Women have been fighting for equality and recognition for centuries. In Irish history, women have always been seen as supporting cast members, fundraisers, nurses, etc. and safely put in the appropriate roles for their gender, whether they could do more or not. This has been the case for years and years and only now is that idea starting to be debunked by historians…but the historians devoting themselves to elevating the roles of women are mostly female. Myself included.
There’s always a mention of the Ladies Land League in the history books, but the powerful organization was sidelined as soon as the men they had replaced were released from prison. Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan were founded and ruled by fighters and suffragists, but most historians still focus on the men, the Brotherhood, and the Volunteers when they write. Women weren’t allowed in those groups and are largely absent in the tales of them, despite how often they worked side by side. During the Easter Rising many ladies were not allowed to fight or shoot even if they knew how to, and some men wouldn’t tolerate the women at all, including the future leader of Ireland. The authors of the almighty Proclamation which demanded equality between the sexes even had issues when it came to their female counterparts in the revolution. They took action to protect them when they could and told the women to leave before the surrender. It didn’t occur to the men that they might be devaluing the women by trying to save them. No one asked the ladies if they wanted to be saved, and many were shocked when a lot of women refused to leave. These ladies marched out in formation with the men they’d fought beside all week long, with their heads held high. When it was over, these brave women weren’t allowed to give official statements and were not eligible to receive army pensions for their participation. Women were accused of being too radical and too emotionally invested in the cause for Irish freedom and were slowly relegated to the shadows once more. It would be decades before that changed and some would argue that it still hasn’t.
The IRA didn’t officially allow women into its ranks until much later, even though women had participated in and facilitated countless operations for years. Female Republican prisoners staged protests to shine a light on the conditions they were facing but nearly every time they did, they were asked or told by IRA commanders to stand down. Seeing ladies as political prisoners who could use the same tactics as the men was impossible for many. It made too many people uncomfortable to think of women living in cells that were painted with excrement and blood, while wearing nothing but a blanket. Many couldn’t bear the idea of females starving themselves to achieve political status or highlight their captivity and more often than not, they were told to quit.
These women had to fight on every front. They wanted to be valued equally, as people and as soldiers. To accomplish this, they had to work twice as hard to prove themselves, not just to their enemies but also to their allies. They frequently took far more dangerous jobs than their male counterparts, for half the respect and recognition. When they did stand up to be counted among those who were on hunger strike they were pressured to stop, not just by the British and the media but by their own central leadership and clergy as well.
However, this didn’t discourage the ladies who were devoted to the Republican cause. Cumann na mBan is one of the most hard-line Republican groups in history. Many of their members joined the IRA as soon as they could while others stayed with the outlawed women’s organization. They were all sent to Armagh (the only womens’ prison in the North of Ireland) at one time or another. Many were there when all hell broke loose in the prisons of the North, and they refused to be left out.
In Mid-October, 1974, male Republican prisoners in Long Kesh (a.k.a.The Maze) began rioting, and they set the unholy place on fire. They fought with guards and destroyed a large portion of the jail. These actions spread to other prisons in the region, including Armagh. Concerned for their male counterparts, the ladies there trashed their cells, threw up barricades, and took the warden and other staff members hostage in an effort to stand with the men in Long Kesh.
There was not a lot of time to plan the operation, but according to Rosie Hamill the short prep time didn’t hinder them. Everyone had a job to do, whether that was general destruction, attacking the “screws”, knowing where to block the stairs, or getting the keys. The Republican women succeeded in holding three female officers and the Governor of the prison hostage for about fourteen hours. The electricity and water was turned off during the standoff so the ladies set a fire and used the fire hose when they needed a drink. The stalemate could have kept going, but the prisoners stood down after the clergy intervened and they received a direct message (order) from Long Kesh. The women were told they would not face reprimand or charges for the kidnapping of the staff and they were given proof that the men in the Maze were alive. The hostage negotiations were quickly completed.
This is just one example of many that show how quick-thinking and devoted the Republican women in Armagh were. Female prisoners were always allowed to wear their own clothes, but the ladies still joined the dirty protests and the hunger strikes on behalf of the men who could not. They too wanted special category status and they desperately needed to get the outside world to pay attention to the poor conditions and violent situations they were placed in. The majority of the guards and the staff in the women’s prison were male and the problems that arose with that were violent, cruel, and sometimes sexual in nature. It’s no wonder the women were devoted to each other and to the other Republican prisoners in the North. Their belief was all they had and their time in jail only made them more radicalized and more strategic.
This made it all the more heartbreaking for them when the IRA fashioned a truce in 1975, without consulting the female prisoners at all. The women weren’t even notified of the possibility until the agreement was already in place. It was a slap in the face of their struggle and a sharp reminder that equality still had a long way to go.
Many of the women in Armagh (and other prisons) have told their tales of unbelievable strength, their bitter disappointment, and their enduring loyalty to Ireland and each other throughout the years. If you are interested in their struggles and stories “In the Footsteps of Anne” is a good place to start. It’s an amazing compilation that I’d recommend to anyone, no matter what gender you claim. It gives a wonderful insight into the women who gave up their freedom while they were fighting for Ireland’s and their constant battle for equality both in their own factions and the world at large.
The women’s prison at Armagh is now a thing of the past but the sexism, chauvinism, and betrayal they faced still lingers. Countless times these women stood up in solidarity with the men in other prisons…and not once was that loyalty returned. It’s time for that to change, in Ireland and beyond.
The struggle is real folks, and ongoing. Feminism is not a threat or a man-hating bitch platform. Be an ally, not a protector. It’s long past time for everyone to realize that women are not made to be “revered”, “cherished” or “tended to.” Women deserve the same recognition and respect that’s afforded to anyone else, no matter where you live. We need to be seen as people and partners, who are capable, strong and smart with or without anyone else. We need to not be categorized as wives/daughters/mothers, etc but as people who are important regardless of our relationship to a man, and in what should be obvious to everyone, women need to make the decisions about our actions and our bodies…which are our own and not there merely for someone else’s pleasure or disdain. Include us in the stories and the histories, and stop saying things like “hit like a girl” unless you’re knocking someone out or “scream like a girl” unless you’re belting out a war cry. Every little bit helps.