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Reviewed by:
  • Irish Women at Work, 1930–1960: An Oral History by Elizabeth Kiely and Maire Leane
  • Valerie Yow
Irish Women at Work, 1930–1960: An Oral History. By Elizabeth Kiely and Maire Leane. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2012. 220 pp. Hardbound, $79.95; softbound, $37.40.

Elizabeth Kiely and Maire Leane, looking at the history of Irish workers, found little information about women workers; their book corrects this skewed picture. The forty-two oral histories that serve as the basis for their book are with women who lived and worked at various jobs in southern Ireland from 1930 to 1960. Kiely and Leane’s aim was to find out not so much what the work was like but what work meant to these women.

From the outset, as Kiely and Leane show, Irish women workers’ background predisposed them to accept authority: they grew up in large families where their girlhoods were spent helping their mothers with younger brothers and sisters and housework. As a consequence, they expected to do women’s [End Page 400] work all their lives and to accept the authority of their parents, and their church, as well. As one woman remarked, “It was a straight and narrow line. You were either obeying your mother or your father, or obeying the Church” (114).

For working-class girls, education ended at the age of fourteen or shortly thereafter; relatively few could go further in their education because their families could not afford to send them to school and their families needed them to be wage-earners. Work for these women outside of their home (that is, work for wages) was temporary and would end when they entered a convent or got married—“career ladder” was an unknown concept for Irish women of this time. The few who could afford more education went into civil service positions, nursing, or teaching, knowing full well that men would remain in higher-level positions in those professions.

Domestic work was a main source of employment for women. Kiely and Leane report that in 1936, 33 percent of women worked in factories and only 7.2 per cent of all women in paid employment worked in white collar office and secretarial jobs; in 1946, domestic servants were 23.4 per cent of the national female workforce and 6.4 per cent of the nation’s working women were shop workers. Regardless of the industry, employers deceived workers about the amount of work required; most women worked grueling hours. As a woman who went to work on a farm when she was fifteen recounted, “We’d start in the morning, you’d be up, you’d have your alarm at five o’clock. I’d make a cup of tea for myself and I’d go out then and drive the cows in and milk them. And there was about forty pigs there. You’d have to feed them and clean out their house … Come in then and take off your old clothes … and you’d do the vegetables, scrub the potatoes and scrape the carrots and slice them and then the vegetables would go into the water” (45). After lunch was prepared and the family fed, she would clean the kitchen and the house and do the washing; her work often was not finished until bedtime.

The line between work-life and home-life was often blurred, with long work days extending into the time the worker expected to be at home. Supervisors served as extensions of family authority figures. In fact, many domestic, agricultural, factory, and small-shop workers lived in or near their place of employment just as had been the case in the late nineteenth century. For these and other women, employers served as paternalistic figures—as surrogate fathers—who could be benevolent, harsh, and controlling at the same time. In a Sunbeam factory, for example, workers could see a doctor, nurse, and dentist for free, all of whom were located in a well-equipped clinic in the factory. Free medical care was a way to keep workers on site and directly under the supervision of a factory-employed medical professional. Discipline in the factories was often very strict...