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Irish Women at Work Oral History Project

All images courtesy of UCC / DRI

Kiely, Elizabeth, & Leane, Máire. (2017) Irish Women at Work Oral History Project, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], University College Cork [Depositing Institution]

UCC Women at Work Archive by Claire Johnston (MA in Public History 2021, UCD School of History)

In February 2000, University College Cork (UCC) began a research initiative titled, “Women and Irish Society: Understanding Past and Present Through Archives and Social Research” in an effort to understand how women’s lives in Irish society have transformed since the twentieth century. The project was divided into three sections: 1) Women & Literature, 2) Feminism and the Women’s Movement, and 3) Irish Women at Work Oral History Project. As of 2017, the oral history project is available on the Digital Repository Ireland thanks to a research project from Sara S. Goek and Elizabeth Kiely, who set about creating a sound archive from the number of oral history projects that existed in the College of Arts, Celtic Studies, and Social Sciences at UCC.

Elizabeth Kiely and Maire Leane, the creators of UCC’s Oral History project, have gone on to publish Irish Women at Work, 1930-1960 in 2012 as a complete guide to the interviews on the lives of working women conducted for this project. In Essays in Irish Labour History (ed. F. Devine, F. Lane, and N. Purseil), Kiely and Leane published a chapter in this collection titled, “Money Matters in the Lives of Working Women in the 1940s and 1950s”. They have also published several research papers based around this project. In 2004, Kiely and Leane published, “What Would I be Doing at Home All Day? Oral Narratives of Irish Married Women’s Working Lives 1936-1960” in Women’s History Review. In 2014, their article, “Pre-Baby Boom Women’s Attitudes and Responses to Second Wave Feminism in Ireland” was included in an issue of Women’s Studies International Forum.

UCC’s Oral History project focuses on the working lives of women in the Munster region from 1936 to 1960, expanding from childhood to adulthood and on to old age. There are over 30 interviews, each an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes long, with women from Cork, Limerick, and Kerry, as well as accompanying images from each interviewee. Each interview is accompanied by a short biography of where the interviewee grew up, and important years in their lives in relation to schooling, jobs, or marriage.

In terms of historical research, the interviews included in the DRI Archive provide a diverse range of information from women of different social classes and career paths. Joan Daly, a woman from Killarney, co. Kerry, recounted her experience leaving for England in the 1940s to train as a nurse in Whipps Cross Hospital in London in the 1940s and then coming back to Ireland shortly after her training to work in the Curragh military hospital in Kildare. Not only does she give her own insight into the English medical profession, but we also learn interesting information on her time in the Irish Army.

The interview with Mary Franklin, born in Limerick in 1938, shows a different side of professional opportunities for women in Ireland. Having left school at 15 years old due to sickness, Mary eventually took her sister’s post as a ward maid in a local mental hospital in 1953. In 1958, she married and began working with her husband for Birds Carnival Amusements, a job she claimed was “unusual for the time” despite providing her with very little income.

Sister Paul O’Flynn gives an in-depth interview on her life and social work undertaken at the Drishane convent in Cork. Because she was born into a farming family, her first job after taking her final vows in 1942 was to manage the convent’s farm. This “huge responsibility” impacted her work ethic quickly as she was constantly bouncing around from different tasks like supervising the male workers, caring for the animals, organizing repairs, etc. After managing the farm, she moved to Liverpool and with a few other nuns helped establish a hostel for foreign students where she experienced a range of foreign foods, cultures, etc. before coming back to Ireland to engage in more social work.

These three women led completely different lives during the same period in Ireland; however, their experiences give a broader look into the professional development of Irish women during the twentieth century. As most women during this time had to give up their careers once they were married, it is important to see how their careers were/were not dictated by the gender constructs of the time. While women campaigned publicly for new social/economic freedoms in Ireland during the twentieth century, the interviews in this archive provide insight into how women from all backgrounds were affected by these changes. The different avenues of employment and education, as well as the possible social engagements, highlight the dynamic nature of women’s lives during this time, contrary to the idea that their lives were mostly contained to the home.

UCC was not alone in creating a women’s history project – many international universities have conducted or compiled research dealing with women’s history through to the modern era, offering different avenues for research. In the United States, Harvard University’s Curiosity Collections contains Women Working, 1800-1930, an archive compiled from all of Harvard Library’s holdings that deal with American women and their influence on the economic life of the United States from the nineteenth century through to the Great Depression.

Several international libraries also hold collections based around the private and working lives of women during the nineteenth and twentieth century. For any research topics based in England, the British Library site holds a complete guide of their collections, including those available online, focusing on the private, working, and political lives of women in British history. The Glasgow Women’s Library also holds an online archive of many valuable sources, including one of the most significant LGBT historical collections in the UK.

Overall, the UCC Women at Work Archive holds a wealth of information for anyone looking to research Irish history with regards to the lives of women and their working careers in a post-independent Ireland. The interviews from Irish women and their work in the early twentieth century provides an interesting outlook on life through the women who experienced these societal changes. While historical research tends to focus on one subset of people, the wide variety of social and regional backgrounds of the women interviewed provides a broad range of opinions regarding the trajectory of women’s rights in Ireland.

Claire Johnston, Author

MA in Public History, 2021

UCD School of History

History Hub gratefully acknowledges the permission granted by Elizabeth Kiely and Máire Leane, and the Digital Repository of Ireland to feature images from the Irish Women at Work Oral History Project, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], University College Cork [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.h9904j002

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