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Celebrating Women

We’re taking a closer look at some images recording inspirational women. © Tourism NI

Two elderly women smoking pipes
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For Myrtle Hill and Vivienne Pollock, ‘Women’s experience is and always has been infinitely more diverse than the stereotypes would allow’. They contend, ‘the immediacy of contemporary photographs… give the authentic flavour of the many worlds women found themselves in’.[1] Many images in National Museums NI’s photographic collections do just this. The women photographed differ in class, age, and background. Some women are named; most are not. Some photographs record women engaged in roles and work, upheld and performed by women for generations, while others show pioneering women, employed in vocations and industries from which they had previously been excluded. All are important in understanding the historical experiences of women in Ireland, and all are worth celebrating.

Sophia Rosamund Praeger

Sophia Rosamund Praeger in her studio
A.R. Hogg, portrait of Rosamund Praeger in her studio

Sophia Rosamund Praeger (1867–1954) was an Irish artist, sculptor, poet and writer.

Born in Holywood, County Down, Praeger studied at Belfast School of Art followed by Slade School of Art at University College London, where among other prizes, she was awarded a silver medal for life drawing.[2] She wrote and illustrated over twenty-five children's books in her lifetime and provided illustrations for The Irish Homestead, Gaelic League pageants and designs for the Irish Women's Suffrage Federation.[3] A regular contributor to various art societies and committees, Praeger’s work was frequently exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, the Royal Academy in London and The Royal Ulster Academy in Belfast.[4]

Her work is said to have ‘played a significant role in the late Victorian and early twentieth century Irish Art World’. [5] This photograph, taken by Alexander Hogg in 1931, shows Praeger in her studio, surrounded by some of her work.   

The Postal Service

The employment of women in the UK postal service expanded massively during the First World War, with thousands of women occupying temporary positions previously reserved for male staff.  This employment was further extended in the Second World War, with the Post Office calling for women to volunteer as postwomen before the Christmas of 1940. While initially a temporary measure, due to their impressive performance, the decision was made to retain them for further work. By November 1941, around 100,000 women were employed by the Post Office in either permanent or temporary capacities.[6] These photographs show women working for the Postal Service in Belfast, during the Christmas Rush in 1941 and 1942.


Women have often taken the lead in medically assisting and nursing those in their families and communities. A number of photographs show women working professionally as nurses in the early twentieth century. In these images, women are demonstrating new apparatus and technology being utilised in their line of work.

Nurse weighing babies
Belfast Telegraph collection, the Royal Maternity Hospital, Belfast, showing a nurse with two babies one being weighed on scales

Wartime Industry

During the Second World War, Barn Mills in Carrickfergus was taken over by Littlewoods of Liverpool, for the manufacturing of parachutes, flying suits, and Mae West life jackets. The mill, which had a largely female workforce, became the world’s largest parachute factory with approx. 1,200 employees.[7] These photographs from the Belfast Telegraph collection provide a fascinating record of women at work in the factory.


Photographs from the collections reflect the active role women in Northern Ireland played in educating children and adults. This sample of images show women engaging in teaching professions in a variety of times and contexts.

Agricultural Labour

In the early twentieth century, many Irish photographers were interested in recording old rural customs, and creating idyllic picture postcards.[8] Consequently, some of their work records women engaged in agricultural labour, including these two photographs taken by W.A Green and Robert Welch. In the first, a group of women spread retted flax, with their heads protected from the sun, while in the second, two women are breaking clods of earth in a potato crop in the Glens of Antrim. [9]

Women and man in a field of flax
W.A. Green, a view of women in a field overlooked by a man spreading out flax to dry. 
Girls in a field breaking clods with spade
Robert Welch, girls "setting" seed potatoes, breaking clods with spade, Glenshesk, Co. Antrim.


Ulster is historically famed for its Linen production. Since the middle of the eighteenth century, linen was the most popular textile manufactured in Ireland. [10]  With the industrialisation of Belfast, many factories and mills channelled their efforts into producing linen, to such a degree the city was often given the name ‘Linenopolis’.[11] Linen production would have been nothing without women. Photographs from the collection show them involved at every level; spinning flax, sewing and weaving the material, and working in large and often unhygienic mills and factories in Belfast.


Clubs and Societies

Many clubs and societies in Britain and Ireland had an exclusively male membership in the early twentieth century. National Museums NI’s collections contain a number of photographs recording women actively engaging in, or as members of, social clubs and societies. While nearly all are middle-class, this photograph represents one way in which women were challenging cultural prejudices.

Middle class men and women posing for photograph on a lawn
BELUM.Y1608 A.R. Hogg, Ulster Arts Club group on lawn, 1913.

Corran Radio Factory

Corran Works Ltd, part of the Pye Group, manufactured radio sets and components. Opening at the harbour in Larne in 1947 with 130 employees, by 1964 this had risen to over 1200. [12]These photographs record one industry in Northern Ireland providing women with work following the Second World War.

Female worker testing Pye sets
Belfast Telegraph collection, Corran Radio Factory, female worker testing Pye sets, 1949.

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan

In 1976 Belfast women Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were awarded a Nobel peace prize ‘for the courageous efforts in founding a movement to put an end to the violent conflict in Northern Ireland’.[13] The movement, known as the Community of Peace People, sought to bring an end to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland using non-violent strategies. It brought together thousands of people in protest marches in 1976 and 1977. The women were stirred to action through tragic incident; in August 1976, Mairead Corrigan’s sister lost three children as the result of shooting in Belfast, which was witnessed by Betty Williams.[14] While the Northern Irish peace movement disintegrated in the course of 1978, these images record Corrigan and Williams actively involved in peace efforts in 1976 and 1977.

Photograph of Mairead Corrigan, Betty and Ralph Williams, Senator Thompson and Lady Fisher
BELUM.W2015.118.34.2 Philip Woods, photograph of Mairead Corrigan, Betty and Ralph Williams, Senator Thompson and Lady Fisher taken outside in a residential street, 1976. © Philip Woods under Kodak Bursary Scheme
  1. Myrtle Hill and Vivienne Pollock, Women of Ireland. Image and experience c.1880-1920 (Belfast 1993), p. 1.
  2. Hill and Pollock, Women of Ireland, p. 104
  4. Hill and Pollock, Women of Ireland ,p.104.
  7. Mid & East Antrim Borough Council, ‘Carrickfergus across the centuries: A walk through the historic town and harbour’ November 2020. P. 87.
  8. W.A. Maguire, A Century in Focus: Photography and photographers in the North of Ireland 1839-1939 (Belfast, pp, 86-118).
  9. Myrtle Hill and Vivienne Pollock, Women of Ireland, p.47.
  10. Emily Boyle, “Linenopolis” The rise of the textile industry’ in J C Beckett et al (eds) Belfast, The making of the city (Dublin 1983), p. 41
  11. W.A. Maguire, Belfast: a history ( Belfast, 2009), p. 102.