The rarely spoken about violence suffered by women during the Irish revolution

Niall Murray speaks to Professor Linda Connolly and others leading the call for more intense examination of sexual and other violence suffered by women during the Irish revolution a century ago
The rarely spoken about violence suffered by women during the Irish revolution

“In January 1923, a party of men armed to the teeth and calling themselves Republicans forced their entrance into our house where in three people resided.”

This sentence in a July 1924 letter recounted an incident during the Troubles of a century ago in Ireland. But Mary M’s appeal to the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Edward Byrne was more concerned with her own ‘troubles’ than with the political and military turmoil of the period.

She gave birth to a little boy nine months after anti-Treaty IRA invaded her Co Westmeath home, where she confided that “one brute [had] satisfied his duty passion on me”. The risk of being outed as an unmarried mother in the earliest years of an independent Ireland was grave enough for her to appeal to a senior cleric for financial assistance with her son’s upkeep in a so-called ‘rescue agency’ rather than have him returned to her.

But still almost as little-spoken about as such births is the question of sexual and other violence suffered by women in Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War.

Linda Connolly hopes that situation can be rectified during this decade of commemorations. As head of Maynooth University’s Social Sciences Institute, she led others — from disciplines wider than history — in opening that discussion this month. The Irish Research Council-funded conference covered many aspects of women’s experiences of feminism, violence and nationalism from 1917 to 1923.

In her own contribution, Prof Connolly referred to a Cork IRA officer recounting knowledge of two cases of sexual violence by Crown Forces in the northside of the city, matters often used in the international propaganda campaign by the republican movement.

One such case was that of Norah Healy, who was pregnant with her fifth child when she was raped in front of her husband at their Blackpool home. But seeing one of her attackers face-to-face when she visited a local police barracks, she was urged to let the matter slide by an Royal Irish Constable (RIC) sergeant.

“Never mind, don’t say anything now,” he told her.

Almost certainly even more so than today’s low reporting of sexual violence, most such incidents went unrecorded and will be impossible to ever be numbered.

But the fact that the case of Mary M was unearthed by University College Dublin (UCD) historian Lindsey Earner Byrne as part of a study on poverty in early independent Ireland speaks volumes, says Prof Connolly. She believes the many historians of the military conflict have, for far too long, overlooked the question of women’s experiences.

“Stories of very violent assault on women do exist. You only have to look at some of the newspaper reports at the time, and these require serious consideration by any scholar of the period,” she insists.

One such scholar is historian and UCD assistant professor in gender studies Mary McAuliffe. At the conference held in the Royal Irish Academy, she outlined just a fraction of the cases she has unearthed to date in a project to shine a light down this largely unexplored avenue. Tens of thousands of homes were raided by British forces — ordinary police, Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and soldiers — during the years in question. But thousands more were probably raided by the IRA seeking shelter, food, or warning occupants about consorting with the enemy.

“Most happened at night after the occupants had retired to bed. Being in their night clothes gave women a heightened sense of vulnerability,” Mary McAuliffe points out.

“Just try and imagine them banging hard on the door of some isolated cottage, those seconds of heightened terror, and then up to 14 or 15 men bursting in,” she says, painting a

dramatic picture of the dread that faced women and families.

Very often, the men being sought by Crown Forces no longer had a safe place in those homes, leaving them occupied only by the women and children to face this terror alone.

Such turning of the home front into a battlefront is a portrayal too rarely offered in memoirs or other accounts of what Prof Connolly says has been a male-dominated narrative of this pivotal part of Irish history.

And even the sexual connotations of the seemingly less-harmful practice of shaving women’s hair should not be underplayed, she suggests.

“It wasn’t just about inflicting punishment for giving information. It was, in some ways, a sexual policing, of women’s bodies for fraternising with the wrong people,” she argues.

One Cork member of the IRA, Leo Buckley referred in a 1947 statement to the Government-established Bureau of Military History to his local company bobbing girls’ hair for going out with soldiers in Ballincollig. This was a time when short hair was not at all in fashion, and so the victims stood out as a result.

“The appearance of a girl with “bobbed” hair clearly denoted her way of life,” he said about what he described as ‘persistent offenders’.

Of course, such practices were common to both sides. The ability of RIC Auxiliaries to brutalise women was recounted in Ken Loach’s award-winning big-screen portrayal of the conflicts of the time, The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

In one scene, the hair of the female lead character, Eileen, was bobbed during a reprisal on her home following a deadly IRA ambush, while older female relatives were also forced from the burning house at rifle-point.

While there may be little evidence for now that either side used sexual violence as a deliberate military strategy, Mary McAuliffe says raiding parties certainly came very well prepared to impose punishments such as hair-cutting. Anne Devine was sought out by the IRA in a late-night raid of a house near Tuam in May 1920. She was suspected of keeping company with a policeman, whose letter to her was intercepted by IRA intelligence networks.

“Her hair was cut off with a shears, one man holding her. A hair-cutting machine was used to complete the job with her hair being cut almost to the skin,” reported a local newspaper.

Prof Connolly refers to another woman, Julia Goonan, who was taken at midnight by her attackers, hung up by her hair and shaved.

“Eileen Barker was another such victim, having her head shaved by members of the IRA — for allowing British troops to stay in her hotel.”

The opening and digitisation of archives like the Bureau of Military History in relatively recent years has made access to some accounts easier, albeit telling the story from just one side of the conflict. The Department of Defence’s staggered release online of files from the Military Service Pensions Collection, including hundreds of accounts by Cumann na mBan activists, also adds to the material on women’s experiences.

But the history that Prof Connolly insists must be told is one that goes beyond the women who took part in the fight for independence from British control.

“A lot of the focus during 1916 was, quite rightly, about the role of women as combatants. But we also need to look at men and women as civilians, and as victims, which is just as important as the militaristic history,” she says.

Some other archives, like those of welfare services, or compensation scheme for those who had property and goods taken by force, may help to redress the imbalances.

Prof Connolly’s challenge for new perspectives is a strong and justified one, but is not entirely a new call.

The first speaker at the conference she organised was her fellow-sociologist Louise Ryan, now based at University of Sheffield, who has written about the topic in the past.

“I believe there is at least sufficient material to begin to reassess the gendered nature of violence during the Irish War of Independence and to seriously reconsider the ways in which sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence may have been deliberately used to intimidate women in the heavily militarised areas of the country,” she wrote.

That was her conclusion to a 2000 article on the subject. Much more work has, clearly, yet to be done to meet that challenge.

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