Decade of Centenaries and Dictionary of Irish Biography present Women on Wednesday: Rosa Barrett

Decade of Centenaries and Dictionary of Irish Biography are collaborating on showcasing women of the early twentieth century who strove for Irish Independence; for female suffrage; to improve the lives of women in poverty; and to improve the standard of care for children. These women worked hard throughout their lives to improve the lives of others, but they have not always been accorded their due recognition. 


Hopefully this series will bring their deeds to a new and wider audience. 


Fourth in the series is Rosa Barrett. 


Barrett, Rosa (Mary)

by Frances Clarke and Patricia M. Byrne

Barrett, Rosa (Mary) (1854–1936) philanthropist, child-care worker, and suffragist, was born 15 January 1854 in Royston, Hertfordshire, England, daughter of the Rev. W. G. Barrett and Martha Barrett (née Fletcher). From the 1860s she was resident with her family in Dublin.

Her interest in child care developed at an early age, when she used her pocket-money to pay a nurse to mind the children of working charwomen, and by the late 1870s she had become a significant figure in Dublin philanthropic circles. In 1879 she founded Dublin’s first crèche, the Cottage Home for Little Children, in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). Catering initially for working mothers on low incomes (it cost a penny a day), the home subsequently expanded into an orphanage which by 1900 provided care for up to forty-five children under the age of 6. 

During the Great War, Belgian refugees added to their numbers. Barrett was herself a congregationalist, and the home was open to children of all protestant denominations. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s it pursued a policy of boarding-out and emigration. This led her to visit Canada on several occasions to inspect the children’s adoptive homes, after which she made a detailed study of adoption legislation in Canada and the US, the result of which was her article on adoption in the Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (1891).

Having long campaigned for a modernisation of the laws relating to children, in 1889 she broadened her child-care activities with the establishment of the Dublin Aid Committee. This provided the basis for what became the Irish branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Founded in the aftermath of an investigation she initiated into the mistreatment of children in a home in Tuam, Co. Galway, it sought to ensure that the legal rights of children were enforced. Both she and her brother William were original general committee members of the NSPCC’s Irish section; though his association with it was brief, she remained on the committee until 1908.

Though she was best known for her work with children, she also took part in other philanthropic projects, among them the Irish Home Industries Association of Lady Aberdeen and the Philanthropic Reform Association. She often raised the issue of women’s welfare and was among those who assisted in establishing the Women’s National Health Association. Formed in 1907, it sought to promote public awareness about the prevention of diseases, particularly TB and infant mortality. A prominent figure in the suffrage movement, she was an active member of the non-militant and non-party Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, and as such was included in the delegation that travelled to London in 1912 to lobby Irish MPs in connection with the home rule bill. She was also a keen temperance advocate, serving for a time as president of the Irish Women’s Temperance Union.

A prolonged illness in 1919 forced her to retire from her position as secretary of the Cottage Home in 1920, after which she left Kingstown and moved to England. Nevertheless she maintained her connections with the home, continuing as a committee member and its president until her death. Throughout her career she produced various publications on child-related issues, most notably her paper ‘Juvenile criminals’, given to the International Congress on Prison Management in Budapest (Sept. 1905), which won the Howard medal. She also compiled Lock’s Guide to Dublin charities (1884) and wrote a biography of the White Cross pioneer Ellice Hopkins (1908). A keen traveller, over the years she visited Sweden, Norway, and South Africa. She died unmarried (28 August 1936) at her home in Hanside Lane, Welwyn Garden City, Herts.


GRO (England and Wales); Report of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1890–1908); Thom, 1891; NAI, MS 1901 census records; G. D. William, Dublin charities (1902); J. S. Gibbons and Rosa M. Barrett, Inebriety and crime (1906); WWW; Times, death notice 1 Sept., obit. 2 Sept. 1936; Olive C. Goodbody, One hundred years a-growing (1979); Cliona Murphy, The women’s suffrage movement and Irish society in the early twentieth century (1989); Maria Luddy, ‘Women and charitable organisations in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Women’s Studies International Forum, xliv (1989), 301–5; ead., Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Ireland (1995)


Further reading

For more details on the work of the DIB see:


Frank McNally An Irishman’s Diary on the Belgian refugees of 1914-18 


RTÉ – The History Show – Belgian Refugees in Ireland


Conor Mulvagh Minute book of the Belgian Refugees’ Committee


Sarah-Anne Buckley, ‘Child neglect, poverty and class: the NSPCC in Ireland, 1889—1939 — a case study’, Saothar, Vol. 33 (2008), pp 57-70. (This is a JSTOR link – the article is available to read online for those who do not have institutional login, it is possible to register as an individual).




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