MY recent trip to Armagh will have been my third visit to Ireland’s oldest city. The second time was in 2015 during one of my Oot and Aboot jaunts to St Patrick’s Cathedral. The first time was with my Da when we went to visit his former residence, Armagh Gaol.
I had a whole week of alone time and loads to think about. I did a lot of walking, exploring and pondering the meaning of life. Sitting on the benches at The Mall, it was so obvious that while Armagh is exceptionally proud of it’s history – it’s ashamed of its herstory. Herstory being the former Armagh Gaol. In 1980, Derry journalist Nell McCafferty opened her article with ‘There is menstrual blood on the walls of Armagh Prison’. This refers to the women prisoners who were on the dirty protest to gain political status.
Nicknamed The Cathedral City, it’s just a really patriarchal place. Everything is all about celebrating the men and scorning the women.
At either end of The Mall is Armagh Courthouse and Armagh Gaol. In between is the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum, the Armagh County Museum and military monuments. Beautifully maintained and respectful of the male war dead – might I add. I walked around the monuments and thought about my grandparents and their role in the RAF. My granny used to tell me stories about how she and other female soldiers were treated in the army. She said they were abused and when they reported it to the officer, they were told they were only there to entertain the men.
I passed Armagh Prison every day and couldn’t help but notice the state of it compared to years ago when I first visited and thought about my Da living in there less than a decade before I was born. I thought back to that day we went on a tour and he ignored the advice of the official guide about going out to the exercise yard. Something about health and safety. He obtained a crow bar from somewhere and ripped the lock off the door and everyone on the tour spilled out into the yard and refused to come back inside at the orders of the guide. I think this was his final ‘fuck you’ to the establishment. I remember it was hilarious and he went up in my estimation.
Why is Armagh so uncomfortable with the role women played during the Troubles? Is it just not the right time to talk about it? Or is it because there were more republican than loyalist women imprisoned and it would seem imbalanced?
The Gaol looks like it’s ready to go the way of Crumlin Road Courthouse. It’s almost like the owner wants it to crumble away and disappear. They’ve even stopped doing tours and are recommending a visit to Crumlin Road Gaol instead. Why? It doesn’t have the same history.
I have two books written by the women prisoners in Armagh. Their story is vital to telling the story of the conflict and shouldn’t be ignored. In The Footsteps of Anne is compiled by most of the women prisoners. And ‘John Lennon’s Dead’ by Sile Darragh tells of her experience inside the prison and often mentions the loyalist and ODC prisoners. So the story is there – it’s just a matter of the owners restoring the prison and including the women in its history.