Linda Connolly: It's time to tell the hidden histories of Eileen Biggs and Margaret Doherty

Ireland's revolutionary period was marked by sexual violence — and the archives suggest the scale of outrages, from hair cutting to rape, was even worse than the papers reported at the time
Linda Connolly: It's time to tell the hidden histories of Eileen Biggs and Margaret Doherty

Women at a vigil for republican prisoners on hunger strike in Cork City Gaol (now part of UCC) during the Civil War. Women's active role in the era has been somewhat overlooked, and so too has the sexual violence endured by so many. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

Gender-based and sexual violence have not been considered a major aspect of periods of violent conflict in Ireland’s past.

Investigation of this type of violence has been more focused on family-related violence or the incidence of rape, harassment, and sexual assaults during periods of peacetime.

My recent publications and forthcoming book, however, put the position, experience, and treatment of women specifically at the centre of distinct episodes of violence, war, and revolution in Ireland.

The impetus for this project was a set of conversations I had with colleagues in 2015, as the decade of centenaries gathered pace, who assured me military-related rape and gender-based violence did not feature to any great extent in periods of war and conflict in 20th-century Ireland — such crimes were considered very rare and prevented by a code of honour within the IRA, in particular, during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War.

Yet there is evidence to suggest this was not entirely observed in the Irish revolution.

'Seduction' and 'criminal assault' 

Newspapers across this period for instance continued to report civilian rapes of women (often euphemistically referred to as “seduction”, “ravishing”, or “criminal assault”) and children, including cases of incest, in the courts.

So why would the revolution/periods of violent conflict in Ireland be an exception compared to other wars internationally, of similar size and duration, where women were often subject to targeted violence?

Despite the light-hearted nature of this photo of Free State troops and a woman — all unidentified — in Cork in August 1922, the historical evidence points to rape and sexual violence being common during the War of Independence and the  Civil War. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive
Despite the light-hearted nature of this photo of Free State troops and a woman — all unidentified — in Cork in August 1922, the historical evidence points to rape and sexual violence being common during the War of Independence and the  Civil War. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

And how can the women who experienced such violence be ethically and sensitively remembered in a moment of national commemoration?

The official centennial commemoration of a bitter, internecine Civil War of 1922-23 is underway. But remembering events or periods stained by transgressive violence is very challenging and can evoke public reaction, as the botched State proposal to officially commemorate the RIC demonstrated. A memorial stone at Knocknagoshel for instance, to mark the killing of five National Army soldiers on March 6, 1923, was badly vandalised in 2014.

The onset of the Civil War is usually categorised as starting with the firing of bullets between pro- and anti-Treaty forces (presumed to be mostly men) on June 28, 1922.

However, another type of conflict-related violence that requires reflection — bodily violence and terror targeted at women — is apparent in the revolution including before, during, and after the Civil War.

The particular forms of gender-based and sexual violence witnessed in many other wars (such as rape, sexual harassment, forced hair cutting/taking, and tarring and feathering) and researched by scholars in other disciplines were not considered an important feature of the Irish revolution for several decades.

Violence perpetrated against women, such as forced hair cutting, does not fit with any heroic narrative of the period 1919-23.

Hair cutting was intended to shame, control, and sexually police women considered too close or intimate with crown forces. The shame of participating in the systematic taking of women’s hair is likewise self-evident and has received less scrutiny.

Few IRA veterans from the War of Independence or pro- and anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War have openly discussed or named in firsthand testimonies their own or others’ involvement in hair cutting or indeed sexual assaults among their own ranks. Yet numerous incidents of hair cutting especially, usually involving groups of masked local men, are very widely documented (especially in newspaper reports).

The IRA was very extensively engaged in hair cutting and the associated policing and surveillance of women nationally. New evidence of sexual assaults in this period have also been unearthed — including in my own publications — since 2016.

Eileen Biggs

One particular case of transgressive sexual violence, which had long survived in local public and private memory, has been noted and accepted by historians since 2012.

A horrific assault on a Protestant woman near Dromineer, Co Tipperary, was led allegedly by four local, anti-Treaty IRA men in the early hours of June 16, 1922, a century ago.

The attack on Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs and her husband Samuel Biggs was documented in detail in an Irish Grants Committee compensation claim of 1926, was publicly documented in the newspapers of the day and referred to by Churchill in the British House of Commons.

Eileen was referred to as “Harriet” Biggs in one newspaper report at the time in error. Another woman of this name lived in Cloughjordan but she is not the correct person. Birth, marriage, and death records explicitly record the name Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs (nee Robinson).

The compensation claim application describes in Eileen’s words in detail the events on the night in question and the documentation is all signed by her with consent.

It is described how Eileen was locked in a room in her home in the Dromineer area and was “outraged” on eight or nine different occasions and severely injured.

Her husband Samuel and a house guest were locked in adjoining rooms while the men drank and looted the house. Eileen was found semiconscious after the ordeal.

After a period in hospital in Dublin, she subsequently went to England with her husband, where she was awarded a notably large sum of compensation for that time (£6,000).

The Biggs subsequently returned to Dublin, where Eileen died in 1950 soon after being admitted to St Patrick’s psychiatric hospital.

The Biggs and Robinsons were military families with officer members of both involved in the Anglo-Boer and First World wars.

Eileen’s brother Robert Hervey St Clair Robinson was stationed in Dublin in the British Army during the 1916 Rising and is listed as present at the trial of Eoin MacNeill

Whether this was known locally in Dromineer or a possible motive in the attack on Eileen is not fully clear.

Other IRA attacks in this area were reported in the newspapers including of some Catholics.

In July 1922, the Trench house (relatives of the Biggs), for instance, was visited by the Cloughjordan IRA, armed with rifles and revolvers, and a protestant servant assaulted.

These incidents clearly caused distress and terror in both protestant and pro-Treaty households which suggests sectarianism alone is too simplistic a term to capture the cause and effect of the local violence.

Reference to the Biggs case and named perpetrators appear in a number of sources. Some of the alleged members of the group who attacked Eileen, said to include brothers and cousins, appeared in Nenagh court but ultimately were never prosecuted as the Civil War intensified. Justice was never served.

Yet to this day, local republican men are still commemorated heroically on monuments, outside the courthouse, at Banba Square in Nenagh.

In contrast, in 2019 I found Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs, buried in an unmarked grave with her sister Hilda V Robinson in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin.

The sense of shame felt by the Biggs and Robinson families is painfully documented in Eileen’s compensation claim. Women who were victims of civil war violence and lived with hidden psychological and physical injuries in the aftermath were not afforded heroism or commemoration.

Such crimes were not confined to the IRA, however.

Margaret Doherty

In May 2018, I first read the military services pension application of Catherine Doherty of Currinara, Foxford, Co Mayo, on behalf of her daughter Margaret who had died in 1928 in the Castlebar “mental home”.

The pension application on behalf of Margaret Doherty includes her membership of Cumann na mBan — but also records the attack perpetrated on her in 1923.
The pension application on behalf of Margaret Doherty includes her membership of Cumann na mBan — but also records the attack perpetrated on her in 1923.

The pension application made by Catherine referred in great detail to an atrocity and subsequent “trial” in the aftermath of an attack on Maggie Doherty — referred to as an “outrage” perpetrated by three National Army officers stationed nearby.

I subsequently embarked on trying to find a related report on a court of enquiry referred to in the pension application. The detailed file documenting Maggie Doherty’s testimony — Discipline – Charge against Liuets Waters, Benson and Mulholland, Ballina, Military Archives, Dublin — was ultimately found in 2019 and released in conjunction with the Irish Military Archives.

It serves as an example of the important role of public archives in acknowledging and documenting sexual violence targeted at women, opened with the consent of intergenerational families.

Margaret (known to her family as Maggie) was born on January 2, 1896 in Foxford. Two of Margaret’s brothers, Hugh and Willie, actively fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War in north Mayo.

In 1933, Margaret’s mother Catherine Doherty made a written application for a military services pension based on the loss of her daughter Maggie.

The application contains details of Maggie’s republican activism in the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan from 1920 to 1923, but for the most part it refers to serious ill-health from 1923 on due to the incident at the family homestead on May 27, 1923.

The file documents her mother Catherine’s eventual receipt of a partial dependents’ gratuity of 112 pounds and 10 shillings sterling in 1937 under the Army Pensions Acts.

According to a letter signed by Maggie’s brother (Patrick) dated September 16, 1935, a sworn inquiry by Officers of the Free State Army was held into the attack but no further details on this were provided.

The pension application clearly indicated that steps were taken to pursue justice and accountability for an atrocity in 1923.

Crucially, these sources also reveal that by 1933 when Catherine applied for a pension, Maggie had not been forgotten or ostracised by others in her community.

Letters of support for the pension application were provided by local doctors, the local headmaster,
the Church of Ireland rector, the parish priest, and political representatives.

It took four years for the pension application of Catherine Doherty to be fully processed which is inexplicable given the gravity of what had occurred.

Catherine died on April 30, 1938, the board decision to grant the pension was dated November 25,1936 just a year and five months before she died.

The action of Catherine Doherty and her family in applying for a pension, however, inscribed in the State’s archive an account of what happened to her only daughter.

This has both served to preserve Maggie’s story as an example of trauma history as well as a very uncomfortable aspect of National Army and Civil War violence against women that has taken many years to resurface.

This critical account of sexual violence remained hidden in Irish military archives for almost a century, never referred to by any historian of the period.

On July 25, 1923, three army lieutenants were found “not guilty” and “honourably” acquitted of another case of gang rape during the civil war.

The extraordinary and moving story of Margaret Doherty serves as a very powerful reminder of some of the hidden realities of the Irish Civil War.

Maggie’s story lived on quietly in the intergenerational memory of her family and community while it remained submerged and hidden in State archives and official histories of the Civil War in Mayo for almost a century.

Her death in 1928 was not recorded as one of the killings of the Civil War period but it was caused by its violence.

The hidden and uncomfortable histories of women, such as Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs and Margaret Doherty, merit due consideration in a moment of national commemoration and remembrance of a dark and violent episode.

• Professor Linda Connolly, Maynooth University, is the author of several widely-referenced publications including on the gender-based violence women experienced in the Irish Revolution (1919-23). Her new book on women, violence, and the Irish revolution will be published later this year.

• If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

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