I moved​ to Belfast in 1981. It was the autumn after a summer of funerals for the IRA hunger-strikers, and Belfast was desolate. Along with exhaustion there was an ominous sense that rage was renewing itself. Neither unionist nor republican, I was in a political no-man’s-land and it was scary.

I had worked as a volunteer counsellor in the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the first in Ireland, which opened in 1979. In the Republic, the Catholic hierarchy denounced feminism as an attack on the family. In the North, we had rows about whether you could be a feminist without being a republican, a republican and not a feminist. We had rows about whether there were unionist feminists, or feminist unionists. What about feminists who defined themselves just as feminists? What about separatism? Some women dismissed the women’s movement as middle class and irrelevant to the political struggle. Our collectives were constantly splitting and splintering though we remembered to forget our differences on the dancefloor at the women-only socials we organised. We led Reclaim the Night marches through the dark deserted streets of the city.

The Belfast Rape Crisis Centre’s first premises were on Great Victoria Street, around the corner from the loyalist Sandy Row. Down the road there was an Italian restaurant where banana splits were served to women with a flourish but without a spoon, a phallic joke of sorts. There were a few pubs, surrounded by reinforced wire cages with security cameras, to deter bombers and gunmen. We had two shabby rooms with fake leather sofas that looked as if cats had clawed them.

Today, most rape crisis centres only employ professional counsellors who have done courses that take years to complete. What we offered was more like support and solidarity, though we did get some training, and we cultivated allies – doctors, journalists, lawyers, police, community workers, even, warily, paramilitaries – and learned as we went along. Our leaflets, on dark red paper, said: ‘We are women here to help women.’ We were not detached. My diary records a woman’s tears flowing down my neck. Other women would tell their stories as comedies. One described how the man who had offered her a lift home had beaten her about the head with one of her stilettos, raped her and flung her out of the car. She showed us how she’d walked along the mountain road with one high heel and one bare foot. We soon found out that what was known as ‘the violence’ in Northern Ireland masked another violence which had largely been experienced in silence and secrecy. This was a conservative society with what the academic Eileen Evason called an ‘armed patriarchy’.

By 1982 I was working full-time in the centre having abandoned a PhD at Queen’s University. We had moved to two tiny rooms high up in a Victorian building on Royal Avenue in the centre of town. It was a neutral area, open to everyone. The sofas we bought were covered in a satiny fabric that caused people gradually to slide off them. The offices filled up with cigarette smoke and when we opened the sash windows pigeons flew in. I was employed on a government scheme and the man whose job it was to check on me liked to sit and drink tea with us. He would tell us about some of the other projects funded by the scheme, convinced they were fronts for the paramilitaries. One involved breeding pedigree rabbits. Mostly, like everyone else, we lived as though the conflict were like perpetual bad weather, to be endured. We stopped leaving the building during bombscares.

In December 1982, the Irish National Liberation Army bombed a bar during a disco, killing 17 people. Eleven of the dead were British soldiers, the primary target. Some of the others were young local women. The INLA called them ‘consorts’. Everyone understood what Seamus Heaney described as ‘the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge’. In the 1970s republican paramilitaries used to tar and feather women deemed ‘soldier dolls’. There’s film of a British television journalist reporting on one attack in Derry in 1972. The 19-year-old girl had been tied to a lamppost, her hair cut off and tar poured over her head until it ran across the pavement. Then she was doused in feathers while a crowd, mostly made up of women, watched and jeered. The young woman was engaged to a soldier. One of the onlookers told the reporter that if her own daughter went out with a soldier, ‘I would hand her out to the women that took the girl last night.’ Others agreed and said that she should have been out on the barricades with the rest of them. One of them said: ‘She’s from the Bogside – she should act like it.’

Another television reporter spoke to the mother of a 15-year-old girl who had been abducted by masked men and held captive for several nights during which she was badly beaten and had her hair shaved off. The mother, a single parent who was obviously poor, frail and ill, was so distraught she could hardly speak. She denied the IRA’s claim that the girl had been a police spy. The girl gave evidence against some of her attackers the following year. She was, it emerged, going out with a young soldier. A year after the court case, he was shot dead by the IRA in Derry.

After Ann Ogilby’s battered body was found dumped on a motorway verge on the outskirts of Belfast in the summer of 1974, the first death notice to appear read: ‘Ann, murdered. The death of Ann is very deeply regretted by her true friend Billy, compound 9, Maze Prison. Safe in the arms of Jesus.’ Billy was the father of the baby boy Ann had given birth to weeks before her death. He was a leader of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, and married to another woman. Women from the UDA had harassed Ann. Rumours were put about that she was a spy, and she was threatened with tarring and feathering. She began to move from address to address, frightened and isolated. She was summoned to an interrogation and released, then abducted by a group of UDA women. A week later, a man ordered her to come with him to a disused bakery in the Sandy Row area. There she was beaten to death. After her body was found, 11 women and two men were arrested. Two of the women were convicted of her murder and the others convicted on lesser charges.

The UDA disowned those who had killed Ogilby as ‘jealous women’ and, as the 1970s went on, the IRA began to condemn tarring and feathering. But such incidents still acted as a warning. The rules didn’t apply to everyone though: women who were ‘well connected’ might get away with behaviour which would be punished in others. In some instances, women from top republican families married British soldiers without repercussions. One woman told me that volunteers in the paramilitary organisation of which she was a member treated women ‘like groundsheets’.

Women’s Aid had been set up in 1974 to provide a refuge for women experiencing domestic violence. It campaigned for the release from prison of Noreen Winchester, jailed in 1976 at the age of 19 for the manslaughter of her father, Norman. She had stabbed him and then, with the help of some of her younger siblings, dragged his body onto the street and cleaned up the house. At first it was assumed that he had been murdered by paramilitaries, but then Noreen confessed. She told the police that her father had been beating and raping her since she was 11. He had beaten his wife throughout their marriage and cut the family off from the outside world. The wife had become an alcoholic and was violent towards the children herself. She used to call Noreen her husband’s ‘wee fancy bit’. In 1974 she was committed to a mental hospital. Noreen was not called to give evidence of any of this; there was no psychiatric report, and only the most basic plea of mitigation was entered. The feminist campaign for Noreen’s release got widespread support and after serving a year, she was released. (In 1993, the body of her sister, Tina, was found near the house in which their father was killed. She had been raped and strangled. No one has ever been charged with her murder.)

Men who killed or abused women sometimes put forward ludicrous defences. One said he’d killed his wife because she wouldn’t stop ‘chattering’. We constantly drew attention to efforts made during rape trials to use a woman’s sexual history to undermine her evidence. In one case the barrister for the accused forced a young woman to admit that she had a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, and that when the accused had tried to remove her T-shirt she had told him to ‘fuck off’. After giving this evidence the woman was in tears. The barrister declared: ‘Those tears are just a front to hide the kind of person you really are.’ The following day the woman told the court she couldn’t go on with her evidence and the case was dismissed. Sentencing was inconsistent. We found out that some lawyers tried to get their clients’ cases heard by a particular judge whose leniency towards sex offenders caused him to be nicknamed ‘Santa Claus’.

A lot of women never got near a courtroom. From 1975 to 1980 there were an average of five rape convictions per year in Northern Ireland, although soon after the Rape Crisis Centre opened we were getting two or three new cases every week. There were plenty of reasons for this conviction rate. There was only one female police doctor, for a start. The police received no training in how to work with rape victims, and there were some bad attitudes. After a British TV documentary showed Thames Valley Police abusing and bullying a rape complainant, Scotland Yard promised that more compassion would be shown. Asked whether this would also be the case in Northern Ireland, an RUC spokesman repeated the axiom that an allegation of rape was ‘a very easy one to make, and a hard one to disprove’. That said, the police were generally supportive of our work, though the paranoid politics of the Troubles played its part in deterring women from seeking justice. Women from areas in which there was hostility to the police were unlikely to report an assault and unlikely to be willing to appear as what might be perceived as a witness for the state. Many believed that the police were the enemy and the state inherently unjust. Even those who didn’t would know that going to the police about anything could be regarded as ‘touting’. The police were known to attempt to recruit those reporting ‘ordinary’ crimes to them as informers, so any contact with them was seen as suspicious.

If you called the police into a republican or loyalist area their arrival was anything but discreet. A convoy of armoured jeeps would appear and rioting or, in IRA areas, shooting, could follow. Going to a police station involved presenting yourself at the outer gate of a heavily fortified barracks under the scrutiny of cameras and armed guards. I remember walking with a woman to an appointment at one of these intimidating places, along the Falls Road. Her little boy had brought his toy gun and he walked along like a soldier on foot patrol, swivelling round, walking backwards, pointing it at potential targets that included real soldiers in Land Rovers.

One woman was afraid to report her rape to the police because her husband was storing guns for the IRA in their attic. Another refused because the man who raped her was a policeman. Women from both republican and loyalist areas were threatened and told not to report rape by persons claiming to represent paramilitary organisations. Women were encouraged to report rape to community organisations which were closely connected with the paramilitaries, rather than to go to the Rape Crisis Centre. The paramilitaries told some men to leave Northern Ireland; others were kneecapped or subjected to punishment beatings. Other, more powerful men received no punishment.

Rape had been a secret, its victims silenced, but we were determined to expose what we were finding out about it. We gave talks for church ladies’ groups, Boys’ Brigade leaders, soroptimists, community councils, schools. We were always heading off on buses and trains to small towns and villages. One woman who hosted a talk, a rape victim, drove me back to Belfast so recklessly I was convinced she was trying to kill us both. She did, in fact, kill herself soon afterwards. We gave interviews to anyone who asked and pushed to get the fierce articles we wrote ourselves published. One young man threatened to walk out of a talk I gave to a youth training programme in a factory in a Protestant part of Belfast because he had read in Ulster, the magazine of the UDA, that I had written an article in Republican News. So I wrote an article for Ulster too.

Sometimes journalists from outside Ireland would come to us. They would ask if we could provide them with a Protestant woman who had been raped by an IRA man, or a Catholic woman raped by a British soldier. Sometimes they seemed disappointed when we said that women were far more likely to have been raped by someone from their own community. Spare Rib went ahead anyway and wrote us up as if we had claimed rape was evidence of British imperialism.

Occasionally rape was, in fact, used as a weapon of sectarianism. One woman was forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer to the gang who attacked her, because the Catholic version is shorter than the Protestant one, and they thought she was ‘a Fenian’. By the time the case came to court, three of the rapists had been kneecapped by the UDA. The Lord’s Prayer test had been used in 1972 by a loyalist gang whose members raped a woman in front of her disabled son. They then shot the child dead.

Once Angela Carter came to read at Queen’s and arranged to meet some local feminists at the flat I shared close to the university. (Our living room smelled of paraffin because we had recently spent a day putting firelighters in tins to make torches for a Reclaim the Night march.) ‘You spend the first 16 years searching for Heathcliff and the next 16 trying to avoid him,’ Carter said. I remembered a woman who’d told me that her husband had killed her pet. That had reminded me of Heathcliff hanging Isabella’s dog. As a schoolgirl I’d thought Isabella a fool, having no knowledge yet of the way romance can shade into possession and violence.

My mother sent me a photo she’d taken of her television screen showing me being interviewed at the Rape Crisis Centre. I look pale and serious. The work made us angry. One evening in the York Hotel bar a man told a joke about a woman being raped by a rugby team. I poured my pint over his head. The barman brought me a fresh one and told me I should have used the joker’s pint, not my own. I still have nightmares about some of the stories I was told. I remember visiting a woman in hospital who had been badly injured by the man who raped her. She smiled at me. ‘I can tell I can trust you, love,’ she said. ‘I just know to look at you you’ve been through the mill too.’

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