Analysis: how Colman Doyle's 1973 photo of a woman IRA volunteer in Belfast became one of most iconic shots of the Troubles
January 1973 was an eventful month. It saw both the UK and Ireland joining the EEC. It also saw Loyalist paramilitaries bringing the Northern conflict to the streets of Dublin, where a car bomb exploded in Sackville Place, killing Thomas Douglas and injuring 17 others.
The car used in the Loyalist bombing that detonated in Dublin had been hijacked at Agnes Street, just off Crumlin Road in North Belfast. One day in 1973, photographer Colman Doyle passed by Agnes Street on his way from the Ardoyne towards the city centre: "I heard someone firing shots and then I saw this woman. She was standing behind a corner, still holding that gun but I only managed to take the photo after she had fired."
In a conversation with the author for RTÉ Brainstorm, Doyle insists that he does not remember the street where the photo was taken, nor the exact date, but claims that "it was not staged". The photo shows a long-haired woman in a polka dot dress carrying an assault rifle.
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From RTÉ Archives, a 1972 episode of Aurora profiles photographer Colman Doyle
Doyle, who has been described by art journalist Liam Flynn as "the doyen of photo journalists in Ireland", worked for The Irish Press. He spent one decade of his career in Northern Ireland, capturing, among other photos, the British paratroopers firing at unarmed protesters in Derry on Bloody Sunday.
"I offered the photo to the Irish Press", Doyle remembers, "but the editors refused to print it in the paper. They considered it inappropriate to print a photo showing a woman with a gun". These were the 1970s, after all. One version was eventually printed in Colman’s 2004 book "All Changed: 50 of Photographing Ireland" on page 81 with the caption: "A woman IRA volunteer on active service in West Belfast with an AR18 assault rifle."
Doyle asserts that the photo remained in the Irish Press archives. When the paper discontinued on May 25th 1995, the main building remained open for a month and "people were going in and out". He believes that someone must have taken control of the negatives and passed them on. However, the photo had already circulated for two decades in various forms. Among those is a hand-made Republican children's book, A Republican ABC, now held in the Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.
Prada fashion designer Raf Simons, devotes this photo to Doyle in his 2003 collection "The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes".
The image became prominent in Provisional Republican propaganda. According to historian John O'Neill, the author of Belfast Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA, "there are a set of those images that include the same female figures in various scenarios", suggesting that it was a propaganda shot.
A Republican woman from Belfast who was active during that time in the 1970s said that "if an operation was being carried out, there would have been others safeguarding the shooter, and a stranger would never be allowed to take a photo. He would have had his camera confiscated if he had tried, by the 'keeping dick’ operatives."
A propaganda image showing three IRA women appeared in the Belfast-based Republican News in February 1974 and the 1974 Republican Resistance calendar. The woman on the right is the same one shown in Doyle’s photo, though Doyle says that he was not the photographer of this particular image. While other images of the series were not included in any of his books, Prada fashion designer Raf Simons, devotes this photo to Doyle in his 2003 collection "The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes".
The photo printed in the Republican News belongs to a series of propaganda shots taken by the Provisional IRA. Doyle acknowledges his close links to the Provisional IRA: "I got permission from Martin Meehan to take photos of IRA members. The woman in the photo was a member of the Ardoyne unit; she also appeared in other photos of Meehan’s unit." Meehan was a Provisional IRA leader in the Ardoyne area who died in November 2007. "I had permission to take these photos from Martin Meehan, but the Irish Press told me I was not supposed to take propaganda photos", Doyle stresses.
Doyle was undoubtedly close to the Provisional IRA. In 1975, he published People at War, a collection of his photos from the North, with the Dublin-based publisher FDR Teoranta, who also published Sean O’Mahony's book Frongoch: University of Revolution.
The 1979 An Cumann Cabhrach Testimonial Dinner brochure, printed for a Republican event in aid of Provisional prisoners, carries a full-page ad on page 4 with Doyle’s name. The first ad in the brochure reads "from Four Northern Republicans who are carrying on the fight". Author Ed Moloney has suggested that these four are Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Ivor Bell and Brian Keenan. Doyle insists that he does not know who commissioned the ad, but the prominent placing underlines his remarkable standing within Provisional Republicanism.
In the early 1970s, the use of established journalists and academics by the Provisional IRA was common. For example, the links between US-academic J Bowyer Bell and the Derry IRA were recently revealed by BBC Spotlight. A Monaghan Republican has suggested to me that another US-American journalist was involved in the helicopter escape from Mountjoy Prison on October 31st 1973 when three IRA prisoners escaped.
These shots, showing women as active volunteers of the Provisional IRA participating in combat, emerged at a critical moment. Three Belfast women, among them Dolours and Marian Price, had only recently joined the Provisional IRA. The Republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan, founded in 1914, disagreed with women enrolling in the IRA. Certain women, though, saw their place firmly within the IRA, rather than in a women-only auxiliary force.
John O’Neill stresses: "I think it intentionally chimes with second-wave feminism and the kind of imagery appearing in news media and pop culture of other radical groups with prominent female members." From the mid-1970s on, Cumann na mBan was sidelined by the Belfast IRA leadership, eventually splitting from the Provisionals in 1986, weighing their allegiance behind the Continuity Army Council, nowadays known as the Continuity IRA.
Hence, these photos served to attract women into the Provisional IRA by portraying them as equal fighters to men, a role they eventually were never allowed to fulfil. Cumann na mBan reacted with their own propaganda campaign. The former General Adjutant of the organisations recounts how they produced yellow posters with the wording: "Cumann na mBan: Join the women's army."
This eventually led to tensions within their organisation. The late Peig King, a Dublin member of Cumann na mBan since the 1940s until her death in November 2019, said "we refused to use this poster that was produced in Belfast without the authorisation of the national leadership."
Whatever the origins, the photo showing a woman in a green dress with white polka dots became one of the most iconic propaganda shots of the Troubles and has appeared in newspapers and on calendars, mugs and t-shirts. It captures a moment when women were on the crossroads within the Provisionals. While they had been accepted as full members of the IRA at an Army Council meeting in September 1970, it was still a long way to go until they reached leadership positions.
Now in her 70s, the woman lives in Belfast and attended the unveiling of the mural that depicts the photo taken by Doyle
In recent months, the image received renewed interest on Reddit, Facebook and Snopes. In July 2006, the Evening Herald linked the photo to the abduction of mother-of-ten Jean McConville. Doyle donated the photo and other images to the National Library of Ireland.
The true story will not be told until the woman in the photo comes forward, which she is unwilling to do, according to a friend of the family who spoke to the author. Now in her 70s, the woman lives in Belfast and attended the unveiling of the mural that depicts the photo taken by Doyle. "I would like to meet her once again", he says.
The author wants to thank John O’Neill and others for providing information for this article.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ