This weekend, 105 years ago …
During the events of the Easter Rising of 1916, Lizzie Walsh, a young maid in the Metropole Hotel on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, had her scant possessions and clothes destroyed when the British Army shelled the hotel. While wealthy guests of the hotel were compensated for the loss of their effects, Lizzie had a battle on her hands to recoup her losses, her clothing and her livelihood. In the first of a new series, Historian Antonia Hart discovers Lizzie’s story …
“I am 20 pounds out of pocket now being out of Employment so long Through the loss of my clothes + they should consider my Case very bad and They if they had any Harts should now. If I wasn’t at severe losses I would let it Drop at once and Girls who worked along side of me loosing only a Empty Bag could get 10 and 11 pounds do they think that Fair or Honest But god alone knows the box of Clothes I lost + now To Say I hafen’t got a Stitch to go on me why are they so Hard…”
Extract of letter from Lizzie Walsh to the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee, 5th April 1917 (National Archives of Ireland)
Lizzie Walsh’s life unravelled within hours, when events out of her control catapulted her into unemployment, poverty, and homelessness.
Over a working life of 20 years, Lizzie Walsh had saved a nest egg of about two months’ wages. In the spring of 1916 she was working as a stillroom maid at the Metropole Hotel, in Sackville Street. Conveniently, staff could live in, and she did. She kept her possessions in a trunk there, stashing her cash savings in a handbag. Her wardrobe consisted of certain fundamentals, such as underclothes and nightdresses, and daily wear: a couple of costumes, seven blouses, a dozen handkerchiefs. Other personal effects included a grooming kit of brush, comb, and mirror; and some devotional items such as a prayer book and beads. She also stowed in her trunk a silk umbrella and silk scarf, as well as ‘1 Set of Furs’. It must have felt marvellous, on a day off, to pass over her ‘12 Aprons’, dress instead in these luxuries, and step out of the hotel into a Dublin city centre full of enticing shops, cafés, restaurants, and people.
Lizzie Walsh lost this wealth in April 1916. Sackville Street was at the heart of the fighting during the Easter Rising. A rebel garrison occupied the Metropole, and with buildings on the other side of Sackville Street already burning, the British army shelled the hotel. An incendiary bomb set first the roof and then the entire building ablaze. The hotel was destroyed. Lizzie Walsh’s job, her home, and all her worldly goods were wiped out. Suddenly homeless, she spent a few weeks here and a few weeks there, moving from Harold’s Cross Road to Margaret Polly’s flat in the Iveagh Buildings. By November she was staying in Townsend Street, but soon, without clothes, money or job, she ran of options, and returned to her homeplace of Cappakeel in Monasterevin.
No matter how often she wrote, no matter how vividly she described her situation, the typed replies kept coming: the claim was settled, the case could not be re-opened
Lizzie Walsh may have heard about the possibility of compensation either through other hotel employees, or through a newspaper advertisement. In July 1916 she filled out the official blue form of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee, reckoning the total value of her losses at over £16. The cash wasn’t an eligible loss, but the Committee offered her £7 and 10 shillings to cover the rest.
Lizzie Walsh was appalled. She didn’t quibble about the cash, but wrote repeatedly asking the Committee to reconsider their decision about the clothing. ‘I hafen’t go no clothes to go look for another place … I am out of Employment since Easter Tuesday and I have got no home in Dublin so I like to now what I am to do walking the Streets’ she wrote. Sometimes pleading, sometimes outraged, sometimes despairing, she returned to the same theme: if she had no clothes, she couldn’t get another job. The £7 was quickly used up in paying for lodgings, and she had ‘nothing to start the world & over again’. If the Committee could do ‘any little thing for me to get a little more I should feel so thankful to you’, she wrote in September. Then, in November: ‘I am going about the streets penniless never got any Employment since Hotel Metropole was burned down’. No matter how often she wrote, no matter how vividly she described her situation, the typed replies kept coming: the claim was settled, the case could not be re-opened. She stepped up a gear, and wrote ‘frequent epistles’ to the Lord Lieutenant, and to the Chief Secretary. Nothing worked.
The Property Losses (Ireland) Committee submitted its final report in April 1917, a year after the Rising. It was the same month in which they sent their last surviving reply, unbending as ever, to Lizzie Walsh. The report stated that the Committee had been ‘fully alive’ to the importance of dealing promptly with the claims of ‘workmen and other employees who, owing to the loss of tools or clothing, were in many cases unable to obtain work’ – precisely what Lizzie Walsh described. Other Metropole Hotel employees were successful in their claims: May Clancy’s claim was paid in full, waitress Annie Stanley’s just some shillings short. Hotel guests were luckier, too. Ellen Todd successfully claimed for over £470 worth of clothing and personal items, a huge claim supported by a 15-page account from Switzers.
The voice of Lizzie Walsh, an ordinary working woman, has been preserved because she was directly affected by the events of Easter 1916. This preservation in the national record gives us, at a remove of more than a hundred years, an insight not just into the kind of clothes she wore, the money she earned, and the possessions she valued, but also into how she was pitched, within hours, from the security of a well-paid job in one of the capital’s luxury hotels into homelessness and unemployment.
Through it we witness her often moving pleas to those who had the power to help. Lizzie was not prepared to be helpless. Whether she was a naturally brave person, or driven to bravery by her wretched situation, she didn’t shrink from addressing the successful businessmen who constituted the Committee, nor from turning to more senior figures in Dublin Castle when these letters were fruitless. Her background doesn’t appear to have been highly literate (in that family members at home could read but not write), but she poured her frustration out through her pen. While her spelling and punctuation could be idiosyncratic, her turn of phrase was descriptive, her handwriting clear. In fact, her script is more immediately legible than that of the Dublin Castle official who corresponded with the Committee about her case. Her letters, even at their most passionate and desperate, are always carefully laid out, as well as polite and articulate.
Their number alone is testament to her tenacity and the strength of her belief that the Committee’s decision was wrong. Their narrative makes it hard to escape the conclusion that Lizzie Walsh’s claim was justified.
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