Derry Shirt Factory girls - ‘There was a bond there, like a family or second family’

Clare Moore photographed by Jim Collins.
Clare Moore photographed by Jim Collins.
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Clare Moore always craved education, but as a worker in the City Factory at the age of 15 she entered her first year of study in the school of life! Years later, she returned to that very same building as a teacher and has been an ardent campaigner for the shirt factory sculpture in Derry. In conversation with artist Louise Walsh, she explained just why those years as a factory girl were so important to her

Clare Moore was 15 when she started working in the City Factory in Patrick Street. A place full of happy memories for her, when Clare saw Louise Walsh’s call for Factory Girls to come forward, she said she was drawn to it like a magnet because it provided her with a chance to take a trip down memory lane.

An iconic image taken outside the City Factory in Derry in the 1930's by Bert Allen.

An iconic image taken outside the City Factory in Derry in the 1930's by Bert Allen.

At that time it was kind of the done thing that the girls did. I was the eldest in the family, I had two brothers older than myself and at that time, even though I was fairly good at school – I actually sailed through it –when I was 15 and eligible to leave school, I couldn’t wait to get on that bus down from Creggan, from St. Mary’s Intermediate. I was only in it six months. It only opened in 1959 and I had only six months of school left to do so we did our wee Leaving Certificate and away we went. And the freedom....you know?

It was the automatic thing that your mother took you to the factory and spoke with the manager and got your name down.

Clare relished the freedom that being a factory girl brought. With her own paypacket and the freedom to enjoy a whole new kind of social life

I felt I was grown-up. I was 15 years old and I felt I was an adult. When you started off at 15 you went in there as a runner, a message girl. You were sent the messages and you clipped the work for the machinists. You were a beginner but I still felt ...gosh, free, going to get my own money on the Friday. It was exhilarating in a way. It was exciting. But that feeling soon left when they sat me down at a machine weeks later, and that was me! I found that very mundane to be honest, but I enjoyed the company and the social side of it. I was just thinking there recently about the situation in the factory and all the people you had around you. You had your agony aunts; you had your examiners sitting at the front looking at the rows of machinists, and to me they were all granny figures – they probably weren’t all that old but to me they were grannies. Then there were the machinists in rows, of which I was one; you had your row of hemmers who did the tail of the shirts, and then behind that you’d have had the cuffers which I got trained in, attaching the cuff to the shirt and then behind that there was another piece of work being done.

A shot of the exterior of the City Factory on Patrick Street as captured in the 1930's by Bert Allen.

A shot of the exterior of the City Factory on Patrick Street as captured in the 1930's by Bert Allen.

But what I was thinking was, you had your agony aunts and the counsellors and the therapists and the beauty therapists, because some of the girls, you’d have watched how they did their hair and if it was shiny you’d have wanted to know what kind of shampoo they used and how they set the hair in rollers, you know, all this sort of thing went on. You learned how to do make-up, and if you got your heart broke - if you were out with somebody and they let you down - you were in the next morning spilling it all out. There was one girl in particular named Angela and to me she was just the greatest counsellor ever. Everyone went to Angela, she was such a lovely warm personality, and anybody who had a problem wanted to talk to her. Angela worked on the button holes and she sat in a wee corner all by herself and it was like going for counselling, you went over to Angela and told her all about what your night was like the night before. She was so wise, I mean she was probably only a couple of years older than I was but she was so wise, she just always had the answer and the advice that you needed. I just was thinking about that recently, how everyone played a role.

For Clare, as a Catholic, one of the most eye opening parts of going in to work in the City Factory was meeting Protestants. The mixed faith element was something she recalled in great detail as part of her interview.

That was another part of the freedom thing for me because up until that I was living in a predominantly Catholic area, I went to the Catholic schools, the convent schools, the nuns and all that. I really didn’t go out of that kind of circle. And it was only when I went into the factory that I began to work and socialise alongside Protestants, and now when I think back on how I felt! There was one girl in particular and I was clipping her work one day, I remember saying to her “What school did you go to?” just in casual conversation, and her replying with the name of a Protestant school and I was absolutely dumbstruck at this. It was as if she was an alien, and I feel so embarrassed about that, thinking back now, how naïve I was, how narrow minded and tunnel-visioned I was, that once she said she was from this school I felt like, ‘oh gosh!’. And I do remember asking her: “Well what did you learn there?” The words just came out without me thinking because I think she shocked me so much. That’s the impact of realising you’re amongst different backgrounds and different religions and that sums up how I was then: very sheltered in my own environment.

Then we started to socialise too, there were other people I started to socialise with and I would have started to go out to different venues that maybe mostly protestants would have used. So I began to do that more and more and for me it was a great thing, you know, to be able to do that.

Like her contemporaries, Clare’s school education ended when she was a young teenager, but she very much learned a few lessons life from her time as a factory girl...

I got a different education in those years. I was in the City Factory seven years and I got a life education and I lost the tunnel vision and my world was a bit broader, but later on in my life I had a recurring dream that I was back to school, and in the back of my mind I felt ‘I don’t really fit here.’

I was like a square peg in a round hole, sat at that machine. On sunny days I wanted to be out in the sun and not stuck in the factory. I’d have bribed my more sensible friends to take the half-day off and take our sandwiches and thumb a lift down to the beach at Buncrana. Occasionally I would have weakened their resolve to go into work and we’d have lain on the sand all afternoon and that was lovely except that when Friday came the pay packet was a bit light. I was like that, I just sort-of didn’t fit with the regime. Anyway I thought about how would I might have done if I’d have stayed at school and done my 11+ and continued on which my two sisters after me did. I often wondered that and was curious. Then at one point in my life I decided it was time to have a go and I was inspired by other people I had met that had gone back to education and one girl in particular said to me ‘there’s an open day at Magee, why don’t you go to it?’ and that’s when it happened. I went and filled out an application for a foundation course.

Clare’s journey back to education led her into a role in the community. Once again, studying at Magee, she grasped the opportunity to broaden her horizons with both hands, She had no idea that decades later, as a grown woman she would make her way back to the City Factory - albeit in a very different role

My first job of work in teaching was actually with the North West Institute, who had just taken over the City Factory building. When I went in to teach for the very first time I had to go up those very same stairs that I went up at the age of 15 to start in the shirt factory. And it was the most nostalgic trip I have ever taken. Although it had all been refurbished and redecorated and all the rest, the stairs were the same and it felt the same, you know. And it was the most amazing feeling. I felt really, really exhilarated. And as a strange coincidence, when I came out that afternoon from the City Factory – they still call it that, even though it’s the NWRC campus – I went over the street and there was a vehicle parked and there was a lady sitting in that vehicle who worked with me in the City factory, Isobel. I was in the City factory from 1960 to 1967, and Isobel would have been the first person to ask me to come to my very first dance when I worked in the City factory with her.

Those dances, for Clare, were the highlight of her social week as a factory girl. And Friday evenings as a Derry factory girl had a very particular running order...

I was just thinking there recently of our little trek up the Strand Road from the City factory on a Friday night. We got paid weekly, a wage packet into your hand. It wasn’t like it is now, a cheque or money into the bank. We would come down Queen St from the factory and down onto the Strand Rd and we stopped at a wee

shop called McCauley’s, a clothing shop that sold a wee bit of everything, and we went in there for a wee browse. We would go on up and stop at the Leprechaun which sadly is now closed. I’m really sad about that because that was a lovely traditional place that everybody went to, and we had our fish and chip tea on the way home on a Friday so that we didn’t have to eat when we got home and we got out quicker on a Friday night. The next stop then would have been Littlewood’s, where we would have got our nylons or our tights when they came into fashion. Then home and get the make-up on and the hair all fixed and away you go. That’s what our weekends were like and that’s where all our energy went really: looking for Mr. Right.

Although she worked in other factories, Clare spent the longest period of time in the City Factory. It’s the place, she said she had the happiest memories of. The bond between the women who worked there, she recalled, was something very special

I can’t think of any one person I didn’t get along with or that I fell out with. There was just a bond there, kind of like a family, a second family, that’s what I felt. I suppose that’s what happens if you spend a number of years in the same place with mostly the same people, because it very rarely turned over, not like places nowadays where people come and go. It was very steady and so the people you worked with in the beginning were still there at the end and I was quite sad when I left. Because of the circumstances of my life I had to leave and I went away to England for a short while and it was like leaving a part of yourself behind. And I would still feel very nostalgic and sentimental about that building even, never mind the people I got to know there. Every time I walk past that building there’s so many memories come flooding back. Even though I have a bad memory, I can remember vividly lots of different wee things about people that I worked with in the City Factory.

Clare’s mother had sent her to work in the factory as a teenager instead of deciding to let her continue with her education. It was a fact which had always stayed with Clare throughout her life, until one particular interview, as she recalled

I remember going along to my interview for the foundation course and one of the men who interviewed me, who’s a very good friend of mine today, and they started to ask about why I wanted to do the course.

And I said: ‘Well I never did the 11+ and my mother didn’t make me do it’ – blaming my mother.

He just said to me, ‘Well, she was a woman of her time and you’re a woman of yours.’

And, you know, I never did use that excuse again. All I can say is because my mother worked and my aunties and my granny all worked there before, it was kind of a traditional thing that the women tended to go out to work, and even before my time the women had to go out to work because there was no work for the men and the men had to stay at home. Women became very strong. I feel that women are very strong in that way and very resourceful and very independent. I’m biased, I tend to believe that about women. I think that women together are a very powerful force. I do believe that. And it was mainly women in there, apart from the few mechanics that came out to fix your machine now and again, and the managers. I can’t really put my finger on any one thing. For me it was the support network that you wouldn’t have got anywhere else. I mean even during school years or even players in the street I never had the friendships and the support that I had during those years in the factory.