Hidden Histories w/Turtle Bunbury; The life and times of Rosie Hackett

We'll be walking across the bridge named after her soon, but who was she?

Dublin City Council has just voted to name the newest bridge across the Liffey after trade union activist and 1916 veteran Rosie Hackett. Who was she?

Liberty Hall, March 1916. Rosie Hackett held her nerve, as she always did. The policemen were here to raid the union shop. That was obvious. They’d been raiding shops and printers all across Dublin since early morning, seizing type and dismantling machinery. They were specifically looking for copies of an inflammatory St. Patrick’s Day issue of ‘The Gael’.

But Liberty Hall had a lot more than seditious journals to worry about. For several weeks, Rosie and her colleagues had been busy manufacturing ammunition, as well as new shirts, for the soldiers of the Irish Citizens Army.

‘Wait till I get the head’, she said, dashing next door where she told them to fetch James Connolly urgently.

As Rosie later wrote, Connolly was ‘down in a jiffy’. The first person he saw was a policeman behind the shop counter, his arms full of newspapers.

‘Drop them, or I will drop you’, growled Connolly.

Helena Molony, Rosie’s boss, was standing by the fireplace, her gun cocked and ready to shoot if things turned nasty. ‘She always had a gun, and was always prepared’, said Rosie.

The policeman put the papers down and they left, vowing to come back later.

‘They came back later with a warrant,’ wrote Rosie, ‘but they got nothing. I had hidden the stuff.’

Rosie Hackett’s calm but unbending resolve is one of the main reasons why this diminutive trade union activist has just had a bridge named in her honour, 120 years after her birth. The bridge, which will carry the Luas across the Liffey between Marlborough Street and Hawkins Street, is the first on the river to be named after a woman. 

Rosanna Hacektt was born in Dublin on 25th July 1893.  John Hackett, her father, is believed to have been a barber but died when she was a child. By 1901, she was living with her family in a two-room tenement at 27 Bolton Street. There were 24 people in the house at the time.

By 1911, the family were living at Old Abbey Street, behind Eden Quay, and Rosie was earning vital money working as a packer in a paper store.

Like many working class women of her generation, she had already become politicized. In January 1909, Jim Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). Rosie was one of its first members.

She was working as a messenger at the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop Street when she had her first experience of agitation Although the Quaker-owned business offered one of the best working environments in Dublin at this time, the men in the bakehouse went on strike, prompted by Jim Larkin’s assertion that the conditions were ‘sending them from this earth 20 years before their time’.

Jacob’s was the largest employer of women in Dublin in 1911. On 22 August, 18-year-old Rosie was amongst 3000 of those female employees who embarked on a sympathy strike in support of the men.

Two weeks later, on September 5th 1911, Rosie co-founded the Irish Women Workers Union on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). Larkin’s sister, Delia, the IWWU’s first Secretary, told those gathered that the women of Ireland were ‘weary of being white slaves who pass their lives away toiling to fill the pockets of unscrupulous employers’.

On Sunday 30th August 1913, Rosie was amongst the thousands who gathered on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) to hear Larkin speak. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton-charged the crowd; two workers were killed and over 300 injured in what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

Two days later, three Jacob’s women were sacked when they refused to remove their union badges. A further 250 women who also refused to remove their badges then went on strike. By the close of day, Jacob’s had dismissed some 300 women- including Rosie.

During the ensuing Lock-Out, Rosie became one of the stalwarts of the Liberty Hall soup kitchens. She also played a key role in organising a fund to help striking families and to help those suffering from the demoralizing effects of unemployment.

She became a close confidante of James Connolly, Larkin’s deputy, who had formed the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to train workers to defend themselves against police attacks, as well as boosting their morale.

When the strike finished, Rosie helped run the co-op shop and printers at Liberty Hall, as well as organizing cultural events to entertain ITGWU members.

The Easter Rising erupted three weeks after the unsuccessful police raid on her shop. It came as no surprise to Rosie. She was on first name terms with the leaders; whenever they came to Liberty Hall, she greeted them and escorted them up to Connolly. She had been studying first aid with Dr. Kathleen Lynn for the previous six months. She had also taken part in numerous night marches with the ICA.

In the weeks before the Rising, Rosie was making first aid kits and knap-sacks. By Holy Thursday, she was slicing ham and making sandwiches.

On the night of Easter Sunday, Rosie was flat out ‘going back and forth with messages’. As she later explained, 'I was small, and would get to places, unnoticed; and I was always successful.' It is said, but sadly unproven, that she carried the original Proclamation from the printing press up to Connolly, the paper still damp with ink.

The following morning, she was sent as a nurse to St. Stephen’s Green under Connolly’s deputy, Michael Mallin, and Constance Markievicz, whom Rosie called ‘Madame’. Before she left Dr. Lynn gave her a white coat that went down to her toes. 'I remember Plunkett and some other men were laughing at the coat touching the ground', wrote Rosie.

On Easter Tuesday, she was part of the force that occupied the Royal College of Surgeons. After a brief sleep on a mattress, she got up for a cup of tea. A man named Murray lay down in her place only to be shot in the face moments later; he died in St. Vincent's Hospital later that week.

Rosie vividly recalled the despair when they received Pearse’s command to surrender. Markievicz crumpled on a stairwell, her head in her hands. Mallin, 'terribly pale' and haggard, 'shaking hands with all of us'. Mallin was executed days later.

Rosie was duly arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail for ten days.

After her release, she teamed up with the Irish suffragettes Louie Bennett and Helen Chenevix to reorganize the IWWU, with whom she remained an active member for the rest of her life.

On the first anniversary of the Rising, Rosie displayed her gusto when she and Helen Molony hung a banner from Liberty Hall inscribed “James Connolly Murdered, May 12th, 1916″. Dublin Castle panicked and sent a force of 400 policemen to take it down. ‘I always felt that it was worth it,’ wrote Rosie, ‘to see all the trouble the police had in getting it down. No one was arrested. Of course, if it took four hundred policemen to take four women - what would the newspapers say?’

Rosie subsequently ran the ITGWU tobacco and sweet shop at Eden Quay, until its closure in 1957. She never married and lived with her bachelor brother Tommy in Fairview until her death in 1976 at the age of 84. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, with full military honours.

One of the happiest moments of her life came in 1970 when she was awarded the gold medal for devoting 60 years of her life to the Trade Union Movement. One can only imagine how proud Rosie would be to now have a bridge across the heart of Dublin City named after her.