Despite Covid-caution and a new venue (Batman’s Hill on Collins), BrigidFest 2021 quickly booked out two weeks ahead of the event, with participants loud in their acclamation and enthusiastic about being in a public gathering, many for the first time since last Brigidfest in 2020. It may be that in its eighteenth year of operation, this celebration of Irish and Irish-Australian women has become an essential calendar date early in February. This year the event was a collaboration between the Brigidine Order, the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra and the Celtic Club of Melbourne. It is run by an independent committee.
The speaker was the Honorable Gabrielle Williams, member for Dandenong in the Victorian Parliament, who runs a host of ministries, all underpinned by equity and social justice agendas. She began by pointing out how women had been impacted inequitably by the pandemic, and then focussed in on Northern Irish politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
She provided much graphic evidence of women’s involvement in the IRA, and in particular their roles as prisoners, and wives, lovers and mothers, and in the no-wash protests and hunger strikes in Armagh Women’s Prison. If this was not grainy enough as material for her address, she passed on to the ‘weaponisation of their femininity’ and the debates that raged in the period, both for and against their active involvement in the struggle. In particular, she argued that they were far from marginal to the peace struggle and full participants in the blanket protests in which prisoners refused clothes and the normal sanitary arrangements for defecation and menstruation to draw attention to their illegal imprisonment. She gave efficient pen-pictures of the three Marys (Farrell, Nugent and Doyle) who engaged in hunger-strikes, in the face of much resistance to such ‘unfeminine’, ‘unmotherly’ behaviours. She argued, controversially, that they precipitated change in the Republican movement in the direction of embedding feminist agendas, even conducting feminist education in jail: teaching the men the newly emerging feminist agendas, childcare and talking openly, in defiance of the church, about reproductive rights. Gabrielle Williams argued that it was women’s lived experience, rather than the education-track, that helped transform a deeply conservative culture that had bought male agendas for centuries. That constitutes a usual and unusual feminist trajectory.
What happened when the mothers had babies in prison was yet another gritty detail. One wondered at the brave lovers of prisoners male and female (conveying, for example, messages via open-mouthed kissing filthy, underfed bodies) and felt for the mothers who refused their grief, and for those who chose life for their sons with medical next-of-kin authority to override the wishes of the hunger strikers, in the face of Republican resistance. Gabrielle Williams did not spare us the rigours of prison life, and all from a women’s vantage-point.
For me, it was to hear afresh, and from a different perspective, another chapter in the long history of feminist resistance to oppressive systems, and one I needed to hear. I was, as many are, aware of the Women’s Peace movement, but had heard little of the women prisoners, as was the case of many in the audience. And of course, the women’s perspective, especially that of the lower-class women, is rarely told.
Maria Ford concluded a stirring programme with three passionate original songs of loss and hope that arise very much out of her personal experience of being both Irish and Australian.
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Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Brigidfest organising committee, and of the editorial collective at Tinteán.