In the 1970s the Irish community in Britain was represented by the Federation of Irish Societies; an organisation made up of mainly men who were Irish born. IBRG was set up in 1981 because of the F.I.S.’s reluctance to speak out on the issue of the Hunger Strikes in the North of Ireland and to recognise the discrimination and deprivation facing the Irish in this country.
IBRG reflected not just a more politicised generation of Irish born in this country, but an organisation that was 50/50 women and men. From 1981-2001 there was a female president (Maire O’Shea), two female chairs (Bernadette Hyland and Virginia Moyles), as well as officers including Bridget Galvin, Judy Peddle, Laura Sullivan, Caitlin Wright, Majella Crehan and Jackie Jolley. There was a Women’s Subcommittee, a Women’s Officer, IBRG women’s meetings, while in common to many radical organisations at that time, crèches were provided for all national meetings.
Manchester IBRG reflected this national trend. It was made up of Irish born, second and third generation women with ages ranging from 20s to 50s, and comprised students, public sector workers, single women and mothers. A separate women’s group was set up to organise events that spoke to Irish women’s experiences. The women taking part included Ann Hilferty, Joan Brennan, Eileen Carroll and Linda Ryan.
Tensions between traditional Irish organisations in Manchester, the Council of Irish Associations, and IBRG came to a head in 1988 over the content of Irish Week, which was organised and funded by Manchester City Council as part of their wider policy over Ireland.
IBRG were excluded by the official Irish Week Committee (made up of traditional Irish organisations, mainly men) from a meeting to confirm events for the Week, although two members of IBRG did manage to attend. At that meeting the events organised by the IBRG Women’s Group, including a showing of a video on strip searching and a women’s only day, were voted down. Confusing another event about the Birmingham Six with IBRG they also vetoed a meeting about the campaign.
Across local and national media the rightwing representatives of the C.I.A. tried to justify their position. Tom McAndrew, spokesperson for the C.I.A., defended their objection to the Birmingham Six meeting on the grounds that it had “no place in a large cultural event”. There is a file in the archive with the correspondance relating to the Irish Week.
Manchester City Council, and Councillor Graham Balance, to his credit, and to the dismay of McAndrew and his organisation, defended the right of IBRG to our events and ensured that they were included in all the publicity. But a separate Irish Week magazine was produced by the C.I.A. which excluded the Women’s Day and the Birmingham Six meeting.
The Women’s Day was called Mna nha’Eireann (Women in Ireland) and was a day of workshops run by Irish second generation writers, including Maude Casey and Moy McCrory. Issues covered included education, class and growing up Irish in Britain. It’s hard to understand in 2018 how threatened the traditional Irish men and their organisations felt by such an innocuous event!
London had a bigger Irish community, and because of funding by GLC and leftwing Labour Councils, there were many organisations run by and for the specific needs of Irish women. Each year there was a London Women’s Conference. In 1989 IBRG had a woman chair, Bernadette Hyland, the first of any national Irish communnity organisations, and she gave one of the keynote speeches at the conference. Bernadette said; “I would like to actively encourage Irish women to join the organisation..in IBRG..we need to reflect the experiences and realities of both Irish women and Irish men”.
In 1991 IBRG Women’s Officer Majella Crehan produced a submission to the Irish Republic’s Commission on the Status of Women. IBRG women joined with other women’s groups to raise issues including strip searching and abortion. IBRG supported the annual Women’s Delegation to the North of Ireland and IBRG women usually took part, often paid for by IBRG branches.
In the 1990s International Women’s Day was a highly politicised event. It was not about lifestyle or confidence building – and it certainly was not a branded event. The National Assembly of Women organised the IWD on 9 March 1993 at the Pankhurst Centre, and the speakers included Maria A Florez, Cuban Ambassador and Bernadette Hyland of IBRG.
Manchester IBRG held many events, and whether it was a conference, a film festival, a book launch, women and their lives were a constant theme.
Irish women were visible in IBRG meetings, both locally and nationally, and represented the organisation in Britain and Ireland. In the 1980s and 1990s women were a significant part of the Irish community in this country, mnay of them want to assert themselves as Irish and demand justice and equal rights, and IBRG reflected this in its activities.
Read more about IBRG in Michael Herbert’s book “The Wearing of the Green” here