"In the Footsteps of Anne, Stories of Republican Women Ex-Prisoners"
Compiled by Evelyn Brady, Eva Patterson, Kate Mc Kinney, Rosie Hamill and Pauline Jackson
In this groundbreaking book the women Irish republican political prisoners tell their own stories about being imprisoned during the troubles, principally in Armagh Women’s Jail.
We are lucky enough to have many books about the men in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. This is the first book by and about the women in Armagh. That alone would make it indispensable. But it is also highly readable and often deeply moving.
The women remained members of the IRA or INLA even after they went to prison. They saw themselves as prisoners of war, still under military discipline.
Until 1976, they had political or “special category” status. They elected their own Officer Commanding (OC) who dealt with the governor (warden) and the guards. Maggie McClenaghan writes that “She was regognised by the prison administration and it was understood that we took our orders from her not from them.”
Sadie McGilloway describes how the OC, not the prison administration briefed her when she came to Armagh. “Big Susie [a guard] was telling me the dos and don’ts of the prison as Eileen Hickey, the OC, introduced herself to me and told Susie not to worry herself as I was one of theirs I felt a bit embarrassed for Susie and a great deal of pride as I followed Eileen.”
Every morning at 10am the women stood at attention while the OC inspected their cells. After the cell inspection they paraded in military formation for 10-15 minutes in the exercise yard. Maggie McClenaghan remembers that “The screws [guards] played a very small part in our lives. They opened the cell door in the morning and locked it at night.”
The British government ended political status for anyone convicted after 1976. Soon there were two categories of prisoners in the same jail. Some were recognized as political prisoners others were treated as common criminals.
Unlike in the H-Blocks, the women still wore their own clothes. They protested by refusing to do prison work.
Eileen Hickey wrote that “In Armagh the women refused to be classed as prisoners. This stand was taken in full knowledge of the suffering their protest would bring on themselves but little did anyone envisage the horror of what was to come. ..They were subject to many forms of punishment including being fed starvation rations, strip searching, loss of remission, continuous beatings, and even being deprived of fresh air as they were locked up constantly in punishment cells.”
After the women refused to work the prison administration retaliated by locking them in their cells 23 hour a day. Eilis O’Connor recalls that “Basically what that meant was that if we didn’t work they would keep us locked up….So we had to use the pos [chamber pots] and when they were full we had to throw them out the spy hole. Then they locked them up so we had to put our excreta on the walls. Marcia Williams added that “The first few days of this I found to be the most sickening. I was really nauseated and kept throwing up….Each time our cell door was opened for any reason we would slop out onto the wings. We usually had a full pot of urine. Many a screw screamed and cursed if you managed to get any of the contents over them and our aim was always good.”
The women prisoners staged a number of hunger strikes. There was a 21 day hunger strike to end internment in 1974. Kathleen Mc Kinney who participated in it describes how she went from 112 pounds to 99 ½ pounds. There was also a rotating one day a week hunger strike in solidarity with the Dolours and Marian Price who were being force fed in Britain.
When the men in the H-Blocks went on hunger strike to demand political status on October 27th, 1980, Mairead Farrell, Margaret Nugent and Mary Doyle joined them on December 1st. Mary Doyle recounts that “It was not done lightly. It was not a rash decision. I was almost 25 so I think I was mature enough, I said to myself ‘There’s every possibility I will die.’
The men in the H-Blocks ended their strike in mid-December with one of them was near death, in the mistaken belief that the British had agreed to political status. The women then called off their own hunger strike.
When it was clear that there was no political status, Bobby Sands began the second hunger strike. Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle wanted to join him but, as Mary Doyle says, “We did not have the large numbers to draw on as in the Blocks. For both of us it was an agonising decision because the women were always part of the prison struggle.”
Mary Doyle got a message from Bobby Sands saying that “when he heard that there was not going to be a hunger strike in Armagh he was the happiest man in the H-Blocks. He did not mean it chauvinistically, but comradely, affectionately.”
After the second hunger strike ended a decision was taken that both the women and men would declare themselves ready to work and then sabotage it. Ellen McGuigan remembers that “I was sent with five others to the sewing room…We had the time of our lives destroying very piece of material set in front of us.”
Eventually there was an agreement that work would consist of the prisoners cleaning and maintaining their own areas plus education. A number of women became fluent in Irish and some even obtained university degrees.
Even after they won what amounted to political status the women prisoners were strip searched every time they went to or from court. Christine Poland writes that “The screws who carried out these strip searches should be ashamed of themselves for most of them used this opportunity to degrade and humiliate our prisoners some of whom were very young…It took its toll on women in different ways. Some were so distressed by the practice that their periods stopped…We had to harden ourselves because if we didn’t the strip searches were going to damage us psychologically…We felt it was their shame and not ours but it wasn’t that easy for some women.”
Virtually every woman who tells about her time in Armagh comes back to the lasting friendships formed there. Margaret Barr speaks for many when she writes that “I met so many friends and comrades. I know that I could lift the phone at any time and ring any of them and they would be there for me. I was only there for a year and this may sound strange but it was the best year of my life. I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me and we all loved the cause.”
If, as Christy Moore sings, the International Brigade forged “a comradeship of heroes” in Span, surely the women republican prisoners forged a comradeship of heroines in Armagh.
Sandy Boyer is the co-host of “Radio Free Eireann” heard Saturdays at 1pm New York time on WBAI , 99.5 FM or wbai.org. He was the coordinator of the N.Y. H-Block/Armagh Committee and has worked for Irish republican prisoners including Joe Doherty, Malachy McAllister, Roisin McAliskey, Pól Brennan, Marian Price and Martin Corey.