There are many plaques and monuments across the city honouring labour history. Some are easy to miss, like the plaque on Liberty Hall quoting the great Mother Jones, Corkonian and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States. Others dominate their surroundings, like the impressive Oisin Kelly monument to Jim Larkin in the centre of O’Connell Street.
Easy to miss is a beautiful handerchief tree in Harold’s Cross Park, which honours the women’s laundry workers strike of 1945. At a time when Ireland was still within the ‘Emergency’, members of the Irish Womens Workers Union succeeded in winning a second week of paid annual holidays. The handerchief tree was planted in 1995 by Mary Freehill, then Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the strike.
Conditions in the laundry sector were difficult, the unon insisting that laundry work “is performed standing in a heated atmosphere causing, in hot weather especially, great fatigue, excessive perspiration and blistered feet….laundresses often worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in order to meet demand.”
Rosemary Cullen Owens, in her excellent social history of women in Ireland, quotes from Eleanor Butler, who inspected a number of Dublin laundries in the presence of trade union leader Louis Bennett and who was horrified by conditions:
She made me wade into the steamy laundries, with floors flooded. The women wore overalls and nothing underneath because they couldn’t stand the heat and the steam. They sometimes wore wellingtons if they were lucky, if not battered old shoes. Their conditions were appalling, so much that a very high proportion of these women got TB and suffered rom rheumatism.
The strike began in July and dragged on into October, the determination of what were primarily young working class women impressing many. In total, fourteen laundries in Dublin – employing some 1,500 workers – were entangled in the dispute. The demand for two weeks’ holiday time was popular, a poster for a public meeting in the Mansion House proclaiming that “you need two weeks’ holiday to refresh both body and mind.”