Voicing Republican Feminism(s)

By Aimée Walsh

My PhD examines testimonies and political writing of gender and the Irish nation between 1975 and 1986. During this time republican prison protest was rife. As such, fractures between the feminist and republican movements were opened. Nationalist feminism in the north of Ireland is an area which has yet to be explored to the same degree as the disparate movements of republicanism or feminism in Ireland. While both these movements aimed to achieve self-determination and autonomy they did not come to a natural congruence. In the words of republican feminist grouping, Women Against Imperialism:the women’s movement and the anti-imperialist movement have eyed each other with suspicion’.[1] A niche movement of republican feminism was formed, however, despite these frictions. My thesis builds upon existing scholarship, particularly that of Theresa O’Keefe on the intersection of republicanism and feminism in her monograph Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements. Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism is a further source of inspiration, likewise Begoña Aretxaga’s Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland and Claire Hackett’s theorisation of an agenda for republican feminism in her article “Self-Determination: The Republican Feminist Agenda.” Building upon this literature, I assess whether a tradition of republican feminism can be traced within the republican movement, pamphlet media, and broader literature and film of the period 1975 – 1986.

Within (northern) Irish studies a number of analyses have explored the relationship between forms and behaviours of masculinities within the (post)conflict society. Much work has been dedicated not only to Irish nationalism, but specifically to Provisional republicanism; largely a male dominated movement. In contrast, my research aims to add to the work of Margaret Ward and Gerardine Meaney by exploring womanhood and nationalism in the north of Ireland.

This project sits within a feminist tradition of writing women back into history: in this case the history of women’s agency to tell their own stories, particularly through testimony, print media, and the literary arts. Women voicing their own history through these mediums remedy dominant patriarchal narratives which effectively silence women. When women are excluded from the narrative of national history by men, how can they seize control and move beyond national symbolism? Significantly, the literary arts offer a space wherein women can tell their own stories and challenge the dominant histories which silence them. In particular, I’m thinking of the success of Anna Burns’s Milkman which opened discussions around gendered violence, harassment, and nationalist womanhood in the north of Ireland. The work of Deirdre Madden, particularly in One by One in the Darkness and Hidden Symptoms, has also channelled the gendered experiences of nationalist women who experienced trauma and loss as a consequence of the conflict. The divergent and various facets of republican feminism are evident in my research: from socialist republican feminism in Mary Beckett’s Give Them Stones to the auto-fiction of ex-IRA prisoner Brenda Murphy.

This gives rise to the necessity for treating the histories of republicanism and feminism in the north of Ireland not as a singular narrative but as multiplicities which vary, contradict, and complicate binaries. This is why I have chosen to base my research upon an examination of the multiplicities inherent in republican feminism(s). There is a need to approach testimonies not as having less value due to their minority status, but, rather, as equal to the masculinised narratives which have received considerable attention within scholarship and commentary on the conflict. Research on the ‘Troubles’ should not seek to preclude other streams of republican feminism(s) from further examination. Rather, scholarship should seek to facilitate dialogue of the national past in the north of Ireland.

 

[1] Northern Ireland Political Collection, Linenhall Library, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Saor Bhean, 1 (August/September 1978).

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Aimée Walsh is a PhD candidate, nearing submission, in Irish Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. She also holds a Masters degree from Queen’s University Belfast. Her project “Republican Feminism(s): Literature and Women’s History of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ Conflict” has been facilitated by a Vice-Chancellor’s Award PhD Scholarship (2016 –2019) and a British Association for Irish Studies Postgraduate Bursary (2019).

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