Susan McKay

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.

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