Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Irish Pub History: "Women's Houses"

On Thursday the 12th of May 1898 The Kilrush Herald and Kilkee Gazette carried the following few lines:


Father O'Leary, for nineteen years chaplain of Cork Prison, giving evidence before the Royal Commission on the Licensing Laws, stated that one of the worst aspects of the drink evil was that women, especially married women, obtained drink to a shocking extent in public-houses which were known as "women's houses." Batches of women might be seen on Monday mornings and Saturday some with babies in their arms and others leading little children by the hand. These sat about on the benches or stood at the bars, many in a state of intoxication, while their homes were neglected and their older children allowed to roam the streets without control.

I came across these “Women’s Houses” while researching the ‘Small-Pint’, and undersized pint measure akin to the ‘Medium’ or ‘Meejum’ measure, a subject I have already written about in a previous post. A column on Ireland’s licensing laws in The Enniscorthy Guardian on Saturday the 7th of October 1899 mentions that in Cork city ‘some publicans give the “small pint,” a pint with a very little poured out for 1½d, instead of 2d, to attract the women.’ The focus of the article was the prevalence of drunkenness in the Ireland in general and Father O’Leary is quoted here too with almost the same words, and with that intriguing “Women’s Houses” mention again.

With some further research I found an longer version of the evidence given by Father O’Leary on the 5th of May 1898 in The Dublin Daily Nation, which expands on his words and comments and mentions that as well as being a chaplain he is was president of the local branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. His comments quoted above are part of larger report on the excessive use of alcohol by both men, women, and even children in Ireland at this time. This article does expand on what he says regarding women and drink, which I will not dwell upon here in case those reading this think I am attempting to paint women in a poor light! For a degree of balance, he does point out the issues with inebriated husbands and also with the publicans who served drunken people. (If you want to read the full article and be incensed for whatever reason then it is available via newspaper archive sources.)

Unfortunately, my digging did not turn up much more about “Women’s Houses” in Ireland to see if they were just frequented by women, which I find unlikely, or whether they were just more known to be more accommodating or ‘tolerant’ to women and children and therefore used more by women as a result. Perhaps it was more to do with serving that small-pint. That is if these places existed at all of course – although on balance I think that they did in some form. (I did find a mention of one in Liverpool and a vague mention of similar places in Germany.)

Related to this was a piece I found in The Freeman's Journal on Thursday the 25th of March 1909 on ‘Women and Children in Public Houses’ regarding a report to the House of Commons that showed the results of observations by the police on how many women and children frequented public houses over a two-week period – but annoyingly, unfairly, and exasperatingly does not mention the proportion of men by comparison!

Anyhow, here were their observations:

Belfast – 22 houses: 5,963 women and 6,449 children

Cork – 10 houses: 1,995 women and 2,233 children

Dublin – 22 houses: 46,574 women and 27,999 children

Limerick – 6 houses: 6,495 women and 4,583 children

Derry – 8 houses: 856 women and 975 children

Waterford – 6 houses: 5,441 women and 2,705 children

Some of the establishments were in fact spirit-grocers not just drinking ‘pubs’ as such, where - in Limerick for example - it was reported that women ‘got half drunk in public houses under the pretence of purchasing groceries, then go home and send boys or girls to the public house for more liquor to complete the debauch.’ In Waterford ‘the practice [of drinking in a public house] is principally confined to the very poorest class of women, and to public houses where women are the licensed persons and conduct the business. In such houses there is a “snug” set apart for them, which place is often full of half drunken women with children. It is amongst women whose homes and daily lives are squalid and filthy that this custom prevails.’

The disparity between Belfast and Dublin was put down to the scarcity of grocery shops in Dublin that did not also sell drink compared to Belfast – implying more temptation I take it(?) - and the somewhat bizarre statement that there may not be ‘so much porter-drinking amongst women in Belfast as in Dublin.’ (Were women in Dublin addicted to porter? I can attest from newspaper reports around, before and after this era they certainly drank it – even in pints, although they were to be denied that - in certain pubs at least - decades later.) The number of tenement house is also listed as a likely cause for the difference in numbers – so I presume class and living conditions were being given as reasons too. Also, in general there are more spirit-grocers in Belfast - as well as those aforementioned 'ordinary' grocers - so drinkers are more widespread even though the same number of houses were being observed in both cities. I am assuming that by this period The Children's Act of 1908, which was supposed to stop children from entering public houses amongst other regulations had not quite kicked in, so these figures may reflect that – or may not. It is also worth mentioning again those spirit grocers that sold both provisions and drinks, as well as purely drinking establishments and it was possibly and probably easier for certain people to get drinks in the former than the latter.

So, what started with a curious mention about those “Women’s Houses” ended with me finding information on women and public houses in the period either side of 1900. I am not entirely sure we learned much from the content itself, as it is contradictory at time, biased perhaps, and also missing more detailed information.

What we can say is that women went to ‘pubs’ of some description during this period – something that I think certain people doubt, as there is a general belief among some that women were not allowed into any sort of drinking establishment up until the 1960s or much later. Indeed, there are quite a few general news sources that state this or something similar without giving a timeline or expanding on the subject – mostly written by those repeating other sources and perhaps conflating it with the fact that certain bars would not serve a woman a pint of beer at certain periods in our history. I know beer and pub historians are not saying this but more general reports on our social history and certain news sites do state or at least imply it.

Now is probably a good moment to emphasise that of course there were places that excluded women, limited what they were served - if they were allowed in - and where they could sit, and that is just for starters. I don not think anyone can dispute that but it is certainly not so black and white that it can be dealt with in a single almost throwaway sentence in an article on our pub history and the role played by women in that history. If nothing else it is unhelpful to creating a discussion and understanding of what and how this happened.

Not all women did go to public houses of course, as there were differences in class, environs, location, means, and a host of other factors. We could perhaps argue that upper classes of both sexes drank at home or in hotels or pubs; the middle class may have drunk at home, with perhaps the man of the house heading to certain public house and certain rooms in those establishments; the lower-classes of both genders - and their children it seems - went to the pub. I am sure they did so to escape their drudgery, hated life, and living space – but even that would be too much of a generalisation without adding a timeline because it is era-based too. So, this may be the case in this period we are focussed on but may not reflect what was happening in the decades before or after this period.  The same is true as to why men frequented pubs of course, there are no right or wrong answers, as there were a multitude of reasons depended on the person, their circumstances and where they lived. It could be to get drunk, for companionship, for warmth, for news – for a host of reasons, both similar to why women drank and also radically different. It is worth saying here to that there are good and bad people in both sexes, and both struggle with alcohol dependency – and that there are good and bad parents too. Some things are sadly universal.

There are plenty of mentions of women – and men of course – in pubs in legal cases during the period I mention above and on through the following decades too, so when did this exclusion of women start? Certainly the change in licensing laws and the eventual demise of the spirit-grocer had an effect but did they exclude themselves to a degree to distance themselves from their drunken parents or from lower classes, or was it purely the predominantly male-ruled society driving this? I suspect that was some of it as well as a host of other factors, and the era exclusion appears to be at its worst is in the 1920s to the 1940s, and then it hung on in certain establishments in one form or another until the 1980s and later in some cases. There was misogyny, stupidity, and unfairness of course but it was not always the case all of the time – it is much more complicated than that and beyond my ability and knowledge to pursue further right here right now. What would be really worth exploring is why women went to pubs in the period mentioned above – why those “Women’s Houses” existed – even if some of the reasons are probably quite obvious. With some luck beer historian Braciatrix might cover parts of this to some extent in her upcoming book on Irish brewing history.

Clearly there was exclusion and misogyny in certain pubs up to relatively recently (and it still exists to a lesser degree) – but how widespread it was in the past - and that past needs to be broken down - I do not know, apart from anecdotal evidence, although we do know without doubt that it existed.

We seem to live in an age of absolutes, of black and white, and right or wrong. We lack nuance and ignore grey areas, and - as I have mentioned before - seem to shun words and phrases such as some ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’, and ‘not every’ and ‘I don’t know’. We need to promote more discussion based on facts and figures and discourage divisive vitriol aimed at inciting negative unhelpful sentiments, and not just on this trick topic but on a host of other subjects too.

And I would love to know more about those ‘Women’s Houses’ although I cannot help but think their existence spawned a whole gamut of stories we will never hear, of tragic tales and poignant social histories …

Liam K.

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its sources, and a link back to this post. Newspaper image © The British Library Board - All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( from whom I have received permission to display this image on this site.

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