Women freedom fighters
Women freedom fighters

To mark international women’s day, we carry the following article on the women hunger strikers of Armagh prison, by DM Daugherty.

“We are prepared to fast to the death, if necessary, but our love for justice and our country will live forever.” -- Mairead Farrell, Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle (Hunger Strikers, Armagh Prison, 1 December 1980)

Internment and Family Disruption

For Irish women, Catholicism’s Mother Mary -- a passive, unquestioning entity, bearing all wrongs with a stoic, forgiving and unconditional love -- has played a significant role in the shaping of female culture.

The Catholic establishment, along with the conservative government in the South, further perpetrated this image to confine women to the spheres of stereotypical domestic roles by actions such as banning divorce, prohibiting contraception, and restricting salaries for married women. Such measures left women in a state of inequality and dependence. Beginning in the early 1970s, however, Irish history itself was to cause profound changes on ‘women’s place’ in Irish society.

On 9 August 1971, purportedly to dismantle the Irish Republican paramilitary groups, internment was introduced, and many women were deprived of their main source of income and left to raise families alone. The British Army (BA) swept through Catholic neighbourhoods, destroying property and household items in order to apprehend so-called ‘suspects,’ many of whom had no connection to paramilitary activities; even adolescent boys were interned. Such gross acts of intimidation were supposedly intended to reduce the current ‘levels of violence’. Interestingly, though of no surprise, no Protestant paramilitaries, even those who openly participated in rioting or violence, were arrested for internment.

In Catholic neighbourhoods, women’s lives were completely disrupted. Armies had transformed the secure intimacy of the home into a vulnerable space of confusion. Yet it was this disruption and confusion, combined with the Catholic culture’s epitomisation of motherhood, that incited a strong motivation for women’s political action.

The Ducks and the Hens

The BA usually conducted raids and arrests at night because people were less likely to be alert. These night units were called ‘Duck Patrols’. Such invasions produced a heightened communal solidarity -- doors were left open to provide free movement for the hunted men and ‘tunneling’ was perfected. These Duck Patrol infringements also incited one of the first incidences of women working together in solidarity. Women began patrolling the streets on a rotating basis to warn the community of the presence of the BA. Women would blow whistles while simultaneously banging bin lids against the pavement. These women became known as the Hen Patrol, and in this way many women began to move from fear to defiance.

Committees and Protests

Internment, coupled with the brutal interrogation tactics used on the internees, had incited women to take an active role in politics, particularity through protests and committees.

Female relatives of internees set up the Political Hostage Action Committee, which gave women a forum in which they could meet and exchange information on various issues from protesting to prison visits to assisting the men on the run. And always within these groups natural leaders emerged who could speak at meetings, disseminate information, and organise protests. It was women who organised a march protesting a British-enforced curfew, and who organised demonstrations against the indiscriminate arrests and abuse occurring under the Special Powers Act. And many women participated in the massive civil rights march on 30 Jan 1972 in Derry -- now known as Bloody Sunday because 14 civilians were murdered and countless others were wounded by the BA.

Amnesty International at this time was in possession of 25 affidavits from persons alleging that torture and brutality were used against them, including savage beatings, being forced to stand or lay for hours in unnatural positions, terrorisation with Alsatian guard dogs, sleep deprivation, forced and excessive exercise, and hooded torture which included psychological torture.

Yet, in March of 1972, such interrogation procedures were condoned by the Committee of Privy Counsellors, represented by Lord Parker of Waddington, who in an absolutely preposterous statement said:

“In fairness to the Government of Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, I must say that, according to the evidence before us, although the Minister of Home Affairs, Northern Ireland, purported to approve the procedures, he had no idea that they were illegal”!

And he went on to say that:

“I think, [it was] not unnatural that the Royal Ulster Constabulary should assume that the army had satisfied themselves that the procedures which they were training the police to employ were legal. The blame for this sorry story, if blame there be, must lie with those who, many years ago, decided [them for] emergency conditions in Colonial-type situations.” !

Direct Rule

In March 1972 Britain assumed direct rule over the North of Ireland, and all State functions were assigned to the control of a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, who stated in regards to the North:

“We don’t intend to let part of the United Kingdom default from the rule of law at the behest of ruthless conspiracy. The disrespect for law rooted there tends to spread like a cancer to other places. I will take the sternest measures to stop the spread of that cancer...”

At this time, inside Crumlin Road Prison, a hunger strike had been underway (led by Billy McKee) to force authorities to grant political or prisoner of war status to IRA prisoners.

Technically this status was supposed to be already available for ‘political status’ prisoners, or Special Category prisoners, who were supposed to be allowed privileges, such as wearing their own clothes, which distinguished them from ordinary criminal prisoners.

As McKee’s health began to fail and his death seemed eminent, the British agreed to a secret initiative (with a Provo representative) to negotiate a settlement. The Provos agreed to grant a ceasefire and to meet with Whitelaw if two conditions were met: concede to the prisoners’ demands for special political status; and free Gerry Adams from prison so he could participate in the talks.

On 18 June, Whitelaw granted Special Category status, arranged Adams’ release, and scheduled direct talks with an IRA delegation. The temporary ceasefire collapsed, however, when British soldiers confronted IRA men in a dispute over the housing of Catholic refugees.

Diplock Courts

In December 1972, British Cabinet member, Lord Diplock, headed a commission set up to explore possible ‘modifications’ to the prosecuting system to combat ‘terrorist acts’. His solution was that ‘terrorist’ suspects be tried by a judge sitting alone who could disregard or ignore evidence at his own whim. Additionally, the burden of proof now shifted from the prosecution to the defendant, which not surprisingly, produced a conviction rate of 95 percent.

Women’s Internment

Women, whose purpose within the IRA was usually resigned to joining the IRA women’s support group, Cumann na mBan (a subordinate to the IRA council), or at best, to transporting ammunition, became more and more active militarily in the 1970s. The IRA unit restructuring was expanded to admit women into the IRA on an equal basis, leaving Cumman na mBan for those who wished to remain in the more traditional roles.

In December 1972, internment began for women, and within 6 months, nearly 300 Republican women, but no loyalist women, were interned. Like their male counterparts, these women had political status and began to organise in much the same way with a military structure and an Officer in Command (OC).

Organisation and Political Status

In 1975, however, when the IRA called a truce, the females in the Army were not consulted. For these women, who had risked their lives and been arrested just as the men had done, this snub rang clear the politics of gender.

These women organised within Armagh Prison, made a list of demands, which included at the top having a say in IRA decisions, and they got it. With their stance, the women in Armagh Prison had initiated closure to a significant gap in gender inequality within the genre of female militarism, and they had transformed themselves beyond the double-standardisation of female roles previously held within the IRA.


Through the Prevention of terrorism Act (PTA) of 1974, nationalist organisations were banned and an alarming range of repressive measures were sanctioned by the State. These measures include internment without trial , single-judge courts without juries, powers of detention and search, and the designation of criminal status to political prisoners.

By January 1975, nearly half of the 2,900 Irish prisoners held Special Category status. At this time, the British began a reconstruction, both physically and of prison policy at the men’s Long Kesh prison.

Within the original compounds of the Kesh, Special Category prisoners had enjoyed freedom of movement with little supervision from prison guards. The new prison, renamed Her Majesty’s Maze, was designed to greatly tighten security with its new layout, shaped like the letter H and now known as ‘the H Blocks’.

Prisoners already incarcerated during the change, were allowed to remain in the old compounds under Special Category status. However, it was announced that after 1st April 1976 incoming prisoners would not be held under Special Category status. Modification of prisoner status, more so than the building reconstruction itself, resulted in retaliations against prison officials and warders, including the fire of 1974. Simultaneous to the Long Kesh burnout, women in Armagh Prison seized the governor and three prison officers and imprisoned them.

The decision to end Special Category privileges for paramilitary prisoners led to a protest campaign by Republicans in prisons across the North of Ireland. The protests began on 15 September 1976 when Kieran Nugent refused to wear prison issue clothes and covered himself with a towel; hence the ‘Blanket protest’.

On the Blanket

Kieran Nugent’s protest was soon joined by other Republican prisoners. Authorities reacted to the Blanket Protest by stripping the cells of everything but the chamber pots. The protest then escalated into a refusal to shower because showering meant wetting the towel which was then useless as their only clothing. This continued, unabated for over a year, and was then followed by the Dirty Protest.

Women’s Work Protest

The women in Armagh Prison reacted to the withdrawal of political status by going on a work strike and refusing to do mandatory prison jobs, such as sewing, laundry, and cleaning. This resulted in the loss of many privileges including educational opportunities and remission of sentences.

The Women’s Equivalent to the Blanket Protest

Women, who were allowed to wear their own clothing, used their own garments and items (namely, berets and black skirts) which most reflected IRA uniforms as a form of protest against criminalisation, and as a statement that they were indeed political prisoners For their insistence on wearing these items, they were often beaten and harassed.

Strip Searches of Women

During this time, the women were also subjected to repeated strip searches as a form of intimidation and humiliation. This process involved women being thrown to the ground, beaten, kicked, and more often than not sexually violated, or at the very least, sexually humiliated. As Fr. Raymond Murray, prison chaplain at Armagh Prison, where most of the abuses occurred, noted:

“This disgraceful practice offends the dignity of the human person, which is enshrined in all international codes of human right.”

Prison authorities insisted that the searches were necessary for ‘security reasons’, yet from 1972 to 1982, nothing was found to warrant continuation of this practice. The women who refused to undergo a strip search were forcibly restrained and stripped by prison staff, then visually and internally examined. Afterwards, they were often charged with assault and punished with solitary confinement for their resistance.

In addition to the humiliation and terror it invoked on these women, the practice of strip searching prisoners was also a serious beach of Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ratified by the United Kingdom in 1951), which provides that:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The Dirty Protest

The Dirty Protest at Long Kesh began because warders would purposely knock over the chamber pots, spilling the contents on the floors. To keep the floors clean of the urine and feces, prisoners had to slop the mess out through broken windows but the warders would clog the windows or shovel the feces back in. Prisoners then began smearing waste on the walls.

Heightened brutality was the underlying factor that provoked the women in Armagh Prison to join the Dirty Protest. In particular, warders began conducting raids to seize berets and black skirts. During these raids, women were often beaten, locked in empty cells and refused the use of toilet facilities. Thirty women at Armagh Prison joined the Dirty Protest, which also included smearing menstrual fluids onto their cell walls.

Conditions in the cells were of course appalling. Prisoners would wake up with maggots in their hair and on their bodies.

Prisoners had to be frequently shifted in and out of cells to allow disinfection of contaminated cells. Usually during this shifting, they would be brutalised by warders.

Yet, during the dirty protest Republican prisoners made every effort to keep some normality in their lives. Those who knew the Gaelic language taught others. And, both inside (between cells) and outside communications were kept up through the use of ‘comms’.

On the Outside

“There are praises of flowers who epitomise the unconquerable spirit of Irish womanhood. Let no man dare to scorn these women and let your weeds of indifference and sleeping roses blush in everlasting shame.”--Bobby Sands

The Dirty Protests took place with no change for over two years. The Relatives Action Committee, however, held public protests including marches by mothers and sisters draped only in Blankets. Many of the women also sat in improvised tents in their own housing estates to bring attention to the issue. Their actions were successful and support and street demonstrations began to escalate. Many of these women conducted speeches, gave interviews and lobbied politicians in order to draw attention to the situation.

It was also the women who visited the Prisons and who smuggled items in and out; they too endured strip searches and verbal and physical abuse at the hands of the prison warders. Several were arrested and charged.

In 1978, Tomas O Fiaich, Catholic Primate of Ireland, visited the prisons, and issued a public statement calling for some response by the British government. However, nothing was done and the Dirty Protest continued for two more years. In Armagh Prison, there was a total of 70 women imprisoned; 30 of which were Republican women on protest. The Blanket and Dirty Protests eventually led to two hunger strikes, one in 1980 and one in 1981.

Ancient Customs

The practice of hunger-striking has deep roots in Irish culture. The Celts would use self-inflicted starvation as a means of discrediting someone who had done them wrong, as would unpaid poets or tradespeople who would camp outside the home of an uncaring patron and begin a hunger striking ritual until their wrongs were righted or their debts paid.

If the striker died, the accused would suffer societal ostracism and would have to pay compensation to the dead person’s family. In The King’s Threshold, William Butler Yeats portrays the poet on political hunger strike against a king who takes away poets’ rights to sit on the king’s council.

Additionally, fasting and the Catholic credo of self-sacrifice, are also part of Irish culture and viewed as a means of self purification that added power to one’s prayers.

The first women to use hunger strike were the suffragists of the early 1900s. Hunger strikes in Ireland occurred in 1923, 1940, 1946, 1974, 1976, 1980 and 1981.

The Hunger Strikes of 1980 and 1981

“It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer...those whose faith is strong will endure to the end in triumph.”-- Terrence Mac Swiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who died after 74 days on hunger strike during the Anglo-Irish War.

In 1980, the European Commission on Human Rights ruled against Special Category status for Irish political prisoners. The POWs decided to go on Hunger Strike. Other Republican prisoners decided to end the Dirty Protests, although because they were not allowed to wear their own clothes they continued the Blanket protest.

The hunger strike at Long Kesh was scheduled to begin on 27 October 1980 so that it would reach its peak during the Christmas season. The strikers had five demands: the right to wear their own clothing; freedom from prison work; freedom of association with fellow prisoners; the right to normal visits and recreational facilities; and restoration of reduction of sentences for good behaviour.

There were to be seven hunger strikers in 1980: Tom McFeeley, Brendan Hughes (until then, the OC for protesting prisoners), Raymond McCartney, Leo Green, John Nixon, Tommy McKearney and Sean McKenna. When Hughes took over the hunger strikers, Bobby Sands became OC.

On 23 October, the POWs were given false hope when the authorities offered to allow the prisoners to wear ‘civilian clothes’ but this collapsed when it turned out to mean prison-issued ‘civilian type’ clothing, not actual personal apparel.

From the outset Margaret Thatcher, who had become British Prime Minister in May 1979, made it perfectly clear that her government would “never concede political status to the hunger strikers”.

On 3 December, three women prisoners from Armagh Prison -- Mairead Farrell, Mary Doyle and Mairead Nugent -- joined the Strike as did 23 men in Long Kesh on 15 December.

“Our experiences during the prison protest made us become more conscious of gender roles...We learnt to appreciate and even pay tribute to women’s participation in and contribution to the struggle...Our respect of women’s political involvement grew out of the contacts we had with our imprisoned female comrades in Armagh Prison. They suffered particularly harsh conditions within the prison because of their actions. In terms of the prison regime they were deemed doubly guilty - not only had they broken the laws of the State but they had also gone against their feminine gender roles as defined by society.”--Laurence McKeown

False Promises

On 17 December O Fiaich appealed to the hunger strikers to call off their strike. He also called on Margaret Thatcher to intervene.

On the morning of 18 December, hunger striker Sean McKenna’s seemed near death and was removed to a military hospital. Meanwhile, Brendan Hughes was informed by the prison authorities that a document, which met the five demands, was to be delivered from the British Home Office.

Believing that McKenna was about to die with a settlement about to ensue, Hughes called off the strike. The strike had lasted for 53 days.

The women were skeptical of the so-called settlement and did not come off the strike until 24 hours later. But it was a cruel joke by the British government, and they did not meet the strikers’ demands. Another hunger strike which claimed the lives of ten young men, would soon begin on 1 March 1981, the fifth anniversary of the elimination of Special Category status. Sile Darragh, OC at Armagh Prison at the time, made an impassioned plea to allow women to also join this hunger strike, but permission was denied by the IRA.

Ar son na hEireann

The participation by the women in the Armagh Prison hunger strike not only established a heightened sense of gender awareness, it drew attention to the contributions women could make towards the Republican struggle for freedom, and it created an unbreakable bond with their male counterparts against continued resistance to Brit occupation and oppression. And it is when the stereotypical barriers not only of gender but of politics are broken down or melded that we as a people will achieve greater continuity, solidarity and strength.

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