by Fionnuala Walsh, Irish Research Council-funded PhD Student, Trinity College, Dublin.
In March 1915 a woman was removed from a recruiting meeting in Ballina, County Mayo, after interrupting to ask the speaker to get the cost of flour reduced to its pre-war price of eleven shillings a bag. The Irish suffrage paper, the Irish Citizen observed caustically that recruitment meetings ‘don’t want any reminders of the realities of war, as they come home to women’. Although the reality of the financial hardship of many families in wartime was an unpleasant and inconvenient topic for those engaged in recruiting, the unnamed Ballina woman was rightly drawing a connection between the battlefront and life on the home front. While seemingly trivial in the grand scheme of the war, the price of flour was representative of the broader socio-economic effects of the war for Irishwomen. The Great War blurred the lines between battlefield and home front with the unprecedented mobilisation of the population leading to the intrusion of war and thus the state into the domestic sphere. The bombardment and besieging of Dublin during the Easter Rising may have been the only experience of physical attack for women in Ireland during the war, unlike many of their European counterparts, but the war nevertheless invaded their domestic lives.
Women as Household Managers
The enlistment of an unprecedented number of men in the armed forces (an estimated 210,000 from Ireland) affected women’s roles as household managers as well as their relationships with their soldier relatives. Farmers prospered in wartime Ireland due to the increased demand for food for Great Britain while the compulsory increase in tillage farming resulted in greater employment for agricultural labourers. However, for those living in urban areas or those dependent on pensions or fixed incomes the war was a time of hardship due to price inflation and the scarcity of fuel. Although the separation allowances provided to the dependents of serving soldiers brought some benefit, they could scarcely keep pace with the increased food prices. The changes to the wartime diet were noted by the Catholic Bulletin in October 1918 –no breakfast bacon, margarine instead of butter – and sugar now ‘doled out with a miserly hand’. The food shortages meant that careful household management became increasingly important in wartime.
Campaigns regarding conservation of the food supply were aimed at women as ‘guardians of the home and the hearth’ and took place in all belligerent countries. Propaganda exhorted them to be careful not to waste food, claiming that through their power as household managers, they could shorten the war by avoiding waste and saving money. Recipes abounded in women’s magazines for ‘war cake’ and ‘war bread’ and other adapted recipes. Advertisements advised housewives how to economise in wartime, for example by baking their own bread and cakes rather than buying ready-made from the bakery. Wartime privation was not only an economic necessity but also a sign of patriotism and morality.
Calls for austerity highlighted class divisions however. The working classes were being urged not to waste food and to operate restraint but in the majority of cases their diets were already so limited and basic that further economies were not possible. The time to experiment with new recipes was largely restricted to middle class women who had assistance with other household duties and did not have to work outside the home. Working-class homes also frequently lacked the cooking facilities and utensils necessary for home baking, particularly a problem in tenements where whole families lived in single room dwellings. The impact of the war on living standards varied enormously according to pre-war income and social status. For the upper classes, the war meant holidaying in Irish resorts rather than travelling overseas while for others it meant destitution.
Shortages of food and the rising cost of living made everyday living a greater struggle while the absence of men and consequent separation allowances brought increased independence and potential empowerment for women. Bereavement and anxiety were however also common experiences on the home front. Wartime propaganda used the image of the dutiful housewife to recruit soldiers by reminding them of what was at risk in the war. Emphasising the active soldier husband in contrast to the passive wife at home strengthened the traditional gender roles in society. However as the war progressed it became clear that women’s responsibilities in wartime extended beyond preparing for the return of the soldiers. The domestic sphere had become a battlefield of the Great War.
Caitriona Clear, “Fewer ladies, more women” in John Horne (ed.) Our War: Ireland and the Great War (Dublin, 2008).
David Fitzpatrick, “Home front and everyday life” in John Horne (ed.) Our War: Ireland and the Great War (Dublin, 2008).
Susan Grayzel, “Men and women at home” in Jay Winter (ed.) Cambridge history of the First World War: Volume III Civil Society (Cambridge, 2014).
Adrian Gregory, “Britain and Ireland” in John Horne (ed.) A companion to World War I (Oxford, 2010).