Education and training for professions

Opportunities for women worsened in Ireland after the Famine. Their marriage prospects declined as the farming economy changed in the later nineteenth century and there was little employment in industry except in north-east Ulster.

Women worked in shops, taught music in their homes, did dressmaking and ran lodging houses and boarding houses in larger towns and seaside resorts.

However, education was opening doors to women for the first time.

While the expansion of women's education was a European-wide trend, the proportion of women reaching second- or third-level education relative to men was extremely high in Ireland, because families had little incentive to remove daughters from school in order to put them to work, while middle-class and larger farming families were encouraged to equip daughters for careers because there was a high probability that they would be unable to marry.
Mary E. Daly, Women and work in Ireland, Dublin, 1997, p.38.

In 1901 there were only 91 female students in universities in Ireland but the numbers increased steadily. About a quarter of university students were female in the 1950s, one third in the 1960s and about half in the 1990s. However, more than half of those enrolled in third level education were female by 2000.

A few women became university lecturers and professors in the early twentieth century. Mary Hayden became the first woman Professor of History at University College, Dublin in 1911. Historian Constantia Maxwell became the first woman member of staff and subsequently the first woman professor in Trinity College, Dublin since it was founded by Elizabeth I in 1592. Mary Donovan O'Sullivan was the first Professor of History at University College, Galway.

The majority of women in professional careers were teachers and nurses whose jobs were seen as an extension of women's traditional caring role. Teaching was already on its way towards being a feminised profession: 63% of teachers were women in 1911. However, women national teachers had to resign on marriage from 1932 to 1958 while the ban on married women in the Civil Service would not be lifted until 1973. Nursing and midwifery gradually became careers for which people trained and they had their qualifications regulated by 1919.

Many teachers and nurses were nuns. Religious congregations organised and eventually came to control large sections of education and health and they commanded most of the senior positions. Young women students in teacher training colleges and in training hospitals had to conform to strict regimes somewhat similar to those in girls' boarding schools.

The first women graduated in medicine in 1890 and there were about 40 women doctors and 68 female medical students in Ireland by 1911. Dr. Kathleen Lynn who played a prominent part in the 1916 Rising, was an early graduate in medicine and founded St Ultan's Infant Hospital in 1919.

There were no female lawyers or accountants in 1911. The Institute of Chartered Accountants reacted with horror in 1901 when a woman applied for admission as an accountancy student. They lifted the restriction in 1920 and admitted the first woman in 1925.

Before Irish independence, the British government had passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (1919) which gave women access to careers such as law, veterinary surgery and the higher civil service.

Veterinary work was considered unsuitable for women. A letter to the Veterinary Record in 1897 stated,

Nor are women physically fit or would it be decent for her to castrate, fire, calve, foal, or many other jobs that a busy veterinary surgeon is constantly doing. There is a delicacy over such matters, proper that it should be so.
Quoted by John A. Evans, 'Aleen Cust' in Irish Veterinary Journal, Feb. 2000, p.83.

Aleen Cust was Britain's first veterinary surgeon but was unable to obtain registration until 1923 when she was 52 years old. She met determined opposition at the beginning of her career in Co. Galway.

Kate Tyrrell from Arklow was an expert mariner when her father bought her a schooner in 1885 but when he died a year later she found that a woman owner or skipper could not operate a ship.

As managing owner of the ship, Kate took the decision to let Laurence Brennan put his name down as owner, but she determined that she would not rest until every piece of paper relating to the Denbighshire Lass named her as owner. It would take her until 1914.

John Mahon, Kate Tyrrell: lady mariner, Dublin, 1995, p.34.

Josephine McNeill became the first Irish woman diplomat abroad when she was appointed to Luxembourg in 1949 and Mary Tinney Ireland's first woman ambassador in 1973 when she was appointed to Sweden and Finland.

Thekla Beere became Secretary of the Department of Transport and Power in 1959.

Mary Margaret Browne was the first woman recruited to the Garda Síochána in July 1959. Women's groups had lobbied systematically for women police, but to no avail until 1958 when provision was made at a lower rate of pay than male Gardaí and with compulsory retirement on marriage at first.

Mella Carroll became the first woman High Court judge in 1980 and in 1996 Susan Denham became the first woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court.


  1. How did opportunities for women worsen after the Famine?
  2. In 1911, teaching was becoming a feminised profession. __% of teachers were women but _____ teachers had to resign on ______ from ____ to ____.
  3. Before Irish independence, the British _____ passed the Sex ______ (Removal) Act.
  4. How did that Act affect women's career prospects?
  5. What reasons were stated for objecting to the admission of Aleen Cust as a veterinary surgeon?
  6. Outline the career of either Kathleen Lynn, Aleen Cust or Kate Tyrrell.


  1. Write an essay on the importance of education for women.
  2. Role play a group of accountants or veterinary surgeons in the 1920s discussing the admission of women to their professions.
  3. Write a speech to be delivered in the Dáil either approving or disapproving of the admission of women to the Garda Síochána.
  4. Make a timeline for the events mentioned in the above section.
  5. Research any of the women mentioned above or any woman doing non-traditional work during the period.
  6. For further information, refer to the section on Education.
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