Cahalan, Cissie (1876–1948), trade unionist and suffragist, was born in Cork in 1876. Little is known of her early life, other than that she was apprenticed to the drapery trade, and by 1906 was based in Dublin where she worked as a draper's assistant in Arnott's of Henry St. Her involvement with the trade union movement began in 1906 when she first met Michael O'Lehane (qv), general secretary of the Irish Drapery Assistants Association (IDAA; known as the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks from 1921) at a meeting in the Rotunda, organised after the deaths of two women workers in a drapery shop in Camden St. She subsequently joined the union and became an active shop steward in Arnott's. Always anxious to raise the profile of women within the trade union movement, she also organised the Ladies Committee of the Dublin branch of the IDAA, which held educational seminars and encouraged female members to participate at all levels. She became a regular contributor to the union's journal, the Draper's Assistant (later the Distributive Worker), from 1912. Her articles, which reflected the wide variety of her concerns, tackled issues such as women's suffrage, the 1914–18 war, and the need for greater gender equality in the workplace. An enthusiastic and militant suffragist, she joined the Irish Women's Franchise League c.1908. As one of the movement's few working-class members, she was rather unusual in suffrage circles; however, this did not prevent her becoming a key figure in the IWFL, and, encouraged by Francis Sheehy Skeffington (qv), she became a regular contributor to the weekly meetings. In later years she often chaired these discussions. A tenacious public speaker, she subsequently took part in their open-air meetings throughout Dublin, at which she frequently raised the social and economic problems faced by working women. She took part in the IWFL deputation that travelled to Navan for the town's first suffrage meeting (November 1913), and in the following month participated in the Irish Women's Suffrage Federation's conference in Dublin, where she was listed among the speakers at a discussion on ‘Women's trade unions and the vote’.
These heavy commitments inevitably took their toll on Cahalan: writing to her friend Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) in December 1918, she referred anxiously to a possible breakdown in her health. They may have also affected her career, as her high-profile suffrage campaigning is thought to have resulted in her dismissal from Arnott's in 1916. She subsequently joined the staff of Rowes on North Earl St., but was again unemployed after the Easter rising, when the shop's premises were destroyed. In her free time she turned to acting, taking part in ‘Charity’, a play written and produced by union members, in December 1916. By early 1917 she had been reengaged by Arnott's, and in the period that followed continued to juggle her work there with increasing union, suffrage, and anti-conscription campaigns. Elected to the committee of the IWFL (1917, 1918) and the executive committee of the IDAA in April 1918, later that year she played a pivotal role in organising the strike at Arnott's in which up to 450 workers fought successfully for a 30 per cent wage increase. Present at the All-Ireland Labour Conference on Conscription as an IDAA delegate (September 1918), she electioneered for Constance Markievicz (qv) during the general election of that year, and went on to canvass for women candidates in the local government elections of 1920, by which year she was also heavily involved in the management of the suffrage paper, the Irish Citizen.
A staunch defender of mixed unions, she was critical of the Irish Women Workers’ Union of Louie Bennett (qv), which she saw as perpetuating gender conflicts within the labour movement. The two women conducted a debate on the issue in the pages of the Irish Citizen in 1919, Cahalan's article (December) arguing ‘If women in the industrial world want a place in the labour movement, they must seek it in the labour parliament, shoulder to shoulder with the men, and not in any separate organisation, apart and isolated.’ Rising steadily through the ranks of the IDAA, she was elected vice-president of its Dublin branch (March 1920), and from 1919 to 1921 represented it as a delegate at the Irish Trade Union Congress. In April 1921 she was elected president of the union. The first and only woman to hold such a rank within the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks, throughout her three years as president she oversaw the establishment of a minimum wage and an end to the living-in system. She did not shy away from controversy, coming into conflict with the executive during the postal workers’ strike (1922), when she threatened to resign over the union's failure to endorse her directive that members should not deliver company letters during the dispute. She was elected to the national executive of the ITUC in 1922 and 1923; her resignation from Congress and the Labour Party in August 1923 (over their supposed lack of interest in the position of political prisoners on hunger strike) proved unpopular with IDAA members, who replaced her as president in 1924. She continued to work for the IUDWC both as a shop steward and as an active member of the central council of the Dublin branch (1925–6).
In November 1932 she was again sacked from Arnott's. Her dismissal, which was widely considered to be a form of age discrimination, led to a two-week strike at the shop, after which she was not reinstated but received nine months’ paid salary. Soon after, she married the Co. Down-born chemist John Wesley Burns (d. 1936), who was known in the feminist and pacifist movements. With their friends Hanna Sheehy- Skeffington and Kathleen Cruise O'Brien (qv), with whom they often went hiking in the Dublin mountains, they formed part of a circle of radicals known as ‘The Pilgrims’. She became a member of the Women's Social and Progressive League (established in 1937 to redress the new constitution's standpoint on women), and for a short time again contributed articles to the IUDWC's journal. In the mid-1940s she worked as an assistant secretary in St Ultan's hospital on Charlemont St. She died 27 August 1948 in Dublin, and was buried beside her husband in an unmarked grave in Glasnevin cemetery.