The rape of women by soldiers during wartime has occurred throughout history. Women in Ukraine today are speaking out about sexual violence both so that the world knows what is happening and to lay down future criminal evidence. Silence and turning a blind eye are not an option; they serve to reinforce shame, stigma and impunity for perpetrators.
Women also experienced and spoke out about sexual violence during Ireland’s revolution.
The Irish Civil War of 1922-23 has for decades been presented as a conflict of “brother against brother”. Violence against women was not considered. In 2016 I established the Women and the Irish Revolution 1919-23 research project. Many new cases and different examples of gender-based violence in the War of Independence and Civil War, in almost every Irish county, through detailed work have been retrieved, collated and documented in several publications to date. Additional evidence in relation to known and unknown cases of sexual violence, perpetrated by both sides in the Civil War, was found in various documents.
Wartime rape of any scale – whether an individual case or large-scale genocidal rape - is inherently destructive and traumatising. Sexual violence targeted at individual women in the Irish Civil War was no exception to this. The harsh reality of such violence is evident in the first-hand accounts of women who waived their anonymity, reported perpetrators or publicly with consent described their ordeal in courts, Military Services Pension applications, Bureau of Military History witness statements, compensation claims, newspaper reports, medical files, institutions and personal documents.
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In all these sources, the voice of those survivors who sought recompense was clear and resolute in the face of trauma. Women who survived atrocities also lived lives before and after their ordeal, and cannot therefore be only represented or “listed” as hapless victims in Irish historical writing or in memory politics. The lives survivors lived before and after the revolution also merit due respect and consideration.
Her name was Eileen
One of the most distressing cases of civilian violence in the Irish Civil War, documented in an Irish Grants Committee Compensation Claim of November 17th, 1926, was highlighted by historians (including in local histories) just as the debate about the State-led Decade of Centenaries was starting. Mrs Eileen MW Biggs’s application for personal-injury compensation states that she was criminally assaulted by armed men “in IRA uniforms” in the early hours of June 16th, 1922 – a century ago.
Who was Mrs Biggs? Eileen Mary Warburton Robinson was born on July 20th, 1879 at 95 Bushfield Avenue, Donnybrook, Dublin. Her father, Robert Henry Robinson, a colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps and an army surgeon, from Parsonstown, was 35 and her mother Bessie was 36. Eileen’s family of origin were not “Big House” Protestants from Tipperary as some historians have suggested – they were south Dublin Protestants. Approximately a quarter of the south Dublin population were Protestants at this time.
Robert married Elizabeth (“Bessie”) Joyce Coote Leonard in September 1871 in Dublin, and they had five children during their marriage. Bessie was aged just four when her father, Captain John Bunbury Leonard (6th Carbineers), died in 1847 at Bay View, Rosscarberry, Co Cork. The family then moved back to Dublin. As an army surgeon, Robert Robinson had served in Barbados where a daughter Margaret (“Daisy”) was born, and in South Africa, where Grace was born. Eileen, Hilda and Robert junior (Robert Harvey St Clair Robinson, a captain in the 5th Royal Dublin Fusiliers) were all born in Dublin. Grace married George Washington Biggs in September 1899 in Dublin and they lived in Bellevue, Borrisokane, Co Tipperary. Both the Robinsons and Biggs were steeped in the military. The Biggs family were landed and also had financial interests in Rhodesia as well as in Danish St Croix, in earlier generations. Grace and George had four children during their marriage.
Eileen is listed in Bellevue in the 1911 census with Grace and her family. She later, however, married George Washington Biggs’s brother, Samuel Dickson Biggs, in 1918 in Borrisokane when she was 39. Samuel was born on February 16th, 1874 in Rathmines, Dublin and was 44 when he married Eileen. A myth that Eileen was “young” when attacked in 1922 (she was 43) and an assumption her name was Harriet is a mistake still reproduced by historians. Her name was Eileen.
Dromineer, June 16th, 1922, 12.30am: Outrage
Samuel and Eileen bought a house near Dromineer, Nenagh, Co Tipperary overlooking Lough Derg. The Civil War enveloped north Tipperary in 1922. Both members of pro-Treaty and Protestant households were fearful of being targets of the anti-Treaty IRA. Likewise anti-Treaty families feared National Army violence. The violence of the Irish revolution was already heartfelt in Dromineer. A popular Catholic neighbour in the locality, Robin Gill, had died in Nenagh three days after a savage beating by alleged members of the local IRA in 1921 for unknown reasons. Reports of outrages involving Black and Tans and the IRA in the preceding War of Independence also had generated fear of rape and attacks on women.
In the early hours of June 16th, 1922, at about 12.30am, a large group of IRA men active in the area are believed to have arrived by boat and entered the property of Samuel and Eileen Biggs. In the Empire News on June 25th, 1922 “a close source” (Samuel) stated that when the men arrived they broke windows and forced themselves into the house. Samuel and Thomas Webb, a gentleman of 74 years of age who lived with the Biggs, were forced at gunpoint into a room: “Three of the men then entered my wife’s bedroom and all three outraged her.”
In her 1926 compensation claim, Eileen states she was locked in a room, then taken to a second room and in total “outraged on eight or nine different occasions”. Samuel was kept informed by the raiders of what they were doing. The house was completely ransacked and valuables taken. The raiders consumed food, drank all the whisky and vomited. A horrific atrocity unfolded. Eileen was found severely injured and in a “lifeless state”. She was left for dead at about 2.30am.
Gang rape is extremely violent and causes severe injuries in the aftermath. Sociologically, wars never just “end” on a certain date – they also stretch into the future through trauma, displacement, involuntary migration, addictions, poor health, disability and suicides both among veterans and survivors. Societies break down as a consequence of war as do individuals. The Irish Civil War left its mark.
Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs clearly suffered immense physical injury and a mental breakdown in the immediate aftermath of a heinous crime. She was first removed to a Dublin hospital and put under the care of Dr Ella Webb (the first female member of staff appointed in the Adelaide Hospital in 1918 and later a colleague of Dr Kathleen Lynn), who treated her for “shock and nervous prostration”. Other injuries also required treatment.
The Biggses subsequently lodged in London for a period where Eileen was under constant care and in an acutely nervous condition. Doctors feared her leg would need to be amputated due to the severity of the injuries received. Eileen stated in her compensation claim testimony that Samuel did not leave her side, nursing her “day and night”. Samuel, however, also “wholly lost his health” as a consequence of what Eileen called “the disgrace to me”. Justice for this crime was not subsequently served despite the public condemnation of it.
Aftermath of Civil War: Shame
Eileen MW Biggs’s compensation claim also explicitly captured the social shame the couple and wider family experienced. In 1924, Eileen’s sister Daisy Peacock “died from shock as a result of the incident and of stigma to the family” as a consequence of falling from the top window of a house on Pembroke Road.
In Eileen’s words: “We cannot hold up our heads amongst our friends and acquaintances.” The raw medical, social and economic consequences of this attack are unequivocal. Samuel was unable to obtain any employment due to the “prostration” brought about by the outrage to his wife. The fear that other Protestant women must have felt in this area as a consequence of the Biggs atrocity was heightened by another incident involving the IRA in Cloughjordan a month later, on July 29th, 1922. A case of indecent assault and the “attempted” outrage of a Protestant servant during a raid was reported. Fear as well as direct bodily violence in the Civil War affected nerves as so many personal statements of the period testify.
The deeply personal, internecine violence of the Irish Civil War stained the foundation of the Irish State. Both sides were implicated in violence against women, wounding them and their families. The Robinsons’ and Biggses’ lives changed utterly in 1922. Grace and George Washington Biggs ultimately divorced. Eileen and Samuel had to quickly sell their home and moved to Monkstown, Co Dublin. The couple loyally lived together, undoubtedly with the memory of the atrocity they had endured, until Samuel died in 1937 in Monkstown Hospital. In 2019, I found Eileen and her sister, Hilda V Robinson, buried together in Mount Jerome cemetery in an unmarked grave. She died in 1950 aged 69. At the end of her life, Eileen was committed to St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital, James Street, Dublin, where others traumatised by the violence and shock of the Irish Civil War had also been treated. She was not institutionalised all her life, however. Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs quietly lived on in the new Irish Free state between 1922 and 1950 in south Dublin where she was born and where many of her relatives regrouped and resided, in the aftermath of the Irish revolution. She stayed, while others left. We remember her.
Prof Linda Connolly is a Professor of Sociology at Maynooth University. Support for anyone affected by sexual violence is available here.
for Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs
I daub my face and arms with vodka –
an old gardener’s trick, so mosquitos
leave off their blood-fest. Balanced
on a tap of touch and turn against
the hand-cranked grinding wheel,
the slash-hook whets for the cut.
Along the foreshore, an August breeze
plays water music, tender, through
each reed. I swing and find my rhythm,
and as the thicket of brambles unpuzzle,
what was once hidden is now in sight.
I feel the first stings on my eyelids,
my lips, my hands. I tug at my shirt –
wasps cling to my breasts, back, belly.
Before the lake closes above me, I see
the nest – a parchment ball sliced
to reveal deep chambers, its darkest
secrets. I swim through the gloom –
disturb a pike perfecting toothy menace,
follow launching rails for Vanya
to the end of the pier, where I break
surface a century earlier. As aspens brustle
and grebe calls bump the quiet,
I test my voice and it returns an echo,
sounding time’s inevitability.
This vintage summer wears long
linen skirts and high lace collars,
but is not naïve, indifferent or plain.
In the orchard I stand beneath a fruit tree,
breathe a familiar fermenting scent,
watch five drunken wasps devour a plum,
tear at its bruised and broken flesh –
in greed lies savagery. One wasp hovers
at eye level, daring me to flinch,
but recognizing a fighter, and my stone-cold
intention should it strike, it returns to it’s feasting.
I feel your eyes on me Eileen, know you
have seen me before and are not afraid.
Time exists in a loop here, where past
and future are open corridors. You wait
by the door to the rose garden, your face
in shadow under your straw hat, but I see
how you smile at my dishevelled ghost –
a scrap of endurance newly emerged
from the lake. There is no warning
I can signal, for already you are lost,
terror already visited, but having found
you here, I will bring something of you back.
Eleanor Hooker is a Markievicz Award Recipient 2021. Where Memory Lies is forthcoming.