Shame and Shearing: The Politics of Women’s Hair in Independence-Era Ireland

The mother pleaded with them and asked them if they had daughters or sisters of their own. Without answering they closed the door. The girl collapsed on her knees, and a beautiful head of long hair was shorn before she was permitted to return to the house.1

The shearing of women’s hair has a long history as a tactic for dehumanizing, humiliating, and setting women apart from the rest of the population.2 Hair often holds great symbolic value for women. Long hair can be a mark of femininity, and many women take great pride in their hair. The act of shaving a woman’s hair symbolically removes a part of their identity and attempts to control these women.3 Throughout history, women have suffered this particular form of gendered violence, but this is not just a wartime phenomenon. This subjugation of women has occurred during times of peace, too, and carries over into wartime where it presents itself in assaults such as these.

A young woman is held down by other women as her hair is cut off roughly with scissors
Members of the French resistance in Cherbourg shear the hair of women who collaborated with the Germans during the occupation. The women were then paraded through the streets of the city. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

In conflicts like the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II, women were punished by the shaving of their hair.4 Shearing hair is one of many gendered expressions of violence common in internal violent struggles. During the Irish War of Independence (1919–1922), participants on both sides of the conflict perpetrated violence in towns, neighborhoods, and homes.5 The Irish Republican Army pursued a guerilla war against the British, who were left not knowing exactly who were soldiers and who were civilians. Everyone was a potential target for violence. For women, violence took on a personal gendered form.

Gendered violence can be especially horrific because it targets the deeply personal—identity and sexuality. With any act of gendered violence, the threat of rape is also present, which could be more traumatic than the hair-shearing assault itself. Attacking women during war serves to demoralize the community and exert power over a vulnerable population, and the war in Ireland was no different. At this time hair shearing was used to punish women, attack enemies, and police sexuality.

The Irish War of Independence, like most modern wars, relied on a gendered distribution of labor in war-making. Thousands of women supported the war by feeding, sheltering, and caring for members of the Irish Republican Army, while others took a more active role by joining paramilitary groups.

Even though some women were highly involved, the majority of violence was carried out by men. Public humiliation like the shearing of their heads was a tactic used by both the IRA and British to punish women suspected of collaborating with the “enemy.” This practice was relatively common, judging by the volume of reports. Newspapers allow us to understand the frequency and public opinion of these assaults on women; however, these reports tended to be relatively short.

In addition to punishment, many of the British army’s attacks on women for aiding the IRA were intended to create fear.6 Occurring at night, women were taken from their homes out into the streets wearing only their nightclothes, which would have made them feel incredibly vulnerable. Irish newspapers that reported on the attacks did not describe them as being overly violent, but the threat of violence was unmistakable.

Dublin, 1921. (National Library of Ireland/Flickr)

One example shows how suddenly these attacks happened. A young Irish woman and her mother told reporters, “It was about midnight, after the cavalry patrol had passed along, a motor lorry coming up from the city drew up outside their cottage. Admission was demanded, and when the mother, an aged woman opened the door, a number of masked men dashed into the kitchen.”7 The daughter’s hair was then forcibly cut by the British soldiers. Caught unaware, these women were at the mercy of the soldiers.

The fact that soldiers could enter homes without warning created an atmosphere of constant anxiety. They could not know when an attack would happen. These women, even when men were present in the house, were not able to fight back. Often outnumbered and caught off guard, the attacks occurred too quickly for women to defend themselves.

Reports of violence in these attacks rarely mentioned sexual assault directly, rather it was implied. One newspaper reported:

[At] about 1am… a party of men, fifteen to twenty in number, armed and disguised … forcibly dragged two girls into the roadway. They knocked them down and in other ways brutally assaulted them, and then, whilst two other men held their heads, a third cut their hair off with a pair of shears, and, not content with this outrage, they poured tar over the girls’ heads.8

The language used in this excerpt describes the hair cutting and tarring, but the vague statement that they were “brutally assaulted” suggests sexual violence. Being knocked down, heads unwillingly shaved, and then tarred are all brutal but the report separates these offenses from sexual assault, something which cannot be mentioned. There are multiple reasons for this omission. Sexual assault, while violent in nature, is also sexual, and sexuality during this time period was typically not part of the public discourse.

Additionally, rape can sometimes be wrongfully blamed on the victim because of a perception that they have done or failed to do something that contributed to their assault. If these newspapers were trying to villainize the men who perpetrated these acts, giving any opportunity for the women to be blamed would not serve their purpose. However, I do not believe that this omission was intended to protect women. More likely rape was not named in the newspaper because sexual assault was not something discussed in “good society.”

Many reports did not mention if additional violence (such as sexual assault) had occurred. Typically they reported only on the shaving of the girls’ hair. If little or no violence was done to the women apart from cutting off their hair, articles specifically stated, “they treated her gently in the circumstances.”9 That the article quoted above went into such detail as to the extent of violence committed suggests that it was particularly severe.

The women targeted in such attacks who had male relatives in the IRA, or who participated themselves, were left relatively unprotected in their homes. Many of the men targeted due to their IRA involvement were in hiding from the British army and avoided seeing their families in order to protect them. In the absence of the men who the British actually wanted to punish, soldiers sent a warning through these women. The message was clear: give up the fight, or your families will pay the price.

Significantly, women faced violence from both enemies and allies. In addition to attacks by the British soldiers, Irish women were as likely to be attacked by members of the IRA, though the motives were different. Head shaving of young women by the IRA was inflicted as punishment for allegedly consorting with British soldiers. One young woman from Enniskillen was taken and held at gunpoint while her hair was shorn off because she was accused of “‘keeping company’ with a police constable.”10

This fraternization often included sexual relationships, which were particularly threatening for multiple reasons. Historically, women’s sexuality has been repressed, if not considered overtly dangerous. Sex workers and women who engaged in unacceptable sexual activity were the subjects of disapproval and derision. Throughout Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such women could be sent to work in “Magdalen laundries” as punishment or to prevent further immorality.11

In Catholic-nationalist Ireland, not only were premarital and same-sex sex considered immoral, but so too was being with someone on the opposing side of the war.12 These women were exercising sexual freedom, which was taboo regardless, but even worse they were directing it towards inappropriate individuals. Thus, shearing women’s hair was also a commentary on the sexual mores of the time.

During the Irish War for Independence, the policing of women’s sexuality, specifically a disordered sort of sexuality, continued and is highlighted in many cases of head shaving. However, attacks occurred for many reasons, adding to the fear that women must have felt. Women were attacked because they were on the opposing side of the conflict or to send a message to their male relatives. Head shearing was also used as a punishment when women were seen with enemy men. Given that men on both sides of the conflict were attacking these women, it could seem like nowhere was safe, and these women would have lived lives filled with anxiety. In all of these cases, cutting off a woman’s hair was meant not only to remove a part of her identity but to brand her as a traitor or something less than human, for all to see. The manner in which their hair was cut was brutal and its intent was violence and fear.

Notes

  1. “Curfew Terrorism” Evening Herald, September 20, 1920. Irish Newspaper Archive. Accessed on 22 March 2019. Return to text.
  2. Deborah Pergament. “It’s not just hair: Historical and cultural considerations for an emerging technology,” Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 75 (1999): 41-59. Return to text.
  3. Edmund Ronald Leach, “Magical hair,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, no. 2 (1958): 148. Return to text.
  4. Kjersti Ericsson and Eva Simonsen, eds. Children of World War II: The Hidden Enemy Legacy (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005), 8; and Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 86. Return to text.
  5. Amy Reese, “Outrages on the Women of Ireland: Sexual and Gender-based Violence Committed by Crown Forces during the Anglo-Irish War,” Creating Knowledge, 86 (2016): 86. Return to text.
  6. Louise Ryan, “‘Drunken Tans’: Representations of Sex and Violence in the Anglo-Irish War (1919–21),” Feminist Review 66, no. 1 (2000): 83. Return to text.
  7. “Curfew Terrorism.” Return to text.
  8. “Rebel Gallantry: Girls’ Hair Cut Off in County Kerry,” Belfast Newsletter (June 30, 1920). Return to text.
  9. “Curfew Terrorism.” Return to text.
  10. “War on Women: Girl’s Hair Shorn Off by Armed Scoundrels,” Belfast Newsletter (January, 21, 1921), Return to text.
  11. Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society 1800-1940 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 11. Return to text.
  12. Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (London: Profile Books, 2010). Return to text.

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