Skip to main content
March 19, 2010

Ruffling a Few Patriarchal Hairs: Women's Experiences of War in Northern Ireland


Ruffling a Few Patriarchal Hairs: Women's Experiences of War in Northern. Ireland

When I agreed to write this article the war in Northern Ireland did not seem any closer to an end than it had been for the past 15 years. The peace talks, or the attempt to produce them, appeared to most commentators as doomed to failure as past governmental attempts had been to impose peace in "the province," as the British like to call Northern Ireland. Then all of a sudden the IRA announced a cease-fire, and a few weeks later the Loyalist paramilitaries followed. From night to day women's experiences to day women's experiences of the war seemed to pass from burning actuality to history, as swiftly as Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (political wing of IRA), passed from scorned terrorist to upcoming statesman. There is something tricky about this change of categories. For one thing, this has frequently been a prelude to marginalize women who have been active during war once this is over and the reorganization of civil and political life is at stake. For this reason the experiences of women during the last 25 years of war are not just history in the popular sense of something that can be relegated to memory and filed into the archives; these experiences are rather the baggage with which women in Northern Ireland are trying to delineate their own space of intervention in the newly open political scenario.

Women's experiences of the war have been a widely ignored dimension of "The Troubles," as the conflict has been euphemistically called. What comes to most people's minds when they hear the word "women" in association with Northern Ireland is "Peace Women," a somewhat spontaneous movement of women that arose in 1976. Led by Maired Corrigan and Bettie Williams, the movement was prompted by the accidental killing of three children by a car driven by an IRA man that had been deadly wounded by an army patrol. The Peace Women received a lot of publicity and in 1977 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, the movement lacked a coherent program to be politically effective and quickly fell in popularity. The Peace women captured the popular imagination because it confirmed deep rooted popular perceptions that associate men with war and women with birth and life-giving processes. It reinforced also the idea that women were united by a shared mothering nature that was contrary to violence. The reality of women's experiences of political violence is, however, more complex and disturbing than these commonly held stereotypes.

Taking Sides

In 1989 I attended a round table discussion on the theme of Women and Nationalism that took place in Queen's University, Belfast. Different nationalist political parties were supposed to discuss the role of women. Appropriately all the party representatives were women. The debate soon became an argument between those who favored armed struggle and those who were against it. The argument was coded in gender terms. The representative of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) began by saying that, "The war is a men's thing. Women do not have a part in it; women and war do not go together." A woman in the overwhelmingly female audience shouted from the back, "How about Mairead Farrell?" The SDLP representative said "Mairead Farrell is dead."

Maired Farrell, an IRA militant, was indeed dead, killed in Gibraltad in 1988 in a scandalous operation led by British security forces. She had spent fourteen years in Armagh jail - one of them without washing - surrounded like the rest of the republican prisoners by her own shit to fight the British decree that transformed her from political prisoner into common criminal. She was the leader of women prisoners and one of the three women who went on hunger strike shortly before IRA prisoner, Bobby Sands, fasted to death in 1981, followed by nine more male prisoners. After her death Mairead Farrell became an icon, an allegory of female heroism for republican women. The invocation of her name obviously contradicted the statement that women and war did not go together. So, too, the reminder that Mairead was dead underlined in turn the failure waiting the choice of armed activism for women.

After her lapidary response the SDLP representative continued without blinking an eye, asserting that, "The use of guns is the male way. Women's role is not being involved in the war, it is not for women to take traditional men's war." Emphasizing the non-neutrality of women, the Sinn Fein representative responded, "Women are not only part of the IRA, they are also part of the police force (RUC), and the Ulster Defense Regiment (the regional branch of British army)." Tension rose in the room. A woman from the public said that the only morally defensible position was to stop the bombing and killing of the IRA. A second woman answered that the violence she had suffered came from the police and the army who had raided her house and terrorized her children. The air was so thick it could be cut with a knife.

If nothing else, this debate undermines the common assumption that women by virtue of their gender have a shared experience of war. Related to this assumption is the dominant representation of women as passive victims of what has been called by sociologist Eileen Evason "an armed patriarchy." There is no doubt that for the last twenty-five years, women in Northern Ireland, particularly in the working class ghettoes, have had to endure daily armed police and military men patrolling their streets, searching their houses, offering verbal abuse, harassing, arresting and killing. They have had to contend as well with guns of loyalist and republican paramilitary organizations punish the "unfaithfulness" of prisoners' wives or their other perceived betrayals to the community. But women have not been impotent victims of these forces, nor have they experienced them in the same way. Since 1969 when communal riots brought the British army into Northern Ierland, women have been anything but passive bystanders of the conflict. Struggling to shape their lives and the life of the community within the constrains of a war that, like all wars, placed different demands on different social classes and ethnic communities, they have taken sides and engaged with the violence permeating their lives in a multiplicity of ways. The pervasive idea that women are mere victims of the war and naturally oppose it has obscured the complex processes by which women take sides, take risks, take arms and wage war. This idea obscured the complex dynamic through which women become subjects and not mere objects of social transformation.

Learning Disobedience

During the 1970s women in the working class Catholic ghettoes of Belfast organized different forms of popular resistance. Local newspapers of those years record groups of Catholic women demonstrating against the British army almost every day. Much of the motivation for this subversive activity came from the rising number of arbitrary arrests of young men that "internment without trial" made possible. The policy of internment allowed the police and the army to arrest people for an indefinite period of time without the need to press charges. This policy was supposed to thwart the nascent Provisional IRA, but it affected most of the population in the Catholic districts. The Catholic ghettoes perceived the arrests and militarization of everyday life as an assault on the community that provoked a double effect. On the one hand it enraged young men who flocked to the ranks of the IRA. On the other it left women to cope alone with raising a family in a situation of increased financial hardships brought by the arrest of men and by the increased militarization of their lives. For women like Brigid, a housewife at the time, it was not a matter of choice: "Many women had small children and had enough with raising their families. They would have preferred to go on with their lives as before but they had no choice because their husbands were arrested and also their older sons; they had to do something."

Women organized in their streets, picked the police stations, created an alarm system to warn against army raids, his IRA men in their houses, and passed around information about family benefits, prison visits and state bureaucracy. The IRA began a bombing campaign, Protestant paramilitaries began killing Catholics and shootings occurred everyday. The fear and anxiety that husbands and sons could be killed or arrested at any moment put women under tremendous psychological stress. Many women took tranquilizers to cope with the situation. They also organized a campaign against the policy of internment.

State policy had the effect of creating a genderized experience of the unfolding war. Internment brought men into the prisons and embedded them in its political culture. The prison became a school of militant nationalism in which men learned Irish republican history, ideology and military organization. Women, however, tested their abilities in a variety of social contexts. The hardships of coping alone with family needs amidst poverty and increasing militarization created new ties of solidarity among women and developed in them a new sense of independence and self-identity. This was, in the words of many Catholic women, "a learning process," painful but also exciting.

Women felt empowered by the collective experience of confronting fully armed police and British soldiers and by the feeling of widening personal frontiers. They were reading all sorts of political literature constantly circulating during those early days of the war. They were also speaking in public, at meetings, to the police and meeting people from different parts of the world who came and went in waves as the war unfolded. Women like Lily Fitzsimons, today a Belfast councilor, began questioning the state and continued questioning everything. It was a process of learning politics: the talk, the power, the ugliness, the pain, and the humor of politics. But it was as well a process of personal transformation. Women were forging new identities for themselves as they wrestled with new nationalist identities. Men were busy refashion in g political identities and restructuring political practices, but for the most part their personal identities were not at question. Such divergence of experience generated its own problems.

Gender Trouble

Internment finished in 1976. Many men were sent home then, although men had been since the beginning in 1971 coming in and out of jail in an endless stream that put women in a situation of permanent transit between homes and prisons, linking both places with an invisible but unbreakable tie. Men who came home after a long period of time had difficulty adjusting, so did women. Northern Ireland was a rigidly patriarchal society in which men expected to dominate outside and inside the house. Women had full responsibility for the house and were expected to cater to their men's needs. But internment opened a window to other possibilities of life, creating new social and psychological spaces for women. One nationalist woman put it this way:

Men were used to the women being in the house all the time. But with internment there was no dinner at five and children to bed at eight. Everything was disorganized them. Men did not realized that because they were locked up. When they came out they expected to find things as they left them. But women were not willing to go back into the house again. It was a big shock!

Many couples ended up separating. After years of unfailing prison visits and faithful political and emotional support, the self-reliance of women seemed to place too much of a strain on domestic life.

Women not only experienced the war from their position as wives and mothers; a small number of young women became what Elshtain has called "the most ferocious few": women terrorists. They gained membership in the IRA, an organization that had been all male until the early 1970s. They were imprisoned and killed in what the IRA describes as "active service," as if non-military political actions were not active. IRA women were "desexualized" in popular culture. In nationalist rhetoric they were "girls," in the tabloids they were "angels of death" or unnatural viragoes. Needless to say these images say more about social anxieties provoked by women breaking stereotypes of femininity than about the experience of these young militants. If jail gave men a republican education it gave women a feminist awareness. Contact with other women prisoners gave them a consciousness of women's unequal position in society.

Prison Protests

In the second half of the seventies when internment was substituted for a "policy of criminalization," mothers of prisoners lived for their sons' "comms," letters written in tiny handwriting on cigarette paper. Overnight the criminalization policy transformed political prisoners into common criminals, a change symbolized by the substitution of prison uniforms for prisoners' own clothes. Republican prisoners refused to dress in uniforms and launched a campaign against criminalization that, except for a blanket and monthly visits, left them naked and isolated from the outside world. The "comms" were crucial vehicles of communication. They also contained political and military information passed secretly back and forth through the mouths and vaginas of women. Once again women organized, rallied and traveled all over Ireland, Europe and the United States to voice the largely invisible suffering of their sons and daughters. It took them four years to form a mass movement in favor of the prisoners. The movement did not succeed in resolving prison conflict but brought Ireland and England to the point of political crisis.

Women As Symbols

When the hunger strikes came in 1981 and Bobby Sands inaugurated a line of deaths, mothers acquired again the allegorical value of a nation unjustly beaten and starved to death. This is not an infrequent dimension of war for women. Their lives are not only constrained by a thick fabric of responsibilities that can be summarized in the words of a Belfast community activist as "picking up the trash after the men are killed or arrested," they are also constrained by what they come to symbolize. Women's bodies seem to provide a much more malleable material than men's for the inscription of state or nationalist meanings. Thus, their bodies are transformed not only into allegories (female representations of Ireland have a long tradition) but are also subjected to control as the very terrain in which the war is waged. Women's bodies were, like their houses, searched by male soldiers in hated surveillance operations. Women's bodies were tarred and feathered by zealous nationalists in punishment for loving British soldiers during the early seventies. Women's bodies were assaulted in Armagh prison by armed men searching for forbidden skirts and berets used as IRA uniforms. It was also at this level of the body that women revolted and symbolized a different experience of the war.

In 1980 women prisoners refused to wash for a year to protest the assault by prison guards and lack of political recognition. To the shit that enveloped their cells they added the inevitable stains of menstrual blood. And the latter, as a tabooed symbol of femininity, acted as transgressive symbol. When Armagh women decided to go on "dirty strike," they were stepping out of their assigned allegorical value as suffering mothers and victimized girls, and laid a claim to subjecthood. They did not want to be marginalized "girls" anymore; they wanted to be like their male comrades at the center of the political story. For the feminists who opposed the IRA because it divided women, IRA women appeared as pale copies of male prisoners. Other feminists, however, saw in the menstrual blood of Armagh women a project of liberation. Their fight did not clearly fit any of the existing nationalist and feminist categories and gender stereotypes, and precisely because of such transgressive quality it reached central stage, triggering public discussion about the links between sexual and political violence, and about the meanings of feminism and nationalism. For feminists of different persuasions the experience was difficult, sometimes bitter. Some women's organizations split over the decision whether or not to support the Armagh prisoners. But the experience was also productive. It left prisoners with a new understanding of their political identity as women-nationalists.

The Politics of Feminism

The feminist movement emerged in the North of Ireland in the midst of prison protests, sectarian assassination and war. The Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement came into being in 1975 as an umbrella organization to unite and organize women. Northern Ireland was far behind the rest of the United Kingdom when it came to women's rights; legislation on divorce was anachronistic, abortion was illegal, and discrimination in salary and education was pervasive. These were important issues but in the working class ghettoes poverty and violence were more pressing concerns. Gender alone proved to be an insufficient base for the development of a political program of change for all women. The Women's Rights Movement split over political disagreements, and diversified into a multiplicity of groups campaigning on different issues. In 1986 after ten years of painstaking, difficult work within the "mess" of war, historian and feminist activist, Margaret Ward, looked back at the decade of feminism in Northern ireland and wondered if women had managed to accept their differences or had grown further apart. Such rapprochement of the diversity of women's experience and the different political strategies within the feminist movement entailed in 1986 courage, or in the words of Inez McCormick, trade unionist, "a difficult, dangerous honesty." It was a question of beginning to face diversity in what it had been a politics of identity. Three years later feminist women who considered themselves outside the mainstream (republicans, lesbians, Gaelic activists) published a collection of essays on the Irish Women's Movement entitled, Unfinished Revolution. From the point of view of one of these women, Marie MulHolland, a community worker and heterodox republican from Belfast, the heterodox republican from Belfast, the concern was no longer simply acknowledging differences; that, feminists had already done. it was now the time to form coalitions in the pursuit of something that remained unfinished: revolution-feminist revolution.

New Perspectives

Activist women of different convictions in Northern Ireland now face something of a post revolutionary situation without revolution. The IRA cease-fire and the concomitant cease-fire of Protestant paramilitaries has opened the peace process. The war is over, at least for the moment. It is not a case of revolutionary change, there is no new nation, no upturned political structures, at least not yet. But at the level of everyday life, it feels as disconcerting as if there were. Reality seems to be up for grabs and appears to be negotiated all too quickly by very few politicians and government officials at high levels. At the level of national and international politics the main problem might be getting loyalists and republicans to find common ground about Northern Ireland. But women had already crossed this divide before the negotiating table appeared on the horizon. Republican and loyalist women had been working together at least since 1988 out of concern for the situation of poverty and violence facing working class women. They came together from the position of respecting political differences rather than erasing them in favor of a primary gender unity. What these women are now interested in is a socio-economic agenda that takes their needs into account, something which no political party seems prepared to furnish. This is not particularly strange. Women have become in the last two decades a growing sector of the labor force, working, however, in unstable, part-time unskilled jobs. A new group of women has emerged out of former networks of women "Clar na mBan" (the Women's Agenda) to ensure that they get a say in the new political process. During the war women learned, sometimes bitterly, that to be heard they had to voice their concerns, and to do this they had to organize themselves. That they might effectively do so during the peace might well depend on their ability to continue respecting their differences while acting together. If they do this, surely political parties in Northern Ireland could use their example. There is some evidence that they are ruffling patriarchal hairs-surely a good sign.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.