Written on: 8. 3. 2021 in the category: Uncategorized

Sfira & International Women’s Day!

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Today is International Women’s Day, a day when we should all reflect on the words of Our Beloved Leader, Mr Gerard Adams, on the issue of women’s rights. Two years ago, OBL declared: “A range of surveys over the years have shown that one-third of women surveyed were victims of sexual of (sic) physical violence. This is a shocking and harrowing fact…Women on the island of Ireland have won many battles for equality over the past century but there are further battles ahead….The struggle for equality must continue.”

I agree, and when I think about how OBL stayed so gallantly silent in 1987 after discovering that his brother had been raping his own daughter I am lost in admiration for his regard for women, young and old, throughout his career as a civil rights activist with Sfira. Indeed, I don’t think there’s been a single movement in Irish life that has embraced the movement of equality between the sexes so comprehensively as has Sfira.

So, this coming September will see the 50th anniversary of the death of Angela Gallagher*, aged eighteen months, shot dead by an IRA gunman in Cavendish Street in West Belfast. Happily, Sinn Fein president Ruairi O Bradaigh felt able to say that this babe’s death “was just one of the hazards of urban guerrilla warfare.”

Which words we should all remember when we recall the once-famous but now largely-forgotten image of her father holding her small white coffin at her funeral. O Bradaigh’s humane insight puts the killing of seventeen-year-old Vivienne Gibney into a comparable context. She was buying cosmetics the following December when she was killed in Belfast by an IRA bullet, further proof of the hazards of “urban guerrilla warfare”. This incident, by the way, also shows the utility of children in the armed struggle. A child had accidentally been run over by a car. Policemen investigating this were then the improvisational target of the practitioners of urban guerrilla warfare, but – as luck would have it! – the bullet intended to kill a policeman instead killed this teenage girl. It might not have been a wholly intended parity, but there we are.

Next February will see the 50th anniversary of the proof that elderly women are as mortal as young women, as testified to by the death of a 67-year-old Falls Road Catholic, Elizabeth English, who was shot and fatally wounded in Divis Street by an IRA gunman. As with Vivienne, the IRA weren’t actually trying to kill her, but mortality, whether intended or not, has an unhappy habit of being irreversible.

Last Thursday was the 49th anniversary of the Abercorn Bombing in Belfast, an equal-opportunities banquet of murder and mayhem almost without parallel in the history of feminism. The targets were mostly women, the bombers were women and almost all the victims were women: such a shame it didn’t manage to be on International Women’s Day. At least half a dozen women lost limbs in the explosion in the crowded cafe. Two sisters were monstrously maimed: one of them lost both legs, an arm and an eye. But the IRA did seek to achieve parity of a kind here: one man lost both legs, and many people of either sex lost eyes. Seventy people were injured and two young women in their early twenties were killed in this carnage: Ann Frances Owens and Janet Bereen.

It says something about the wonderful morality that drove the Sfira’s civil rights campaign that this slaughter, even more like Guernica than the actual Guernica, didn’t diminish the IRA’s boundless taste for its little war. On March 29, 1972, two more women died as a consequence of IRA activity. Ruby Johnston, 35, died of injuries after republicans petrol-bombed her crowded bus in Armagh. She had immediately caught fire but only succumbed to her burns after two months of agony. That same day she died, Martha Groves, a 39-year-old mother of ten, was largely spared such suffering: she was killed almost instantly by an IRA gunman shooting at soldiers in Andersonstown.

But he didn’t mean to kill her. Doesn’t that count for something? Well, it might do if the IRA had then stopped doing this kind of thing, which it didn’t, which explains how 65-year-old Elizabeth McAuley was burnt alive in her flat in Ballymoney after an IRA bomb exploded outside it. Similarly, the IRA man who shot dead Rosaleen Gavin, aged eight, in the Bone district of Belfast on April 29 was probably shooting at soldiers, which surely must make it all okay, sort of.

And equally, the IRA probably didn’t mean to kill Margaret Young, aged 60, an office cleaner, when they left a fifty-kilogram bomb in Oxford Street bus station in Belfast. That it was bound to cause casualties – forty, actually – surely doesn’t take away from the fact that the IRA didn’t actually intend to kill anyone. This similarly exculpates the IRA for the eight deaths when one of their bombs exploded in the Short Strand, wrecking fifty homes. Included in the dead were Geraldine McMahon, aged seventeen, and Mary Clarke, a mother of three young children. That same day not far from where little Rosaleen Gavin had been killed, twelve-year-old Joan Scott was similarly killed by an IRA sniper. Rosaleen was Catholic, Joan was Protestant, so as you can see, Sfira’s civil rights campaign was spreading fatal parity in every direction.

The IRA also had an uncanny ability to kill people at either end of the age spectrum: hence Jane McIntyre, aged 64 and a Protestant, shot dead at her Highfield home by an IRA gunman firing from Ballymurphy. Soon afterwards, the IRA managed to kill one of the youngest victims of the troubles: four-month-old Alan Jack, killed in his pram by an IRA-bomb in Strabane. I mention him because the IRA was just as capable of killing very young males as young females. It’s important to remember that. The IRA always was an equal-opportunities killer.

That doesn’t mean it always succeeded in its ambitions to achieve parity. The nine dead of the twenty bombings of Bloody Friday in July 1972 included only two women, both of them on the Cavehill Road, but at least one of them, Margaret O’Hare was the mother of seven children, thereby amplifying the resulting grief. Still, to counter-balance the large number of young girls the IRA had been killing recently, the bombers managed to kill two teenage boys, Stephen Parker fourteen and William Crothers fifteen. Intent is always important in these matters. The previous time the IRA bombed Oxford Street bus station, they’d killed a woman, but this time, despite leaving a massive bomb there once again, they only managed to kill men.

Not long afterwards, the IRA’s parity-operations moved their focus to Claudy, this time with the assistance of the local parish priest. It is SO good to see the twin strands of old Ireland cooperating so productively. One of the nine victims of the IRA bombers here was Elizabeth McElhinney, Catholic, aged 59, fifty years older than the nine-year-old Protestant girl, Kathryn Eakin, killed beside her. The priest Chesney, by the way, was never arrested, and instead was soon afterwards quietly hidden away in Donegal, a handy location for dispensing absolutions to IRA-men, the softies, who might be troubled at their deeds.

This would probably not have included those fine republican lads who not long afterwards shot dead Emily Bullock at her home in Fermanagh, then stepped over her body to kill her husband, Thomas. You see: perfect parity. And a few months later, shortly before Christmas 1972, the IRA abducted and secretly murdered Jean McConville, the widowed mother of ten children. Is there more convincing evidence of the regard that Sfira has for women that it treated her with exactly the same respect that it showed to the eight or so men that it similarly disposed of?

And so it continued down the years. Joanne Mathers, a mother of a two-year-old boy, was doing a part-time job as a census-taker in Derry in 1981 when she was shot dead at point-blank range by an IRA gunman. Caroline Moreland, a mother of three, was abducted from her home in Beechmount in West Belfast in 1995, held for ten – I imagine – rather interesting days before being shot dead near the Border. The IRA’s ceasefire was just days away, and this bit of housekeeping presumably had to be finished in time.

Surely, we should all welcome any evidence of equality between the sexes. Parity of every kind is what Gerry Adams intends when celebrating International Women’s Day. How good it is to have a man of such outstanding integrity in our midst.

*(Most of the details contained here are taken from David McKittrick’s Lost Lives.)

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