Turtle Bunbury

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The Irish Munitionettes

29 August 1917, Parkgate Street, Dublin. It was by no means a regular occurrence for John Redmond to be surrounded by hundreds of singing women. There had, of course, been some merriness back in 1914 when he finally managed to get Home Rule Act. But that was before the grim cocktail of the Great War and the Easter Rising destroyed all his political dreams and left him a broken man.

And yet here he was on a summer afternoon in 1917 listening to this unlikely choir of angles singing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, and all in his honour.[i] It was not yet three months since Redmond’s brother Willie, one of the leading nationalists of his generation, had been killed in action at the battle of Messines.

The women who sang were “munitionettes”, the bomb-making employees of Dublin’s National Shell and Fuse Factory on Dublin’s northside.

And on hand to greet Redmond was their boss, Major Fairbairn Downie, Director of the Ministry of Munitions in Ireland. Major Downie then took Redmond on a tour of the factory, explaining in precise detail what each building and department was used for. During his two-hour visit, the factory women also gave the veteran politician a demonstration of precisely how a shell was made.

The story of the Irish munitions industry in World War One enjoyed a tremendous boost in 2015 thanks to the work of historian Hugo McGuinness, the Dublin Dockers Preservation Society and the East Wall History Group, who joined forces for a project memorably entitled ‘Did your Granny make bombs in World War One?

At its peak there were over 2000 Irish people, mostly women, employed in the manufacture of shells and other war material for the Allied war effort.[ii] As well as the National Factory and the , there were state-run munitions factories in Galway, Waterford and Cork. A further 5000 people were employed by a factory in Arklow that manufactured 100 tons of cordite a week.

When the war began in 1914, there were no munitions factories in Ireland. However, the need for such an industry became one of the primary concerns for Irish politicians in the wake of the so-called Shells Scandal of 1915. The genesis of this debacle was the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 in which British artillery unleashed more shells into the sky in 35 minutes than were fired in the entire Anglo-Boer War. And yet the attack that accompanied this bombardment was a veritable disaster with nearly 10,000 dead and precious little land gained. Among the dead was my father's great-uncle Alan Appleby Drew, to whom I dedicated The Glorious Madness.

Lord Northcliff, the Dublin-born proprietor of the Daily Mail, duly uncovered a basic but brutal statistic explaining why Britain wasn’t winning the war. Germany was making quarter of a million superior shells a week; Britain was just about making 30,000, many of which were so shoddy that they weren’t even detonating. [iii]

The Shells Scandal brought Asquith’s Liberal government crashing down. The coalition that replaced it included a new department, the Ministry of Munitions, headed up by the ‘Welsh Wizard’ David Lloyd George who had two sons at the front.

The Ministry of Munitions was entrusted with awarding all war contracts and overseeing munitions production. Supported by government funding, it was to create employment for over 50,000 people as factories sprang up all across Britain. By the end of the war, the British Army had fired 170 million shells made in such factories.

The ministry was slow to encourage development in Ireland where such industrialisation was still largely restricted to the ship-building epicentre of Belfast.

Alfie Byrne, the nationalist MP for Dublin Harbour, was particularly vocal in urging Lloyd-George’s department to award some of the lucrative munitions contracts to the Irish capital. He argued that Ireland had received scant little in return for the £15 million it contributed in war taxes.

However, by August 1916, despite intensive lobbying by Dublin’s Chamber of Commerce, just 24 of the 1369 contracts offered by the ministry had been awarded to Irish companies - and most of those went to the Harland and Wolfe Shipyard in Belfast.[iv]

Of the Irish contracts awarded outside Belfast, the biggest went to what became the National Shell Factory at Parkgate Street, Dublin.[v] At its peak, the factory employed 809, of whom 531 were women, aka ‘munitionettes’, many of them eager to boost their income while their menfolk were at war.

Most were recruited through the Labour Exchange and lived anywhere between Dollymount and Chapelizod. There were three 8-hour shifts spread over the 24 hour day; in the absence of any early morning trams, those due to start at 6am often had a long walk to work. There was a nurse on full-time duty and a canteen that ran all day, every day, staffed by female volunteers.[vi]

And keeping them all in check was Fairbairn Downie, an experienced engineer from Newcastle whose cheerful Geordie personality enabled him to bond with his employees.

Despite Major Downie’s charms, there were several strikes at the National Factory over non-payment of war bonuses and working conditions. While there was little understanding of such long-term effects as toxic jaundice, the short-term hazards were blatantly apparent with five fatal accidents.

There were also subversive employees although it was notable that everyone showed up for work during the week of the Easter Rising.[vii] Among the factory workers was Christine “Molly” Maguire, later a prominent Union activist, who became National Organizer for the British National Federation of Women’s Workers while based at Parkgate Street. She campaigned with much vigour to bring Irish women’s wages in line with their counterparts in the UK.

Meanwhile, the Scottish shipbuilders John Smellie and Walter Scott secured a contract to manufacture 50,000 18lb shells for which purpose they built the Dublin Dockyard War Munitions Factory.[viii] This bright and airy timber plant opened on a green-field site in East Wall in November 1915.[ix] Its 200-strong workforce comprised of women from the docks, recruited through personal recommendation. Some belonged to the families of skilled Scottish ship builders Smellie had brought to Ireland.[x]

Most seem to have had loved ones on the frontlines. They were evidently a more content workforce than their comrades at the National Factory.[xi] Aside from one minor strike, its most serious accident was a girl’s finger being sliced off by a lathe. One visitor commended the ‘superior’ manner, ‘intelligent interest’ and ‘delicate handling’ with which the women operated the modern machines.[xii]

The East Wall factory’s target was 2000 shells a week but they frequently produced 3,000.[xiii] By the time of its closure in 1919, it had manufactured 648,150 shells. [xiv]

Other contracts were awarded to the Lee Arrow Company at Clarke’s Bridge in Cork while another National Shell Factory was established in Cork’s Irish Market, now the Bodega.[xv] Galway’s factory was set up on Earl’s Island in 1917, after extensive lobbying by Redmond, and employed about 115 women, working three shifts.[xvi] There was also a Cartridge Factory in Waterford as well as the Kynoch explosives factory in Arklow which manufactured cordite.

Irish factories were, of course, not the only places where that Irish people worked. A report from 1917 estimates over 16,000 Irish employed in munitions factories in England. Again, most of these were women.

A munitionette’s wage was considered a good one. Florence Lea from Sandymount, for instance, had been making 2 shillings a week as a dressmaker but when she began manufacturing shell casings in East Wall, she upped her weekly salary to 50 shillings.

As such, it was not surprising that cosmetics companies such as Pomeroy Skin Food and Ven Yusa Oxigen Face Cream began targeting ‘munitions girls’. This boost in female employment also prompted a flurry of new advisory booklets, examining everything from nutritional health and factory ergonomics to interior design for staff canteens.[xvii]

The munitionettes even had their own football tournament and the first ever women’s international football match took place in Belfast on 26 December 1917 between the Irish munitionettes (albeit exclusively Ulster-based) and their counterparts from north-east England. Over 20,000 spectators piled into Windsor Park to watch England win 4-1. At a return match in 1918, which Ireland also lost, the game was kicked off by the Irish team manager Mrs Walter Scott, whose husband co-owned the factory in East Wall.[xviii]

On the night of 21 September 1917, just over 3 weeks after Redmond’s visit to the National Factory, the cordite factory in Arklow blew up, killing 27 people working the night shift. Had the accident happened in the day, scores more of the plant’s 2000-strong workforce would have died.

Redmond himself would be dead less than six months later.[xix]

All of the munitions factories closed in 1919 although some were to become training grounds for IRA operations during the War of Independence. A number of those employed at the IRA’s underground bomb and hand grenade factory on Parnell Street were past employees of the National Shell Factory.

Anyone with further stories about the factory please contact the Dublin Dockers Preservation Society or East Wall History Group.


'Did your Granny make bombs in World War One? The story of the Dublin Dockyard War Munitions Factory' by Hugo McGuinness (East Wall For All) via http://eastwallforall.ie/?p=2841

‘Arklow’s explosive history: Kynoch, 1895-1918’ by Anthony Cannon via http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/arklows-explosive-history-kynoch-1895-1918/

'How Germany lost the WWI arms race' by Saul David (Presenter, Bullets, Boots and Bandages) via http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17011607

Women's International Matches via http://www.donmouth.co.uk/womens_football/womens_internationals.html

‘The Galway national shell factory’ via http://www.advertiser.ie/galway/article/68794/the-galway-national-shell-factory

Maria Shields O’Kelly (NewFour) via http://www.newsfour.ie/2015/05/did-your-granny-make-bombs-for-the-war/


[i] Details of Redmond’s visit from Weekly Irish Times, Saturday, September 1, 1917, p. 3, via https://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/archive/wit/1917/0901/Pg003.html#Ar00302

[ii] Niamh Purcell states there were 2,148 employed by the five state-run National Factories in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Waterford in her article in ‘Our War’, edited by John Horne.

[iii] Lord Northcliff, proprietor of the Daily Mail and The Times, laid the blame squarely on Hebert Asquith’s Liberal government for failing to provide sufficient quantity or quality of shells. The Daily Mail went for the jugular in May 1915 with a headline that read "The Shells Scandal: Lord Kitchener’s Tragic Blunder”, censuring Kitchener, the Kerry-born Secretary of State for War. The upshot of the Shell Crisis was that Asquith was forced to reform the government as a wartime coalition. In December 1916, the ongoing blame game for the Shell Crisis led to Asquith’s resignation and his succession by Lloyd-George.

[iv] The sudden demand for more shells prompted many in Ireland to push for the contract to provide such armaments. This was not simply a short-term avarice but reflected a long-term wish to spread the long overdue industrialisation around Ireland. In July 1915 Captains R. C. Kelly arrived in Dublin and set up the Ministry of Munitions’ offices at number 32 Nassau Street.

In a bid to win the war contracts, Dublin’s Chamber of Commerce produced a survey of the city’s existing engineering workshops that could be speedily adapted for the purpose. Intense lobbying ensued when the Dublin Armaments Committee, appointed by the chamber, visited the War Office, Woolwich Arsenal, and arms manufacturing centres in Birmingham and other cities to press home it’s suitability for these lucrative contracts. The chamber was confident its efforts would result in the employment of “several hundred hands” and the “distribution of thousands of pounds per week in wages”. As such, they were sorely disappointed by the paltry 1.27% success rate. This “fell far short of what is due to this country having regard to the expenditure in Great Britain’, voiced the chamber to Captain Kelly.

[v] With all the work required to get it going, and miscellaneous bureaucratic and economic hiccups, it was a year before the National Factory reached its full potential. While waiting for machines to arrive from overseas, the National Factory commandeered equipment from the Technical Training College at Bolton Street.

[vi] ‘Fewer Ladies, More Women’, Catriona Crowe, at p. 166 of ‘Our War’, edited by John Horne.

[vii] Everyone at the National Factory turned up for work during the week of the Easter Rising in which they managed to produce 800 shells. Four members of the Plunket’s Kimmage Garrison were actually based at the factory. There may have been a knock off effect from the Rising as 20 girls were dismissed in October 1916, apparently for poor time-keeping.

[viii] John Smellie, the Scottish born owner and manager of the much happier Dockyard Dockyard Company in Dublin Port had shrewdly secured a repairs contract with the Royal Navy as early as September 1914. They were soon producing pontoon bridges, floating targets to train gun crews, fitting ship gun platforms, dept charges, wireless cabins, mine laying appliances, telegraph poles, among other war related work. The Dublin Dockyard Company secured a contract to make 50,000 shells, having raised £20,000, and built their factory on a green-field site in East Wall beside their graving docks in November 1915.

[ix] The factory comprised of two corridors, stream-lined on either side by machines, with storage rooms at either end for raw steel bars and finished shells.

[x] Smellie had the families of the skilled Scottish ship builders accommodated in purpose built houses on Fairfield Avenue in East Wall.

[xi] Employees of the Dublin Dockyard War Munitions Factory worked 2 shifts, with an initial target of 2000 shells per week; they were soon producing 3000. Many f the component parts for these shells came from smaller workshops in the Dublin area.

[xii] Smellie likewise applauded their efficiency and described their ‘deftness of hand and eye’ with the machines as ‘perfectly amazing’.

[xiii] As many of the women had husbands, brothers and sons on the front-line, they were careful to ensure that every shell they made was as carefully as possible; reports of faulty bombs exploding prematurely in France and Flanders were all too common as the FitzGeralds of Carton House, Maynooth, learned when the dashing Lord Desmond FitzGerlad was killed in 1916.

[xiv] The whole of Russia only managed to make 650,000 shells in 1914. Conversely, in the first 78 minutes of the big offensive on the Western Front during the spring of 1918, Germany used 650,000 shells – and that was as many as were employed in the entire Franco-Prussian War of 1871.

[xv] Cork munitions factory at http://www.bodegacork.ie/history/

[xvi] The number of employees is given as 40 in ‘Fewer Ladies, More Women’, Catriona Crowe, at p. 166 of ‘Our War’, edited by John Horne. However, an article entitled ‘The Galway national shell factory’ based on the book "Galway and the Great War" by William Henry and online at http://www.advertiser.ie/galway/article/68794/the-galway-national-shell-factory gives the figure of 115.

[xvii] One study of ‘Industrial Fatigue’ proposed giving employees one day a week off, but only because that boosted their productivity on the other six.

[xviii] Women's International Matches via http://www.donmouth.co.uk/womens_football/womens_internationals.html

[xix] Max Green, Redmond's son-in-law, who accompanied him to the National Shell Factory, was Chairman of the Irish Prisons Board. Less than a month after their visit to the National Factory, the republican icon Thomas Ashe died on hunger strike. Max Green was shot dead in March 1922 while attempting to stop an armed robber on St. Stephen’s Green. See The New York Times, December 29, 1922 via http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9805E4DF1730E433A2575AC2A9649D946395D6CF