One evening in February 1919, a group of twenty nurses and midwives filed into a small office at No. 20 South Anne Street, Dublin. Many of them were exhausted having finished long shifts, for low wages, at the city’s hospitals. The remainder were facing into a busy night delivering babies and caring for mothers at the city’s lying-in institutions, or, in the community. Commentary in the nursing press at the time referred to the need to establish “a society for the prevention of cruelty to nurses” and, those twenty pioneers who braved the cold night air one hundred years ago, had just such a society in mind, writes Mark Loughrey.
In 1919, unskilled men at the Ford car factory in County Cork earned £239 per year. In contrast, nurses at a particular Dublin hospital earned £52–£65 per year and received an allowance of 3/4lb of butter and one stone of potatoes per week as well as a 1/2pint of milk per day. They were also obliged to make up for any holidays or sick leave they took by working the time back.
Why were their conditions so poor?
Unlike men, working women such as nurses and midwives, were not seen as breadwinners. No, they were seen as wives in waiting and were to be paid just a few shillings to keep them in frocks and smocks until such time as they found a man. In addition, nursing and midwifery were regarded as vocations in which providing care to the sick and needy was seen as payment in itself.
Unfortunately, humanitarianism did not pay the rent or put food on tables however and, in response, the twenty nurses and midwives who gathered in Dublin that night decided to take matters into their own hands and establish a trade union: the first of its kind in the world. They christened their creation the Irish Nurses’ Union (INU).
On the surface, the nurses’/midwives’ decision appeared sensible. Post-war inflation was running high, eroding their small earnings, and, following the drubbing that trade unionism suffered in the 1913 Lockout, unions were again on the rise.
Added to this, women were campaigning on broader rights-based issues such as suffrage, and nurses and midwives took inspiration from this. But things are rarely as easy as they first appear.
The writer of a piece in The Irish Times frowned on nurses’ and midwives’ decision to unionise and reminded them that their role was not wholly about material gain but was about public service, and that such service was incompatible with strikes in which they would be compelled to ‘desert their patients’.
But nurses and their supporters were having none of it and responded defiantly: ‘That funny paper, The Irish Times … Comment would really spoil this gem … we are grateful to the newsboy who inadvertently slipped [it] into our letter-box: he enabled us to face a new day joyously.’