In The Footsteps Of Anne
In the Footsteps of Anne is a compendium of stories of recollection by Irish Republican women describing their experiences of imprisonment. The length of the book may be daunting to some but perseverance will reward. All the women are/were ex-prisoners and these are the stories of the young and older alike: 17 year old girls dancing to the Monster Mash during their internment; practical jokes and mischief to wile away the boredom; stories of grief from the outside being delivered, often heartlessly by the authorities. These stories are vital to any understanding of women’s roles during the conflict. The informal, conversational-style reminiscences are accompanied by a short political narrative and although slanted, as all political narratives of “The Troubles” tend necessarily to be by any author, they are not as biased as one would expect by a book written entirely by Republican ex-prisoners.
The stories themselves can be funny, tragic or heart-warming and they are always interesting whether you are reading about a unique reminiscence or several accounts of the same event. The excitement felt by the capture and imprisonment of the Governor or the attempted escape from Armagh gaol is palpable and the different accounts never fail to communicate this. The concern by the Armagh female prisoners for the male prisoners at Long Kesh during the camp burning and associated reprisals by the authorities shows how close you can be in ideology, mindset and experience yet be so far apart.
Women’s traditional roles of home-maker and primary carer for young children meant they could potentially lose more by imprisonment. The authorities used situations and events on the outside to put political pressure on the female prisoners. The threats and actuality of young children of prisoners being put into care occurred too frequently. Some women actually gave birth and were allowed to keep their babies with them for a year but needless to say the standard of medical care left a lot to be desired.
Hearing that one’s relatives has died or has been killed or injured is always devastating but in prison it must have been exacerbated particularly when not allowed to go to the funeral. If it wasn’t for their fellow prisoners’ camaraderie the women would have suffered more. Father Murray’s kind and humane approach to delivering such bad news has to be noted.
One of the writers in the book quoted the popular saying that people tend to remember the good things that happened rather than the bad things. In this book there are many good times but the bad times are not hidden or glossed over. Sometimes in fact they shock. The contemporary accounts recount more negative events and greater detail. Although they may have had a different reason for being written the recently composed stories have a lot of heartbreak also: terror at the hands of the authorities who were often draconian, petty, vindictive and hate-filled. However, some of the staff from the prison are remembered with fondness particularly those working before political status was lost.
There were endless campaigns and protests for rights within the prison system and this is detailed in a way which reminded me of David Beresford’s book Ten Men Dead. A few poems and contemporary accounts are included from several women prisoners including Mairead Farrell from the time of the ‘no-wash protest’. The reader will understand how the timeline and components of the no-work/no wash/no slop-out protests fell together and why. First person accounts is one reason why this book can enhance everyone’s knowledge of the important, often overlooked, subject of Republican women prisoners and the conflict as a whole.
Marian Price’s account, written in a letter home in 1974, of being force-fed during a hunger-strike to protest at being held in English prisons rather than at home reads like something otherwise unimaginable, even in a nightmare, due to its horrifying nature. Luckily for Marian she had her sister and much support to keep her going.
There is also a chapter set aside to detail the strip-searching of women prisoners which was reintroduced on a large scale in 1982. Degradation and humiliation were an integral part of such a practice. There was many an instance of violence carried out on the prisoners which was particularly intense when a prisoner resisted although not protesting didn’t guarantee a violence-free search.
The prison chaplain, Father Murray, is remembered with fondness and his role in bolstering the women’s morale can’t be overestimated. Although being one of the few non-Republican faces and also being kind would mark out anybody during those years in prison the women obviously hold him in great regard and admiration. His book Hard Time: Armagh Gaol 1971-1986 is worth reading.
The late Eileen Hickey deserves credit as the compiler of many of the stories for her and her comrades’ book and her thoughtfulness in initiating the book is evidently indicative of her leadership during imprisonment. The other women who worked on the book from the contributors to the compilers and the editors also deserve much respect and recognition. (Although non-contribution doesn’t imply any fault but demonstrates without words how emotive the past can be).
In The Footsteps of Anne has an index of stories including those women who had died since release and couldn’t contribute. It also includes a glossary and a bibliography. A transcript of comms written at the time is another useful addition to the text. It has a small number of interesting photographs. I would say this is a book meant for the masses not a textbook or scholarly work, although academics could benefit greatly from the well articulated, detailed accounts. It is essential to any reader interested in the history of the recent conflict.
Although many other books have been written on women’s participation in the conflict this one stands out as a forceful, original, substantive work specifically on the prison issue. The different accounts within add authenticity to situations and aren’t unnecessarily similar or repetitive. It is a valuable reminder of the frailty of the individual, the importance of allowing people respect and dignity no matter what you think they have done and why.
Hopefully In the Footsteps of Anne will be read by many more in the future.
Evelyn Brady, Eva Patterson, Kate McKinney, Rosie Hamill, Pauline Jackson, 2011: In The Footseteps of Anne. Belfast: Shannaway Press. ISBN 978-09566885-9-0