The decade with 1916 at its heart was shaped by citizen action and the mobilisation of the Irish people. The cultural and social movements of the early 20th Century, like the social innovations and enterprises of today, were driven by a desire to address the critical social, economic, cultural and political issues of the day, and to bring about change and transformation. As we celebrate the Centenary of 1916, we look back on the awakening of a powerful idea that ordinary people and their actions can drive real change at local and national level, and ask whether we can see parallels with the movements in Ireland today.
The 1916 era was a period of social, cultural, and political ferment, with many of the leaders involved in multiple issues and organisations. The women’s movement was gearing up to fight for the vote, Conradh na Gaeilge was offering access to Gaeilge and to Irish dancing and culture on a county by county level. The cooperative movement was organising farmers to improve prices and livelihoods and rolling out empowerment programmes to regenerate rural life. In the cities, the ITGWU was collectivising workers to demand better pay and conditions.
All of these were critical issues for citizens at the time.
Poverty in Ireland – both urban and rural – was crippling and pervasive. One third of Dublin’s population, including over 20,000 families, lived in single-room homes in crumbling tenements. The poor quality of the housing was recognised officially: a 1914 enquiry revealed that 28,000 tenements were unfit for habitation, even if the official response to the crisis was minimal.
The economic climate was dire. Dublin’s workers were mainly unskilled and working on day rates. Employers exploited the huge labour surplus to drive down pay and conditions. Income security was almost non-existent for the masses. Rural unskilled workers did not fare any better – landless farm labourers had poor prospects and no security either. Urban working class women generally had three employment options – as shop girls, domestic servants or prostitutes. Urban ladies preferred country girls for their domestic help – they had a reputation of being more pliable.
By the standards of today, politics had no democratic legitimacy. All women and all men without property had no right to vote. The Westminster Parliament was both distant and unrepresentative. There was, however, an engaged public debate, reflected in the number and variety of publications in circulation. Inghínidhe na hEireann had a weekly publication, “Bean na hEireann”, the Gaelic League had “An Claidheamh Soluis” and the Irish Agricultural Society published “The Irish Homestead”. Countless others periodicals were also circulated weekly and monthly.
Printed publications were the social media campaigns of 1916.
While the conditions for the masses in 1916 bear no relationship with today, the issues they represent take new forms in 2016.
Housing, while largely resolved in the mid-20th century through mass building of social housing around the country by the new State, is a critical issue once more, particularly in Dublin and other urban areas. Market failure requires urgent solutions and fresh thinking. To achieve meaningful progress in tackling this crisis, public, private and social and investment all need to be mobilized in support of innovative approaches to policymaking and its implementation.
Gender equality manifests itself through the drive for equal representation of women & men in political life and leadership positions more widely – business, trade unions, state agencies, and in community life. Has Women for Election, a non-partisan movement of women and men for equal representation in politics, replaced the suffragette movement of 1916?
Collective organisation remains strong today in the form of the Irish Farmer’s Organisation, the credit union movement, though weakening in the trade union movements. Where can we see innovation here? Uplift.ie, a People Powered Community, launched itself just a year before the centenary of 1916, bringing the power of technology together with people power to enable collective responses to the social, economic and political issues that matter to Irish people today. It’s online, it’s free, and it’s at the click of a button.
Of course, new issues emerge every day that require a response. Ireland, like every other European country, is an aging society, and we must respond with innovation. Carebright, a social enterprise in Croom County Limerick, has developed the first dementia friendly housing model for a rural environment, and will start to implement it shortly. At Social Innovation Fund Ireland, we were proud to offer them one of our very first Animate Awards. We will continue to find and back the best social innovations that address our critical social issues here in Ireland.
If we keep doing the same thing, we will get the same results. The leaders of the early 20th century movements understood that, and it remains true today. They looked to transform the lives of Irish people tackling crucifying poverty, class issues, gender inequality, and access to culture using innovative ways & means that engaged the citizen population as a whole. Our social innovators and new social movements are stepping up every day as we move further into the 21st century.
Deirdre Mortell & Aisling Redmond
Disclosure: Deirdre Mortell is a director of Women for Election and Uplift.