May Day, also known as International Worker’s Day, is an appropriate time to remember Marian Barry who played an important role in the development and growth of the trade union movement in Britain and Ireland, but is today largely unknown in her native town of Skibbereen.
Marian was born on 1 October 1871, the third child of John Barry and Mary Ronan. John and Mary were married in Skibbereen in 1868 and their first two children were James, born in 1869, and Elizabeth, born in 1870. The family lived in the Windmill area of the town and both John and Mary worked in the tailoring trade. At the time Windmill Hill was among the poorest parts of the town, and the housing there was of a very low standard. In December 1871, just weeks after Marian’s birth, tragedy struck the family when her sister Elizabeth died of croup, aged just 21 months. In 1873 another child was born and, in a common practice of that time, she was named Elizabeth, after her departed sister. In 1874 the family suffered further grief when the eldest boy, James, died aged just 5 years.
Sometime after the death of James in 1874 and 1878 the Barry family left Skibbereen and settled in the Whitechapel area of London, which was then a centre of the clothing industry. In London the Barrys found work at their trade and six more children were born between 1878 and 1887. Marian the, eldest surviving child, followed in her parent’s footsteps and found work as a tailoress. At that time the pay and working condition of those, particularly the women, employed in clothing factories, generally known as sweatshops, was very poor. To counter this Marian joined a trade union and started encouraging others to do likewise. Her organising abilities were quickly noticed. By 1895 she was a representative the East London Tailoresses, which later affiliated to the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and in 1897 she was appointed to the Technical Education Board of the London County Council. As a representative of the WTUL, she travelled throughout Britain enlisting workers, especially women in the clothing industry, into trade unions. One newspaper account in 1897 described her as a ‘busy bee’ who in one week in Cradley Heath had persuaded 200 to join the union and that she was then off to Bradford to continue her recruitment work in that city.
In the course of her work Marian Barry met other trade union leaders, including Peter (Pete) Curran of the Gas Workers’ Union. Curran was the son of Irish emigrants and was one of the most prominent trade union leaders of the 1890s. As well as trade union activities, Marian and Pete also shared common believes in other causes. In a time when neither women nor working class men could vote, they were both advocates of universal suffrage. Both were anti-war in their outlook and they campaigned against the second Boer War. Sometime in the late 1890s, Marian and Pete married and afterwards Marian generally styled herself as ‘Mrs. Pete Curran’.
Marriage and a young family of her own did not stop Marian’s work for the trade union and labour movements. In 1906-7 she travelled widely in support of the Anti-Sweating League and she was involved in the Women’s Labour League. At the time she famously described the Labour Party as “the men’s party”. Despite this, in the 1906 General Election, when her husband Pete stood for the Labour Party in the constituency of Jarrow she worked tirelessly to get him elected. The issues she campaigned on in Jarrow included the high infant mortality rate, the need to provide school meals to children and the plight of women workers. Curran was not elected in 1906, but in a by-election in 1907 he won the seat. He was helped to this victory by Marian’s activism and the couple’s unequivocal support for female suffrage. In the 1910 General Election Pete narrowly lost his seat and shortly afterwards he died from liver failure – he had been a heavy drinker. His importance to the Labour Movement and the esteem that he was held in was demonstrated by the huge numbers who attended his funeral and lined the streets as his coffin was taken to Leytonstone cemetery in London.
In the years after Pete’s death Marian was less active. This was undoubtably due to the need to provide for her young family. For a period she worked as a secretary for the Board of Trade in London. In 1913 when that body tried first to constructively dismiss her and then offer her a job at a lower salary, ten members of the Board resigned in protest. By 1917 Marian had again returned to full time activism. In June 1917 a Labour-Socialist and Democratic Convention was held in Leeds, to support the February revolution in Russia and to promote pacifist sentiment. Marian was among the delegates to attend. In the following period most of Marian’s work was in her native Ireland.
In July 1917 Marian addressed a meeting of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses in Dublin. In her speech she highlighted the fact that the Minimum Wages Act was being violated wholesale in Dublin. For the next fifteen months Marian worked primarily in Derry and the surrounding counties, chiefly organising women workers in the clothing industry. The issues she raised included low wages and the use of contract workers, who worked very long hours for very little pay. She also campaigned for workers in the clothing industry to be paid war time bonuses. Within weeks of her arrival in Ireland it was said that Marian had added 500 new members to the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses. At times her activities led to industrial strife and in October 1918, after a brief strike, Marian successfully negotiated a 25% pay increase for clothing factory workers in Omagh. While in Ireland Marian also supported the Irish Suffragette Movement and she was particularly critical of the resolution passed in 1917 by the Executive Committee of the General Council of County Councils, that asked for Ireland to be excluded from the provisions of any new franchise bill.
In late 1918 Marian returned to England, where she continued to work as a trade union organiser. In a speech delivered at a May Day rally in 1920 she referred to the ongoing war in Ireland. She stated that of all the resolutions passed that day the one calling for the withdrawal of the British military from Ireland was the one most appealing to her. She went on to explain some of the injustices that Ireland suffered under British rule and speaking of the ongoing war she stated that: ‘They may crush a nation for a time, but they will never entirely repress the spirit of freedom once it has been born.’
Little is known of Marian’s activities in the early 1920s, though it is probable that she continued working as a trade union organiser. She died on 8 September 1921 while on a visit to Brighton. She was just 49 years of age. A newspaper report at the time stated that ‘she had worked hard for Labour’ and that her death severed ‘another link with the early days of the British Socialist movement’. Marian was laid to rest with her husband Pete Curran in Leytonstone cemetery in London. Her name was never added to the headstone that marks the plot.