I was there at some of the early meetings in 1982/3 discussing its creation. I had just arrived from Canada and was staying with Joelle. I was overwhelmed by Belfast then and reverted to dealing with it with what I knew - art. I wanted to celebrate the struggle of Republican women and had begun painting a sketch on the back of a Belfast map. A black and white image of women involved in revolutionary struggle which I later painted with the help of Sean and Kess on the then international wall next to Culturlann.
Little did I realise the impact the Falls Women Centre would have on my life and that of my children a decade later in 1993. Then married to a local man with three very young children, I had been left, alone, in an abusive relationship, in a squat that the army had previously raided. There was a 4ft crater in the bathroom, making it near impossible to toilet train a three year old. Thankfully my good friend Pauline brought me to the door of the Falls Women’s Centre. Here I found support, counselling and my life back. I am indebted to those women like Una Marron who was its chair.
For me renewed hope came in the form of a diminutive blonde who was tireless in her counsel and friendship - Brid Wright. She supported me and offered counselling for weeks on a daily basis. Often I would just sit and she would hold me while I wept. Without her on-going support, I cannot imagine what would have become of me and my children. But that was Brid, quiet and unassuming but steadfast in her support of others.
The Centre’s force of nature was Maura McCrory, often with a hearty laugh, a hug that would put the world to rights, eyes that were stunningly blue; she was our matriarch, our Mother figure. She could be loving and firm when it was needed (she once chastised me for being lovestruck ). Maura was the rock with which we all anchored our hope to.
The Centre 30-40 years ago operated like much of everything else in Republican areas, it had too. We were often targeted by Loyalists paramilitaries. I remember one early morning receiving an alarming telephone call from Culturalnn warning us of shady characters looking for our building. One building housed the crèche of young children, and the other the offices and counselling rooms. We immediately moved children to the back of the property and stayed vigilant. A Centre to support women and their children was a target and at the same time it was forging links across the sectarian divide.
When the Centre’s funding was cut by Belfast City Council it was the Shankill Women’s Centre that objected strenuously. It was the early work of these women’s groups building rapport and trust between communities, which I firmly believe laid the underpinnings and contributions to peace often overshadowed by the celebrity of their male counterparts.
The Centre was much maligned by Republican/Nationalist men, as it operated within a male dominated, often misogynistic environment. While violence occurred on the streets it did likewise in the home with domestic abuse, rape, and sexual assault. Seeking support outside the community was for any woman a dangerous proposition, as the RUC and security forces had little interest in their safety but more in undermining the Republican community. I saw many of the women that came through the door, the door which was for so many a refuge. Often it was clearly visible why they were there with blackened eyes or on one day blood running down from an open wound on a forehead.
I received an invitation for the Falls Women’s Centre’s 40th celebration ironically at a time when their premises have been discussed in the media and print. The Centre’s work was complicated by the agency of men and the Movement, often, as I have said, struggling to operate within misogynistic environment where violence against women was seen as a secondary issue. Mistakes were made, which sounds like a facile statement, and is no better illustrated then in Mairia Cahill’s experience.
I knew Mairia from working in Feile an Phobail. I believe her completely and support her effort to receive justice. I have recently finished her book and I messaged her to say I found the book triggering. The atmosphere of Belfast in the 1990s resonated with me so much it elicited palpable anxiety. Her experience of dealing with the aftermath of sexual assaults was done within the parameters of the male dominated Republican Movement, at the time which was antiquated and further abused her by their process. It would never happen today, and should never have happened then.
If we are indeed a Republican Family, then acknowledgment is long overdue of wrongdoings, and cover-ups of abuse, as a step to dealing with the collective past and beginning of a healing process. Mairia’s subsequent treatment, like so many others who question the Movement, is further abuse, character assassination, lies, and social media trolling. This has been a tactic of the Movement which must stop. Her book made me also consider my experience with some of the women in her story and reflect on the role that they had in my own life, which juxtaposed to her own, I have said this publicly and privately to her.
However, her case has given license to those who condemn outright a community and network of women who supported many in a time of considerable violence. Violence from within and without- There are those eager to condemn women who were hamstrung by a male dominated Movement, yet did their utmost within the confines of that power structure to try to help others. Many leading the condemnation are privileged not to have grown up in a sectarian state and know nothing of what life was like for victims or those trying to support them and only consider it an opportunity to political point score.
To the powers that be within the Republican family, it is well past time to stop obfuscating, it's well past time to unconditionally support all victims of abuse. I wish the Falls Women’s Centre well in their celebrations, and thank them for the love and support I and my three children received, particularly Brid and Maura.
⏩Andrea Redmond is Feminist-Republican holding a PhD in Anthropology. She is the only female Republican Belfast women's muralist and community artist. A member of Sile na Gig she is now an artist living in Donegal and is volunteering in Community Development in the village of Doochary.