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Head shavings at gunpoint and sexual assaults - Violence against women during the Irish Revolution

A Maynooth professor has said history may be downplaying the level of violence directed towards women during the conflict.

Image: National Library of Ireland via Flickr

NORAH HEALY WAS heavily pregnant when she was sexually assaulted by members of the Black and Tans at her Cork home.

She went to the local barracks to complain and when she arrived, she saw one the perpetrators.

“She said it to one of the main officers in charge and he told her ‘oh don’t worry about that’. It never went any further,” Maynooth professor Linda Connolly said. Connolly recently wrote a paper arguing that history may have underestimated the number of sexual assaults and violent attacks on women in Ireland between 1917 and 1923.

She said Norah Healy wrote a “very personal letter” about what happened to her and it is often only through letters or diaries that historians can piece together a picture of violence suffered by women during this period.

Another letter written by a woman in the Midlands described her ordeal at the hands of IRA members when they came to loot the home she shared with her elderly aunt and uncle. She was a single woman, she was raped and when she fell pregnant, she concealed the pregnancy and then gave her baby up for adoption.

“In the Irish context, it was always presumed that during the War of Independence there was a low level of rape as part of the conflict. I’m not arguing that there were thousands of rapes happening, but this previous assertion of little or no rape does need to be approached with caution because we actually don’t know,” Connolly said.

“No different from today, rape is always under reported and it was even moreso during that period. Women were not going to come forward for fear of rejection by their husbands, their families and their communities. For some who did come forward, there was no prosecution.”

So it was highly unlikely women who were raped would have come forward. These stories are not going to show up in official statistics for crimes during that period. They’ll show up in archives, where you’ll see children were given up for adoption, or in letters, it’s hidden away.

Head shaving

There is hard evidence, Conolly said, of instances in which women had their hair shaved off as a punishment.

Eileen Barker was one such victim. She had her head shaved at gunpoint by members of the IRA for allowing British troops to stay in her hotel.

“It has been seen as one of the more lenient form of punishments, but it is a highly sexualised thing to cut a woman’s hair off,” she said. “It was about sexuality, a way of controlling a woman who might have been ‘fraternising’.”

“What is interesting about Irish history is that enforced cutting of hair in the dehumanisation and sanctioning of women occurred on both sides of the conflict – Crown forces and IRA – in the period of revolution, an aspect that seems to fall into the bracket of Irish historical amnesia.

“Historians have also examined how women also had to endure being present during physical assaults, including fatal ones, against their close male relatives – but very little work has been done on how violence against women was witnessed by other women.

“Did women escape the worst of the brutalities between 1919-21? I would say no, we cannot presume this and in fact I would go so far as to say they did not. Much more work remains to be done before we can conclude this.”

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Read: Relics of Piracy and a History of Dublin: The Central Bank is opening its archives for the first time>

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