Adventures in Belfast: Tempestuous Witch

by Caroline Ryan / Feb 26, 2014 /

It’s nearly St Patty’s Day, but if you love Ireland, you don’t need an excuse to visit—the country or the culture. Whether you make an actual visit or armchair traveler visit, it’s always worth it.

If you’re not able to fly in to Dublin or Belfast just now, you might enjoy the excerpt below, from Adventures in Belfast: Northern Irish Life After the Peace Agreement, a nonfiction book about life in Belfast, past and present.

Life in Belfast is a whole new story since the 1998 Peace Agreement. It’s a place well worth discovering for its dramatic history and myth, its stunningly beautiful land, and its fun, friendly people.

The book is a chance to hear tall tales, local legends, and great wit. And to dip into an enthralling history that includes ancient battles, modern riots, great theatre, and the loss of a great ship—from one of the most articulate and poetic people in the world.

 

Adventures in Belfast

 

The following excerpt is from Adventures in Belfast, now available in the Kindle store:

 

From Chapter 4 – Tempestuous Witch

In an old Belfast linen mill, they say, there walks the ghost of Helena Blunden.

Helena was born in the south of Ireland in 1896, but grew up in London. She loved music, and sang in the school choir, learning London music hall tunes and practicing Irish dance. When her family returned to Ireland in 1911, they settled in Belfast, renting one of the small Victorian terraced houses that lined the streets of the highly industrial city. At fifteen, Helena went to work in the spinning room of the nearby linen mill.

Helena was popular at work, entertaining the other girls with her humor and her stories about life in London. Music was her passion; she dreamed of singing professionally, despite her mother’s disapproval. She worked the usual fifty-two hours a week in the spinning room, which was always damp and hot, unbearably so in summer. Women and children often fainted from the heat and lack of ventilation in the mills, where the air was both trapped and thick with linen particles. Even as late as the 1930s, mill workers worked barefoot due to the danger of slipping on the floors, which were wet with condensation.

An older worker named Margaret had been demoted in her later years to mopping the wet floors and stairs, a job she resented. She and Helena would argue at times, Margaret mocking the young girl’s dreams and ambitions.

Though the workday usually ended at noon on Saturdays, the mills often kept workers late to clean machinery or to finish an important order—one recent order had been for fine linen tablecloths for the first class dining room of the RMS Titanic. Though Sunday work was outlawed, workers would consent to work the occasional Sunday for a bit of extra income.

On a Sunday in April 1912, Helena and her fellow workers were hard at work in the mill’s spinning room. Helena was in high spirits, singing through the day and looking forward to a concert that evening at the Grand Opera House, still a regal Victorian venue to this day. Despite the danger of slipping on the wet floors, Helena kept her shoes on all day so as to be ready to leave as soon as she finished work. She finally finished at seven o’clock, exhausted by the heat and the long hours, and weak from fasting for Lent.

In the first half of the 1900s mills still employed children. They were called half-timers, as they went to school either half the day or every other day, working in the mills or factories the other half. At 7:00 PM that evening Margaret Maxwell abandoned her mop on one of the stairs to scold a little boy who had walked on her freshly mopped steps.

Helena finished work and came running out of the spinning room and down the stairs, not seeing Margaret’s mop left lying across the stairs. She tripped over it and went flying over the banister, falling several flights to the floor below.

Margaret heard Helena scream and looked up in time to see the girl falling through the air. Horrified, she raced to her side, but Helena was already dead.

Ghost sightings in the building have led many to believe that Helena’s death at sixteen left her spirit wandering the building, called Pure Flax House, a five-story Edwardian building in the linen conservation area of Belfast city centre. The legend developed all the more after an employee of the printworks company that now occupies the building discovered a wax recording of Helena’s singing.

Until fire extinguishers came into use, fire buckets filled with sand were hung on the walls of mills and factories. In 1999, when the building was being renovated, a fire broke out on the third floor. As two of these old sand buckets still hung on a nearby wall, the print manager emptied them onto the flames, finding a bundle wrapped in cloth that had been buried in the sand of one of the buckets.

The GhostWatch page of Irelandseye.com reports that the bundle contained a key, a tube and a collection of newspaper cuttings wrapped in linen, though they do not know who hid these in the bucket, or when.

The website also reports that a forensic examination of the cylinder revealed that the recording was made January 24, 1912 by the Capricorn and Cornucopia Music Publishing Company. The newspaper cuttings were reviews on the solo singing performances of a Helena Cecelia Blunden.

One of the reviews described Helena’s singing at a confirmation mass at St. Malachy’s Chapel on January 24, 1912. The audio link found on the GhostWatch page of IrelandsEye.com contains part of the recording of Helena’s pure and beautiful rendering of Pie Jesu from a century ago. I found that link one day, and thought it quite beautiful, but also one of the eeriest recordings I’d ever heard.

Employees of the printworks tell of hearing disembodied footsteps some nights when they are working late. But it is the occasional glimpse of a mist or a young woman’s face or form in different places in the old mill that spurs on the ghost rumor.

Helena’s story was not unusual for her time. Reading up on Belfast working history, it beggars belief that the old mill has only one ghost.

For a century or more mill and factory workers in the United States, Britain and Europe suffered many of the same conditions. But the linen story is a particularly Northern one.

By the late 1700s, the North was already well known for its linen production. Spun and woven by farm families, flax became a major cash crop, outperforming food crops or replacing failed ones. Folk worked independently as spinners and weavers for extra money, and did well enough that they felt safe in having larger families.

But survival was tenuous; the death of a spouse or a ruined harvest could spell tragedy for any tenant-farmer family. A report to the British government by a Mr. Twogood in 1820 described his visits to farming tenants on the estate of one wealthy Northern landowner. He and his assistants visited “many very wretched hovels, called cabins.”

The interiors were smoky from the bog-peat fire. Children sat round the fire “as ragged as possible, and all without shoes and stockings.” A large pig might be seen walking nonchalantly across the cabin or a small one lying by the fire. In a corner a grandparent would sit holding a baby, while several older girls busily spun flax. A goose might be hatching eggs under a dresser on the dirt floor, while in another corner stood a cow or a horse. In an inner room could be found “two or three wretched beds.”

 

19th Century Irishwoman Spinner. Adventures in Belfast

19th Century Irishwoman Spinner - photo by Detroit Publishing Co., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

But even this bare subsistence did not last. The North’s economy began to weaken, so that by 1841, crop failures and increasing use of machinery meant that weavers and spinners were losing their independent incomes.

As Irish country folk had become almost completely dependent upon the potato crop, there was no money saved for buying other foodstuffs when bad weather and potato blight resulted in the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. Thousands of families were evicted from their cottages by wealthy landowners, even in winter.

Cottages were sometimes burnt down to prevent the family from reoccupying. People preferred to work rather than accept charity, but work was scarce, and people were often too ill and starved to work. Those who could boarded the “coffin ships” on which so many died en route to America, Canada, Britain or Australia. Of the two million Irish and Scottish-Irish who left Ireland between 1846 and 1851, 1.2 million were from the Northern counties.

Those who stayed behind fled to Belfast, where there were more jobs than anywhere else in Ireland, creating a human flood that over twenty years’ time doubled the city’s population and provided workers for the textile, shipbuilding and ropemaking industries. The town evolved into the great Victorian manufacturing city that became famous for the production of linen and the White Star line and its grand Titanic. But the great surge in population also overtaxed the city’s resources.

In a wretched, Dickensian way, Belfast soon had the worst death rate in Ireland; in 1852 the average age of death was nine. When Rev. W.M. O’Hanlon wrote of his walks through Belfast, he described the realities facing the poor: rampant illness, drug and alcohol addiction, starvation, overcrowding, the sexual exploitation of children and women, housing that left two or three families squashed into small “two-up, two-down” row houses.

Seven out of nine houses worked as “nests for counterfeiters, thieves and prostitutes,” from which “whiskey drinking and lewd singing” spilled out into the streets and alleyways.

Alongside this malaise ran the power of the mills and factories of the linen industry. The actual process of how linen flax was sorted, spun and woven sounds simple enough, but it exacted a heavy price from its operators.

To start, men called hackers pulled the flax over boards fitted with iron pins. Young boys then mechanically combed the flax to separate the shorter fiber (the “tow”) from the preferable longer fiber (the “line”). The sorters then arranged the flax by quality, after which it was put through a frame in the roving or spinning room, where it was twisted onto bobbins. Young girls called doffers worked the spinning frame, replacing bobbins full of spun yard with empty ones whenever the doffing mistress blew her whistle.

Reelers and winders then took the yarn off the bobbins and formed it into “hanks.” The yarn was then dressed with a mixture of carrageen moss, flour and tallow. Then weavers would weave the yarn through heavy looms.

 

Ewart's Linen Factory, Belfast, 1897. Adventures in Belfast

Ewart's Linen Factory, Belfast, 1897 - Photo by National Library of Ireland on The Commons

 

Everywhere laid the risk of injury and illness. The air where the flax was cleaned and combed, breathed in by the workers for twelve to fourteen hours or more a day, was full of flax particles called “pouce” that infected the lungs of the boys working the machines. Congestion in the lungs of these children often created such long and violent coughing fits that a youngster would vomit until he spat up blood. They often died from a congestive illness.

“Mill fever” was another danger, caught from working in air where too many worked in a confined space amid the heat and fumes of machine oil and gaslights. Spinning room doffers often fell sick from walking home in the cold evening air in clothing soaked wet by the spray from the spindles, often dying of bronchial infections.

In London’s House of Commons, Lord Shaftesbury and other advocates quoted doctors who recommended ten hours a day as the longest day children should work “with the slightest chance of preserving their health.”

The spinning room was considered particularly dangerous. Spinners were often plagued with rashes on their faces and arms, as well as foot deformities and infections from standing barefoot in contaminated water all day. The reelers and winders often got hernias from pulling at large looms all day.

Only men over eighteen worked in the room where the yarn was dressed, as it was constantly hot and humid from steam and the heat of hundreds of gas jets, reaching 90° to 120° F. or more. Weavers suffered greatly from chest infections from the damp air and constant stooping over heavy looms, which combined with other dangers created a high early death rate, particularly among young girls.

Workers were abandoned once they were injured; their wages were stopped, no ongoing medical aid was provided by state or employer, and worker compensation awards were rare. Workers’ hours could reach ninety per week, after which they returned home to live in damp and overcrowded housing that, with malnutrition and lack of sleep, brewed typhoid and tuberculosis epidemics.

Children’s lives were particularly hard. They lived in fear of punishment. The slightest error such as lateness could result in being “quartered”—a quarter hour’s lateness cost the worker a half hour’s pay, or “strapped”—struck with a leather strap. The sound of children crying throughout the workday from having been strapped or kicked by a manager was very common.

Managers would also change work hours to suit the day’s workload, setting clocks forward in the morning then back at night, leaving it impossible for workers to know their actual hours worked. Watches found on employees were often confiscated.

As wages in the linen industry were consistently lower than in other textile factories in the UK, children had to work at very young ages to help their families survive. In some mills, 60 percent of the workers were children, many no older than eight, until 1874 when the minimum age was raised to ten years. It reached eleven years in 1891, and twelve in 1901. Until 1874, when a ten-hour workday (six hours on Saturday) was enforced, the factory or mill day ran from 5:00 AM till 7:00 or 8:00 PM.

Reforms met with great resistance. In 1855 Ulster linen manufacturers joined Britain’s National Association of Factory Occupiers, which Charles Dickens nicknamed the “Association for the Mangling of Operatives.” The group opposed labor reform, dodging laws such as the 1856 act that required guards on factory and mill machinery.

By the late 1800s, workers in the US and Britain had begun a labor movement to create positive change in the workplace. Belfast workers jumped in by the early 1900s, galvanized by charismatic trade unionist and future Irish Independence rebel James Larkin, who had been sent from Dublin in 1907 by the National Union of Dock Labourers to organize Belfast dock workers.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

In 1910, Irish labor leader James Connolly returned from America where he had been speaking and writing in favor of an Irish republic free of industrialist control as well as British rule. Connolly had founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896, and was Ulster District organizer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU).

 

Irish Labor Leader James Connolly in 1900. Adventures in Belfast

Irish Labor Leader James Connolly in 1900 – photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

In the years before he would become known for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Connolly wrote movingly of the unlivable lives of the more than 18,000 mainly female linen workers. In 1913 he published To the Linen Slaves of Belfast, which became the manifesto of the Irish Textile Workers’ Union.

Why weren’t they fighting? Connolly asked. The world was “wondering of what material these Belfast women are made,” since they weren’t uniting to fight to improve their conditions. He pointed out that Irish women, as well as men, had fought heroically to end the tyranny of the landlords.

“Are the Irish working women of Belfast not of the same race?” he asked. The world was waiting to see what they would do. If the spinning rooms of Belfast were to stop, then so would the linen industry. Unorganized, they would remain “helpless slaves of soulless employers.” But united, they could find “prosperity and well-paid healthful labour.”

“If you have courage enough, faith enough in yourselves and in each other, you can win,” Connolly told them, advocating a general strike if need be. The rest would come as soon as the British government saw that they were earnest. He asked his “Sisters and Fellow-workers” to be brave and have confidence in themselves. “Talk about success, and you will achieve success.”

In October 1911 the linen factories ordered a speed-up in production, and began a system of fines for any worker who laughed, sang, talked or even adjusted her hair during work hours. Bringing sweets or knitting into the mill would result in instant dismissal. The result was a spontaneous strike. Abandoned by the Textile Operatives Society, the mill workers turned to ITGWU organizer James Connolly. They lodged a wage claim and the withdrawal of the new rules and practices, and held well-attended meetings.

The strike carried on for weeks, and as employers refused to negotiate, Connolly advised the strikers to return to work. They did so, but decided that if one woman was reprimanded for singing, everyone was to start singing. If one got fired, everyone would walk out. Knowing this would reduce mill production drastically, management was forced to abolish the new rules. The workers claimed a victory for labor unity—and witnessed the birth of the textile workers’ section of the ITGWU.

In the following years, much of what the workers demanded was granted. Connolly’s very words seemed to have shifted the air toward change.

Looking at working people’s lives in Northern Ireland nearly a century later, I wished Connolly were alive to exhort them again. Yet since first coming to Belfast, I have seen a marked increase in workers’ rights rallies, peaceful strike actions, and public support for labor organizers and representatives. A celebration occurred in Belfast in 2007, which celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the 1907 Belfast dockers’ strikes as the start of the Irish labor movement.

I think of the Protestants who streamed onto the Falls Road to fight alongside their Catholic fellow workers, and I believe that that unity can occur again, hopefully in peaceful ways this time.

And for that I pray to the Northern sky, Just let me be there to see it.

 

 

Adventures in Belfast: Northern Irish Life After the Peace Agreement (2014) is available in the Kindle store. Download it for free now through February 28, 2014, on Story Cartel -- then post a review on the book’s page on Amazon to be entered to win one of three $10 Amazon gift certificates.

Caroline Oceana Ryan is an author and freelance writer, and Northern Ireland Editor for Wandering Educators. She blogs about personal growth and bullying prevention at www.carolineoceanaryan.com.

Excerpts from Adventures in Belfast: Northern Irish Life After the Peace Agreement Copyright 2014 Caroline Oceana Ryan. All Rights Reserved.
No part of this content may be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.

 

 

 

 

 

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