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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
working lives

Pictorial record shows the Irish hard at work 100 years ago

Working Lives exhibition at the NLI exposes the conditions in which men, women and children toiled to survive.

THE IRELAND OF just over 100 years ago was a time of profound change.

The technological advances of modern Ireland may seem hectic and beyond the wildest dreams of a turn-of-the-20th-century citizen. In fact, the two decades in the run-up to the 1913 Lockout were filled with industrial revolution, new industries and more and more demanding tasks for the average worker.

The National Library of Ireland is running a striking chronicle of our social history, Working Lives, at the National Photographic Archive. Curated by social scientist and historian Mary Jones, it was opened this week by Junior Heritage Minister Dinny McGinley and runs at the Temple Bar venue until 31 March.

‘Big House’ servants, agricultural workers at harvest, linen mill labourers, pork curers, biscuit makers, shipbuilders – an endless line of toiling labourers have their work chronicled in vivid photography at this exhibition.

The following photographs – reproduced here with kind permissions from NLI – give a taste of the breadth of the 148 images on show.

There was a clear move from the precarious nature of agricultural work in a country where most farm labourers were landless (In the 19th century, says curator Mary Jones, 38 per cent of landowners were Irish-born and held just 15 per cent of the land. The remaining 62 per cent of landowners were not Irish, and had either bought their land through enforced confiscation from the original owners or gotten it as a gift “in recognition of service to the British Crown”.)

Life on the land for all others was harsh – as for this young boy taking part in turf-cutting in this desolate scene:


Towards the end of the 19th century, more than half of agricultural land was under grass to provide feeding for livestock and there was substantial tillage. Food manufacturing became an important part of the export economy as well as domestically, and provided employment not just in rural areas but in plants where these foodstuffs were produced – breweries, meat factories, bakeries and so on.

This is a scene from Mattersons tinned meat department in Limerick. At the time, tins would have been stamped as Produce and Manufacture of the United Kingdom and were exported from Ireland as Foreign and Colonial Merchandise.


This canned condensed milk factory run by Quebec natives, the Cleeve brothers, was also a big employer in Limerick:


The textile industry required thousands upon thousands of hands to create clothes, household items and anything else that could be woven, stitched, sewn, pressed, moulded. It spanned the initial processing of the textiles at central depots, as in this roughing of flax at Ballynahinch in Galway…


… to the detail of creating fine brushes as at Varian’s factory in Dublin:


Tie-making at Atkinson’s Poplin Factory on the quays in Dublin:


Making a straw hat at the Wexford Hat Company:


Winstanley’s bootmakers was just one of many brands that became highly recognisable for their craftwork:


While large-scale and heavy industry also required intense labour, both skilled and unskilled. This was the building of the Oceanic in Belfast:


And men hard at work in a saw mill in Navan:


Children, unfortunately, were not absent from the workforce – note the young boys on the left of this image from the Smyth & Co trimming shop in Dublin…


And on a more organised level, children were co-opted into production in industrial schools around the country. The exhibition features a number of such scenes, including this one of sail-making at an industrial school in Baltimore in Cork:


The exhibition features many more sectors of employment but also charts the rise of the trade union movement, culminating in clamouring for better conditions for workers and ultimately industrial action right up to the Lockout 100 years ago.

A prophetic – and less well-known strike – happened in Waterford two years earlier. Mary Jones explains:

Much trade union organisation remained centred in the cities of Dublin and of Belfast, but grew also in Waterford, Limerick and Cork, where industries and trade councils had already been established.

At Pierce’s in Wexford, iron manufacture and casting dated from the early 1800s. By the 1800s, they had won gold medals in Dublin, Cork and Paris, with machinery exported to the British colonies and to Argentina.

Men employed at Pierce’s complained of low wages, lacked job security and worked long hours. They had no representation in trade negotiations as employers distributed profits amongst family and friends before fixing the terms of payment amongst the 400-strong workforce. In 1890 a two-day strike, with the Pierce workforce joined by workers from two other Wexford foundries, led to the formation of the Wexford Fitters and Turners Society.

By 1911, labour unrest across the Union and across Europe spread to workforces. Workers from Pierce’s and two other foundries applied to join the ITGWU. Four hundred workers were locked out from Pierce’s, and similar numbers from two other foundries in the town. The strike lasted six months.

Hidden History: The guide to preserving your family archive>
Pictures: 100 years ago, the Dublin Lockout began>

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