Ignoring the women of ’81

By Andrée Murphy


I WENT to see 66 Days – a couple of weeks later than everybody else. Well, not everybody actually. We went on Tuesday night to the Kennedy Centre to see it and it was sold out half an hour before it was due to screen. So we hightailed it to Yorkgate to watch it and again the cinema was packed.

Lots has been written about the film and I don’t intend to give a critique of the content. There were moments when it was deeply moving and the testimony of Jim Gibney in particular was powerful. But I was astonished at the lack of women’s voices. I was in a theatre with my husband and my 14-year-old daughter and this film basically told her that women in that period were either dancing or carrying wreaths. It was outrageous.

There is not one mention of the women in Armagh Jail, also on protest. There were only glimpses of the incredible role of women who mobilised and politicised the entire prison protest; of the mothers, daughters, sisters and comrades of the men in the H-Blocks, who to great personal sacrifice and threat took to the streets. These women were silenced, censored and marginalised, not just then, but today, in this film.

Women and girls in 1981 saw and heard strong women, with courage and commitment on the streets, in the media, at public meetings engaging with the British government’s might. And that inspired a whole generation of politically aware, working class women. They heard Miriam Daly before she was assassinated, Bernadette McAliskey both before and after the state tried to kill her, Maura McCrory, Mary Nelis and many, many other women. They read the words of Jennifer McCann, still in her teens, in a dock referring to her comrade Bobby Sands. They stood at vigils in support of Mary Doyle, Mairead Farrell and the other brave women whose solidarity in their imprisonment was so vital.

The example of those years made possible the anti-strip-search campaign which highlighted the horrendous abuse of women prisoners in Armagh, Maghaberry and England. And it set the scene for the historic Break the Ban campaign, which after a week-in week-out campaigning by women, saw Belfast nationalists reclaim their city centre in 1992.

When that experience and voice isn’t included, it is deliberate. It is beyond discrimination. It is obliteration of our history.
Had this film been about a different protest, in a different sphere, and the experience and voice of black, coloured or ethnic men been deliberately sidelined there would be justifiable outcry. It would be called historical genocide.

That this outcry has not happened regarding 66 Days tells us something. It tells me and my daughter we are less. That no matter what we do, how we do it or the impact it has, our voice is less worthy. It is the most counter-revolutionary message possible. And its acceptance is singularly disheartening.

I have other criticisms of a film that has many brilliant parts, and could have been brilliant, but is not. But I only have so many words. And I want those words to say this: the women of 1980 and 1981 are also heroes and must always be heard, cherished and valued.