Thursday 21 November 2019

Women and war: The brutal, hidden truths of the revolution era

Ireland's revolutionary history is usually told by and about men, but new research highlights violent attacks on women in the era of the Civil War. Catherine Healy reports

Sexual policing: a scene from The Wind that Shakes the Barley showing a woman having her hair forcibly cut - a common form of punishment for women during the War of Independence
Sexual policing: a scene from The Wind that Shakes the Barley showing a woman having her hair forcibly cut - a common form of punishment for women during the War of Independence
Research: Linda Connolly, professor of sociology at Maynooth University

Margaret Doherty was only 32 when she died at Castlebar Mental Hospital in 1928. It had been five years since the night she was gang-raped at the close of the Civil War in May 1923. Not long after the ceasefire, at around 2am, National Army forces were said to have burst into her family home and dragged her from bed, stripping her naked outside the house. Maggie, as she was known, was at the time a carer for her mother, Catherine, as well as an intelligence officer with Cumann na mBan.

In a military pension application following her death, Catherine stated that the attack left her daughter "totally incapacitated". She "gradually failed, physically and mentally", according to her mother.

Maggie's ordeal is one of a number highlighted by new research into sexual violence during the Irish revolutionary period. Linda Connolly, professor of sociology at Maynooth University, who has examined the case, says this type of wartime violence is only now being acknowledged by Irish historians.

"The history of the Civil War, in particular, has tended to be written from the perspective of brother against brother, through the lens of male militarism, but clearly there were also aspects that were brother against sister. Women experienced war in different ways, and those gender differences haven't been looked at adequately."

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Research: Linda Connolly, professor of sociology at Maynooth University
Research: Linda Connolly, professor of sociology at Maynooth University

Another attack documented by Connolly had similarly tragic consequences. After being gang-raped by local IRA members at her Tipperary home in June 1922, Eileen Biggs, a Protestant woman in her 30s, fled to England along with her husband. She suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in St Patrick's Psychiatric Hospital in Dublin, where she died in 1950.

In a compensation application, Eileen recounted that two uniformed men had thrown her on a bed and assaulted her while her home was being ransacked. "Other men came in from time to time and did the same thing," she wrote.

Cover up

Connolly stresses that women like Maggie and Eileen had little incentive to report sexual violence. Rape was frequently covered up, and victims faced being stigmatised by their communities. The evidence suggests that the authorities in Maggie's case sought to protect the army's reputation, inviting her parish priest and the local civic guard to a court martial despite it being correctly anticipated that the three suspects would be acquitted. Those arrested and tried in connection with the attack on Eileen were also released without punishment.

Other kinds of violence and intimidation directed at women during these years included beatings, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and intrusive body searches. Forced hair cutting was especially widespread during the War of Independence, carried out by both sides. The practice served as a means of sexual policing, especially targeting women considered to be close to the enemy.

"It was a way of humiliating women as well as instilling fear," Connolly says. "Cutting a woman's hair was regarded as almost taking away her femininity and marking her out as sexually deviant."

Online access to the Military Service Pensions Collection as well as the Bureau of Military History witness statements has been pivotal in casting more light on women's experiences of the Irish revolution.

According to a spokesperson for the Defence Forces, however, the record of a court martial in relation to the attack on Margaret Doherty only came to light recently when a military archivist discovered a reference to the three defendants while cataloguing the papers of the Free State's Army Inquiry Committee, which will be released at the end of November. The file in question is expected to be made available for public inspection after being viewed by her descendants.

Connolly is conscious, too, of the intergenerational trauma and hurt that has stayed with families, choosing to deal only with cases in which women's anonymity was waived. But the stories she documents can also cause discomfort for other reasons.

One of the men involved in the IRA gang reported to have raped Eileen Biggs was a Captain Martin Hogan, who was killed a year later in Dublin. Connolly points out that the National Graves Association (NGA) erected monuments to the Tipperary man in 2003 off Banba Square in Nenagh and on Grace Park Road in Dublin, where he was shot, in spite of the allegations against him.

When contacted by this newspaper, however, the NGA insisted that there was insufficient evidence to link the IRA member to the crime. It said in a statement: "Our enquiries several decades ago failed to place Martin Hogan at the scene or to have played any part in the atrocity. Hogan was a popular man in the locality and in the North Tipperary area, and to associate him with this heinous crime was seen as an attempt to blacken his name...

"With time, rumour and innuendo have become accepted as facts for those who would not share Hogan's political principles or who wish to make a point with regard to sexual violence in 1916-1923."

For Connolly, cases like these raise important questions ahead of the upcoming centenary of the Civil War. Even monuments, to her mind, can be a way of starting a discussion about hidden histories - what we commemorate, and why. The full range of violence endured by women during the conflict has to be acknowledged, she argues, as part of any commemorative programme.

"We can't be selective about the aspects of the past that we remember," she says. "If we're to face up to the legacy of violence, we have to look at issues like gender."

When the sociologist Louise Ryan in 2000 published what Connolly believes was the first article on sexual violence during the revolutionary years, it received barely any attention, according to the latter. With sexual crime now being more openly discussed, the time is ripe, she says, for a new conversation about gender-based violence in Irish history.

"There was an idea in the courts, a century ago, that a woman could be culpable in her attack, but 'rape myths', as we call them now, haven't gone away. The line of questioning to this day is very problematic. And if we can't address these issues in the past, how can we address them in the present?"

‘Linda Connolly’s article ‘Sexual Violence and the Irish Revolution’ is published in the November/December edition of History Ireland’.

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