‘Where were the women?’: Women active service members of the Provisional IRA in the Northern Ireland conflict

By Charitini (Hari) Ntini-

In June 1985, twenty-two-year-old Martina Anderson was arrested in a flat in Glasgow along with four others by armed police officers. She was held and questioned for seven days before being flown to London for further interrogations. Within the next year, she was convicted of conspiring to cause explosions in England.[1] Originally from Derry, Anderson was one of five members of a Glasgow cell of the Provisional Irish Republican Army during its campaign against the British state. Martina’s experience was in a way extraordinary; for one, she did not come from a family which was immersed in the Republican tradition. In fact, her father was a Protestant, making her espousal of advanced nationalist beliefs incredibly rare in the divided Northern Ireland of the time. Martina was a ‘child of the Troubles’, who grew up in a city where violence and sectarian divides had become an unquestionable part of everyday life. Despite her family background, she joined the IRA in her teenage years and committed herself to the armed struggle.[2] Anderson was not unique as an agent of political violence because of her age or gender, however. What is more distinctive is that she, as a woman, openly shared her story and that interest was taken in it. This article looks into the experiences of women like Anderson, women that were active in the Irish Republican Movement between 1969 and 1998 and sheds light on these lesser-known stories.

While the link between masculinity, honour and defence of one’s community has long formed part of the conversation about political violence, gender more broadly has largely been absent. The history of the ‘Troubles’ has viewed women as victims of violence or assistants to the men engaging in it. The growth of interest in gender studies, however, has allowed for a transformation in how we perceive conflicts past and present. Within the history of Irish nationalism, there has recently been a surge of historiographical interest regarding women’s involvement in the early twentieth century struggle for independence. Scholars have studied the involvement of Cumann na mBan and women within other nationalist circles in key events such as the Easter Rising. In the context of ‘Romantic Ireland’, women put themselves forward in sacrifice for the cause. However, a key difference is identified between those women and the ones that were active in the later ‘Troubles’. The former were more conveniently fitted to the republican imagination – educated, middle class, and mobilised in auxiliary roles, knowing their place and the role they had to play. On the contrary, the women in the most recent conflict were participants raised inside violence, which mostly informed their decision to get involved. Building on from existing work conducted into the role of the women in Republican violence, it is time to radically extend studies of the IRA to include women and the aspect of gender.[3] In the context of conflict, women that engage in violence move towards challenging traditional gender norms. Simultaneously, while undertaking those non-traditional roles, women also might resort to utilising current gender conceptions to achieve their goals. In this way, by studying Republican women, we can better understand both the conflict itself and the environment in which it was taking place.

Most women that took an active part in the conflict, much like the men, came from centres of violence, such as Belfast and Derry and often defined their motivations around the necessity to take up arms as the only means to achieve their political objectives. From 1968 onwards, women were accepted as official members of the PIRA. However, links between the paramilitary group and youth movements, which often was a recruitment path for male volunteers were largely absent. By analysing a series of interviews, memoirs and primary source material, it becomes evident that the recruitment of women into the PIRA was more arbitrary. Once recruited, women have reported that they received the same training as men within the movement.[4] Nonetheless, by examining their activity in the organisation one can identify the difference that gender and its associations played.

Historically, female engagement in operations was focused around providing assistance to male volunteers. In their majority, Cumann na mBan volunteers would often accompany IRA men to help draw less attention and allow them to pose as a couple, if needed. After conducting a prosopographical study based on David McKittrick’s Lost Lives, it is evident that over half of the Cumann na mBan women that died in operations during this time were killed alongside a male volunteer. This indicates that within the Republican movement, autonomous activity by women was not the norm. Nonetheless, women active service members were beneficial to the organisation as they aroused less suspicion and were, thus, gradually more trusted to act on their own. A prime example of that is the case of Dolours Price, who was in charge of driving suspected informers across the borders to face punishment.[5]

Women were also disproportionately involved in bombing operations. The majority of women convicted in Northern Ireland, Britain and abroad for PIRA activity faced bombing-related charges. Ellen McGuigan was sentenced to 16 years in Armagh prison for possessing bombs in 1973 and causing an explosion in 1976. Mairead Farrell, probably the most well known female PIRA member, was caught attempting to plant a bomb in a Belfast hotel in 1976. Despite the overall frequent use of bombings as an operational means for the organisation, the involvement of women in such activities is indicative of a trend. This was the case even more so in long-distance operations. The extension of the PIRA campaign in mainland Britain was unprecedented in its involvement of women. Marian and Dolours Price were arrested and charged for the Old Bailey bombings in London in 1973. Martina Anderson and Ella O’Dwyer also travelled from Northern Ireland to Glasgow and were charged with conspiring to cause explosions in 1985. Women PIRA volunteers participated in the even more exclusive international operations as well. Two out of three PIRA women killed in active service were in operations outside Northern Ireland.[6] This comes compared to eight Cumann na mBan and two Official IRA female volunteers who lost their lives in their local unit area. Most famously, Mairead Farrell was killed in Gibraltar. Women also consisted a significant part of PIRA members arrested outside Northern Ireland; Donna Maguire was convicted of attempted murder and planning explosions in British Army bases in Germany. Similarly, English-born debutante Rose Dugdale participated in an art robbery in the Republic of Ireland in 1974 and Dublin-born Pamela Kane was arrested in Co. Wexford for armed robbery in 1990.

The role of women within the Republican movement has for a long time been overlooked. It is encouraging to see new academic studies investigating the field of gender within the Northern Irish conflict – within the Republican narrative specifically the experience of female prisoners has been particularly interesting. Overall, the role of women in the conflict needs to continue being investigated, be it as agents of violence, its victims or facilitators of peace (or often a combination). For to really understand the role of women in the republican movement, to elevate them from the footnotes of history, takes us one step closer to understanding and reconciling with the past of political violence in Northern Ireland.

(Image: Republican (Sinn Fein) wall mural, West Belfast, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, MS.2001.039, John J. Burns Library, Boston College, http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1928.)

Charitini (Hari) Ntini recently completed a postgraduate degree in Contemporary British History at King’s College London. Her research interests focus on Northern Ireland throughout the twentieth century, and her thesis explored women active service members of the PIRA, including recruitment patterns, paramilitary activity and imprisonment in an analysis of the relationship between paramilitary violence and gender.

[1] Evelyn Brady et al, In the Footsteps of Anne: Stories of Republican Women Ex-Prisoners (Belfast, 2011), 253-255.

[2] ‘‘Mná an IRA – Dearcadh ar Leith’, first shown TG4, 5 Jan. 2012.

[3] Dieter Rienisch, ‘Cumann na mBan and the acceptance of women in the Provisional IRA: An Oral History study of Irish Republican women in the early 1970s’, Limerick Student Journal of Sociology 5:1 (2013).

[4] Roisin Fairweather et al, Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland, the Women’s War (London, 1984), 242.

[5] I, Dolours, dir. Maurice Sweeney (Irish Film Board, 2018).

[6] David McKittrick, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Edinburgh, 2004).

2 thoughts on “‘Where were the women?’: Women active service members of the Provisional IRA in the Northern Ireland conflict

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    1. I very much enjoyed this piece. I have an interest in Loyalist women in paramilitary organisations and from speaking to both women and men in Loyalist communities the gender division appears more defined with fewer women involved in active service roles and more in what might he seen as ‘traditional’ support roles. It’s something I am keen to carry out further research into. I’m currently working on an exhibition for IWM and am keen to get more women’s stories in here as they are often lost in the narratives of the Troubles.


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