Women's Museum of Ireland

The Dirty Protests

Symbolism behind Troubles' protests

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Much time has been devoted to analysing the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The politics, the violence and the impact this has had on the country as a whole has been extensively documented. But how often is a spotlight shone specifically on the lives of Republican women? Understanding the symbolism behind the political protests carried out by Irish Republican women in the 1970s and 80s offers an insight into their personal and public stories.

Though the participation of Irish women in Republican activities has never been as widely publicised as that of their male counterparts, their social and political contribution cannot be underestimated. Republican women’s understanding of their own identity in West Belfast in this period was complex and contradictory. They were continuously “pushing against the limits of cultural meaning” by attempting to establish more than one identity for themselves: an endeavour far from welcomed by many in Ireland.

Their stories highlight the contradiction and hypocrisy at work in many domestic settings in Northern Ireland, where an interned man expected his wife to engage in conflict and resistance in his absence and yet on his release meekly return to her domestic role. This was an expectation that didn’t sit well with many Republican women. Female participation in significant political events led to a turning point in the lives of many women and families. “I just couldn’t go back into the house again… I wasn’t a housewife anymore…I think that it was at that time I began to question everything”. Though these women were fighting for the same cause as their male counterparts, their involvement was often ‘conveniently’ considered superfluous if it hindered their maternal or domestic responsibilities. These gender struggles developed, in most cases, in domestic settings. The Catholic mother represented the emotional foundation of the family and women venturing into the political arena of conflict and resistance threatened this cultural norm.

The female dirty protest, which was motivated by the treatment of Irish prisoners at the hands of British guards, began in Armagh Prison in February 1980 and put paid to the notion that political ideologies took a back seat in the lives of Republican woman. Understanding the shame and embarrassment surrounding body image and sexuality for Catholic women serves to reinforce the enormous significance of the female dirty protest for the women involved and for male family members and Republicans. In a display of defiance, the women of Armagh prison ultimately used their bodies as weapons against the ‘screws’; the same bodies that had been brutalised and exploited as punishment were reclaimed and used in political protest.

There were differences between the male and female dirty protests that extended beyond this rejection of a woman’s “ingrained modesty”. The difference was the visible presence of menstrual blood. This served as a metaphor for the struggle of Republican women as a whole. Menstrual blood is a taboo subject, “…traces of it are hidden”, so when menstrual blood became visible, so too did the genuine participation, determination and passion of the Republican women. They were no longer perceived as “the product of an idealistic youth, free from family commitments”, but as individuals imprisoned while fighting for their country at the expense of their freedom and dignity.

This action brings to mind the idea of the blood sacrifice at the heart of the 1916 Easter Rising, which remained central to physical-force Republicanism twentieth-century Ireland. These women made a daring move in sacrificing their bodies in the name of politics. They altered menstruation from something that “marks a woman’s social vulnerability” to something that confirmed their active participation in a globally-publicised political struggle. They reaffirmed the strength and power of the female resolve and, finally, in a wonderful juxtaposition, the female prisoners used the physical symbol that confirms society’s idealistic image of them – of mothers or potential mothers – to highlight their multi-faceted identities.

One of the consequences of the female dirty protests in 1980 was a rift within the Irish feminist movement, who were split on the events taking place in Armagh prison. Some felt that the female prisoners at the centre of the controversy were mimicking their male counterparts. Many feminists were critical of male Republicans’ use of violence and therefore treated any woman attempting to ape them with disdain, arguing that their priorities were to “underline their equal position as fighting political prisoners”.

Having their motives and sincerity questioned in the midst of such personal and political turmoil served only to strengthen the female prisoners’ resolve. In the face of such criticism, they attempted to present themselves to the public as they saw themselves: not solely women, nor solely mothers; not solely Republicans, nor solely prisoners. Were these women the unsung heroines of West Belfast? They were undoubtedly the backbone of their community, providing both maternal and military support, and yet they went virtually unrecognised and unacknowledged. Society has often assumed that “women are the passive bystanders of a war between male factions” but the women of West Belfast in the 1970s and 80s were evidence that this assumption has little grounding in reality.

Niamh McClelland

Sources - Begona Arextaga, Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism, and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland (1997).