Vet­eran ac­tivist takes a bow

The Irish Times Magazine - - THE TIMES WE LIVED IN - Pub­lished: Fe­bru­ary 2nd, 1953 Pho­to­graph: Der­mot Barry Ar­minta Wal­lace

In the 1950s, The Ir­ish Times car­ried a weekly slot called Por­trait Gallery. A short fea­ture ar­ti­cle which painted a pen pic­ture of per­son­al­i­ties of the day, on this par­tic­u­lar day it was de­voted to Louie Ben­nett, one of the he­roes of Ir­ish fem­i­nism and trade union­ism. She or­gan­ised the Ir­ish Women Work­ers’ Union into a force which fought, not only to give women a greater voice in the work­place, but to im­prove their sta­tus in so­ci­ety. Hav­ing served IWWU as gen­eral sec­re­tary for 38 years, she went on to be­come the first woman pres­i­dent of the ITUC.

Given all of the above, and the defiant tone of the piece – “Louie Ben­nett, from her early youth, re­fused to con­form to the ac­cepted pat­tern. When she and her sis­ters were sent to a young ladies’ academy in Lon­don their first act was to form an ‘ Ir­ish League’, which be­came the ter­ror of the school” – you might ex­pect the pic­ture to be rather more pre­pos­sess­ing than it is.

There has been no at­tempt to pret­tify Ms Ben­nett’s of­fice. A cup­board door lies open, re­veal­ing the piles of doc­u­ments within. On the desk, her hand­bag has also been left open. There are no flow­ers on the desk, no jugs of wa­ter. In­stead, a tiny travel alarm sits at the cen­tre of the shot, a firm re­minder that this 83- year- old worker has more to be do­ing than pos­ing for news­pa­per pho­to­graphs.

Der­mot Barry, how­ever, is an as­tute sto­ry­teller. His sub­ject may be up to her el­bows in pa­pers, but she’s not swamped by them; the busy desk is tidy. Placed slightly left of cen­tre, she shares pride of place with the large photo propped on the man­tel­piece which shows rows and rows of women, prob­a­bly at an IWWU meet­ing.

Ben­nett is, lit­er­ally, amongst women. Her ex­pres­sion as she looks at the cam­era is alert, shrewd and – is she ac­tu­ally tap­ping that pen on that ledger? – slightly im­pa­tient. Fi­nally, there’s that bow- tie. A flash – just a flash – of flam­boy­ance. Bril­liant.

Ar­chive pho­to­graphs and other Ir­ish Times images can be pur­chased from irish­times. com/ pho­to­s­ales

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