The women who changed the course of Irish history

This week's demonstration against the IRA continues a tradition in a country where the female of the species has often been a greater force for good than the male. David McKittrick reports
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The McCartney family

The McCartney family

The family of the murdered Belfast man Robert McCartney have caught the national and international imagination by standing up to the IRA and refusing to be cowed by the organisation.

Their campaign to bring to justice those who stabbed him in a brutal bar brawl has drawn down huge condemnation on the IRA and embarrassed Sinn Fein.

It has also caused generated much unease within republican circles, since Robert McCartney was a respected resident of the Catholic Short Strand ghetto in Belfast, and in republican terms was of good character.

The family has already endured much, losing a brother who killed himself four years ago. They say that Robert was a tower of strength at that time, helping the rest of them through the ordeal. Robert left behind two young sons, aged four and two, and his partner Bridgeen who he was due to marry later this year.

At the heart of the campaign to have his killers dealt with are his five sisters. Only one of them, Paula, still lives in the Short Strand, where the family has been, they say, for a hundred years. Paula is on a women's studies course at Queen's University, Belfast; Catherine runs a feminist newspaper; Donna has her own business in Belfast, while Gemma is a district nurse. Clare is a classroom assistant who intends to go into teacher training next year.

Their rally on Sunday was attended by between 400 and 500 people. Family members carried placards proclaiming "No more lies" and "Evil will triumph if good people do nothing".

Paula McCartney said people all over Ireland had been "sickened and disgusted". In a tough and brave message to the IRA, she called on anyone who knew anything to "hand themselves over and tell all to the police".

The campaign has galvanised efforts to find the killers of Mr McCartney and forced the IRA on to the defensive. Three of its members have been expelled and at the weekend a man presented himself at a police station accompanied by his solicitor. He was released without charge.

Yesterday another man was being questioned by the police.

Helen McKendry

Helen McKendry will be remembered as the woman who broke the silence of decades to tell the world of "the disappeared", the forgotten victims of the IRA who included her mother, Jean McConville.

The case of Mrs McConville is regarded as particularly poignant since her death had such far-reaching effects. A widow and mother of 10 children, she was taken from her Falls Road home in 1972 and never heard of again. Many of the children were taken into care.

The IRA denied responsibility and would give no information about the case until the 1990s, when Helen McKendry launched a campaign to have her mother's body returned. She felt able to speak out only after the IRA ceasefire of 1994.

The IRA eventually admitted killing Mrs McConville and gave information about the location of her body and those of others killed and buried in the 1970s. Searches were carried out in various parts of the Irish Republic but it was not until 2003 that Mrs McConville's body was found buried on a beach.

Mary Ann McCracken

Mary Ann McCracken, born into a Belfast Protestant merchant family in 1770, was a radical who espoused the causes of independence from Britain, equality for women, the welfare of the poor, workers' rights and opposition to slavery.

Her correspondence is fascinating, in particular the story of how she unsuccessfully tried to prevent the execution of her brother Henry Joy, one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion when Protestant dissenters rose against the Crown.

Espousing independence from Britain, she wrote that patriots had to accept their fate "whether it be on the scaffold or in the field". She accompanied her brother to the scaffold: "We walked together to the place of execution, where I was told ... that I should leave him, which I peremptorily refused.

"Clasping my hands around him (I did not weep till then), I said I could bear any thing but leaving him ... Fearing any further refusal would disturb the last moments of my dearest brother, I suffered myself to be led away."

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan

Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan from Belfast jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1970s for leading a peace movement which for a brief instant raised hopes that the violence could be ended by "people power".

The Peace People, as they were known, went through a euphoric phase in which they brought tens of thousands to huge outdoor rallies. But within a short period the initiative largely fell apart amidst public and internal acrimony. The movement survives, but is now a small-scale organisation which stirs little national interest.

It was born in a wave of anger generated by the deaths of three children in a horrific incident in west Belfast in August 1976, caused by a car chase involving an IRA member, Danny Lennon, who was a close personal friend of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. Lennon was driving a getaway car when he was shot by a soldier. The vehicle went out of control, careering on to a pavement and killing three young sisters.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, the children's aunt, called on people to reject terrorism. The movement quickly snowballed, attracting much international publicity.

But it came under criticism from both paramilitary groups and conventional politicians. As the months passed, the early fervour and hope ebbed, while the generalised desire for peace became complicated as it adopted its own positions on contentious issues.

A period of internal arguments and personality clashes followed, with particularly damaging criticism about how the Nobel prize money should be used. Betty Williams moved to the United States and Mairead Corrigan continues with her peace work in Belfast. Later, the mother of the three children who died took her own life.

When a television company made a programme to mark the anniversary of the movement's foundation, the two women preferred not to appear on-screen together. The Peace People are generally remembered in Belfast as a transient phenomenon which began promisingly but in the end did not deliver peace.

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, who was president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, was the first woman to hold the post. In winning the election and during her term in office, she personified the rapid modernisation of Irish society.

A feminist lawyer associated with women's rights, liberal values and pluralism, she became a powerful symbol of a changing Ireland. Her election surprised many, coming as it did when the campaign of the favourite, more conventional, candidate fell apart.

In office she established a punishing schedule - carrying out 800 engagements in her first year - carving a unique niche for herself and establishing links with a wide range of groups and people.

Although initially regarded as not a natural politician in the Irish mould, lacking the usual glad-handing skills, she expanded the office of the presidency and gained a reputation for sweeping away cobwebs while valuing tradition.

She became an icon almost above criticism, her astonishing 90 per cent approval rating in the polls demonstrating that she had in effect captured the imagination of a nation.

A close supporter said at the time: "The lack of criticism of her is almost eerie. Do you know, the main complaint has been that she doesn't wear gloves or a hat."

Her election was itself a major departure in domestic terms, and one which not only expressed but also helped to accelerate a push for change in Irish society, increasing the momentum for modernisation.

She declined to run for a second term, going on to become United Nations commissioner for human rights.

Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley was a 16th-century Irish pirate queen whose swashbuckling adventures captured the imagination and recently have caused some to regard her as a feminist icon.

She married two men and bore four children in a lengthy career which carried on her Co Mayo family's seafaring tradition and extended it to piracy. She eschewed convention in a man's world. Anxious to win control of a strategically placed castle, she is said to have banged on the door and proposed marriage to its owner, Iron Dick Burke. He accepted.

She was also bold enough to go to London to meet Queen Elizabeth I. Her request for the release of her son, and for some land rights, seems to have been granted: legend has it that she got along famously with the monarch.

Like many Irish chieftains, she seems to have been adept at playing both ends against the middle, sometimes confronting the English and capturing their ships and goods, while at other times co-operating with them. She built up considerable territory in the west of Ireland, commanding half a dozen castles and indulging in trade, fishing and piracy, being unafraid to take on Turkish, Spanish and other pirates.

May Blood

May Blood was created a cross-bench peer five years ago after a lifetime in community and co-operative work in the loyalist Shankill Road district of Belfast.

After leaving school in her early teens, she went to work in a linen mill where she became a shop steward and union activist before moving on into community activity. She has been to the fore in issues of housing, welfare and jobs, serving on official and other committees concerned with training, employment and labour relations. She also holds several honorary degrees.

According to Baroness Blood: "My life is about serving this community, particularly young people. For years they have just been fodder for the paramilitaries. We want the next generation to be real people with real futures." She is a member of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, which was active in politics, but she typifies the trend for many women activists to concentrate on community development.

Maud Gonne

One of the great romantic figures of early 20th-century Ireland, Maud Gonne is viewed as the muse of the poet W B Yeats. The causes for which she campaigned ranged from land evictions to prisoners and the Boers in South Africa.

The daughter of a British Army officer of Irish descent, she was brought up in Hampshire and educated in France, where she had two children by a lover, later converting to Catholicism.

A suffragette, she supported militant Fenianism and formed an organisation combining feminism and republicanism. After the Easter Rising in 1916 her husband, Sean McBride, was executed. She was arrested but escaped from Holloway prison. She opposed Michael Collins during the Irish civil war and went on hunger strike when imprisoned. She was released after 29 days.

Her son, Sean McBride, a republican activist, won both the Nobel and Lenin peace prizes.