Republican Women and Catholic Church responses to the strip searching of female prisoners in Northern Ireland, 1982-92

Niall Gilmartin, Margaret Scull

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although the practice of strip searching of female prisoners in Northern Ireland was used with regularity in 1970s, it reached its height in Armagh Jail between 1980 and 1986. While much of scholarship on republicanism and imprisonment has focused largely on the male experience, this article provides unique insights from two relatively overlooked cohorts, republican women and the Catholic Church. Based on in-depth interviews and extensive archival research, the article examines the personal narratives and memories of strip searching by republican women, who interpreted the practice as a repeated violation of the female body, a form of systematic oppression, and a ‘gendered weapon’ deliberately used demoralise and humiliate republican women, and by extension, the wider republican and nationalist community. The article explores how the republican women of Armagh and later Maghaberry Prisons gained an unlikely advocate in denouncing strip searching and the State in the form of some members of the Irish Catholic Church. While the Irish Catholic Church had regularly condemned republican violence, some within the Church viewed strip searching as a moral issue and a clear violation of basic human rights. More radical, nationalist members of the Irish Catholic clergy and hierarchy walked a fine line between taking a pastoral concern for their parishioners and making political statements against the British government, leading to questions about the Catholic Church and its role in the Northern Irish conflict. Forced strip searching transformed the bodies of female prisoners into a gendered site of violence; in doing so, it not only politicised republican women with regards to gender and wider feminist politics, but was also a means by which members of the clergy could air their grievances against British government policies specifically and British presence in Northern Ireland more broadly.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWomen’s History Review
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 8 Apr 2021


  • strip searching
  • Catholic Church
  • Republican Women
  • Northern Ireland
  • the ‘Troubles’


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