Women of honour

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2023), Volume 31


One of the positive results of the ‘decade of centenaries’, and of recent historical scholarship generally, has been an increased awareness of the role of women in all aspects of the Irish revolution. We are now also aware that during this period women were the victims of gendered violence—such as hair-cropping—and overt sexual assaults, including rape with violence. Both sides were responsible for such outrages both during and after the Civil War. For example, in June 1923 officers of the National Army’s élite Dublin Guards were responsible for a brutal attack on the McCarthy sisters in Kenmare. No one was called to account. Perhaps it is unsurprising that there was a closing of ranks around an institution that had recently suffered nearly 900 fatalities in defending the state.

No such excuse, however, can be proffered for the omertà around similar abuses in the Defence Forces in recent years, as revealed by the recently published Independent Review Group (IRG) report. In a situation reminiscent of similar abuses within the Catholic Church, complainants faced a Kafkaesque labyrinth of parallel systems of justice (military law and canon law) where the respective institutions investigated themselves and whistle-blowers were left exposed. Thankfully, this is set to change with the establishment of a separate Garda investigation.

In addition, an oversight group ‘aimed at delivering a transformation of culture in the Defence Forces’ is to be established to implement the recommendations of the IRG. Its report revealed a culture not only of misogyny but also of bullying generally, and that most of the perpetrators were in the middling to higher ranks. It is tempting to speculate that this may have arisen from the ambiguous origins of the National Army/Defence Forces, which claims descent from the Irish Volunteers/Óglaigh na hÉireann, established by Eoin MacNeill in 1913. But so too did the anti-Treaty IRA—as do various republican splinter groups down to the present day. The description ‘National Army’ (and its counter, ‘Irregulars’) didn’t come into common usage until after the Civil War had broken out. By that stage the National Army was getting not only arms from the British but also its rank structure (formalised in the army reorganisation of January 1923) and its rigid class-based ethos of ‘officers’ and ‘men’—including, if the IRG report is to be believed, an enduring culture of bullying and ‘hazing’.

Let the transformation begin. Ireland needs a professional army that its people can respect and trust.

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