On Wednesday, December 24th, Christmas Eve 1913, in Calumet, Michigan, seventy-three men, women, and children, mainly striking mine workers and their families, were crushed to death in a stampede in what became known as the Italian Hall Disaster.
At a crowded Christmas party organise for the children of copper miners, who had been on strike in the local mines since July 23rd of that year, someone shouted “fire” at the entrance to the hall. There was no fire!
Hundreds of people were in the second floor room at the Italian Hall enjoying the miners party. Toys were being distributed to the children by Santa. On hearing the shout from downstairs, there was a huge panic and a mass rush down a steep narrow stairs to the exit which caused multiple deaths, especially among the children.
The strike had earlier been called by the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) seeking union recognition and an improvement in wages and working conditions. Mother Jones had visited Calumet in early August to show her support for the workers, before she became embroiled in the Colorado Coal Wars.
The mine owners in Copper Country refused to talk to the union members and the long and bitter strike continued until March 1914 in spite of this tragedy. Later investigations failed to reveal exactly who had wrongly called out “fire” which started the panic. Mother Jones blamed an anti union “law and order crowd” in the Calumet region for the false fire call which led to the deaths and repeatedly mentioned this dreadful tragedy in later speeches.
The sad and harrowing scenes in the town of Calumet on Christmas Day and over the 1913 Christmas period as the bodies of over 60 children were brought back to their homes left a lasting mark on witnesses. Photos from the time show lines of wooden white caskets. The Red Jacket Town Hall became a morgue, while the massive funeral procession down snow covered Fifth Street to Lakeview Cemetery was heart-breaking. Following several speeches from the strike leaders, the deceased were laid to rest in two mass grave sites.
The disaster at the Italian Hall was memorialised by singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie when in 1940 he wrote the “1913 Massacre”, in which he blamed the copper mines bosses of the Copper Country for the deaths.
“The piano played a slow final tune, And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon, The parents they cried and the miners they moaned, “See what your greed for money has done””
Candles are lit each Christmas Eve at the local park in Calumet, let us remember them too!
Our thanks to Jeremiah Mason of the National Parks Service, Lake Superior Management Centre at Keweenaw National Historical Park at Calumet.
Historian Anne Twomey will address the treatment of some women during the Revolutionary years on Thursday evening, the 28th of July, at 8.00 pm at the Cork Dance Firkin Crane on the opening day of the 2022 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. This forms part of our coverage of the Decade of Centenaries at festivals over the past few years.
General background to the treatment of some women during 1916-1923 and afterwards by all sides in the conflict from the Cork Mother Jones Committee.
Starting in 1966, the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the 1916 to 1923 period almost ignored the role of the Citizen Army (ICA), rarely referred to the Civil War’s events and largely side-lined women’s contribution to the struggle. Observers at the time may have wondered why the 1916 Proclamation addressed to the people of Ireland’ IRISHMEN and IRISHWOMEN’ seemed to apply only to the Irish men.
In 1966, it appears as if the women relatives of the men of 1916, were recognised and honoured. The actual women participants were largely ignored.
Fifty years later, in the current ‘Decade of Centenaries’, the essential contribution of women to the struggle for independence has been added to the narrative of the period.
Of further significance is the emergence from the silence and shadows of the war years of increasing evidence of the cruel and inhumane treatment of some women by all sides during the revolutionary years and in the new Irish Free State both during and long after the end of the Irish Civil War of 1922/23.
It can be argued that evidence of the participation of women was always to be found if one knew where to look and asked the right questions. However, as Sinead McCoole in “No Ordinary Women” discovered, many quiet, unassuming Aunt Bridies (Bridie Halpin) around the country existed. Their long-lost collections of personal materials in attics were found and revealed their vital and valuable contributions to the fight for Independence.
Additionally, the important work of Margaret Ward, Louise Ryan and Linda Connolly and many other academics and writers have highlighted and challenged the unacknowledged gender-based violence against women which occurred across the wars.
For every high-profile Countess Markieviez, Kathleen Clarke or Mary MacSwiney, there were also hundreds of nameless women involved. Some sacrificed their health and took huge personal risks to ensure the day-to-day functioning and operational integrity of the secret revolutionary infrastructure of the Irish Republican Army was protected, while challenging the British forces and demanding a real democratic republic. Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke, one of the 1916 Proclamation seven signatures, while in Holloway Jail in London in 1918, detailed her inhumane treatment in the autobiography “Revolutionary Woman”.
Mrs. Clarke was born into the Daly family in Limerick city. Her brother Ned was executed after 1916, two sisters, Nora and Laura, were in the GPO, and the family was regularly harassed by the British Army.
During a raid in October 1920, her two sisters, Una and Carrie, were physically attacked by the British raiding party. Una was dragged into the street where her hair was cropped, and her hand was slashed with a razor. The terror, shock and subsequent trauma of brutal hair cropping inflicted on many women by the male protagonists on all sides left an insidious lifetime mark on women treated in such a degrading and dehumanising manner.
Yet later, during the Civil War, following another disruptive Free State army raid on her home in 1922, Kathleen sadly comments.
“Running through my mind was all I has suffered at the hands of the British, and now my own people were causing me more suffering, and it hurt more because they were my own”
Eithne Coyne described her treatment in Mountjoy Prison, in Survivors in 1921 before and after the Truce.
“It was fairly tough that time in the Joy, with only four hours of exercise, and a lock up at half past four………the food was very bad; a tiny piece of meat twice a week, and for the rest of the time a thin soup. They came to your door accompanied by one of the ordinary female prisoners carrying these rusty two-tier cans that never seemed quite clean, with a small one sitting on top, in which was your tea, soup, cocoa or whatever was being served”
EITHNE cOYNE “sURVIVORS”
Publications such as “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times” detailed the arrest and imprisonment by British forces of seventeen-year-old Mary Bowles from Clogheen on the northside of Cork City in January 1921. Various reports suggest she was very badly treated. Regular raids took place by British forces, and their harsh treatment meted out to women in isolated farmhouses and homes all across the country, which were left wrecked or burned by the Black and Tans, went largely unreported at the time.
Kathleen Keyes McDonnell described a military raid on her family mill and home at Castlelack near Bandon.
“One morning towards the end of January 1920, police and military forced an entry by the back door before 7 a.m. One soldier put a bayonet to my forehead ordering me to get out of bed; another seized my arm and shook me roughly”
Tom Barry’s memory of the Crowley family in Kilbrittain, especially of Mrs. Crowley “sitting on a stool in the yard, gazing thoughtfully at the ruins of her blown up and burnt-out house” with members of her family dead or in prison, following a visit by the infamous British Essex Regiment, leaves no one in any doubt as to the brutal actions of the military during the War of Independence.
The kidnap and execution by the IRA of Mary Rawson, known as Mrs. Lindsay, following her betrayal of the planned Dripsey ambush, which resulted in the execution of five IRA men and the death from wounds of a sixth in February 1921, clearly declared that women were not immune to the ultimate penalty. This elderly woman’s long period of detention as a hostage and her eventual execution during March 1921 in Rylane, Co Cork was extensively documented by local historian Tim Sheehan in his book ‘Lady Hostage’ published in 1990.
Around the same time, 45-year-old Bridget Noble (Neill) was executed as a spy by the IRA at Ardgroom in West Cork. From the available accounts, both executions of Mary Lindsay and Brigid Noble were particularly gruesome. Their deaths were followed by a total veil of silence and the remains of both women have not been recovered.
In ‘A Hard Local War’, William Sheehan references the deaths of Nellie Carey and Essie Sheehan, whose crime was that they were accused of ‘going out’ with British soldiers and ex-soldiers.
In the course of her paper to the Irish Civil War National Conference in Cork in June 2022, Dr. Mary McAuliffe spoke of the violence inflicted on Bridget Carolan in Longford, Margaret’ Ciss” Doherty in Donegal, the Walsh sisters in Kerry and Margaret Doherty of Co Mayo by the National Army during 1922 and 1923. These were just a few of those women who suffered. The attack on Eileen Biggs in Dromineer, Co Tipperary, in June 1922 by anti-Treaty IRA men, who escaped justice, was one of the violent events reported in the media.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s recent publication on the Irish Civil War ‘Between Two Hells’, provides an account of some of the suffering of women during the period. He tells of Cork Cumann na mBan members Ellen Carroll who, as a result of her wartime activities, contracted TB in 1924 and young Johanna Cleary and Mary Carey who both died in 1924 as a result of an earlier Civil War hunger strike in Kilmainham Gaol.
Pension Discrimination Experienced by Women.
Ferriter refers to the efforts of their families and Cork activist Nora O’Brien (Martin), who had been arrested and imprisoned several times after 1916, to submit applications for small pension gratuities, which often failed due to mean-spirited pension adjudicators. What is striking about this is the indifference and bureaucratic cruelty of the State pension adjudication system, usually manned by former male comrades. They regularly and coldly refused to award even paltry payments to many women who had endured deprivations, trauma and bad health arising directly from their wartime activities.
Women could only apply for the lower levels of pension payments, a grade D or E pension, the highest levels (A, B and C) were reserved for active men only. Hundreds of women across the country were refused pensions based on narrow criteria as to what constituted ‘active service’. This unfair treatment continued for many decades as the women aged and needed assistance.
Efforts to obtain pensions often resulted in women who had risked their lives and liberty being subject to bureaucratic ritual humiliation by those men in charge of decision making. Cork activist Siobhán Creedon Lankford applied for a pension on 28th December 1935 based on her service as an Intelligence Officer with the Cork No 1 and 2 Brigades.
On 13th November 1941 Siobhán was notified of the granting of a Rank E pension calculated at three and a half years service although she had been active from the age of 22 to 29. She immediately appealed and sought a Rank D pension, which was denied. Siobhan received just £17.10s per annum by way of pension. Her story is fully documented by Éamon and Máirín Lankford in Appendix 1 of the 2020 edition of The Hope and the Sadness. It makes for sad reading indeed and reflects poorly on the attitude of the Military Pensions Board towards the role of women in the war years.
A headline in the Irish Independent newspaper of Monday 30th May 1921 declared “Daring Cork Exploit”. The news item gave a brief account of the escape of Dolly Burke from the Womens’ Prison in Sundays Well, Cork. Dolly Burke of Ballinure, Co. Tipperary was the first woman to break out of jail during the War of Independence.
After being sentenced to four months in Cork Jail for her activism, on the evening of 27th May 1921, some local Cork activists including Peg Lawlor of Blarney Street and Brian Martin helped her to escape. She was not arrested again.
From 1918 onwards, Dolly had set up and ran the IRA intelligence network in much of South Tipperary. She formed Cumann na mBan in the area and was harassed regularly by the British forces and her fiancé Tom Donovan was shot dead by them. Her brother Michael was on hunger strike in Cork prison, the same time as Terence MacSwiney. He was later wounded breaking out of Kilkenny Jail. They became the only brother and sister to escape from prisons during the War of Independence. Dolly maintained an arms dump near her home for the Republican side in the Civil War and later emigrated to the USA until 1934.
Yet when Dolly applied for her military pension in 1940, she was allowed only part service from 1920 and at the lowest E rank. Even a letter of support from Dan Breen did not budge the pension authorities.
Another prison escape involving women, took place on Halloween night in 1921 during the Truce, when Eithne Coyne, Linda Kearns, Mary Burke and May Keogh got over the walls of Mountjoy.
Women Fighting for Real Social Change!
Author Liz Gillis raises a fundamental point in her publication ‘Women of the Irish Revolution’ when she comments:
“Whereas the men were fighting for the Republic, the women while also fighting for that ideal, were additionally fighting for real change. They asked what exactly this Republic would mean for ordinary people, for the poorer parts of society”
In reality, a large number of the women revolutionaries were fighting for meaningful social change, and one is forced to question the ulterior motives and ideals of the increasingly comfortable male leaders of the new Irish State. Did the leadership desire any social change or movement towards social justice in light of their fierce hostility towards the women activists who had fought alongside them in the War of Independence?
Sinēad McCoole provides a list of some eighty-three women imprisoned after the 1916 Rising; at least twenty were from the socialist Irish Citizen Army (ICA), led by James Connolly, who were a very socially aware group. Ann Matthews lists twenty-eight members of the female auxiliary of the ICA who were “in action” in 1916 in her publication The Irish Citizen Army.
In all, over 70 women were coming and going to the General Post Office (GPO) at some point during Easter Week, while at least 270 women were directly involved around Dublin during the week of the Rising. These figures clearly demonstrate the high level of activity by women activists over that period.
No Ordinary Women also contains a further prisoner list of women held in Kilmainham Gaol, Mountjoy Jail and the North Dublin Union during and after the Civil War. The extensive records list five hundred and fifty names of Republican women interned and imprisoned during this period, many of whom were kept in terrible conditions. Many of the names and addresses of those women make for stark reading in that they remain largely unknown, although women had become increasingly visible in the Civil War. Almost forty of the incarcerated women on that list were from Cork; who were they? Do we know their life stories?
Incessant verbal and media attacks on women activists by the Free State leadership leading to the mass imprisonment, ill-treatment and detention for many months of Republican women commenced soon after the Civil War began. Hundreds of women from all over the country were arrested on a mass scale, something which even the British authorities were reluctant to attempt during the War of Independence. Eithne Coyne estimated that about forty women and girls in total, some of them as young as fifteen were incarcerated in prison by the British until the signing of the Treaty in December 1921, when they were released.
Some spent time on hunger strikes during this period and endured beatings and punishment. Several died soon afterwards due to illness and medical conditions arising at very young ages. Later following their release back into their families and communities, these traumatised women were often dismissed and described as simply “suffering from their nerves’.
The use of much of this violence was not accidental or down to rogue individuals. It appeared to form part of a systematic State policy intended to smash the resistance of the women, yet no one has been held accountable for the harsh treatment they endured while in custody. Few efforts were made to bring the elements of either the National Army or the Anti-Treaty forces responsible for the violence against women to justice. The policy of impunity permitting freedom from sanction enjoyed by those responsible created a de facto official immunity for male participants on all sides. In the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission, the cruel treatment of some women remains a stain on the birth of the State.
Wars are cruel and savage affairs where the normal rules of interaction, consideration, dignity and respect among some participants are lost. Passionate political views on both sides of the Civil War divide, when transformed into violent action, unleashed the dogs of war. This sundered the once solidly united Cumann na mBan and resulted in former friends and comrades becoming bitter enemies in the early years of the new State. The war cast a long shadow.
As the six female TDs rejected the Treaty along with the leadership of Cumann na mBan and most of their activists, one has to question if this opposition by the high-profile female revolutionaries, triggered the savage Free State hostility from the Pro-Treaty leaders to all Republican women activists? Was it due to this hostility that during March 1922 in Dail debates, both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, indulging in political opportunism, opposed the enfranchisement of women over 21 in the new Free State? In spite of their opposition, the Irish Free State Constitution enacted in June 1922 provided that all Irish citizens over the age of 21 were entitled to vote.
As a result, Ireland developed into a mean-spirited place for many women in the subsequent decades as the ruling political and exclusively male establishment, closely aligned with members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, ignored and actively discriminated against women in employment, health and education.
The Republican women were eventually released yet the State assault on the rights of women intensified. Withdrawal of employment rights of women by Irish governments began immediately. By 1924, an effective ‘Marriage Bar’ was imposed on women working in the civil service, later extended to the public sector such as the Post Office and even to private sector employers such as Guinness and Jacobs.
Under British rule a 1919 UK statute provided for most women to serve on juries, however by 1927, Minister for Justice Kevin O’ Higgins had excluded all women from “the horrors of criminal courts”. Under Eamon de Valera who came to power in 1932, divorce in Ireland was banned under the 1937 Irish Constitution, reflecting the socially conservative policies of the Catholic Church. Earlier in 1935, contraception was made illegal in Ireland.
Tens of thousands of women who broke the Church’s moral teaching were incarcerated in the Magdalen Laundries and in the Mother and Baby Homes. Thousands more emigrated quietly due to economic necessity and local social stigma, to Britain and the USA, and continued to do so until progressive women’s voices began to rise again in the 60s and 70s.
Among those who stayed on in the new Ireland of the 1920s such as Kathleen Lynn, Helena Molony, Rosie Hackett, Charlotte Despard, Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Delia Larkin, Leslie Price, Dorothy Stopford Price, and Winifred Carney (the last woman to leave the burning GPO!), they and others were in the forefront of the subsequent efforts over the decades to bring about a more equal, fairer and compassionate society.
The Casualties of War.
Although women were regarded as non-combatants during the wars, it may come as a surprise that so many lost their lives, especially in Cork during the five-year war period. If the records of University College Cork’s “Cork Fatality Index”, which covers some of the period of the Decade of Centenaries are examined, one cannot but be horrified today at the general level of violence throughout Cork City and County. Of the eight hundred and twenty-seven who died in Cork from 1919 to 1923, twenty-five were women, including eleven who were killed during the Civil War.
Reading the accounts of their deaths, it is clear that the great majority were innocent victims of the fighting and general mayhem happening around them in Cork. The names of Albina Murphy aged 34, a member of the Irish Union of Distributive Workers, Madge Daly aged 24, Mollie Egan aged 24, shot in the neck; Kate Crowley; Lillie Gallagher, aged 8, killed by a bomb, May Hall, nineteen-year-old Josephine Scannell killed by a stray bullet while sewing and sitting by her window on Frenches Quay are probably unknown to most people.
The girls and women and others who died may be remembered only by their families today, yet they were the horrific casualties of the violent birth of our country and should not be forgotten. Their deaths should continue to remind everyone of the enormous price paid by many ordinary people during war.
To quote Cork woman Mary Elmes, speaking about World War Two on the cost of warfare:
“War is a terrible thing, which is never won. It’s always lost. Everybody loses.”
Sources and Further Reading.
Diarmuid Ferriter, Between Two Hells, The Irish Civil War (Profile Books 2022) Kathleen Clarke, Revolutionary Woman 1878-1972, An Autobiography (The O’Brien Press Ltd 1991) Cuimhneachán 1916-1966 Commemoration Booklet. Tim Sheehan, Lady Hostage Mrs. Lindsay (Cork 1990) Sinēad McCoole, No Ordinary Women (The O’Brien Press Ltd 2015) Liz Gillis, Women Of The Irish Revolution (The Mercier Press 2014) Shandon Area History Group, Ordinary Women In Extraordinary Times (2019) Louise Ryan, Drunken Tans: Representations of Sex and Violence in the Anglo- Irish War (1919-21). Feminist Review 2000. Dr Mary McAuliffe, ‘Violence and indiscipline? The treatment of ‘die-hard’ anti- treaty women by the National Army 1922-23. Irish Civil War National Conference. Ann Matthews, ‘The Irish Citizen Army’ (The Mercier Press 2014) Kathleen Keyes McDonnell, ‘There is a Bridge at Bandon’ (The Mercier Press 1972) Tom Barry, ‘Guerrilla Days in Ireland’ (The Irish Press 1949) William Sheehan, ‘A Hard Local War’ (The History Press 2011) Paddy Butler, ‘The extraordinary story of Mary Elmes, the Irish Oscar Schindler’ (Open Press 2017) Linda Connolly, Understanding violence against women in the Irish Revolution – a global context. RTE. Cork Fatality Index, University College Cork. Siobhán Lankford. The Hope and the Sadness (Celum Publishing of Cork 2020). First published by Tower Books 1980. Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh, Kathleen Lynn Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor (Irish Academic Press 2011). Uinseann Mac Eoin, Survivors, Argenta Publications 1980, 20 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook, Dublin 4. Karen Minihane, Extraordinary, Ordinary Women: Untold Stories from the Founding of the State,
A documentary “Endurance & Engagement: Cork City Women in the 1920’s” will be shown at the Dance Cork Firkin Crane on Thursday 28th July at 7.15pm.
The short documentary, commissioned by Cork City Council, as part of the Decade of Commemorations and funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts Gaeltacht, Sport & Media looks at the lives of ordinary women in Cork City during the turbulent period of the struggle for independence and how they were impacted by the violence and unrest.
The women included in the documentary are Eilish MacCurtain, The Duggan Sisters, Geraldine Neeson and Dr Mary Hearn.
The research team on the project were Anne Twomey of Shandon History Group, Dr Helene O’Keeffe of UCC School of History, and Gerry White. The documentary directors Ciara Buckley & David Slowo of Wombat Media. The Executive Producer of this documentary was Christine Moloney of LW Management who will introduce it on the night.
We wish to record our thanks to Cork City Council and St. Peters Cork for making a screening available at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.
Christine Moloney will introduce the documentary and there will be a brief Q&A. afterwards.
It will be followed at 8:00 pm by a talk by historian Anne Twomey.
The annual Durham Gala will take place on Saturday 9th July 2022 following a break of two years due to Covid-19. The Gala this year is “dedicated to the key workers”, who provided essential services in the UK during the recent pandemic.
The Cork Mother Jones Committee extend warm congratulations and solidarity to the Durham Miners Association and wish the DMA well for a fantastic parade and Big Meeting.
The parade itself features thousands of people of all ages from former mining communities across the north of England marching behind their colourful banners and colliery bands.
Dave Hopper, a former General Secretary of the DMA along with his committee were regular attenders at the Spirit of Mother Festivals. Dave spoke at the 2014 and 2015 Festivals, and he provided a first hand account of events at the battle of Orgreave as well as contributing to the general discussions.
He was awarded the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones Award posthumously after his sudden death a few weeks before the festival in 2016.
The Durham Miner’s Association is based at Red Hills in Durham, which was opened in 1915.
The Red Hills contains the Miners Parliament where representatives of each of the lodges of county Durham once met to decide on union matters.
Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT Union will speak at the Big Meeting on Saturday 9th July 2022. Mick, whose father was from Cork has led the recent rail strikes in Britain.
It is a huge honour to speak at the Big Meeting. This year is the 75th Anniversary of the death of Irish trade union leader, Jim Larkin, a founder of the ITGWU, (now SIPTU) and the Irish Citizen Army. In 1914, a few months after the end of the Dublin Lockout, Jim Larkin spoke at the Durham Gala and on the day argued for one union,
” if one section is out, you should be ready to bring out everyone of you”
As the miners’ banners were carried from the field in Durham on that day in July 1914, they were not to return for five years………….. just ten days later Britain was at war with Germany.
Dr Angela Flynn is a lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery in UCC. Having worked as a nurse in the NHS in London, she returned to Ireland in 1999. She was shocked at just how unfair and inequitable the Irish health system was and was taken aback by the stark two-tiered system. Over half the population of Ireland pay for private health insurance because they know that should they need to see a consultant or have scheduled surgery they will languish on waiting lists if they stay as public patients. Angela decided to examine the history of the Irish health care system that led to this inequity for her PhD, and she used Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme as one of the case studies. She has published a number of papers from this research. Now in 2022, on the 25th anniversary of the death of Noel Browne, Angela will discuss an imagined world where his scheme had been successful and explore the potential health system we could have had.
Noël Browne was born in Waterford on 20th December 1915. He died in Connemara on the 21st May 1997.
A quarter of a century has passed since the death of Noël Browne, the most controversial Minister for Health in Ireland’s history. His courageous account of early life and a political career of over 40 years can be found in his autobiography ‘Against The Tide’ published in 1986. Written with a rare honesty and integrity, it portrays an often heartbreaking account of the ‘precarious survival’ of early family life against the backdrop of the deathly poverty, illness and the sheer awfulness of daily experience for many poor people in the new Irish State. His earliest memories of witnessing the savagery of the Irish Civil war ensured his abhorrence of violence.
Both parents, Joseph (1923) and Mary Therese (1929) died of tuberculosis (TB) and many of his seven siblings contracted the killer disease, Noel who also had TB was one of three to survive, while his sisters Annie, Eileen, Una and Jody, his brother all eventually succumbed.
Official figures show that from 1921 to 1950, 114,000 Irish people died of the disease. Scarcely an Irish family remained untouched and many families were completely wiped out.
Browne was fortunate to be “adopted” by the Dublin surgeon Neville Chance and his family who ensured Noel gained entry to Trinity College and eventually became a doctor.
He realised quickly that the only way to change Ireland’s disastrous health system was to become directly involved in political action. Browne, by now a committed socialist was elected to Dail Eireann in 1948 as a Clann na Poblachta TD. The Clann, led by Sean McBride with ten TDs joined a Coalition government. To the surprise of many he was appointed Minister for Health on his first day in the Irish parliament.
He commenced a massive hospital construction project, free X-ray screening for tuberculosis patients and set in motion systems to eliminate tuberculosis with the aid of Streptomycin. The blood transfusion service was set up.
Browne set a frenetic pace within the department, he was indeed a man in a hurry witnessing the immediate and positive impact of the National Health Service (NHS) introduced by the UK Health Minister Aneurin Bevan in July 1948.
Unprecedently and uniquely for a politician, he decided to actually implement the health reforms contained in the Irish 1947 Health Act, fully aware that he would “only have one crack at it”. However his proposal to introduce free medical care for children under 16 and their mothers in order to reduce child mortality which became known as the Mother and Child Scheme was vigorously opposed by the Catholic Hierarchy which it described as ‘the free-for-all Mother And Child Scheme’ and Irish Medical Association (I.M.A) which condemned it as ‘the socialisation of medicine’.
Browne refused to concede to the concessions demanded by the Church and the establishment and once he lost the support of his leader in Clann na Poblachta, Sean MacBride who requested his resignation he was eventually forced to resign on 11th April 1951.
Now a political outsider, he never regained access to political power again to drive positive structural change in the health system.
Later many of the changes Browne had helped to introduce made a real difference to ordinary people and the arrival of vaccines and new drug treatments helped to reduce significantly the death rate. This fell by half within a few years and was down to 15% of the 1940 levels by 1960. The death sentence of a TB diagnosis was no more.
While aspects of his health scheme were eventually put in place, his initial opportunity to construct a NHS type universal health care system for Ireland was lost and the two tier private and public health system remains in place.
Noel Browne remained in politics, moving in and out of various political parties, marginalised by those in the political power, ignored by others, always controversial, passionate from the back benches, sometimes caught up in roundabout arguments of the Left yet adored by many radicals as an uncompromising advocate for the social justice and a universal free health system.
John Horgan’s book Noël Browne, Passionate Outsiderportrays this complex man in a warts and all analysis with empathy, understanding and some criticism.
Browne’s love story with Phyllis Harrison, was told by Phyllis in her publication Thanks For The Tea, Mrs. Browne – My life with Noel.
Written with love and affection, sadness and struggle, courage and quiet passion, Phyllis describes their life together as “a stormy passage” and the difficulties they faced through over fifty years of married life. The couple even tried farming, an episode described with some humour in an Amateur Farmer’s Journal. Browne was originally informed that he had six months to live when they married back in 1944, he again suffered a relapse after his appointment as Minister and occasionally ran his department from his sick bed.
Noël Browne retired from politics in the early 80s, daughters Ruth and Sue raised, he and Phyllis moved to an isolated cottage in Connemara on the west coast of Ireland where he wrote his memoirs Against The Tide, which became a best seller. Some former political colleagues received blunt assessments of their actions and when coupled with a gripping narrative, the book remains a very rare and raw account of Irish life and politics.
His successful efforts to end the scourge of TB and his exposure to a new generation of Church control of the State remain his major achievements.
But his passionate dream of providing access to a decent health service for all citizens of the Republic of Ireland based on need remains to be achieved.
‘He lies in the clean sandy soil by the Atlantic shore, where he liked to sit every afternoon, seagulls and screaming curlews flying above him’
On Saturday afternoon 30th July at 2.30 Angela Flynn will discuss the Mother & Child Scheme, imagine if it had been successful and explore the potential health system we could have had.
As 2022 signals a return to real festival events, we are happy to announce that Luke Dineen will once again speak at this year’s Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.
Labour and trade union historian Luke has appeared at many of our festivals and is one of the most popular contributors.
He brings to life the often forgotten history of the trade union movement in Cork and its proud contribution to bettering the lives of ordinary people.
Luke, who was awarded a PhD in labour history from UCC will speak on the “Cork General Lockout of 1923”.
The end of the Civil War in May 1923 encouraged the Cork Employers’ Federation (CEF) to demand wage reductions across a wide range of workplaces in the city. Discussions and negotiations with the unions failed to resolve the issues and by July 1923, the ITGWU dockers were on strike. The employers insisted on wage reductions of up to 25% and further reductions in workers allowances which the unions refused to accept.
On 20th August 1923, most businesses in Cork closed, the Cork Lockout had begun, over 6000 workers were on strike.
It was part of a wider effort by employers in other cities and towns across Ireland to bring about wage cuts.
Despite large marches, sackings, mass unemployment and growing signs of serious shortages of food and coal stocks, John Rearden, a solicitor and secretary of the CEF refused to compromise and the impasse dragged on in the city.
Recently elected TD and UCC Registrar Alfred O’Rahilly acted as arbitrator in the dispute and agreed a resolution with Trade Union leader Jim Hickey.
Most workers went back on reduced wages by mid November and while at the end of the day, both sides accepted compromises, the trade unions suffered most as the lockout used up much of their financial resources in strike pay, Payments to strikers by the ITGWU were almost 24,000 pounds representing 15% of all the union’s expenditure for 1923. (1919 was under 1%). Membership fell to a third of its 1923 level by 1928. Employers still retained the right to hire and fire at will.
Most employees were back at work by early November. 1923 was an annus horribilis for the Irish Trade union movement.
The new Free State government had signalled that they no longer needed to encourage the acquiescence and support of organised Labour in the struggle for independence.
The government instead aligned with the new State’s established business class, whose pragmatic rapprochement with the new political order reflected the inherent conservatism of the real victors in the Irish Civil War.
Luke Dineen will speak at the Shandon Maldron Hotel at 11.30 am on Saturday 30th July. All are welcome.
Article by Luke Dineen ‘Class War in Cork’: The Cork General Lockout of 1923′ in Saothar 46. (Journal of the Irish Labour History Society 2021).
Article by Francis Devine, The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in Cork City and County 1918-1930. (Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Volume 124, 2019).
The documentary Mother Jones And Her Children is now available to view at the link below.
This 2014 documentary tells the exciting story of Mary Harris/Mother Jones from her birth in Cork in 1837 to her death in 1930.
It features US Labour historians such as Rosemary Feurer, who administers the website www.motherjonesmuseum.org and who writes extensively on Mother Jones. Elliott Gorn, author of Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America appears also along with interviews with authors Simon Cordery and Marat Moore. Larry Spivack of the Illinois Labour History Society and John Alexander of the Virden Monument Committee and US trade union activists such as Mike Matjelki, Dave Rathke and Terry Reed take part. In addition, there is an interview with Uibh Laoghaire historian, Joe Creedon regarding the birth place of Ellen Cotter, the mother of Mary Harris, while members of the Cork Mother Jones Committee (CMJC) provide details about her baptism in Cork, and the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.
According to James Nolan of the CMJC
“This documentary is ideal for anyone who wishes to learn more about this amazing Cork woman, a woman who survived horrific personal tragedy and bravely supported the trade union movement and fought for social justice in America for over four decades.
Mary Harris’s efforts in the early 1900s to highlight the exploitation of children in the mines, mills and factories of Americaand her arguments that they should receive an education instead will still resonatewith school children across the world today.
This documentary should be included in the Irish educational curriculum.”
Mother Jones and Her Children remains available on CD. The link to the documentary also appears above the main website masthead.
It was produced by Frameworks Films and the Cork Mother Jones Committee.
2:00 pm. The highlights of the past ten years of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festivals.
7:00 pm. Tadhg Barry Remembered. A documentary by Cork Council of Trade Unions and Frameworks Films.
8:00 pm. Interview with Dr. Donal Ó Drisceoil, author of Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution.
The official launch of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2021 took place at the Maldron Hotel, Shandon last night. The Lord Mayor of Cork represented by Cllr. John Sheehan declared the festival open and stated that he was delighted that the festival had proceeded this year as each event set out to challenge one’s views of history and social issues. Speaker, Anne Twomey attended and participated in a brief Q&A session afterwards in relation to questions about Muriel MacSwiney.