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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

I am of Ireland: Women of the North Speak Out
Elizabeth Shannon

(Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997) Distributed by the Europsan Group.
278pp. Bibl. Pb.: 16.00. ISBN 1-55849-102-3.

Although men have been the most direct victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in terms of numbers killed, there have been too many images of women standing at gravesides or regularly visiting prisons to suggest that only men have suffered. In a series of interviews with women across Northern Ireland, from both sides of the sectarian divide and from the working and middle classes, I am of Ireland attempts to provide what the Troubles has meant for women and why they have remained in the background of the political arena in this country. In the introduction Shannon claims she wanted to write about women because to her, Northern Ireland was like "a secret society for men. They belong to all male clubs, invent childlike mysterious handshakes, march to loud drumbeats...and try to find solutions to he problems that they and men of previous generations have created."(p.4) Surely Northern Ireland is not unique in this sense.

The book is really the story of Shannon's travels throughout Northern Ireland, in 1986 and 1987, interviewing women with wide-ranging experiences of the Troubles. Shannon aims to shatter the stereotype of Irish women as voiceless and powerless and I think to a large degree she has succeeded in portraying these women as strong and passionate people. The chapters are base around a number of issues, which for many in Northern Ireland are now familiar accounts of the Troubles. For example women in West Belfast talk about internment and the difficulties raising children in militarised areas. Shannon speaks to women lost homes and business' in sectarian attacks, widows learning to live without husbands and fathers for their children and wives and partners coping alone while their men are imprisoned for long periods of time. For many of the women Shannon interviewed the Troubles have influenced, impacted and indeed shattered their lives.

The majority of the interviews are from nationalist women and it becomes obvious the author is more sympathetic to the nationalist position. While these stories are very moving and poignant, I feel the author failed to incorporate the views of a cross section of women. There is only chapter dedicated to explaining the perspective of Protestant women on the conflict. Most of the Protestant interviews are with well known political figures like Iris Robinson, Ethel Smyth and Lady Faulkner. There is only one interview with a working class Protestant woman who was wrongly charged with leading a riot in Lenadoon in Belfast. This is my criticism of the book. There are too few interviews with working class Protestant women. Stories of husbands in prison and the pressure on mothers are exclusively Catholic stories. There are many Protestant women who visit the prisons regularly and suffer the same worries as Catholic mothers yet their stories are ignored. There is a chapter on revolutionaries, which attempts to explain why women become involved in paramilitaries. It is noticeable that the interviews in this chapter are with Catholic women only, thereby again ignoring the involvement of Protestant women in loyalist paramilitaries. Shannon described her sadness that Protestant and Catholic women have had so few opportunities to meet and discuss common problems. If only she had included more Protestant interviews, others could have the opportunity to read and learn just how common the problems are.

This book confirmed is the typical North American outsider perspective on the conflict. The first chapter in the book deals with a tale of three cities, Belfast, Derry and Portadown. Shannon visited Portadown on the 12 July and was a spectator at the traditional Orange parade which she described as boring and bleak, with the Falls Road in Belfast described as having a "special kind of down-at-the heals charm, a sense of neighbourhood of kinship and tribal loyalty."(p.24) In Derry many of the interviews are with prominent Nationalist and Republican women with only one Protestant interview with a former Mayoress, Marlene Jefferson, a liberal Unionist. This chapter set the tone for the rest of the book and the author certainly seemed more relaxed in nationalist areas.

The interviews emphasise why women in Northern Ireland have remained outside politics They have in many respects carried the heavy burden of child-rearing, managing the home and providing support to unemployed husbands, who spend most of their time watching television or drinking in bars. The time and space to have a political career does not exist for many women. However the birth and development of the Women's Coalition has given encouragement and confidence for women to enter this male dominated arena and have their opinions heard. Shannon concluded by claiming the "ultimate feminist goal in Northern Ireland should be to create unity among the women there and common voice that refutes terrorism as a way of life."(p.249) The Women's Coalition may well deliver this goal.

Marie Therese Fay,
Cost of the Troubles Study, Belfast

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