International Women's Day 8th March 2023 - A celebration of a Laois pioneer Lucy Franks

Gertrude Maria Lucy Franks (1878-1964)


Lucy Franks was born on the 27th of February 1878, to Matthew Henry Franks and Gertrude Franks (nee Despard) of Westfield House, Castletown, County Laois. Known for her work with the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) and its predecessor the United Irishwomen (UI). In 1917, Lucy became the first president of the Castletown branch of the United Irishwomen; an association established in 1910 by Anita Lett of County Wexford, aimed at encouraging social change for women in rural Ireland by establishing milk depots, teaching crafts, cookery, and even providing for the training of local nurses. As President, Lucy set about raising funds for a hall at Castletown, and by 1920 they held their first crafts exhibition show on St. Patrick’s Day, a show which was held every year thereafter on that day. Lucy was subsequently elected to the Central Executive Committee of the United Irishwomen.

During the Civil War, Lucy’s brother Henry Franks Jr, known as Harry, a staunch southern unionist, was kidnapped by unknown captors. After being held in captivity for a number of days, potentially to ensure that he could not hold court in Mountrath as he inherited his father’s role as Justice of Peace for Mountrath, Harry was returned home to Mountrath. Just two short years later, tragedy hit the family, as the home at Westfield was burnt down, an act which saw outrage on all sides, as the aging senior Henry Franks, then in his nineties, played no role in the political changes happening in Ireland at the time. Nine months after, Henry Franks senior died, leaving Lucy an orphan and no longer a carer for her aging parents. Miss Franks decided to travel and spend time with her family in England and then South Africa. It was there that she studied basket weaving and tray making in cane and leatherwork. Lucy returned to Ireland in 1926 to discover the United Irishwomen organisation was at a low ebb. By 1928, Miss Franks was appointed honorary secretary and set about reigniting the guilds of the United Irishwomen by training the various members in the new skills she had acquired abroad.

By 1929, the determined Miss Franks along with Muriel Gahan, Olivia Hughes, and P.T Sommerville, established The Country Shop, which became a space from where UI guild members could sell their craftwork. Summer Schools were also held throughout Ireland – including at Capard House, County Laois. Lucy remembers the first summer school as: ‘no one in the country had ever tried camping so it was looked on as rather a mad scheme.’ With the encouragement of Lucy Franks, the UI had successfully established a shop, and now guild members began selling their handcrafts at the annual Spring Show in the RDS.

In 1934, the UI was rebranded as the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. By 1936, after stepping down as honorary secretary, Franks carried on with her role as a founder member of the Association of Country Women Worldwide (ACWW) and travelled throughout Ireland often on her bike, visiting the guilds and encouraging handcrafts. On the resignation of Lady Fingal as President in 1942, Miss Franks took up the role for the next decade. She was honoured with the title of Buan Chara – the first recipient of the award within the ICA. Lucy Franks was well ahead of her time in recognising the need for social change in rural Ireland. Her idea of a Roadside Garden Scheme and Cottage Markets are even more relevant now than they were almost a century ago.

Regina Dunne


Lucy Franks. Image from archives of Betty Gorman Castletown ICA. Reproduced with kind permission.