Unearthing histories: Women, hunger and agency

By Deirdre Canavan

Alternative narratives of the ‘Troubles’ are gaining increasing recognition, both in academic circles and in popular culture, particularly those that platform the gaps and absences in available histories. This denotes a broader desire to move away from the dominant accounts in order to gain a consciousness of the ‘Troubles’ that has hitherto been denied to a significant number of the population of Northern Ireland. In studying and researching the conflict, platforming silence or absence can be a methodologically productive tool – helping the reconceptualization of defining events in the conflict. When we look at histories and memorials of the ‘Troubles’, what are the stories that are told and about whom? What voices are absent, and what does this tell us about the kind of lives that are made a priority in the post-conflict society? To gain authority over history and the trauma associated with it, how important is it to unearth hidden experiences, and to place primacy on them?

Locating absence can be used in a variety of contexts, but for now I would like to employ gender as the primary analytic, and to consider the questions proposed by American Civil Rights activist, scholar and author Angela Davis in her challenge of the masculinisation of history:

I think it’s important to understand why this tendency towards masculine representations of struggle happen, and why we fail to recognise that women have forever been at the centre of these struggles, whether as victims or organisers.[1]

What happens when the tactic of the hunger strike is interrogated through a gendered lens? In reconceptualising the defining events in the conflict, the absence of women prisoners in discourses of hunger striking during the ‘Troubles’ offers a point of entry to investigate the ways in which the roles of women in Republican legacy have been homogenised and sedimented.

When examining the absence and presence of women prisoners in this context, the most visible example was the hunger strike campaign of the Price sisters in Brixton Prison in 1973-1974. Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney, who had been convicted for the same bombing in 1973, also embarked on a hunger strike, along with IRA volunteer Michael Gaughan, but it was the Price sisters who dominated the media’s coverage of the prison fast. The combination of the sisters’ youth and gender presented them as frail creatures who could not be held responsible for their actions, a result largely of their upbringing in the violent environment of conflict. This is most obviously implied in an interview with their father, and former IRA man, Albert Price, carried out by Daily Express journalist Paul Dacre in June 1974.  Dacre decried “the sick climate from which they [Price’s daughters] sprang”, blaming it for “the two warped minds” of the sisters. Furthermore, the descriptions of force-feeding evoked a visceral public response when shown to be carried out on young women, particularly when described in sexualised terms as “an experience much worse than rape”.[2]

Through a combination of prison protests and the low standard of prison food, there was a significant prevalence of eating disorders among women prisoners in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. The Price sisters achieved the aim of their hunger strike and were extradited back to Armagh Gaol in 1975 to complete their sentence, but both sisters developed anorexia nervosa and were released on medical grounds – Marian in 1980, Dolours in 1981. In newspaper coverage, the implication of eating disorders in their cases for clemency could not be separated from their previous hunger strike campaign.[3] Their public visibility within the terms defined by this media coverage lent itself to a pathologisation of women’s political protest, and a questioning of the agency they were able to have in resisting the conditions of their imprisonment.

In his work on paramilitary imprisonment in Northern Ireland, Kieran McAvoy describes the necessary recalibration of resistance within the “appropriate analytic framework”.[4] In other words, the perceived success of the 1981 hunger strike was dependent on its ability to clearly present the sacrifice in relation to Britain’s colonial presence in Northern Ireland. To achieve this, the lineage of the tactic was relocated to early Irish Brehon Law and a system known as ‘cealachan’.[5] Under this ancient system, the offended or wronged party was to fast on the doorstep of those who has caused offence or hurt, in order to publicly shame them into resolution. By the same mechanism of binding historical concepts to contemporary actions, the perception of the women’s hunger strike became bound to discourses of female hysteria, mental illness, and frailty.

As a performance of collective identification, the body on hunger strike intersects nationalism and gender in the reproduction of a collective identity. This has the contradictory effect of both reproducing dichotomous gender roles and highlighting “the problematic exclusion of women’s bodies from the political realm”.[6] In the Irish context, the male body on hunger strike reifies the Irish masculine identity as the community defender in the battle against colonial oppression; in fact the female body on hunger strike challenges the prescribed gender roles, threatening the strength of the militarised decolonial movement and undermining the image of freedom that it purports. However, the female body in a state of frailty, deprivation and under constant violation fits neatly into the image of the brutally colonised Mother Ireland maintained by the Republican agenda.

Aside from the highly publicised case of the Price sisters, there is little to no acknowledgement of women’s participation in hunger strikes during the ‘Troubles’. But, in 1972, Brenda Murphy, Susan Loughran and Bridie McMahon took part in the successful hunger strike campaign for political status in Armagh Gaol. In 1980, Mary Doyle, Mairéad Nugent and Mairéad Farrell embarked on a hunger strike, alongside seven men in the Maze prison, to protest criminalisation and the withdrawal of political status from paramilitary prisoners. Yet the discourse of Irish hunger striking is almost entirely consumed by the 1981 men’s protests, which propelled the Republican campaign to international recognition, and during the process of which, ten men perished.

While the publicised coverage of the force-feeding of the Price sisters in Brixton Prison evoked condemnation of the British government for its violent counter-response to their hunger strike, it simultaneously undermined the morality of the Republican movement in being seen to be placing young girls in a violating and abusive situation to further their agenda. It should be noted that, rather than a tale of media neglect, the IRA actively discouraged women prisoners from taking part in hunger strike campaigns. The structure of the 1981 strike was materially different in that it was staggered to ensure longevity in the face of an immovable and unsympathetic British government. Prisoners who volunteered did so with the very certain understanding that it would end in death. Although there were a number of volunteers from Armagh Gaol, women prisoners were actively excluded from participation in order to maintain the full focus of the public on the men’s hunger strike as it unfolded. It also seems likely, due to their concern for public opinion, that the Republican leadership could not consent to the participation of women while certain death was on the cards.

If citizenship is marked by the ability to sacrifice one’s life for one’s country, then the citizenship that was on offered to women under the Republican agenda was secondary to that of their male counterparts.[7] By erasing the active involvement of women prisoners in hunger strike campaigns, the tactic of hunger striking was established as a  powerful weapon in  a man’s war, with women relegated to an auxiliary position. In descriptions of the Northern Ireland conflict, one of the most commonly heard phrases is “Women were the backbone”. This reinforces the perception of women’s contributions as secondary and denies the agency of those who were active in multiple ways. Stories of the women who stepped outside of this supportive role present a problem for the creation of palatable myths in the maintenance of the nationalist cause.

How does the exclusion of women from the paradigm of martyrdom impact on their position in conflict transition? The omission of women and their relegation to a supportive position holds them in place as historical mediators to the male actor, generating their subordinate citizenship in the post-conflict landscape. This subordinate citizenship was markedly demonstrated in the attempted exclusion of women from negotiations for peace in the 1990s and the derisory treatment of women who did participate.[8] It is evident today in strictly enforced laws on women’s reproductive rights, high rates of domestic violence and low rates of prosecutions for rape and sexual assault. The use of a gendered lens in the study of the conflict in Northern Ireland offers alternative narratives of contested historical territory and enables access to the more intricate details of social construction within a conflict society. Furthermore, it invites a new way to think about the consequences of memory in Northern Ireland and the dangers disproportionately presented to women by these choices.

[1] Lanre Bakare, “Angela Davis: ‘We Knew the Role of the Police Was to Protect White Supremacy’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 15, 2020.

[2] “The Price Sisters”. Irish Press, February 6 1974

[3] Mary Corcoran, Out of order: the political imprisonment of women in Northern

Ireland 1972-1998 (Cullompton: Willan, 2006)

[4] Kieran McEvoy, Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland: Resistance, Management, and Release, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

[5] For further elaboration on the deployment of Brehon Law in the 1981 hunger strike campaign see David Beresford, Ten Men Dead (London: HarperCollins, 1987) and Tim Pat Coogan, On the Blanket (Dublin: Ward River Press, 1980).

[6] Amanda Machin, “Hunger Power: The embodied protest of the political hunger strike,” Interface 8, no.1 (May 2016): 157-180.

[7] Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender & Nation (London: Sage, 1997).

[8] See Kate Fearon, Women’s Work: The Story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999) for a fuller account of this.

(Image 1: WikiCommons)

Deirdre has recently completed an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge with a research project on gendered violence and political protests in Northern Ireland prisons 1980-81. She previously studied Fine Art at the University of the West of England in Bristol where she developed a research and performance based practice, interrogating the social divisions and territorial markers of the post-conflict landscape of Belfast, where she grew up. Deirdre can be contacted via email at deecanavan70@gmail.com

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