Article by Mairéad Butler (Laidlaw Scholar 2022, European Studies)
One of the major things that I have learned over the course of the last six weeks of my Summer 1 research project was the importance of reflection. In this blog post I hope to give you an insight into my Laidlaw research journey thus far and offer some reflections both on my area of research and the personal impact of the experience as a whole.
The title of my research project is “Women as Survivors of Civil War Violence: A Comparative Study of Ireland and Spain”. The project aimed to study the memory, experience, and discourse of gendered violence during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Civil wars have always fascinated me, representing a crossroads in a nation’s history that pits brother against brother, father against son. However, it is precisely that gendered language that permeates civil-war discourse that I aimed to challenge through my research. As with most periods in history, women’s voices have been routinely silenced, or at the very least, ignored, in the history of the Irish and Spanish civil wars. Moreover, the issue of gendered violence was, and alas, continues to be in our own time, taboo and stigmatised, reflected in the lack of historiographic interest in the topic in Ireland and Spain until relatively recently. However, it is, as Linda Connolly writes “an unavoidable truth”. In titling my project “Women as Survivors” I wanted to centre women and empower their voices as much as possible in my research, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how gendered violence fitted into the gendered experience of civil war in Ireland and Spain comparatively, as well as broader discourse on gender both before and after the civil wars.
It was very important to me that my project was interdisciplinary. However, as a true liberal arts student studying history, social sciences, cultural studies, and languages this was no surprise! Therefore, my literature review at the start of the project focused on building a theoretical framework on gender, memory, and gendered and sexual violence, combined with a thorough grasp of the historiography of the Irish and Spanish civil wars. While this felt like a mammoth task at the time, it gave me a strong theoretical base from which I could approach the case studies I found in the archives.
Visiting archives was simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding part of my research experience. I conducted archival research in Ireland and Spain, visiting military archives in Dublin and Ávila, psychiatric hospital archives in Hospital Universitario José Germain in Madrid, and university archives in Trinity and UCD with the aim to compile case studies of women’s experiences of gendered violence. The thing that struck me the most was the sheer lack of first-hand testimonies of gendered violence that I could find in both countries. Historians of both civil wars concede that there were more cases of such violence than records show, but these memories have been lost to time, shame, and stigma. It was harrowing enough to read the accounts that were present in archival sources, but to realise that they represented only a small fraction of countless stories of women’s trauma of which we will never know, and can never know, was incredibly sad.
This, of course, presented a real challenge from a research perspective, leading me to change my original plans from a focus on personal memory to a broader emphasis on gendered experiences of civil war and civil-war gendered discourse. I had to become more open to reading between sources, looking for clues and crucially, examining not just what was present in the sources, but rather what was absent or left out. I felt like a detective! Again, the issue of women’s voices in history, and the repression of women and stories of gendered violence, became apparent. The only times that I could find women’s voices was in court witness statements. Indeed, when I was in the military history archive in Ávila, I found zero results relating to gendered and sexual violence when I searched related terms like “rape”, “assault”, “gender”, “hair cutting” and so on. Furthermore, the archivist in Ávila said that studying sexual violence in the Spanish civil war was extremely difficult and even recommended that I visit another archive. However, I did not let that deter me and in the process discovered that the gaps in history can tell us just as much as what is actually there.
In the last week of my project, I was asked by a fellow Laidlaw scholar what my conclusions were. This seemingly harmless question sent me into a spiral: what indeed were my conclusions, what had I actually achieved? However, I’ve come to realise, upon reflection, that my conclusions don’t have to be anything ground-breaking, but that by acknowledging women’s voices, their experiences, and place in history in a novel, comparative way, I have made a difference. These experiences were not “essentially only an ordinary war incident”, as Ernest Blythe wrote in his Bureau of Military History witness statement. I have helped to empower these women in a small way and to give their stories some meaning. This is the real beauty of the Laidlaw scholarship. It is rare as an undergraduate student, particularly an undergraduate arts student, that you feel like your academic endeavours are accomplishing something new, interesting, and important, but here they really are.
I have also grown in independence and confidence in my abilities as a researcher through the primarily self-led fashion of my research, all whilst working in a very professionally collaborative manner with my supervisors. While I did not anticipate the challenges that I would face over the course of the project, I couldn’t have anticipated how well I was able to deal with these issues. More than this, I learned the importance of self-care and of a work-life balance. These are all skills that will be invaluable to me in my future work in this area as a researcher and hopefully in a more hands-on fashion in the future.
I know that I have done myself proud and can only hope that I did the women whose stories I read and analysed proud too. It was a privilege to serve as a conduit for their voices.