Female IRA fighter, 1970s

A woman IRA volunteer on active service in West Belfast with an AR18 assault rifle.

The photo was taken by the Irish photographer Colman Doyle. The original caption: “A woman IRA volunteer on active service in West Belfast with an AR18 assault rifle”. The IRA regularly conducted “show of arms” displays, showing off their modern and numerous weapons.

The gun the girl is showing is ArmaLite AR-18. It was obtained by the IRA from the US in the early 1970s and became an emotive symbol of IRA armed campaign. The IRA fighters nicknamed this gun “the Widowmaker“. The AR-18 rifle was found to be very well suited to the IRA fighters’ purposes as its small size and folding stock meant that it was easy to conceal. Moreover, it was capable of rapid fire and fired a high velocity round which provided great “stopping power”. Originally the AR-18 was designed in 1963 in California, but it was never adopted as the standard service rifle of any nation. Nevertheless its production license was sold to companies in Japan and England. The Irish loved the ARs so much they even wrote songs about them.

In Ireland, there were females both in Republican groups such as the IRA, which are fighting against British forces in Northern Ireland, as well as in groups of Loyalists who are pro-state and support the continuation of British rule of the area. Usually the IRA women cadres performed certain non-military roles, in which they exploited traditional stereotypes of gender. They used to hide and carry weapons, as the British soldiers were loath to body search women because of the tremendous public revulsion it would create.

The Northern Irish conflict revolutionized the exploitation of women in visual imagery for propaganda purposes. Imagery of banging bin lids, transporting bombs in prams, or indeed preventing sons being arrests were subtle attempts to elude to the expectations of republican motherhood. The women became faceless very often wearing a mask and they used midi skirts thus revealing their femininity. Ultimately, the imagery propaganda made use of women as the victim. Specifically, imagery of police brutality on women becomes a key weapon. Many murals include female members of the community which suffered death in sectarian shootings or plastic bullets.

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