Pegeen O’Sullivan reviews Women, Policing and Resistance in Northern Ireland by Sharon Pickering, Beyond the Pale, £12 99 pbk and Us, Them and Others, £5 pbk (copies available from the Four provinces Bookshop)
Women, Policing and Resistance in Northern Ireland is a must for anyone who is interested in how the last 35 years have affected the social development of women in Northern Ireland and how women have developed the struggle within the constraints of their family responsibilities.
It begins with an excellent account of the history of policing during that period, which for me served as a necessary revision course.
One of the book’s themes is that while the basic aim of nationalist/republican women when confronting the police was to subvert the system, when working class women came into conflict with the police, as on occasions they did, fundamentally they wished to keep the political status quo, whatever their grievances.
In effect this is a study of how women’s vulnerability, mainly due to family responsibilities but also, to a lesser extent, to sexual vulnerability, at first inhibited women’s struggle and then led to the development of special forms of struggle moulded by these very difficulties.
I found the chapter on the dirty protest and hunger strike at Armagh Prison most valuable in showing that far from blindly copying what men were doing they had their own parallel, but far from identical, history.
Most moving was their approach to the hunger strike. There was a reluctance to allow women to take part on the perfectly rational grounds that women would normally die quicker than men and therefore were less useful as bargaining chips.
Those women who were not going on hunger strike gave part of their inadequate food to those who were so that they would begin the fast not quite as under weight as all the women normally were. Policing and Resistance in Northern Ireland is the work of a serious sociologist. However, in the main, this should not prove to be an obstacle to the general reader as it is largely made up of the testimony of carefully chosen women who give a fruitful cross-section of opinion.
The introduction, however, is, quite legitimately, academic in style. If this is an impediment, leave it until you have read the rest of the book.
US, THEM AND OTHERS is a realisation of the Good Friday agreement on the ground by members of four women’s groups whose combined membership embraces both the six and the twenty six counties and both Catholics and Protestants.
As well as attending meetings in their own groups -- Muirhevna Mór Women’s Group, Short Strand Women’s Group, Newtownards Road Women’s Group and Women’s Action Group East -- all the participants met together for three week-ends to discuss the making of this book.
The result is an anthology of over 100 items of prose and poetry and verse. The writing is of a high standard.
Its value comes from the honesty and simplicity with which the authors share their memories and reflections on their lives and times. I am sure these women were not aiming at writing social history but this is what their honesty has made it.
Instructively the subject most written about is health: the necessity of looking after your own, awareness of the value of the health service and anger at its progressive crippling and thankfulness that mental illness is now better understood.
Bereavement is another constant theme, this of course brings in the ‘Troubles’. But, the most moving accounts are those of the deaths of children, the agony of slow loss to illness and the sudden horror of a child run over.
Poverty is also vividly revealed by one contributor who remembers her fear when her father died that she would have to have free school dinners which would mean handing over a humiliating blue ‘free dinner’ ticket while those who could pay had a socially acceptable green ‘dinner paid for’ ticket. In the event she went home for her dinners!
Another conveys in six lines the playful happiness she experienced in Inglis Biscuit factory on the Newtownards Road.
Most of the childhood memories convey a warm family life though I hope schools have become more child friendly.
There is only one account of a broken marriage, sad for the parents but even sadder for their daughter’s whose heroic but unsuccessful attempt to improve her own lot landed her in more trouble. This is a fine initiative and I hope that some of those who could benefit from reading it will do so.
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