From Ireland to Manchester: Eva Gore-Booth and women’s labour

Some vague Utopia?

In his poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”, Yeats called the work of Eva Gore-Booth a dream “of some vague Utopia”. It was, in fact, part of a wider campaign for the rights of working class people and for women that had been happening in Ireland for twenty years and in England, Wales and Scotland for longer.

In January 1907 James Larkin came to Belfast to act as general organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers. He had previously been an organiser for the union in Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow and his aim was to unionise the unskilled workers of Belfast. That Summer he led the dockworkers in a strike to campaign for the right to organise and join trades unions, and for the rights of working class people. The strike grew into a movement, with women among the early participants. A thousand women walked out of Gallahers Tobaco in solidarity with seven co-workers sacked for attending a lunchtime meeting organised by Larkin. The strike spread to carters, coal heavers, boilermakers and most surprisingly of all, the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast. The Independent Orange Order even collected donations for the strikers on 12 July 19071.

Stained glass window depicting striking workers bearing banners, with Jim Larkin speaking, arms outstretched
The Belfast Strike Window, Belfast City Hall. Courtesy Donal Lyons.

The stained glass window on the left was set up to commemorate the strike on its 100th anniversary. “Big Jim” Larkin dominates the center of the window. The lines at the bottom read “Not as Catholics or Protestants, Not as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast Workers standing together”, reflecting the anti-sectarian nature of the strike.

The lack of support from the British headquarters of the NUDL led to an unsatisfactory settlement and a lasting rift that saw Larkin establish the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in December 1908. The textile workers of Belfast (mostly women) joined this union and united to organise the Belfast Linen Strike of 1911, against their harsh working conditions and low pay (an event commemorated in the Belfast City Hall window at the top of this post.)

While Belfast was at the forefront of labour organisation in Ireland in the early 20th century, it lagged behind the industrial cities in Great Britain. In Manchester, another city full of textile mills, the Manchester and Salford Trades Union Council had been established in 1866 from other early workers organisations. Organisation of women workers progressed much more slowly than that of men. The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council was founded in 1895 specifically to spearhead the unionisation of women workers. In 1900, seven years before the Belfast Strike and eleven before the Belfast Millies had their own union, Eva Gore-Booth was a co-secretary of the council after three years working and campaigning for women workers in Manchester2.

Two girls in silk kimonos

Manchester’s world of factories and mills was very different from where Eva Gore-Booth was born on 22 May 1870: Lissadell House in Co. Sligo. The Gore-Booths were a titled family of improving landlords who stayed resident in Ireland after the 1801 Act of Union. During An Gorta Beag (the Small Famine) of 1879-80, her family provided free food to their tenants, with the entire family involved in distribution.

Eva Gore Booth and Constance Markievicz From "The Prison Diaries of Constance Markievicz"
Eva Gore Booth and Constance Markievicz. From “The Prison Diaries of Constance Markievicz

This was a formative experience for the three Gore-Booth children old enough to remember the famine. A sense of responsibility to others marked the siblings: Josslyn (described later by Yeats as a “‘theoretically’ a homeruler…some kind of humanitarian…almost painfully conscientious”), and his more radical sisters, Constance and Eva. As she grew Eva Gore-Booth was particularly sensitive of the sufferings of those less fortunate. Her first tentative engagement with politics was through Josslyn Gore-Booth’s deep involvement with Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. Though this she developed a friendship with George Russell (AE), submitting her poetry to The Homestead, which she supported for many years3. She met Yeats in 1895, who after her death described Eva and Constance at that time as “Two girls in silk kimonos, both/Beautiful, one a gazelle.”

Eva Gore-Booth also traveled: to London, where she met artists and writers and was reluctantly involved in high-society, and around Europe. In the summer of 1896 she became ill in Venice and went to recuperate in a villa in Bordighera. There she met Ester Roper, a young English woman, to who she was instantly attracted and with whom she formed a life-long relationship. Roper’s parents were from struggling working class backgrounds; Roper’s mother identified as Irish. Her father had achieved middle-class status as a Church of England minister, allowing Roper to obtain a BA in Owen’s College Manchester, newly accessible to women as students. Roper was involved in social reform work and in the campaign for women’s suffrage, particularly for working-class women 4.

Gore-Booth found this work inspiring, and on her return to Lissadell set up a campaign to obtain the vote in general elections for women. The three sisters spoke: while Constance was theatrical and light-hearted, Eva was “more sober, more measured and she displayed a broader comprehension of the issues.”5 In 1897 she took a further step, leaving Lissadell to join Roper in a terrace house in the heart of working class Manchester6.

An image of such politics

Mosaic bee.
Mosaic worker bee – a symbol of Manchester industry, Manchester Town Hall. Duncan Hull/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Manchester Gore-Booth gained new energy. She became involved in social reform, particularly in the poor, crowded, and 40% Irish working-class district of Ancoats. She joined any organisation that would assist in her goal of social reform, quickly becoming more political as the realities of life and work in the shadow of the mills became clear to her. The city crest (adopted 1842) featured worker bees as a symbol of industry but as in Belfast industrial working conditions were often dangerous and unsanitary, the wages low and the hours long.

Part of improving women’s lives in Manchester was to ensure they could vote. Manchester was the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst and a centre for the “votes for women” campaign. Gore-Booth joined the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1899, becoming actively involved with their work (and becoming friends with Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline.)7

By 1900, when Eva Gore-Booth was appointed as co-secretary to the WTUC, the annual report stated that she “brings to her task considerable acquaints with the condition of working women’s lives.” Her task was “to bring trade-unionism within the reach of scattered individuals working in unorganised trades”8. Gore-Booth was a tireless organiser, carrying out investigations in work practices with her co-secretary Sarah Dickenson. Gore-Booth actively encouraged factory workers to become involved in the campaign for their equality, launching a petition for mill workers and gathering signatures under the auspices of the NESWS. In 1901 the petition for suffrage was presented to parliament: the first such petition on behalf of working women. This work was done despite medical opinion that living in Manchester would materially damage her health. Eva Gore-Booth made her will in 1900, but lived to continue campaigning for another 26 years9

Eva Gore-Booth did not just organise. As in the Lissadell suffrage meeting, she had a grasp of the issues, and she wrote on them in pamphlets, women’s magazines and in newspapers. In an article titled “Fair pay for women”in the Women’s Tribune she pointed out one issue that bedevilled women’s campaign for better pay: “People have some strange kind of idea that women do not really want money as much as men do”10. She pointed out that keeping women’s wages down only led to the replacement of male workers with female. In a pamphlet called Women Workers and Parliamentary Representation, she noted that, however reasonable the idea that women’s wages merely helped out the male breadwinner might have been in the past, it was no longer true11.

Women Workers and Parliamentary Representation was aimed at the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), a precursor to the modern Labour Party. The LRC was affiliated with the textile trade unions, thus was funded largely by women workers, yet they did understand why women would need representation in parliament, given they were supported by a male breadwinner (a similar argument to that given by James Mill and refuted by Doyle-Wheeler and Thompson in 1825). Worse, when in 1902 David Shackleton promised to support women suffrage to a deputation including the Pankhursts, Dickson, Roper and Gore-Booth, he reneged on his promise when elected12 Despite this, Gore-Booth continued to campaign for votes for women, aware that the possibilities of reform offered by the WTUC were limited.

Stained class window depicting mill machinery, a woman in profile and ribbons saying "equal pay", "votes for women", "roses and bread" (slogans of suffrage and social justice movements)
Detail of the Belfast Women’s Window, Belfast City Hall. Courtesy Donal Lyons.

In Women’s wages and the franchise and certain legislative proposals(1906)13, Gore-Booth outlined why the franchise was necessary to improve women’s lives. The wages of the five million women working in mills and workshops were depressed compared to those of men. This was due to the law of supply and demand. Women were restricted from many professions and types of labour. Even if not explicitly barred, they often found it difficult to obtain training in skilled trades. Therefore in the few trades that accepted them there was an oversupply, meaning that an educated female school teacher earned less than an uneducated male spinner, for example.

Trade unions, Gore-Booth argued, tried to fight “the evil of female labour”, but there were too many female workers for that to be possible. Therefore they turned to parliament and legislation to protect their labour from competition with women. The result was the further restriction of trades for women, with legislation proposed to prevent them taking part in “dangerous performances” and to work as barmaids due to concerns of encouraging “immoral tendencies”14.

All this was due, Gore-Booth concluded, to the lack of the franchise. Since women could not vote, their needs and concerns were not considered when restrictive employment legislation was proposed. This was why Gore-Booth lobbied so hard for the LRC to support the votes for women cause, support that was offically given in 190415.

The proposal to ban barmaids made it into a bill to overhaul licencing of public houses, proposed in 1908. It allowed local magistrates to insist a publican could only be licenced if he refuse to employ women . This bill was supported not only by the proposing Liberal government but by senior members of the Labour Party including Ramsay MacDonald and David Shackleton. The barmaids had no union, and on foot of this proposal Eva Gore-Booth established the Barmaids’ Political Defence League and organised approaches to the Home Secretary to point out the effect of throwing thousands of women out of work.

Winston Churchill had become a key figure in the debate, backing the new power for magistrates. When he had to stand for re-election as MP after his appointment to the Cabinet, Gore-Booth backed the Conservative candidate, Joynson-Hicks. Joynson-Hicks disagreed with Gore-Booth and her co-campaigner Constance Markievicz on most issues, but he supported the barmaids, and after a colourful campaign (outlined here in History Ireland), he unexpectedly defeated Churchill. The barmaid’s campaign gained momentum, resulting in the mass rejection of the licencing bill by MPs16.

In 1911 a proposal was made to ban women from coal-mining. Again Gore-Booth rallied to the cause of the women involved, arranging meetings in Manchester and working as a pit-brow lass for several days. She was becoming disillusioned with well-meaning philanthropists restricting women in the workplace and in her search for new approaches to the problem met Thomas Baty, founder of the Aëthnic Union, which rejected all forms of sex difference. Gore-Booth and Roper joined in 1912 and started to move in a new circle of radical thinkers. Because of this, and for the sake of Gore-Booth’s health they moved to London in 191317.

The Folly of a Fight

Gore-Booth and Mrs Pankhurst had already parted ways. Gore-Booth and Roper, both pacifists, repudiated the militant tactics of the “suffragettes”, as the Daily Mail in 1906 christened the women who adopted militant or violent tactics in pursuit of votes for women. Gore-Booth continued to campaign, arguing the franchise was the only way to ensure fair wages for women18

Her pacifism and feminism also informed her art. Gore-Booth continued to write poetry (her first volume was printed soon after her arrival in Manchester), and wrote plays based on Irish mythology in the Celtic Literary Revival mould, such as The Unseen Kings (1904) and The Triumph of Maebh(1905) focused on female protagonists and emphasised the brutality of war19.

When war came, Gore-Booth adding the cause of conscious objectors to her campaigns. She also argued against conscription, citing the detrimental effects on liberty, and on the well-being of individuals and the nation. She was unaware of the increasing instability in Ireland, despite the deep involvement of her sister Markievicz and her meetings with James Connolly and James Larkin on visits to Ireland20

The first she knew of the 1916 rebellion were accounts in the London papers, including a mistaken report of her sister’s death. A number of her friends and acquaintances had died: on her arrival in Ireland to visit her sister she heard of Connolly’s execution, and after visiting Markievicz in Mountjoy, she visited Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington whose husband, the pacifist and campaigner Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, had been shot by firing squad without charge. In the aftermath Gore-Booth joined in seeking an official enquiry into the shooting, approaching PM Asquith directly. She also campaigned for clemency for her sister and for Roger Casement.

Over the war-period, her visits to her sister and to conscious objectors led her to campaign for prison reform and against the death penalty. Her home in London became a centre for Irish nationalists in London: “a home for all rebels” as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington called it. The expansion of the franchise to women in 1919 should have been a time of celebration for her, but was overshadowed by her sister’s continuing imprisonment and the continuation of British rule in Ireland21.

Pictures of the mind

Stained glass window depicting a woman holding a jar. Her head is framed with a halo bearing the name: Mary of Bethany
Mary of Bethany. Detail of nave window by Ethel Rhind, St Peter’s Church, Wallsend. CramptonHodnet/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Despite the torrent of work Gore-Booth was involved in due to the war and the Rising, she also continued her campaigning on gender equality, launching the radical journal Urania in 1916. An article in the journal quoted Gore-Booth: “sex was an accident and formed no essential part of an individual’s nature.”22 Urania argued against conventional marriage and conventional gender roles (whether viewed as equal or not) and praised spinsterhood and long-term female relationships.

While the journal clashed with mainstream organisations, it was welcomed by new age groups such as the Theosophical Society. An esoteric religion combining eastern religions, spirituality and science, it had already attracted Celtic Revivalists, notably Gore-Booth’s friends Yeats and George Russell. Its president from 1907 was Annie Besant, who was also a key player in the women’s trade union movement. (She was also Irish: “three-quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish”.) Gore-Booth joined the Theosophical Society in 191923.

Gore-Booth had a Church of Ireland upbringing in a household sympathetic to spiritualism and Celtic mysticism. This was a side of her that was expressed in her poetry and plays, and that she sought to synthesise with her political work. These aspects came together in her one systematically philosophical work, A Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel. Published in 1923, it took her over three years to write24.

In her analysis she applied the lenses of power, gender and economics to the Bible, integrating social theory and science (such as Darwinism). She argues, for example, that Bible texts have been misinterpreted to facilitate the exclusion of women from positions of power within the church. As such she anticipates current feminist theological thought. Irish theologian Mary Condron states that Gore-Booth “anticipated many themes only now being explored by contemporary feminist theory and theology regarding the politics of interpretation, the psychic underpinning of religion, the role of imagination, the critique of sacrifice, the ethic of non-violence”25

From an Irish philosophy point of view, her most interesting idea is that of “imaginative sympathy”. The power of the imagination can produce identity with the other, which precludes cruelty. To hurt the other is seen, through imaginative sympathy, as hurting oneself. This, Gore-Booth believes, is a truer approach to knowledge than analysis. To live imaginatively from the centre of Christ is the way to love God, or indeed to seek truth26.

This imaginative sympathy was what fueled Eva Gore-Booth’s life. In 1925 she was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. She aged rapidly in her last eighteen months of life. Yeats visited her and expressed his shock at her appearance in his memorial poem: “she seems/When withered old and skeleton-gaunt/An image of such politics.” Yet she kept writing, mainly on religious topics, as she was nursed by Ester Roper and her brother Reginald Roper.

Eva Gore-Booth died on 30 June 1926. She left all her possessions to Ester Roper. The variety of her obituary notices reflect the many facets of her life: the Irish notices primarily recognised her as a poet and writer, part of the Celtic Literary Revival; the American focused on her connections to Irish nationalism; while the British praised her social reform work and trade union activity. Her old allyThe Manchester Guardian published a half column on her work in addition to an obituary notice27.

Constance Markievicz was devastated by her sister’s death. She wrote to Roper asking her to ensure Gore-Booth’s immortality by making her work known. She died of peritonitis a year later. Roper devoted the remainder of her life to the publication of Gore-Booth’s work. She also arranged for a memorial window to Eva: created by Ethel Rhind of Sarah Purser’s An Tur Gloine studio. The stained glass was installed in Round House, Every Street, Ancoats in Manchester. Roper died on 28th April 1938 and is buried with Gore-Booth in St, John’s Churchyard, Hampstead28.

Detail of Belfast Women's stained glass window depicting three mill workers, with the words WOMEN WORKERS UNITEFeatured Image: Detail of the Belfast Women’s Window, Belfast City Hall. Courtesy Donal Lyons.

Further Reading

Sonja Tiernan (2012) Eva Gore-Booth: An image of such politics, Manchester University Press.

Sonja Tiernan (ed.) (2015) The political writings of Eva Gore-Booth, Manchester University Press.

Sonja Tiernan (2012a) “In defence of barmaids:the Gore-Booth sisters take on Winston Churchill” History Ireland Vol 20, Issue 3 (online)

WeAreWarpAndWeft:“Esther Roper & Eva Gore-Booth” – a section of this blog is devoted to Gore-Booth and Roper and the Manchester they knew.

Belfast City Council: Belfast City Council – Stained Glass Windows

Emmet O’Connor (2013) “Big Jim Larkin: Hero and Wrecker” in History Ireland, Vol 21, Issue 4 (online).


  1. For an account of the strike see John Grey (1985) City in Revolt: Jim Larkin and the Belfast Dock Strike 1907, Blackstaff Press. For more on Larkin see Emmet O’Connor (2002) James Larkin Cork University Press, and Emmet O’Connor (2004) “Larkin, James” in Dictionary of Irish Biography, entry online at UCD Centenaries website
  2. Sonja Tiernan (2012) Eva Gore-Booth: An image of such politics, Manchester University Press, p. 57.
  3. Tiernan (2012), chapter 1. Quote from Yeats on p. 70
  4. Tiernan (2012) pp. 22-3; chapter 2
  5. Ann Haverty (1988) Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary, London:Pandora, p. 41.
  6. Tiernan (2012), pp. 45-8
  7. Tiernan (2012), pp. 54-5.
  8. Quotes from Tiernan (2012), p. 75.
  9. Tiernan (2012), p. 57-59. Gifford Lewis (1988) Eva Gore-Booth and Ester Roper: A Biography, London: Pandora, p. 69.
  10. Sonja Tiernan (ed) (2015) The political writings of Eva Gore-Booth, Manchester University Press, p. 26.
  11. Tieran (2012), p. 72.
  12. Tiernan (2012), pp. 73-4.
  13. Tiernan (2015), pp. 31-7
  14. Quotes from Tiernan (2015), p. 36
  15. Tiernan (2012), p. 90
  16. Tiernan (2012), Chapter 6. Tiernan (2012a) “In defence of barmaids:the Gore-Booth sisters take on Winston Churchill” History Ireland Vol 20, Issue 3 (online)
  17. Tiernan (2012), pp. 144-146.
  18. Tiernan (2012), Chapter 7.
  19. Tiernan (2012), pp. 82-6.
  20. Tiernan (2012) pp. 159-163.
  21. Tiernan (2012) pp. 172-181, 208-10, 216. Hanna-Sheehy Skeffington quoted on p. 210
  22. Quote on Tiernan (2012) p. 224.
  23. Tiernan (2012), pp. 232-6. Quote on p. 236
  24. Tiernan (2012) pp. 238-241
  25. Quote from Mary Condron (2002) “Theology and Ethics in the Twentieth Century” in Angela Bourke, Siobhan Kilfeather, Maria Luddy et al. (eds.) The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume 4, Cork University Press, p. 664. Cited Tiernan (2012) p. 239.
  26. Mary Condron and Deirde Clancy (2004) “Gore-Booth, Eva” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 137-140
  27. Tiernan (2012), pp. 249, 255-257
  28. Tiernan (2012), pp. 255-262.
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