Time to stop force-feeding us a male cultural history
Films that ignore women don’t just create a skewed version of the past. They are symptomatic of a persistent exclusion of women’s voices from culture and from society itself
In the fiction-film Silent Grace (2001), director Maeve Murphy depicts the 1980 hunger strike in the Armagh women’s prison and the women’s dirty protest
Brendan Byrne’s documentary, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, not only doesn’t depict the role of women in the conflict, but that it doesn’t interview a single woman in relation to that recent historical period. Women are seen in the film – banging binlids, marching in balaclavas or with blankets wrapped round them – and briefly heard in archival footage of Bernadette McAliskey and Rosaleen Sands, but they are not presented as worthy of either extended comment or analysis
Helen Mirren and Aidan Gillen in Some Mother’s Son: Terry George’s film has the distinction of portraying women with their own subjectivity and agency, yet even this film cannot recognise the central role of women in the actual conflict
Steve McQueen’s Hunger concentrated its depiction of the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike exclusively on Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender. The glaring absence from it and other portrayals of the strike is any acknowledgement of the prison protests occurring in Armagh women’s prison or the central role of women in the Troubles
I recently watched Brendan J Byrne’s documentary, Bobby Sands: 66 Days. The film announces in its title its sole focus on Bobby Sands, who died after 66 days on hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981. Though Sands is discussed in detail, throughout the film there is very little mention of the 1980 hunger strike or, indeed, of the other hunger strikers in 1981 (those who died, and those who survived). In this sole focus, the film follows the lead of Steve McQueen’s fiction film Hunger (2008), which concentrated its depiction of the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike exclusively on Sands. These two films stand in contrast to other films, such as Les Blair’s H3 (2001) and Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son (1996), both of which dramatise multiple stories and personalities, from the camaraderie of the IRA prison wings to the struggles of the strikers’ families. The glaring absence from all of these films, however, is any acknowledgement of the prison protests occurring in Armagh women’s prison or the central role of women in the Troubles.
In all of these filmic depictions of the prison-protest period (1976-1981), women exist as girlfriends, wives and mothers. George’s film has the distinction of portraying women with their own subjectivity and agency, yet even this film cannot recognise the central role of women in the actual conflict. The exceptionalism of Some Mother’s Son is reinforced when we consider that Byrne’s documentary not only doesn’t depict the role of women in the conflict, but that it doesn’t interview a single woman in relation to that recent historical period. Women are seen in the film – banging binlids, marching in balaclavas or with blankets wrapped round them – and briefly heard in archival footage of Bernadette McAliskey and Rosaleen Sands, but they are not presented as worthy of either extended comment or analysis.
The problem with this is twofold: the absence of women’s stories and women’s voices suggests, firstly, that the Troubles period of Irish history was predominantly experienced by men and, secondly, that this history and its impact can only be assessed by men. The further problem is what this general lack of interest in women’s historical roles, on the part of male film-makers, says about how women are viewed and treated in society more generally.
I am weary of this masculinist and mainstream version of cultural history. And I have started to question the worth of critiquing it, given that critique seems to only give this inadequate version yet more oxygen. My time might be much better spent considering, instead, works that really do attempt to expand our understanding of the meaning, and legacy, of the hunger strikes by telling stories that haven’t already become so familiar and so entrenched.
In the fiction-film Silent Grace (2001), director Maeve Murphy depicts the 1980 hunger strike in the Armagh women’s prison and the women’s dirty protest (which began in Armagh prison in February 1980). During the dirty protest, the female prisoners not only had no access to toilet facilities, but also no access to sanitary products. Murphy shows women smearing both their faeces and their menstrual blood on the walls of their cells. In this fictional version of the Armagh strike, Murphy depicts only the prison’s OC, Eileen (Orla Brady), going on hunger strike (in reality, three women in Armagh prison joined the 7 men in the Maze on the 1980 strike). Murphy draws on suffragette history to conclude the film, as Eileen is saved from dying by the prison governor invoking the Cat and Mouse Act (1913), legislation designed to prevent the deaths of suffragettes. In this moment, there is also, I think, an echo of the force-feeding of Dolours and Marian Price in an English prison in 1973-4, an ordeal that lasted 203 days.
The realities of women’s lives in Armagh prison differed from those of the men in the Maze and this is also evident in Cahal McLaughlin’s archive project Prisons Memory Archive (http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/armagh-stories/), a documentary collection of 175 narratives of Northern Irish prison life during the conflict (of which 34 relate to Armagh). The narratives of women who were imprisoned or worked in the Armagh prison make for fascinating and deeply informative viewing as when Josie Dowds, a former IRA prisoner, describes the experience of having a baby while on the wing, and her son living with her until he was a year old. She had ‘no shortage of babysitters’ but then had to send him out of the prison before the end of her sentence. Daphne Scroggie, a former prison guard, describes having to ‘dash home’ to feed her two young children or take them to school during shift breaks. Former loyalist prisoner Jacqui Upton describes the “mental torture” of being kept on a republican wing, and having as a result to stay in her cell due to the intimidation. These are stories that are so rarely heard.
The legacy of the 1981 hunger strike is apparent in the testimony of Anne Walker, a former IRA quarter master, who took part in the Theatre of Witness play I Once Knew a Girl (Derry Playhouse, 2010, directed by Teya Sepinuck). Walker describes the impact of the hunger strikes: “The hunger strikes … sealed my fate. I remember I could have told you the names and times of death of each of those men.” Based on this, when Anne is asked to join the IRA, she doesn’t hesitate: “I got such a rush … that I had something more to offer than marches and demonstration, I said, ‘I don’t even have to think about this, I know what I want to do’.” While in the IRA, Anne gained purpose, but she was also subjected to sexual harassment. When Anne was raped, she told no one because “compared to all the violence of the Troubles, I thought it was insignificant, but it wasn’t. It happens to too many of us.”
For me, the words and situations in these works are surprising and challenging; and they depict a different context and legacy for the 1981 hunger strikes, forcing us to rethink our easy cultural assumptions about that history. As an academic, and as a citizen, these are voices I want to hear – not just because I’m a woman and somehow automatically interested in “women’s issues”, but because these women’s stories give us real insight into the prison protest period, how it was experienced and how it affected communities both inside the prisons and outside them.
Paying attention to these stories is not simply important because history should be inclusive, as some kind of academic exercise in balance. But because the under-representation of women’s stories mirrors the social marginalisation of women.
Anne’s sense of her own experience of rape as “insignificant” arises because she lives in a culture that routinely represses women’s voices and that does not value women’s experience.
Domestic violence and rape are under-reported crimes both north and south of the border. Women’s stories are under-recognised both north and south of the border. There is a cultural link between these two facts, a link that explains why Anne thought her experience of rape was “insignificant”.
So to return to where I started – the fact that Byrne’s 66 Days ignores women ostensibly doesn’t do any real damage, beyond creating a skewed version of the past; yet it is at the same time symptomatic of a persistent exclusion of women’s voices from culture, an exclusion that is not just an annoying oversight, but, if seen as part of the broader picture, represents an omission with very sinister implications.
Dr Emilie Pine is a lecturer at the School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin