Factory Conditions in Belfast, Ireland

Women in Ireland had it rough in the early 1900’s. They lived in an oppressive patriarchal society, where having a husband was the difference between total poverty and a chance for financial security. The industrial age of Ireland brought far more hardships, as those who made money by crafting (knitting, sewing, etc.) became obsolete as factories could do the same thing much cheaper. Thus, these women were forced to work in these factories for awful pay. The conditions were abhorrent; factory accidents were common and sickness ran rampant throughout the factory floor. The machines would create so much heat that workers would overheat on even the coldest winter days.

Often children would need to work as well to support their families. The few pictures that exist online show these kids as depressed, malnourished, and sometimes disfigured from common factory accidents. If the meager wages you made at a Belfast factory weren’t enough to get by, you weren’t entirely out of luck. Some of these factories offered boarding to workers that needed it, but the rooms they lived it made homelessness seem like a workable alternative. These rooms looked like gymnasiums lined wall to wall with cots. The unhygienic factory floors often caused sickness, which would easily be spread from person to person while confined in the boarding areas. Needless to say, these factories literally worked people into the ground.

My project would take form of an Irish tragedy, the protagonist of which is a young girl named Maeve, whose mother works tirelessly day after day at a factory in Belfast. Megan, the mother, saves her daughter the pains of factory life by embellishing stories of how wonderful the factory is. In a way, this also allows her to cope with her situation, especially when she sees how fascinated her daughter is. Megan realizes that her stories might make factory life seem like a nice occupation, and tries to subtly deter her interest. Although Maeve is only 10, Megan makes subtle suggestions that she should have interest in seeking a husband someday, if only to attempt to free her from a wretched lifestyle.

Eventually Maeve’s embellished interest in factory life leads to heartbreak. As she grows up she starts to learn the truths of these factory conditions, but often suppresses the reality of them to keep the image of her mother positive. Eventually the factory causes Megan to become ill, and unable to work. As a result Maeve has to work in the factory to keep the household running. The play ends with Megan heartbroken that the cycle is continuing, and Maeve develops a repressed resentment for her mother

The idea of the play is to demonstrate both how awful the factory conditions in Belfast were, as well as the hardships of single parent household in early 20th century Ireland. Without a husband Maeve would be surely doomed to life in the factories.

2 thoughts on “Factory Conditions in Belfast, Ireland

  1. William Murphy

    I find it interesting that you are using art as a means to explain this issue. Similarly, theres a James Taylor song called “Millworker” that touches on a very similar subject. Though it takes place in America, the same issues were occurring at this time in regards to oppressive labor upon women. These issues have become more diluted for us as time has gone on, but in other countries, this exploitation is still quite an issue. In Banana republics in the Amazon River Basin we see this kind of issue. In these republics, workers are exploited and used as cheap, and frankly, inhumane labor, just for larger countries (such as ours) to obtain bananas. Similar to your description of factory workers in Ireland: oppressed, mistreated people working their hands off for a material product.

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  2. Owen Enders

    The awful struggle of the factories being covered up in depictions of life at the time can be related to life in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire. The city was described with the highest regards; people heard all bout the decorative uses of gold and the lavish market which made the city seem like the stuff of dreams. This was from the case. Most people lived in slum like conditions in overcrowded the neighbors and noise. There were even Constantinopolitan mobs made by unhappy inhabitants of the city but these were covered up by the glorious reputation. The effect of this is noticeable in modern sources mainly delving in the prestigious of the Constantinople similar to the lack of depiction of the struggle factory workers.

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