I, Dolours: a woman’s political biography

Barney Cassidy reviews I, Dolours, now available on Netflix.

As a child growing up in a Belfast Republican family, Dolours Price was given a particular responsibility when she reached the age of nine. Her maternal aunt Bridie lived with them. She had lost both her eyes and her hands and the young Dolours had to hold her cigarettes while she smoked. This had happened during the 1930s IRA campaign when Bridie was moving a bomb from its hiding place. It exploded prematurely leaving her mutilated for the remaining forty years of her life.

Dolours’ father had been involved in the IRA bombing of English cities in the same decade and spent several years in prison. One of his friends was hanged after being wrongly accused of having planted a bomb which killed five people in Coventry. This family was part of the thin green thread of physical force Republicanism in Belfast during the decades when it was a tradition preserved through a few families rather than a political movement.

To her dying day, Dolours believed that only a united Ireland would give meaning to the suffering of her aunt and the human cost of the struggle to achieve it.

Maurice Sweeney’s film is based on an interview that journalist Ed Moloney did with Price in which she talked freely about her early student radicalism in People’s Democracy (the group which later evolved into the Irish section of the Fourth International), her recruitment to the IRA, her role in transporting informers to be killed, her leadership of a failed IRA bombing mission in London, her hunger strike and subsequent rejection of the current leadership of Sinn Fein. It is essential viewing for anyone who wants to get an understanding of that period of Irish history.

Price was a member of the 1968 generation of working class young people who were the first in their families to access a university education. Like many others across the world she was drawn into political activity inspired by events in the United States, France, Vietnam and Prague. She initially rejected her family’s physical force Republicanism, returning to it when she was among those students attacked by a loyalist mob supported by police on a demonstration. She joined the IRA shortly afterwards.

Initially her role was to transport weapons and explosives across the border. She was talent spotted and recruited to a counter-intelligence unit which reported to Gerry Adams, the IRA commander in Belfast. This group was tasked with identifying and executing informers. Price
was unrepentant till the end about the military necessity of doing so. Her voice hardens audibly when she expresses contempt for people who betray their comrades to the enemy.

Her most controversial claim is that Gerry Adams ordered the killing of Jean McConville. Moloney revealed in his book Voices From the Grave that British military intelligence had given the widowed mother of ten a radio transmitter to pass on information about the local IRA. Adams self-evidently denies Price’s claim that he ordered either the killing or that McConville’s body be hidden in the remote location where it was eventually found in 2003. The viewer is obliged to decide to choose whom they believe – a woman giving an interview she knew would only be made public after her death or a politician denying his role in a killing.

Hunger strike and force feeding

In the film Price comes over as an intelligent, reflective and sardonic woman who was willing to question much of what she did and the reasons for it. But she doesn’t offer any insight to her commitment to the strategy of an armed campaign which failed as horribly in the 1970s and 80s as it had in the 1930s. Lacking any real understanding of the British labour movement or working class, Republicans frequently resorted to the futile short cut of planting bombs in British cities as a way of achieving a united Ireland.

Price volunteered, at a meeting she said Adams organised, to join a bombing mission to England along with her sister Marian. Even at that time, the British had informants at very senior levels in the IRA and the would-be bombers were all arrested after an attack on the Old
Bailey. Price is scathing about the drunken amateurishness of the men with her but they were already compromised.

Both sisters received long prison sentences and campaigned to be sent to a prison in the north of Ireland. Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins refused. The sisters went on hunger strike for over 200 days and were force fed for 167 of them. They didn’t break. The dramatisation of this is extremely harrowing to watch, the almost sexualised nature of the torture by male prison staff compounding the brutality

Jenkins eventually sent them to Armagh, the primary women’s prison in the North of Ireland. Five and half months of torture by inserting tubes and liquids into their bodies left the women deeply traumatised. Both were eventually released because they’d been rendered so anorexic that doctors advised they’d die of starvation if kept in prison.

Price died in 2013 from an overdose of painkillers and sedatives, still a Republican. We hear her fulminating against what she saw as the betrayal of the Good Friday Agreement, the deal which made Sinn Fein a pillar of the state it had vowed to destroy. But her critique is
the traditional Republican one: that the leaders had sold out, there were too many informers and not enough bombs. These were the ideas she had learned from her family. The obvious futility of her father’s armed struggle and her own hadn’t changed them.

Yet for all this, at a time when almost every wall in Republican areas in the north of Ireland is covered with murals and slogans which do nothing but propagate a dishonest myth and pull in clueless tourists, I, Dolours is a vital setting straight of the historical record.

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