-selling novels, many with women as their central character, many about the revolutionary experience.

Always a fighter for nurses’ working rights, in 1929 she became Secretary of the Irish Nurses Union (later the INO), and she more than quadrupled the membership between then, 1929 and 1942 when she stepped down. She died in 1948.

Francis Ledwidge was born in Slane, Co.Meath in 1887, the eighth of nine children. His father was an agricultural labourer who died when Francis was 5, and all through Francis’s childhood his mother Anne worked as an agricultural labourer; sometimes the fatherless family lived through hardship so severe that as Ledwidge later put it: ‘It was as though God forgot us.’

Francis left school at 14, and held various jobs until he became a road-mender employed by the county council, eventually rising to the position of ganger. From his schooldays he was always writing, and his first poem was published in 1910 in the Drogheda Independent. After publishing some more poems he came to the attention of Lord Dunsany, a writer and poet whose help was of great significance.

Ledwidge’s first book of poems Songs of the Fields was published in 1914. As well as being involved in various literary and cultural organisations, Ledwidge founded the Slane branch of the Meath Labour Union, and in 1913 got a clerical job as secretary of this union. A founder member of the Irish Volunteers in Slane, Ledwidge chose to follow John Redmond, and joined the British Army, serving in Serbia and on the Western Front. He continued to write until his death at Ypres, in Belgium, in 1917.

So - two very different people, both of whose lives, though, reflected the changing times. Nursing and road-mending were responsibilities taken on by the public authorities at the turn of the 20th century. Both were extremely demanding jobs physically - the demands of road-mending are obvious, but nursing at that stage involved an awful lot of pulling and dragging, not to mention the risk of infection. Smithson contracted tubercolosis in 1912-13, as she put it, her ‘health broke down’, and she recovered in a sanatorium. District nursing, of course, also involved travel, on bicycles, over long distances, on call seven days a week in all weathers.

The bicycle was crucial to Ledwidge, too. At one stage he was covering 40 miles a day going to and from work. He, too, had several bouts of illness.

But Smithson and Ledwige were lucky in the sense that jobs were relatively secure, and permanent. In other ways both writers benefitted from the very real improvements in social provisions in late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Ireland; the Ledwidges, poor though they were, had moved into a solid three-bed brick house built by the rural district council when Francis was a baby. So at least they had that comfort and dignity. And as John Cunningham has pointed out, they were not exceptional; the Irish rural labouring class was the best-housed rural labouring class in Europe on the eve of the First World War.

And although Ledwidge left school at 14 he had up to then the advantage not only of free National schooling but also of a teacher famed for learning and dedication – Master Thomas Madden, who encouraged his poetry and encouraged his literary ambitions.

Smithson had a very patchy early education, as a lot of girls from her background did. She eventually got to school, in Bray, in her early teens and did honours in her Junior Grade Intermediate Certificate. These state exams – again, this was another social benefit – were introduced in 1878, and they were open to girls as well as to boys, on an equal level.

However, just as Ledwidge had to leave school at 14 to support his mother and younger brother, Smithson had to leave school at 16 to help her mother with a new baby. For working-class boys and girls, and for lower middle-class girls as well, family needs always came before individual fulfilment. Smithson felt guilty all her life for having seized her independence when it was offered to her.

As far as social mobility was concerned Ledwidge moved from manual work to a clerical position - had he survived the war, he probably would not have gone back labouring again. For Smithson it’s a bit more complicated - nursing was at that time seen by some snobs as socially ‘below’ teaching, and one could say therefore that Smithson moved ‘down’ the social scale from her origins in Dublin’s solid middle class - yet there can be no doubt whatever that for her and others like her, earning her livelihood in a skilled and respected profession was a vast improvement on staying at home as a mother’s unpaid helper.

Neither Smithson nor Ledwidge married. Smithson fell in love with a married doctor in Co.Down when she was in her early 30s, but gave him up and does not seem to have considered marriage again. Like the growing numbers of single female teachers, nurses, office workers and shop assistants in Ireland up to the 1960s, she probably did not want to give up her financial independence. But she made good friends wherever she went, and she became involved in Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence and the Civil War. After an unhappy first experience of love, Ledwidge probably would have married Lizzie Healy, a teacher’s sister from Kells, to whom he was writing all through the war and whom he met when he came home on leave. And if not her, somebody else - he had no shortage of female friends and acquaintances in the lively social scene he inhabited in rural and small-town Meath and Louth at that time, a social environment replicated all over Ireland in those energetic and effervescent years.

Ledwidge’s works went into several editions and his poems were included in many anthologies; I learned some of them at school. Smithson’s novels were republished regularly by Talbot Press; I read them avidly as a young teenager in the 1970s. Working-class men and women in general may have ‘lost the peace’ after 1922, as Mgt O’Callaghan has just said, but this road-mender’s lyrical descriptions of rural life and his meditations on human nature, and this nurse’s vigorous stories about strong independent women choosing their own paths, remained enduringly popular. I wonder what that tells us about both the Irish revolutionary period and the first four decades of independence