History Talks

Myrtle Hill’s Talk- ‘Women in the North of Ireland, World War One and Two’

Historian Myrtle Hill came to Arts for All to give a talk about the Women of Northern Ireland during World War One and Two. These are notes from her talk.

World War One

Myrtle began by telling us about the Suffragette movement. During the time of militancy, the development of trade unions and the fight for Irish Independence, many women became suffragettes- some of them destroyed buildings and went on hunger strike as part of their struggle for equal rights. When war broke out, they called a truce with the government. Most of them supported the war effort thought some of them joined the pacifist movement.

During World War One, people expected a civil war in Ireland and trained in preparation for it. The Women’s Unionist Movement opposed Home Rule and supported Britain’s involvement in the war, while on the other hand Cuman na mBan- a group of Nationalist women, who assisted in the Irish Rising, generally did not approve of Irish men fighting for Britain.

Patriotism was milked and nurtured during the war and women often featured in propaganda posters. Some ex-suffragettes sent white feathers to young men who were not fighting. Everybody was expected to contribute to the war effort. One duty for women was to gather and dry sphagnum moss and make bandages to send to the front. Sphagnum moss was an antiseptic and helped to heal many wounded soldiers.  World War One provided great industrial activity in Ulster because industries adapted for war production. The linen factories manufactured uniforms and parachutes. Women were employed by Mackie’s to produce munitions. Women nurses worked at home and in field hospitals.

Lady Londonderry set up the Women’s Legion which trained women to do jobs normally done by men:women worked in canteens, as drivers for transport companies, agriculture and food production, munitions and uniform production, brickmaking, engineering and other occupations. Men were anxious that they wouldn’t have jobs when they returned. Some women were in armed forces auxiliaries; by 1918 women were working as drivers and mechanics in the Women’s Auxiliary Royal Air Force.The war united women at work.

The Somme is very important as part of remembrance in Northern Ireland because there was a huge number of deaths from the Ulster Division there. This, of course, had a huge impact on people at home.

World War Two

Unlike with the First World War, during World War Two, the front line was no longer the only place of danger and destruction and Belfast was badly blitzed and East Belfast was especially targeted. After the first air raid many people fled from the city and camped out in the countryside and many children were evacuated out of the city. Air raid wardens were male and female. A ‘war bride’ Nelly Bell, spent her wedding night in an air raid shelter.  Although the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland were neutral, Northern Ireland was involved with the war and supplied a lot of food across Britain. Women were involved in farming and belonged to the ‘Land Army’. As in World War One, women produced munitions and, in the linen factories, made parachutes. Debates began over whether women should go out to work or stay at home to look after children and so the Nursery Movement was set up, which put pressure on the state to facilitate women so that they could work outside the home.

Everybody’s lives were in danger during the blitz (men, women, children and animals). A baby elephant was taken out of Belfast zoo and raised, for a while, in a woman’s back garden in Whitewell. Everyday life was a challenge and the blitz highlighted the terrible living conditions that people had been living in before the attacks.

American G.I.s came to Belfast and some married local women (often referred to as ‘war brides’).

During World War Two there were female pilots in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.






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