There is nothing like war for undermining the careful etiquette of male-female relations and behaviour. Sometimes the new possibilities are liberating, sometimes less so.
The separation allowance paid to soldiers’ wives and to some others dependents of men who joined up during the 1914- 18 war was the equivalent of what today would be called helicopter money. Women who had rarely two pence to rub together got a free lump of money every week from the post office. What a wonderful war!
The Great War was one of mass mobilisation and it was necessary to encourage as many as possible to join up as vast numbers were required for the heroic task of running at machine guns in Flanders. The methods of encouraging men to enlist were many, ranging from wages to propaganda to white feathers. Another was the separation money paid to wives at home. Separation money was paid directly to wives through post offices and was made up by a deduction from the husband’s wages and a government top-up.
Dublin in 1914 was a city of mass poverty and unemployment and by all accounts the location of the worst slums in Europe. Many Dublin men from the city’s decrepit tenement buildings leapt at the chance of a regular wage and joined up. Their wives duly received the separation allowance, a payment which transformed their circumstances.
The transformation was greater for Dublin slum dwellers and their equivalents around the country than it was for the wives of factory workers or miners in England, or indeed for any family that enjoyed a regular half decent wage. While the employed classes were by no means well paid they had a regular income and the practice of financial management was often established in their households with a few pence set aside from each weekly wage for fuel, various food suppliers, clothing, funeral expenses and so on. This was known, and approved of, as “thrifty housekeeping”.
No such practices were possible for the unemployed, the underemployed and the non-unionised Dublin poor who had insecure casual employment. This class generally lived hand to mouth and survived by whatever unstructured means they could manage. Public inquiries in the 1920s were to reveal just how horrific life was for them, with child prostitution, among other destructive practices, widespread. The properly employed “respectable” working classes and lower middle classes of Dublin were a different story and women in such categories no doubt used the separation money “sensibly”.
For the huge numbers who lived and reared their families without the benefit of a regular income there could be little practice of forward planning because there was nothing with which to plan forward. People lived and survived by the day. Many of course didn’t survive. There was massive infant and child mortality in the city. But then with the war, suddenly, money was gettin’ gave out!
Naturally, with the men out of the way, many women chose to enjoy themselves, with the occasional bottle of stout becoming much more regular. The behaviour of the well-funded separation women from the slums, greatly discombobulated certain male figures of authority, particularly the judiciary, who regularly engaged in public hand-wringing as they reflected on the contrast between the brave men in the trenches and the deplorable behaviour of their wives at home. “Separation Women” frequently appeared before the courts charged with public drunkenness, assault and other misdemeanours of the type which can so easily arise when judgement is impaired.
The snug was the traditional part of the pub for female clientele. It usually occupied ten per cent or less of the overall space. The remainder was for men. One assumes that during the war, in a spirit of fair play and in response to demand, the city’s publicans turned a blind eye to the presence of shawlies in the male preserve. But not everyone was quite as insouciant.
The Dublin Irish Parliamentary Party MP JP Boland was greatly exercised by the problem and applied his mind to devising a solution, which he published in May 1915. He recognised that for many the separation allowance was “often far in advance of any weekly wage hitherto earned”. Obviously if the government had given less to the wives of the previously unemployed the problem would not have arisen but this was clearly regarded as politically or administratively impossible. So many women – now enthusiastically patriotic and pro-war – trotted off to the post office to collect the separation money every Monday. (Today in many parts of the country children’s allowance payments are known as “the mickey money”. One suspects there was also a demotic term for the separation allowance. More research is required to elucidate this question.)
Boland’s plan in a nutshell was to twin recipients of the allowance with respectable members of The Ladies Association of Charity, an adjunct of The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. Savings accounts would be opened in their joint names. The respectable lady would be aware of just how much would be needed for “absolute necessities” and the remainder would be deposited in the joint savings account. In Boland’s view a fund would be available for the family at the end of the war when he felt there would be substantial challenges. Perhaps he also felt that, with the return of “himself”, good sense and household thrift would be adopted.
The weakness in this high-minded and laudable scheme which was designed “to protect the soldier’s wife from herself” was in convincing the separation women to participate. Boland suggested it would require great “tact” and endless “patience”. Sadly it seems the members of the Ladies Association fell short of the necessary “tact” and “patience” for there is no evidence whatsoever of any success. And so alas, the court appearances continued, as did the hand-wringing.
By way of postscript it should be acknowledged that not all reports concerned the injudicious disposal of the allowance in the hospitality industry. There were other unwise ways in which women could spend it. An irritated writer for The Kerryman complained in 1917 that women were spending the money on education, which in his view explained the profane language which could be heard from the lips of their children. The writer ended with the despairing declaration that the Kerry women had “lost the run of themselves entirely”. Well what do you expect when you invest in feckin encyclopaedias?