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19 September 2002 Edition

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Setting the record straight

Liberty is Strength: 30 Years of Struggle
By Lily Fitzsimmons

There is a very persuasive argument that the voices of history's protagonists and eye-witnesses should not be mediated by external agents; that the reader should not invariably be subjected to the intervention of historiographers, no matter how well-meaning. In the case of women's voices, this argument becomes even more powerful, because they have often been systematically written out of history - including Irish history (except, as Dara O'Hagan points out in her introduction to this book, as spectators or as its silent, passive victims).

We, and the future beneficiaries of their struggles, need to hear, directly, what women who were there have to say about the events that changed the history of Ireland and which shaped their lives. We should not have to rely on professional historians to explain it to us.

For these reasons, Lily Fitzsimmons' account of her experiences of political struggle, and those of many other women, during the period of the hunger strike, is vital. Even so, the text could perhaps have benefited from the attentions of a robust but sympathetic editor; not to contain the urgency or passion or intimate knowledge with which Fitzsimmons writes, but to ensure that the reader is not distracted from what she has to say by the practical difficulties of the text itself.

Although primarily written about 1976-81, the author also includes the stories of some remarkable women who have taken part in the struggle from 1916 onwards. The women Fitzsimmons writes about (including herself) are quite definitely not spectators; neither are they silent or passive. They argue their case, they fight with authority, they challenge the state and defy the behavioural standards society sets them. They take up the gun when they have to - often in the face of opposition from the men on their own side - and suffer the pain of separation and other horrors which being imprisoned brings.

For example, Nora McAteer, born into a republican family, was arrested in 1942 and interned in Armagh prison. Fitzsimmons writes:

"There she was held without trial for three and a half years. Protests against the harsh prison regime have always been a consistent feature of life for the Irish political prisoners in British jails. During one such protest, Nora and other republican women prisoners were hosed down with high-powered fire hoses. All their possessions were taken from them and they were left to sleep on soaked bedding in the already cold and damp cells. On another occasion, Nora was on hunger strike for 19 days before it was called off. At the end, the prison staff presented her with the cold leftovers from the previous days' meal."

Fitzsimmons' style is a kind of textual reproduction of the psychological effect that being either forcibly silenced or deliberately ignored can have on both individuals and entire peoples. When people, no matter the enormity of the injustices and indignities they are made to endure, are not heard for as long as nationalists in the Six Counties have not been heard, it is as though when the opportunity to tell these stories arises, as it has in this book, the imperative to get everything told as quickly as possible before the attention of the audience (be it readers or politicians or governments) wanders again is almost overwhelming.

Fitzsimmons replicates very accurately this feeling of urgency; the stories she tells tumble out, falling on top of one another on the page in her ardent need to provide these often heroic women with identities, personal histories and political context. She makes no pretence of impartiality and why should she? Many of those she writes about she knew and loved like sisters and she suffered along with them. She desperately, and rightly, wants us to know their stories and remember their names, in the same way that we know the names and stories of so many of the men who have been central to the struggle. She wants, more than anything, to set the record straight.

The need to do so is also partly because historians have a tendency, for obvious reasons, to concentrate their attentions on what was happening in Long Kesh during this period. What women prisoners went through during the blanket and dirty protests is often merely gestured at. Even then, it is couched in the sort of language that defines women by their physiology and avoids inquiring into their status as political beings.

It is these gaps in the historical record regarding the experience of women that make what Fitzsimmons has done, and what one hopes other women will do, vital in providing a more rounded, complete picture of that momentous time.


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