A Woman's Place: resistance in Northern Ireland

By Jasmin Rostron, 2nd Year Anthropology

Artwork by Jessica Manuel, 1st Year History of Art with Material Studies

Why is it that women seem to disappear from the memories, photographs and accounts of war? Where do they go? Left alone to take care of children, without a sustainable source of income, under the threat of violence, why are these stories not told?

This piece will focus on Northern Ireland, where working-class Catholic women had a proactive role in protesting against the British. Told at the anniversary of twenty years of peace, this is a glimpse into the story of these women, their need to participate in politics as a matter of survival, and the resulting awareness of gender inequalities previously taken for granted.

Between 1968 and 1998 a conflict arose in Northern Ireland, primarily for political, religious and nationalistic reasons. The two sides of the conflict go by many names, but the Protestant (Unionist/Loyalist) majority at the time wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, whilst the Catholic minority (Nationalist/Republican) wished to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Conflict between the two sides escalated through police brutality, internment, and the creation of the paramilitary organisation called the PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army). It is estimated that 3,600 people died, and thousands more were injured physically and psychologically. It was not until 1998, when the Belfast Good Friday Agreement was signed that violent conflict diminished.

The legacies of the Troubles are still disputed and much of its history remains obscured and contested. A selective focus on the roles of women in this conflict does not seek to glorify the violence they participated in, or overemphasise their agency, but simply to fill in a missing piece of the historical puzzle.

An important group to look at were working-class Catholic women in Northern Ireland. At the time, womanhood was – as it still is to some – synonymous to family: being a wife and a mother. Thus, due to strong traditional Catholic values, women were often confined to the domestic sphere of everyday life. Practical reality, however, challenged conventional gender norms. Change was initiated by the imposition of a curfew in 1970, night-time raids on their homes, the imprisonment of their sons, and food shortages, the most important being milk.

Milk was a symbol of care and nurturance, thus women's inability to provide it created both a physical and psychological difficulty for the family. It was this feeling of choicelessness, driven by a desire to provide for their families, which triggered the popular resistance movement. Women took to the streets, waving bottles of empty milk, loaves of bread, pushing prams and carrying children. The police stood by as women humiliated them, branding them wife and child beaters. Men protesting would have been beaten, arrested and jailed. Yet, at the time women were not seen as a threat but rather passive victims of the conflict, a perception with its own advantages. From this point on, women began to exchange information and organise to create a resistance against the British forces.

Networks were created on buses travelling to and from the jails to visit their imprisoned sons and husbands. These bus rides became crucial as their homes were no longer private spaces owing to nightly raids. Women began patrolling the streets at night to regain control over their homes, and called themselves the Hen Patrol. In shifts they would walk around their neighbourhoods, banging trash cans and blowing whistles to alert neighbours of a British raid. This decreased the sense of helplessness and humiliation at being abruptly awoken, and reduced the risk of belongings destroyed during the night. In this way, women were not passive recipients of a psychological and physical violation into their home and private space – instead they mounted an impressive, collective challenge. 

Overall, women’s political invisibility became their greatest asset, and resulted in a subversion of gender norms. It was women marching, women patrolling the streets at night, women organising and exchanging information, and even women walking with men at night for their protection. But what did this mean post-conflict? Whilst women had seized political and personal freedoms, many men had been jailed, and they expected things to be the same as they had been when they returned home. Interned men had experienced jail as a kind of "school of militant nationalism", but on the outside women had had to single-handily support their families, under the strains of poverty and the psychological and physical violence inflicted by the police. Many had to choose between their newfound independence and their married life, leading to confusion about their identity. Even though they had been active in the conflict, it became apparent that their efforts were not recognised or were seen as inferior. Traditional histories have forgotten them. Yet the Troubles sparked new awareness of their capabilities; as their equality to men became apparent, many were unwilling to accept a subordinate position in society and subsequently began to campaign for equal rights.

    Far from being passive victims of a male-dominated war, these women were active agents who fought for their own survival and that of their family. Through resistance movements, the reversal of gender norms, and then the return of the men, women also began to question their role in society, resulting in a consciousness and activism for greater political and personal freedoms. Twenty years of peace in Northern Ireland has taught us a lot – it has even set an example for peace talks in other states with conflicting identities. Yet, over these same years only part of the story has been told. Uncovering the stories of these working-class Catholic women helps to illustrate what has been obscured by history.

Begona, Aretxaga, Shattering Silence. Women, Nationalism, and Political Subjectivity
in Northern Ireland
. (New Jersey,  1998)

Seamus Kelters, BBC History,,
Date Accessed: 06/03/2018