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Éire-Ireland 41.3&4 (2007) 11-41

The Significance of the Armagh Dirty Protest
Laura Weinstein

Beginning in february 1980, a group of female inmates held in Armagh Women's Prison decided that they preferred to live in absolute filth rather than accept prison conditions as dictated to them by the officers. These women, mostly in their early twenties, refused to wash or use toilets. They refused to change into clean clothes or to accept clean bedsheets from the prison staff. Rather than using the toilets of the jail, the women smeared their own excrement and menstrual blood on their cell walls when their chamber pots overflowed. As punishment for this action, the women were locked in their waste-encrusted cells for twenty-three hours every day. They were permitted an hour for exercise daily. Each day the women hoped that there would be rain to wash off some of the dirt from their bodies. For thirteen months the young women endured these miserable conditions, "with only their belief in the cause to sustain them."1 The cause was the Irish republican movement, grounded in the belief that Britain's authority over the six counties of Northern Ireland was unjust. The Armagh women, and the republican men in Long Kesh, who had been on their "dirty protest" since 1978, were mostly in jail for offenses committed on behalf of the Irish Republican Army. Living among their own waste [End Page 11] was a sacrifice worth making if it would help to advance the cause of Irish freedom.

The dirty protest in Armagh Women's Prison can be seen as a snapshot of Northern Ireland as it existed in 1980. The women's protest occurred in the context of the republican movement, the women's movement, and the conservative, Catholic nature of their community. These influences shaped the atmosphere in which the women acted and in which the public responded to the protest. In addition, the Armagh women fit into the long—and often romanticized—history of Irish women activists. Yet the history of the Armagh women has been largely neglected in the mass of academic literature on the men's protest. The Armagh women were neither the same as the men in Long Kesh, nor were they solely a feminist issue—they were necessarily both at the same time, a fact which created problems for all communities or groups that wished either to support or to condemn the women prisoners; the whole episode sheds much light on the condition of Northern Ireland in 1980. This analysis of the Armagh dirty protest endeavors to write these women into history and to "bring an entire people into focus."2

The writing of Irish history often falls into the trap of omitting women almost entirely or of accounting for them by assuming that the actions and motivations of women do not differ substantially from those of men. Margaret Ward took important steps toward ameliorating this situation through her books on nationalist women, including Unmanageable Revolutionaries and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: A Life. Ward's research shows that many women involved in nationalist politics have been written out of most historical work on the era. Her books illustrate that although the nationalist women did indeed share many of the same ideals and goals as their male comrades, women also had an agenda that was more strongly revolutionary; others attempted to prioritize women's issues.

In the years since Ward's pioneering research was published, historians have written increasingly about Irish women. But most of Irish historiography continues to be male-dominated.3 Included in [End Page 12] that category is the existing writing on the "dirty protests" that occurred in both the H-Blocks and Armagh Women's Prison. Like the IRA men, for thirteen months republican women protested against prison conditions and demanded political status by using their cells as toilets, by smearing their own excrement, urine, and menstrual blood on the walls, and by refusing to wash. The Armagh women, however, have been almost entirely forgotten. In his otherwise excellent book...


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