Silent Grace and women’s hands: arming female militancy

Maeve Murphy’s film shows republican women prisoners resisting not just British forces but republicanism’s own patriarchal power structures

Orla Brady as Grace in Silent Grace

Orla Brady as Grace in Silent Grace

 

How are images of arms linked to ideas of power? How might limbs have gendered histories that evoke concepts of self-sovereignty or servitude? The symbol of a raised fist is an iconic image of 20th- and 21st-century activism, but what does it mean to think agency through hands specifically?

Cultural representations of female militancy in Northern Ireland, from paramilitary or abortion rights murals to Maeve Murphy’s film Silent Grace (2001), often locate that militancy in the arm itself. Whether raised and defiant or bearing arms, these depictions of female strength are a far cry from Ulster a century or so earlier. The historic norm was of male soldiers sacrificing themselves for and protecting women, whose role in conflict was supposedly limited to birthing the next generation.

The Virgin Mary appears in Silent Grace when Eileen goes on hunger strike: a small printed image is affixed to an excrement-covered wall and lit by candles

We are far more used to thinking about male arms as sources of militancy. Republican Patrick Pearse declared in 1913, “we must first realise ourselves as men … nationhood is not achieved otherwise than in arms”. In 1914 the British government produced a poster to encourage men to enlist: a muscular arm and clenched fist emblazoned with, “LEND YOUR STRONG RIGHT ARM TO YOUR COUNTRY”. But if arms strengthened a nation, hands could also threaten to destroy it. From 1915 the public were gripped by the fear of a “hidden” or “unseen hand”: traitors, homosexuals and promiscuous women supposedly working to undermine the war effort. Upper limbs are more than just corporeal parts in the collective imagination. They point bodies in directions: gesturing towards potential futures. Hands can either uphold the status quo, or undermine it.

Catholic and Protestant literature from late 19th- and early 20th-century Ulster shared a similar idealisation of “true womanhood”, which was encapsulated in the title “handmaiden”. In Katherine Tynan’s play The Annunciation (1895), the character Mary daydreams about Christ: “I would I might be hand-maiden … To sweep and cleanse of soil and stain / The house for that fair Boy”. Women’s arms were meant to exist not for themselves, but for the support of their children and husbands. “True women” and wives were selfless, submissive, humble, obedient, clean, domestic-bound, care-giving, meek, pure, pious – and firmly in the background. Women who deviated from this standard were descried as “selfish”, “defiled” and “feeble-minded”. Or, as Belfast’s Rev John Waddell put it in 1913: “wallowing in intemperance and impurity, degraded”.

Given such a history, how does Murphy’s 2001 film Silent Grace negotiate the representation of republican female paramilitary inmates on the 1980 “no wash” protest and hunger strike in Armagh Prison? With cultural ideas of good/bad femininity so entrenched, how do these women refute or reclaim patriarchal tropes? The public, including the Catholic/republican community, were largely horrified by the protesters’ actions when they took place. Fr Raymond Murray complained of “girls in Armagh Prison … suffering … defeminisation”. Murphy navigates the complex position her characters are in: disciplined soldiers, living in their own excrement, working through everyday violent power struggles. The title of the film itself, of course, is playing with Christian semantics: silence and grace were both hallmarks of “true womanhood”.

The Virgin Mary was historically considered the feminine ideal. She makes an appearance in Silent Grace when the protagonist, Eileen, goes on hunger strike: a small printed image is affixed to an excrement-covered wall and lit by candles. This staging is important, because it draws attention to the contrasts between patriarchal fantasy and the situation in Armagh. When a young child visits her mother in the prison, it is clear how estranged they both are. Far from the notion of women as domestic-bound servants to their husband and offspring, handmaidens to a clean home, the inmates have used their bare hands to spread their own faeces around the cells in protest against the criminalisation of their cause.

In a radical act of disobedience, these women refused to be imprisoned by the shame historically used to police femininity

In every brown mark is evident the shape of the fingers that made them: each wall an archive of excremental gestures, a collection of muddy hands. Similar activity was happening in Long Kesh/Maze Prison, of course, but perhaps here we can think about the female inmates reclaiming the idea that those who deviate from “true womanhood” are “dirty”, “impure”, “polluted”. In a radical act of disobedience, these women refused to be imprisoned by the shame historically used to police femininity. Eileen is adamant, despite a lack of support from the prison priest and IRA Army Council, that she demands no less than absolute equality alongside the Long Kesh/Maze protest.

When the Armagh inmates first get the command that they must end their strikes and take a supportive role to the men’s hunger strike, they throw their hands up in anger: “We’ll be back to making them tea and jumpers next”. One prisoner tries to reason, “They’re doing the dirty work, the least we can do is give them our respect and support” – but Eileen firmly rejects the idea of women as supporters from the sidelines. She tells the priest, “We need a woman on this. We have to be seen to be equal”. When he tells her the leader of the hunger strike in Long Kesh/Maze is adamant, she stands firm: she is the OC of Armagh, only she decides. In doing so, she undermines the conceptual terrain of patriarchal militarism: the image of men saving women.

Earlier in the film, Eileen describes a fellow inmate’s intellect as “muscle”. After the killing of a prison guard, she discusses military tactics with Áine, an Ordinary Decent Criminal who is placed among the protesters in an attempt to disrupt their efforts. Áine uses a hand metaphor in her reply: “In the short term, it gives us the upper hand; in the long term, it’ll cause even more of a hardened attitude towards us from the prison authorities”. The upper hand, of course, is the dominant position. Material metaphors like hardness (or hard muscles) are also used to invoke concepts of strength. For decades from the 1950s, Fairy Liquid marketed itself as selling a soap that produced “soft female hands”, with adverts depicting mothers cleaning the home. When Áine’s mother comes to visit, she tells her: “You’re a softie, stop acting the hard woman”. Áine is adamant: “I’m not a softie”.

Muscular self-control is conventionally associated with military masculinity, but Eileen is adamant that female paramilitaries harness the same self-discipline. While on hunger strike she situates herself as “one of a long line of republican martyrs”. Indeed, despite often having been written out of history, there is a long Irish tradition of strong, militant women who disobeyed and challenged convention. Silent Grace is important because our social reality – what we think of as normal or given – is shaped by our collective imagination. Culture has a crucial role to play in shifting how we conceptualise power and gender. In refusing the position of the handmaiden’s servitude, Murphy’s characters both reclaim the radical threat of deviating from “true womanhood” and, in figuratively taking up arms, shatter the notion that strength is only the preserve of “hard men”. For hands are sites of resistance.
Silent Grace was premiered on TV3 on June 24th, 2017. Edwin Coomasaru is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art and co-founder of the CHASE Gender, Sexuality and Violence Research Network. His research, funded by the AHRC, explores Northern Irish gender politics and the legacy of the Troubles in art and visual culture

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