Brigidfest 2015: Women and girls in a war zone

A Report on the Brigidfest Speech by Gillian Russell

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Prof. Gillian Russell talking about the NI Troubles at Brigidfest.

The new Gerry Higgins Professor of Irish Studies, Gillian Russell, gave a moving talk at the annual Brigidfest luncheon at the Celtic Club on 8 February 2015. Her subject was the women and girls who populate the pages of a book entitled  Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles compiled by journalists David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, and Chris Thornton (1999).  Her recommendation to read this book could not have been stronger: it is ‘the most significant work in the last ten years’ adhering to the highest standards of journalism. In particular, she praised its objective, unemotional and impartial style of reportage, and its comprehensiveness. This book documents every detail of every death, all sides of the conflict, combat status when appropriate, and registers uncertainty when needed. She thinks of it as a sacred text: a ritual listing of the dead. It functions as a kind of elegy for the dead, many of whom might otherwise have been obliterated from history.

British soldier and Irish girl.Women and girls were very much in the minority in this listing of 3635 deaths (about 10%). While they certainly participated politically and carried out important roles in ending the conflict, it was unusual for women and girls to be directly in the line of fire.  Nevertheless women were certainly in danger living in that conflict ridden region as the book makes clear.  In giving details of just a handful of the deaths so carefully recorded there, Gillian adopted the same detached style in recounting the details. The casual violation of private spaces (watching TV, bathing the baby, in bed, at Collie Club and greyhound meets), the accidental fatalities of children in cross-fire, the deaths at the hands of those ‘on the same side’. The point was eloquently made: religion or politics were often not essential factors of many of these deaths. Incendiary bombs, pipe bombs, bullets and napalm make no distinction, and those who wielded such weapons made many errors of identity and judgment.

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Woman hit by plastic bullet. Credit Pinterest

Gillian grew up in Lisburn and was an undergraduate at Queens during the 1980s and she reflected on her own knowledge of what was happening, on how violence could be made to seem ‘normal’.  She speculated about what the  young teenage girl who was casually killed when she tried to pick up a shell for her collection of weapons might reasonably have expected had she not died: marriage, grandchildren, and somewhere along the line, the discarding of her collection of war paraphernalia. This young girl lost all of the reasonable normal future that everyone has the right to expect. The family around her, of course, lost their daughter or sister. In this way, women and girls were not only at risk from stray bullets but also, she noted, traumatised by the deaths of their husbands and sons, with many needing to continue the task of rearing families without consorts, fathers and breadwinners. There was much ‘collateral’ damage which isn’t part of the calculus of this work – other members of the family might commit suicide or die prematurely.

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Brigidfest participants L to R: Joan Moloney, Noreen Keane (Ballybunion, Co. Kerry), Miriam Uí Dhonnabháin, and Ita Collard.

It was a powerful testimony, and the audience was rendered largely silent and meditative by the talk. One questioner raised the matter of how justice might be done in the future, how the healing might happen. Lost Lives stands as some kind of monument to the complexity and trauma of this long conflict.

Reported by Frances Devlin-Glass, Tinteán editorial collective.