The camera doesn’t lie?

One well known image from the 1970s is one of a woman, in leather jacket and knee length skirt with an automatic rifle taking aim around the corner of a building. The photo, by Colman Doyle, has had something of a bizarre afterlife. And Doyle himself is oddly reticent and guarded about the details of the circumstances. The photo is claimed to be (variously) taken in Ardoyne, or West Belfast.

Recently a social media account posted a fanciful claim that the woman was an IRA Volunteer gaining revenge for the death of her IRA partner. In 2006, when Doyle’s photographic archive was donated to the National Library, the Evening Herald (18/7/06) claimed that the woman in the photo was wanted for questioning about the disappearance of Jean McConville. However the basis of the Herald’s claim isn’t stated and isn’t helped by it also stating the photograph was taken in Ardoyne when Doyle himself captions it as in West Belfast.

So what is the truth? Well, I’m hoping someone can finally enlighten us. An image from the set was used in a 1974 republican calendar and one was reproduced without caption or credit on the back page of Republican News in February 1974 (23/2/74). Other images from the same calendar appear back in November 1973 suggesting they were taken from before that date. The set of photos of women carrying guns and searching a man have the clear look of being staged. The photographer (Doyle) appears to have taken pictures while standing in the open, exposed to returned fire. This seems unlikely and while Doyle could well have stumbled on PR photos being staged, the scene has the obvious look of a photo opportunity.

Back page Republican News, 23/2/1974

This last point and the strength of the imagery then has much more significance as clearly the intention was to provide a depiction putting female activists in the foreground and background. Now, it may be up to the viewer to decide if this is an idealized image of a female activist conceived and created by men/for men or by or for women. It may also intentionally resonate with international images of radical female activists and chime with a visual language familiar to second wave feminism (personally, I suspect it is inspired by media reporting of German radicals like Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof in 1971-1972). It also is a reminder that there is much to explore behind much of the imagery used by everyone throughout the conflict here.

Other images from the same scene are included below. Can anyone shed any real light on where they were taken and what were the circumstances (check out the end of this post for an update)?

For what it’s worth the style of the masonry – ashlar drawn onto cement render – seems unusual for either Ardoyne or West Belfast, particularly given the style of windows (I think this is how someone might recognise it). And the single bit of graffiti “Brits Out” is barely noted by journalists before the middle of 1974, although that doesn’t mean it wasn’t current (was it popularised by the photo?).

A family member has been in touch to say that the woman holding the rifle was very much active in the IRA and had even attended the unveiling of a mural that reproduced the image some years ago (see photo below). She had been prominent in insisting to then IRA Chief of Staff Sean MacStíofáin that women be allowed to join the IRA rather than Cumann na mBan. She chose the clothes and imagery herself for the images intending it to signal the role female activists could play, although she remember little about the actual photos being taken (the location may have been in Andersonstown).

The image also featured in what is reputed to be a hand-made republican children’s book, A Republican ABC, during the 1970s apparently not widely circulated but now in the Northern Ireland Political Collection (NIPC) held at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. The author and illustrator is unknown – the book begins “A is for Armalite that sends them all running”, with the same image of a short-skirted girl taking aim with a gun, her hair falling over her face.

Lastly, the image has been recoloured by @robcross247.

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