Decade of Centenaries: The impact of the Great War on women in Ireland 1914 to 1919

Dr Fionnuala Walsh, Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar, Trinity College Dublin

Posted: 1 July, 2016

The impact of the Great War on women is a significant area of scholarship within First World War studies. The legacy of the war for women’s lives and role in society has been the subject of much debate. Dr. Walsh’s research examines the impact of the Great War on women in Ireland during the years 1914 to 1918. During the Great War over 200,000 Irishmen voluntarily served in the British Army. At the same time thousands of Irishwomen were mobilised on the home front to support the war effort, including over 5,000 women who served with the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance Association. Over 2,000 Irishwomen also worked in munitions factories in Ireland during the war. The Great War resulted in the invasion of the political into the domestic sphere and disrupted everyday lives for civilians. The war was further brought home for Dublin civilians during the Easter Rising when they experienced bombardment and a crisis in food supply for the first time. However, although there has been a surge in studies examining Irish military involvement in the war in the last two decades, the subject of Irishwomen and the war has received relatively little attention and was described by the historian Keith Jeffery as a ’historically hidden Ireland’.

Her PhD thesis aimed to fill this gap through providing a thematic study of Irishwomen during the Great War. It investigated the extent to which the war affected women’s lives in Ireland, demonstrating the socio-economic, psychological and political impact of the Great War upon Irishwomen. I conducted primary research in twenty-two archives and libraries in Ireland and the United Kingdom and examined forty-six newspapers and periodicals for the period 1914 to 1919. The project involved historical demographic and sampling methods together with textual analysis of the contemporary press, diaries, letters and memoirs. These methods enable the project to examine the impact of the war on women’s everyday life, assess popular support for the war effort and place the Irish experience in its international context.

The project had two central research questions: the extent of the war’s impact of the war on women’s standard of living and their everyday life and the war’s legacy for women’s role in society. Reflecting on the issue of the emancipatory potential of the war for women, a hotly debated issue in international scholarship, Dr. Walsh’s thesis concludes that the war had an overall negative impact for women’s lives in Ireland and that it had no lasting effect on perceptions of the role of women in Irish society. She however argues that, contrary to the impression given in previous scholarship of women’s lives during the revolutionary period, the Great War had a defining and significant impact on the lives of Irishwomen who lived through it. The individual lives of Irishwomen in the public and private spheres were changed irrevocably by their war experience.

Forthcoming lectures/public talks

  • 26 April 2016 – ‘These are queer days that we are living through’: Irishwomen and everyday life in 1916”, Public lecture for the OPW Castletown House lectures in Celbridge, Co. Kildare
  • Radio interview ‘Irishwomen and the First World War’. Listen back here: Irishwomen and the First World War

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