Women escaped the worst of the brutalities in the War of Independence

Violence towards women was certainly a feature of the War of Independence, but serious sexual assaults and the targeted killing of females were rare, writes Marie Coleman.
Women escaped the worst of the brutalities in the War of Independence

THERE were many awful and brutal incidents of violence and killing by Crown forces and the IRA across the protracted insurgency that was the War of Independence (1919-1921).

Yet, despite many bitter attacks and reprisals, serious and violent physical or sexual assaults against women were rare.

One such unusual instance occurred on December 21, 1920, when the body of Kate Maher, a 45-year-old unmarried mother of one daughter, from Dundrum, Co Tipperary, was discovered in a yard behind a local pub.

A British soldier from the Lincolnshire Regiment, Private Thomas Bennett, was lying close by, in an inebriated state. A military court found that Maher died as a result of injuries which “were probably caused by some blunt instrument”.

It was also reported that on the night before her death Maher, who was described by the local police as “a woman of dissolute habits”, was seen leaving a local public house in an intoxicated state in the company of a number of soldiers.

Bennett was eventually cleared by court martial, largely because the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) witnesses were either unable or unwilling to link him to the crime and no other witnesses or evidence were forthcoming.

The violent death of Kate Maher — and its sexual overtone — was exceptional by the standards of violence experienced by women during the Irish War of Independence. Such violence was physical, psychological, and specific to gender (but falling short of sexual assault), rather than sexual or fatal.

There were very few deliberate killings of women. The most notable and controversial were those of the loyalist Mary Lindsay in Cork and the intellectually-disabled poitín-maker, Kate (or Kitty) Carroll in Monaghan.

Carroll had written to the police not about IRA activity, but that of rival poitín-makers, but was shot as an alleged spy nonetheless. Lindsay gave information about a planned IRA ambush near Dripsey to the British authorities. In spite of a warning from a local priest that the enemy was aware of its plans, the local IRA proceeded with its operation, resulting in the capture of eight volunteers.

Following the execution of five of them, Lindsay and her chauffeur, James Clark, were shot dead, and Lindsay’s home, Leemount House in Coachford, was burned.

The shooting of spies by the IRA became more common in 1921. Nevertheless, both women were shot in contravention of an IRA general order which spared women accused of spying from the ultimate punishment.

In many cases where women died during the War of Independence, it was as a result of non-targeted or random acts of violence. Such incidental fatal attacks on women included the deaths in Galway of the pregnant Ellen Quinn in a drive-by shooting by police on November 1, 1920, and Lily Blake, the wife of a police district inspector whose vehicle was ambushed by the IRA in May 1921.

Jane Boyle was the only female casualty of the indiscriminate shooting of civilians by Black and Tans in Croke Park on ‘Bloody Sunday’. There is ample evidence attesting to physical assaults on women by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. Frequently this took the form of cutting off their hair.

In September 1920 five members of Cumann na mBan in Galway were subjected to this unofficial punishment in reprisal for a similar attack carried out by the IRA on a woman who had given evidence to a military court.

This incident indicates that the IRA was equally liable to commit such attacks and there are many instances of women who were friendly with the police or who worked for them being treated similarly.

The majority of violence against women perpetrated by the IRA was the “victimisation of policemen’s wives and barrack servants”.

This included eviction from and destruction of their homes, verbal and written threats, enforced resignation from employment in police barracks, ostracisation, and exile.

One example of a serious physical assault on a female by the IRA was t hat of a woman who was held down and had three pig rings put into her buttocks with pincers for supplying milk to the police.

Women also had to endure being present during physical assaults, including fatal ones, against their close male relatives. The wife of Cork lord mayor Tomás MacCurtain suffered a miscarriage soon after witnessing her husband’s killing in 1920.

The wives of successive Sinn Féin mayors of Limerick, Michael O’Callaghan and George Clancy, were also eyewitnesses to the shooting of their husbands in their own homes the following year; both men were shot dead in their homes on the night of March 7, 1921, most probably by members of the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries.

Nor did the IRA spare women in this regard. Richard and Abraham Pearson were shot and fatally wounded by the IRA at Coolacrease in Co Offaly on June 30, 1921 while their mother and sisters were nearby.

At least one of the intelligence agents shot on Bloody Sunday, William Frederick Newberry, was killed in the presence of a woman. His definitive evidence of actual sexual assaults on women is more difficult to find.

A British Labour Party commission that visited Ireland in 1920 explained that it was “difficult to obtain direct evidence of incidents affecting females, for the women of Ireland are reticent on such subjects”, but clearly suspected a sexual assault, and perhaps even a rape, had taken place in a case where “a young woman who was sleeping alone in premises which were raided by the crown forces was compelled to get out of bed and her nightdress was ripped open from top to bottom”.

Other specific allegations of rape and serious sexual assault committed by Crown forces during the War of Independence are to be found in the Irish Bulletin, the principal organ of Irish republican government propaganda.

The edition of April 14, 1921 focused on “Outrages on Irishwomen” and carried two reports by a Mrs Healy and a Nellie O’Mahony who claimed respectively to have been raped and sexually assaulted by members of the crown forces.

The principal difficulty with this source is the propaganda nature of the Irish Bulletin; the veracity of these reports is difficult to judge and cannot be relied upon too heavily in the absence of more concrete evidence.

Erskine Childers’s propaganda pamphlet Military Rule in Ireland dedicated a chapter to the effect of the war on women, but this dealt largely with the psychological impact of raids and did not refer to sexual violence.

The weight of the evidence presented before the American commission on conditions in Ireland in 1920 indicated that there was very little sexual crime. In evidence to the commission, the lord mayor of Cork, Donal O’Callaghan, referred to the attempted sexual assault of a servant named Ellie Long in Ballincollig, which happened during a raid by crown forces. However, he was of the opinion that “that class of assaults is not very general in connection with raids”.

While Hanna Sheehy Skeffington did not share these views, her “Statement of atrocities on women in Ireland”, contains only one reference to an alleged rape: “the rape of a girl in the presence of her father reported in Galway near Gort but not yet investigated fully”.

The overall absence of sexual violence by both sides might indicate there was a relatively high level of discipline among the crown forces and the IRA. It is possible to argue that, far from being a lawless mob, the violence of the Tans and Auxiliaries was somewhat orchestrated — a certain level of venting of frustration and retaliation was permitted but this was controlled and curtailed.

IRA units were small, tightly-knit, and embedded in their own communities, and most volunteers were devout Roman Catholics, factors which might have reinforced an informal discipline that drew a line at certain forms of violence that were seen as unacceptable to that society.

The prominent role played by republican women in the independence campaign is another possible explanation for why male republican fighters did not resort to one of the most objectionable forms of violence against women.

Presenting the Irish case for independence in a good light to foreign powers can also be considered as a restraining factor in regard to both combatant sides in the War of Independence.

The first Dáil’s efforts, albeit unsuccessful, to achieve foreign recognition for the republic would have been hampered by reports of callous treatment of women. In a similar vein, the British authorities in Ireland would have been well aware of the potential damage to Britain’s reputation internationally if stories of rape and sexual assault of Irish women began to emerge.

From the British viewpoint the avoidance of sexual violence allowed them to draw a clear contrast with their recent enemy, the autocratic Germany of the Kaiser, whose army had resorted to widespread rape and sexual assault in Belgium at the start of the First World War.

Finally, it is worth considering what was to be gained by either side in resorting to rape? The IRA was fighting what it saw as a war of national liberation on its own soil, and resorted to violence against women primarily as a means of disciplining Irish women seen as consorting with the enemy.

Therefore, it is arguable that the IRA did not resort to sexual violence or rape because it had nothing to gain from doing so; it was not a means that helped achieve any of its aims and its employment would have been counter-productive if anything.

Similarly, the aim of the crown forces in Ireland during the War of Independence was to quell an uprising. The tactics employed by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, especially the burning of homes, businesses, and towns, did a good job of terrorising civilians without having to resort to rape to achieve this end. The crown forces favoured methods which terrorised the civilian population through attacks on property, rather than on persons.

Violence towards women was certainly a feature of the War of Independence, yet the evidence available indicates that it was limited in nature and scope. The targeted killing of females was very rare.

Most of the violence carried out against women can be categorised as physical, gendered and psychological. It is perhaps the latter which was most prevalent, insidious and widespread — its deterrent effect ultimately may have prevented more widespread and violent actions against women in those turbulent years.

Dr Marie Coleman is a historian at Queen’s University Belfast. This is article is based on her essay in Years of Turbulence — The Irish Revolution and Its Aftermath, Published by UCD Press

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