Ruth Russell.

What's the Matter with Ireland? online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryRuth RussellWhat's the Matter with Ireland? → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Juliet Sutherland, David Newman and PG Distributed

What's the Matter with Ireland?

By Ruth Russell






January 29, 1920.

_Miss Ruth' Russell,
Chicago, Illinois_.

Dear Miss Russell:

I have read the advance copy of your book, "What's the Matter with
Ireland?", with much interest.

I congratulate you on the rapidity with which you succeeded in
understanding Irish conditions and grasped the Irish viewpoint.

I hope your book will be widely read. Your first chapter will be
instructive to those who have been deceived by the recent cry of Irish
prosperity. Cries of this sort are echoed without thought as to their
truth, and gain credence as they pass from mouth to mouth. I hope we
shall have many more impartial investigators, such as you, who will
take the trouble to see things for themselves first hand, and who will
not be imposed upon by half-truths.

Having visited Ireland, I feel you cannot doubt that the poet was
right -

"There never was a nation yet
Could rule another well."

I imagine, too, that having seen the character of British rule there,
you must realize better than before what it was your American patriots
of '76 hastened to rid themselves of. In a country with such natural
resources as Ireland, can you believe it possible that if government by
the people obtained there could be such conditions of unemployment and
misery as you found?

Do you not think that if the elected Government of the Republic were
left unhampered by foreign usurpation, we might in the coming years
hope to rival the boast of Lord Clare in 1798:

"There is not a nation on the face of the habitable globe which has
advanced in cultivation, in manufactures, with the same rapidity in
the same period as Ireland - from 1782 to 1798."

and that progress like this, with the present social outlook in
Ireland, would mean the peace, contentment and happiness of millions of
human beings?

Yours very truly,



"And tell us what is the matter with Ireland."

This was the last injunction a fellow journalist, propagandized into testy
impatience with Ireland, gave me before I sailed for that bit of Europe
which lies closest to America.

It became perfectly obvious that Ireland was poor; poor to ignorance, poor
to starvation, poor to insanity and death. And that the cause of her
poverty is her exploitation by the world capitalist next door to her.

In Ireland there is no disagreement as to the cause of her poverty. There
is very little difference as to the best remedy - three-fourths of Ireland
have expressed their belief that the country can live only as a republic.
Even the two great forces in Ireland that are said to be for the _status
quo_, I found in active sympathy with the republican cause. In the
Catholic Church the young priests are eager workers for Sinn Fein, and in
Ulster the laborers are backing their leaders in a plea for
self-determination. But there are, of course, those who say that a republic
is not enough. In the cities where poverty is blackest, there are those who
state that the new republic must be a workers' republic. In the villages
and country places where the co-operative movement is growing strong, there
are those who believe that the new republic must be a co-operative




Is Ireland poor? I decided to base my answer to that question on personal
investigation. I dressed myself as a working girl - it is to the working
class that seven-eighths of the Irish people belong - and in a week in the
slums of Dublin I found that lack of employment is continually driving the
people to migration, low-wage slavery, or acceptance of charity.

At the woman's employment bureau of the ministry of munitions, I discovered
that 50,000 Irish boys and girls are annually sent to the English harvests,
and that during the war there were 80,000 placements in the English
munition factories.

"But I don't want to leave home," I heard a little ex-fusemaker say as we
stood in queues at the chicken-wire hatch in the big bare room turned over
by the ministry of munitions for the replacement of women who had worked on
army supplies. Her voice trembled with the uncertainty of one who knew she
could not dictate.

"Then you've got to be a servant," said the direct young woman at the
hatch. "There's nothing left in Ireland but domestic jobs."

"Isn't - you told me there might be something in Belfast?"

"Linen mills are on part time now - no chance. There's only one place for
good jobs now - that's across the channel."

The little girl bit her lip. She shook her head and went out the rear exit
provided for ex-war workers. Together we splashed into the broken-bricked
alley that was sloppy with melting spring sleet.

"Maybe she doesn't know everything," said the little girl, fingering a
religious medal that shone beneath her brown muffler. "Maybe some one's
dropped out. Let's say a prayer."

Through the cutting sleet we bent our way to Dublin's largest factory - a
plant where 1,000 girls are employed at what are the best woman's wages in
Dublin, $4.50 to $10 a week.

"You gotta be pretty brassy to ask for work here," said the little girl.
"Everybody wants to work here. But you can't get anything unless you're
b-brassy, can you?"

We entered a big-windowed, red-bricked factory, and in response to our
timid application, a black-clad woman shook her head wearily. Down a
puddly, straw-strewn lane we were blown to one of the factories next in
size - a fifty to 100 hand factory is considered big in Dublin. The sign on
the door was scrawled:

"No Hands Wanted."

But in the courage of companionship we mounted the black, narrow-treaded
wooden stairs to a box-littered room where white-aproned girls were nailing
candy containers together. While we waited for the manager to come out, we
stood with bowed heads so that the sleet could pool off our hats, and
through a big crack in the plank floor we could see hard red candies
swirling below. Suddenly we heard a voice and looked up to see the
ticking-aproned manager spluttering:

"Well, can't you read?"

Up in a loft-like, saw-dusty room where girls were stuffing dolls and
daubing red paint on china cheeks, an excited manager declared he was
losing his own job. The new woman's trade union league wanted him to pay
more than one dollar a week to his girls. He would show the union his
books. Wasn't it better to have some job than none at all?

Down the wet street, now glinting blindingly in the late sun, we walked
into a grubby little tea shop for a sixpenny pot of tea between us. Out of
my pocket I pulled a wage list of well-paying, imagination-stirring jobs in
England. There were all sorts of jobs from toy-making at $8.25 a week to
glass-blowing at $20. On the face of the little girl as she told me that
she would meet me at the ministry of munitions the next morning there was a
look of worried indecision.

That night along Gloucester street, past the Georgian mansion houses built
before the union of Ireland and England - great, flat-faced, uprising
structures behind whose verdigrised knockers and shattered door fans comes
the murmur of tenements - I walked till I came to a much polished brass
plate lettered "St. Anthony's Working Girls' Home."

"Why don't you go to England?" was the first question the matron put to me
when I told her that I could get no factory work. "All the girls are

In the stone-flagged cellar the girls were cooking their individual dinners
at a stove deep set in the stone wall. A big, curly-haired girl was holding
bread on a fork above the red coals.

"Last time I got lonesome," she was admitting. "But the best parlor maid
job here is $60 a year. And over at Basingstoke in England I've one waiting
for me at $150 a year. If you want to live nowadays I suppose you've gotta
be lonesome."

Next day at the alley of the employment bureau, I met the little girl of
the day before. She said a little dully:

"Well, I took - shirt-making - Edinburgh."

Instead of migrating, a girl may marry. But her husband in most cases can't
make enough money to support a family. To keep an average family of five,
just going, on food alone, costs $370 a year. Some farm hands get only
$100. An average unskilled worker obtains $260 a year. An organized
unskilled worker receives $367, and an organized skilled worker, $539.
Therefore, if a girl marries, she has not only to bear children but to go
out to work beside. Their constant toil makes the women of Ireland
something less than well-cared-for slaves.

Take the mother in Dublin. In Dublin there have long been too many casual
laborers. One-third of Dublin's population of 300,000 are in this class.
Now, while wages for some sorts of casual labor like dock work increased
during the war, it has become almost impossible for Dublin laborers to get
a day's job. For the unemployed are flocking for the good wages from the
four fields of Ireland. On the days the man is out of work the woman must
go out to wash or "char." I understood these conditions better after I
spent a night in a typical one-room home in the dockers' quarters near the

Widow Hannan was my hostess. The widow is a strong, black-haired young
woman who took an active part in the rebellion of 1916, and whose husband
was killed fighting under James Connolly. We slept in the first floor
front. In with the widow lay her three children, and in the cot
catty-corner from the bed I was bunked. Just when the night air was
thinning to gray there was a shattering rap on the ground-level window. The
half-dressed young factory daughter clambered over the others and ripped
down the rain coat that served as a night-time window curtain. Against the
square-paned window was hunched a forward-shouldered woman.

As she was being beckoned to the door, I rose, and to do my hair had to
wedge myself in between the breakfast-table and the filmy mirror that hung
among the half-tone pictures of the rebels of 1916. On the iron mantel,
gray with coal dust, there was a family comb.

"God save all here," said the neighbor entering. "Mary, himself's had no
work for four days. Keep the young ones out of the grate for me. I've got
to go out washing."

"My sister-in-law has a husband and seven children to support," said the
widow in explanation to me. "During the war, he could do with her going out
just once in a while - now it's all the time." Then to the sister-in-law:
"I've a wash myself today."

The big shoes that must once have belonged to the visitor's man, hit the
floor loosely as she walked slowly out. Then as lodger I was given the only
chair at the breakfast-table. The mother and girl sat at a plank bench and
supped their tea from their saucerless cups. As there was no place else to
sit, the children took their bread and jam as they perched on the bed, and
when they finished, surreptitiously wiped their fingers on the
brown-covered hay mattress. Before we were through, they had run to the
street and back to warm their cold legs inside the fender till the floor
was tracked with mud from the street, ashes from the grate, and bits of
crumbled bread.

In the evening I heard the murmur of revolution. With the shawled mothers
who line the lane on a pleasant evening, I stood between the widow and a
twenty-year-old girl who held her tiny blind baby in her arms. Across the
narrow street with its water-filled gutters, barefoot children in holey
sweaters or with burlap tied about their shoulders, slapped their feet as
they jigged, or jumped at hop-scotch. Back of them in typical Dublin decay
rose the stables of an anciently prosperous shipping concern; in the v dip
of the roofless walls, spiky grass grew and through the barred windows the
wet gray sky was slotted. Suddenly the girl-mother spoke:

"Why, there's himself coming back, Mary. See him turning up from the timber
on the quay. There was sorrow in his eyes like the submarine times when he
came to tell me no boat docked this morning. Baby or no baby, I'll have to
get work for myself, for he's not given me a farthing for a fortnight."

A big Danish-looking chap was homing towards the door. Without meeting the
girl's eyes, he slunk into the doorway. His broad shoulders sagged under
his sun-faded coat, and he blocked the light from the glassless window on
the staircase as he disappeared. When he slouched out again his hand
dropped from his hip pocket.

"It's to drill he's going," The young mother snugged her shawl in more
tightly about her baby. Then she said with a little break in her voice:
"Oh, it's very pleasant, just this, with the girls jigging and rattling
their legs of a spring evening."

A girl's voice defiantly telling a soldier that if he didn't wear his
civvies when he came to call he needn't come at all, rose clearly from a
dark doorway. A lamplighter streaked yellow flame into the square lamp
hanging from the stone shell opposite. A jarvey, hugging a bundle of hay,
drove his horse clankingly over the cobblestones. Then grimly came the
whisper of the widow of the rebellion close to my ear:

"Oh, we'll have enough in the army this time."

Difficult as the Irish worker's fight is, the able person is loath to give
up and accept charity. But whether she wants to or not, if she can't find
work she must go to the poorhouse. Before the war it was estimated that
over one-half the inmates of the Irish workhouses were employable. During
the war, when there were more jobs than usual to be had, there was a great
exodus from the hated poorhouse; there was a drop in workhouse wards from
400,000 to 250,000. But now jobs are getting less again and there is a
melancholy return back over the hills to the poorhouse.

Night refuges, I found, are the last stage in this journey. There, with
every day out of work, women become more unemployable - clothes and
constitutions wear out; minds lose hope in effort and rely on luck. As I
sat with a tableful of charwomen and general housework girls in a refuge in
Dublin, I read two ads from the paper. One offered a job for a general
servant with wages at $50 a year. The other ran: "Wanted: a strong humble
general housework girl to live out; $1.25 a week." I put the choice up to
the table.

"If you haven't anybody of your own to live with," advised a husky-voiced,
mufflered girl next me as she warmed her fingers about her mug of tea and
regarded me from under her cotton velvet hat with some suspicion, "you
should get the job living with the family. It takes five dollars a week to
live by yourself." Then forestalling a protest she added: "You'll get two
early evenings off - at eight o'clock."

"Whatever you get, don't let it go." A bird-faced woman leaned over the
table so that the green black plume of her charity bonnet wagged across the
center of the table. With her little warning eyes still on my face she
settled back impressively. As she extracted a half sheet of newspaper from
under her beaded cape and furtively wrapped up one of the two "hunks" of
bread that each refugee got, she continued: "Once I gave up a place because
they let me have just potatoes and onions for dinner. No, hold on to
whatever you get - whatever." And after we had night prayers that were so
long drawn out that someone moaned: "Do they want to scourge us with
praying?", the old charwoman repeated the hopeless words: "Hold on to
whatever you get - whatever."

In the pale gold light that flooded through the windows of the sixty-bed
dormitory, the women turned down the mussed toweling sheets from the
bolsters across the reddish gray spreads.

"My clothes dried on me after the rain, and I do be coughing till my chest
is sore," said the girl who had sat next me at the table and was next me in
the sleeping room. "There was too many at the dispensary to wait."

Out of a sagging pocket in her creased mackintosh she took a clothes brush.
She slipped her skirt from under her coat and with her blue-cold hand
passed the flat brush back and forth over the muddy hem.

"If I had a bit o' black for my shoes now - with your clothes I could get me
a housemaid's job easy," Her muffler covered the fact that she had no
shirtwaist. Then she added encouragingly: "You'd better get a job quick.
There's only one blanket on these beds and clothes run down using them for
covers at night."

Opposite us a gray-cheeked mother was wrapping a black petticoat about the
legs of a small child. She tucked the little girl in the narrow bed they
were both to sleep in, and babbled softly to the drowsy child:

"No place yet. My heart do be falling out o' me. Well, I'm not to blame
because it's you that keeps me from getting it. You - " she bent over the
bed and ended sharply: "Oh, my darling, shall we die in Dublin?"

Through the dusk, above the sound of coughing and canvas stretching as the
women settled themselves for the night, there rose the soft voices of two
women telling welcome fairy stories to each other:

"It was a wild night," said one. "She was going along the Liffey, and the
wind coming up from the sea blew the cape about her face and she half fell
into the water. He caught her, they kept company for seven years and then
he married her. Who do you suppose he turned out to be? Why, a wealthy
London baker. Och, God send us all fortune."

There was silence, then the whisper of the mother:

"Look up to the windows, darling. There's just a taste of daylight left."

Gradually it grew dark and quiet in this vault of human misery. Then, far
away from some remote chapel in the house, there floated the triumphant
words of the practising choir:

"Alleluia! Alleluia!"


What do emigration and low wages do to Irish health? Social conditions
result in an extraordinary percentage of tuberculosis and lunacy, and in a
baby shortage in Ireland. Individual propensities to sexual excess or
common crime are, incidentally, responsible for little of the ill health in

Ireland's tuberculosis rate is higher than that of most of the countries in
the "civilized" world. Through Sir William Thompson, registrar-general of
Ireland, I was given much material about tuberculosis in Ireland. An
international pre-war chart showed Ireland fourth on the tuberculosis
list - it was exceeded only by Austria, Hungary, and Servia.[1] During the
war, Ireland's tuberculosis mortality rate showed a tendency to increase;
in 1913, her death list from tuberculosis was 9,387 and in 1917 it was

Emigration is heat to the tuberculosis thermometer. Why? Sir Robert
Matheson, ex-registrar-general of Ireland, explained at a meeting of the
Woman's National Health Association. The more fit, he said, emigrate, and
the less fit stay home and propagate weak children. Besides, emigrants who
contract the disease elsewhere come home to die. Many so return from the
United States. Numbers of the 50,000 annual migrants from the west coast of
Ireland to the English harvests return to nurse the tuberculosis they
contracted across the channel. Dr. Birmingham, of the Westport Union, is
quoted as saying that in September a disease known locally as the "English
cold" is prevalent among the young men who have been harvesting in England.
Sometimes it is simple bronchitis. Mostly it is incipent phthisis. It is
easily traced to the wretched sleeping places called "Paddy houses" in
which Irish laborers are permitted to be housed in England. These "Paddy
houses" are often death traps - crowded, dark, unventilated barns in which
the men have to sleep on coarse bags on the floor.[3]

The Irish wage causes tuberculosis to mount higher. Dr. Andrew Trimble,
chief tuberculosis officer for Belfast, comments on the fact that the sex
affected proves that economic conditions are to blame. Under conditions of
poverty, women become ill more quickly than men. Dr. Trimble writes: "In
Belfast and in Ireland generally more females suffer from tuberculosis than
males. In Great Britain, however, the reverse is the case.... In former
years, however, they had much the same experience as we have in Ireland ...
and it would be necessary to go back over twenty-five years to come to a
point where the mortality from tuberculosis among women equalled that now
obtaining with us. It would seem that the hardships associated with poor
economic conditions - insufficient wages, bad housing and want of fresh air,
good food and sufficient clothing - tell more heavily on the female than on
the male, and with the march of progress and better conditions of living
... tuberculosis amongst women is automatically reduced."[4]

The Irish wage must choose a tuberculosis incubator for a home. Ireland is
a one-room-home country. In the great "rural slum" districts, the one-room
cabin prevails. Country slums exist where homes cannot be supported by the
land they are built on - they occur, for instance, in the rocky fields of
Galway and Donegal and in the stripped bog lands of Sligo. Galway and
Donegal cabins are made of stones wrested from the ground; in Mayo, the
walls are piled sod - mud cabins. Roofing these western homes is the "skin
o' th' soil" or sod with the grass roots in it. Through the homemade roofs
or barrel chimneys the wet Atlantic winds often pour streams of water that
puddle on the earthen floors. At one end of the cabin is a smoky dent that
indicates the fireplace; and at the other there may be a stall or two. The
small, deep-set windows are, as a rule, "fixed." Rural slums are rivaled by
city slums. Even in the capital of Ireland the poor are housed as badly as
in the west of Ireland. Looking down on the city of Dublin from the tower
of St. Patrick's cathedral, one can see roofs so smashed in that they look
as if some giant had walked over them; great areas so packed with buildings
that there are only darts of passageways for light and air. In ancient
plaster cabins, in high old edifices with pointed Huguenot roofs, in
Georgian mansion tenements, there are 25,000 families whose homes are
one-room homes. Dublin's proportion of those who live more than two to a
room is higher than that of any other city in the British Isles - London has
16.8; Edinburgh, 31.1; Dublin, 37.9.[5] In one-room homes tuberculosis
breeds fast. A table from the dispensary for tuberculosis patients, an
institution built in Dublin as a memorial to the American, P.F. Collier,
shows that out of 1,176 cases 676 came from one-room homes.[6] As a type
case, the report instances this: "Nine members of the W - - family were
found living in one room together in a condition bordering on starvation.
Both parents were very tubercular. The father had left the Sanatorium of
the South Dublin Union on hearing of the mother's delicacy. He hoped to
earn a little to support the family that had been driven to such a state
through illness that, houseless, it had had to sleep on stairs. The only
regular income was $1.12 a week earned by the eldest girl, aged 16, in a
factory. Owing to want of food and unhealthy surroundings, she was in so
run down a condition that it seemed certain she would become tubercular if
not at once removed."

The Irish wage can't buy the "good old diet." Milk and stirabout and
potatoes once grew rosy-cheeked children. But bread and tea is the general
diet now. War rations? Ireland was not put on war rations. To regulate the
amount of butter and bacon per family would have been superfluous labor.
Few families got even war rations.[7] Charitable organizations doubt if
they should give relief to families who are able to have an occasional meal
of potatoes in addition to their bread and tea. In a recent pamphlet[8] the
St. Vincent de Paul Society said: "A widow ... who after paying the rent of
her room, has a shilling a day to feed herself and two, three, four or even
more children, is considered a doubtful case by the society. Yet a shilling
a day will only give the family bread and tea for every meal, with an
occasional dish of potatoes. By strict economy a little margarine may be
purchased, but by no process of reasoning may it be said that the family
has enough to eat, or suitable food." The Irish wage would have to be a
high wage to buy the old diet. For that is not supplied by Ireland for

1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryRuth RussellWhat's the Matter with Ireland? → online text (page 1 of 6)