Date: Mon, 11 Mar 1996 10:24:06 -0600
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Date: Sat, 9 Mar 1996 01:42:09 GMT
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From: Arm The Spirit <>
Subject: IWD: Women In The Irish National Liberation Struggle

Women In The Irish National Liberation Struggle

Radikal, #145, February 1992

Women In The Irish National Liberation Struggle

In contrast to Gaelic tradition and Irish culture, present-day Irish society is even more male-dominated than that of other European nations. As is typical for a patriarchal Catholic society, the mother-cult is prevalent in the South, when the idea that women belong in the home pervades. Workers' neighbourhoods in the North, both Catholic and Protestant, are also inundated with anti-women ideologies, but nonetheless, resistance by women—especially during the civil war of the last 20 years—can no longer be ignored.

The Women's Army Cumann na mBan

Since the turn of the century, there have been women's organizations which have taken part in the national liberation struggle, the struggle for equal rights for women, or which have linked both of these efforts.

The best-known of these women's organizations is Cumann na mBan (Union of Women), which was founded in 1914 alongside the Irish Citizen Army, a precursor of the IRA. Its goal was freedom for our nation and a complete end to all forms of discrimination against our gender. Many of the groups' members served simultaneously in the Irish Citizen Army.

In 1921, Ireland was divided, and this had ramifications within the Republican movement. This division, along with long-term political repression and the policies of the Dublin government, also weakened the women's organizations, But they managed to go on - like the Irish Women Workers' Union, which organized strikes in the succeeding decades—but there still was a definite change as far as the unity of women was concerned. Nora Connolly O'Brian characterized this in 1932: After a generation had fought in the resistance both politically and militarily, now suddenly women were returning to their roles in the household without protest.

But during the civil rights movement of the 60's, as the struggle against the British occupying troops intensified, women began to come out strongly in the open once again.

Women In The IRA

At the beginning of the 60's, the IRA's women's army, Cumann na mBan, had scarcely a role. The IRA eventually did away with the group, because it wanted to take up women into its own units and to give women and men equal rights. Some women did not favour this move, however, and remained in the women's army. In the IRA, women are theoretically equal, but the praxis is somewhat problematic, so there are actually few women organized in the IRA.

Desire and Maria, members of the provisional IRA, said at the beginning of the 70's: Women played a role in the earlier struggles, but not to the degree to which they do now. They carried weapons, some planted bombs. Today, women volunteers in the IRA are used just as the men are. They take part in armed encounters against British soldiers. They are asked to plant bombs. Most men are OK and they accept us. Some are a little uncertain about us, because they had never before met a women who was willing to kill.

They think that women should have typical womanly characteristics and not do such things. Still others are just confused. Sometimes you'll enter a room, and all the chairs will be taken. They want to stand up and offer you a seat. And when you reply that you're fine just standing, they are perplexed.

In the 60's and 70's, women in the Irish armies, both the IRA and Cumann na mBan, considered women's liberation to be secondary to the cause of national liberation, but much has changed in the 80's and 90's.

In a statement from some women Republican prisoners in Maghaberry, this development is described:

As Republican women who have been imprisoned for our beliefs, we feel that the struggle for national liberation cannot be wholly separated from the struggle for the complete equality of women.

Despite the fact that women are not accepted as equals in society at large, we nonetheless volunteered to take part in this war. Very few of us put much time into the struggle for women's rights. Although the question of women's rights in society was obviously very significant to us, it took second-place to the military aspects of the struggle. We were naive to think that the most important thing was forcing the British out of our country; we thought we could deal with other themes later...

In prison, we have broadened our political horizons. We have sharpened our vision to recognize the violence against women in families, and the violence against women in the form of economic exploitation. As part of our learning process, we have opened up contacts with women outside of prison and developed a dialogue on the day-to-day problems which women face. As a consequence, we identify ourselves with women across the globe, and now we recognize just how all-encompassing the oppression of women really is...

Portrait Of Mairead Farrell

Mairead Farrell, born in Belfast in 1957, joined the IRA at the age of 18 immediately after leaving school. She came from a traditional republican family. Mairead's grandfather was a member of Tan War (1919-1921) and was imprisoned in 1920.

In the women's prison Armagh, Mairead Farrell became a commanding officer. Of this, she said: There's no real honour in this. I had to make decisions which affected all of the prisoners. And there were times when I felt very alone, even though I had the support of all the other prisoners.

On December 1, 1980, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle began a hungerstrike. When the hungerstrike in the H-Block ended on December 18, the women also called off their strike one day later. But the British government did not meet the strikers' demands. So another hungerstrike was started in the H-Block. Again, a decision had to be made as to whether the women would also take part in the action. After long and controversial discussions, it was decided against this. For Mairead, this is the worst time in prison: waiting for death.

[On March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands began a hungerstrike, and thereafter other prisoners joined in. They demanded: their own clothes; an end to forced labor; free hours together with other prisoners; a visit, letter, or package once a week, and self- organized free-time and education; prison term curtailment, as with normal prisoners. Despite a massive national and international mobilization, the British government would not fulfill the demands. In total, 10 prisoners died between May 6 and August 20, 1981. The hungerstike finally ended in October, and Bobby Sands' funeral was attended by 100 000 people. At the end of the hungerstrike, one of the demands was met: the prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes.—the editors of Radikal]

Later, Mairead studied political science and economics while still in prison. When she was set free in 1986, after 10 and one half years of internment, she was accepted into Queens University. Mairead also became active in the political campaign against the strip searching of women in prisons. She also began attending meetings and holding lectures all across Ireland.

Everyone tells me I'm a feminist. All I know is that I'm just as good as others, and that especially means men. I am definitely a socialist and I'm definitely a Republican. I believe in a united socialist country, definitely socialist. Capitalism can offer our people nothing, and yet that's the main interest of the British in Ireland.

I am oppressed as a woman, and I'm also oppressed as an Irish person. Everyone in this country is oppressed, and yet we can only end our oppression as women if we end the oppression of our nation as a whole. But I don't think that that alone is enough. This isn't the first time that women have been seen as secondary. But women today have been through so much that they won't just let things be. I hope I'm still alive. When the British are driven out, then the struggle begins anew.

Mairead Farrell was murdered by an SAS unit in Gibraltar on March 6, 1988.