The forcible cutting-off of women’s hair was widely used as a weapon of war by both Crown and Republican forces during the War of Independence (1919-1921). Known as “bobbing”, these assaults were carried out on women who were deemed to have been aiding or consorting with the perceived enemy. The shorn hair was intended to mark a woman out as a traitor or enemy. It was a terrorising and humiliating experience, and often had long-term mental-health consequences for the victim. For those taken from their homes, it was also a traumatic experience for their loved ones who feared the worst in their absence.
One hundred years ago today, four Galway women – Eileen Baker from Eyre Street, Gertie Madden from St. Brendan’s Terrace, Maggie Broderick from Prospect Hill, and Margaret Turke from College Road – were ‘bobbed’. In the aftermath, a “Connacht Tribune” representative interviewed the four women, and their statements were published in the following weekend’s edition of the paper, which leaves us with fascinating accounts of their terrifying ordeals.
On the morning of Saturday, 18 September 1920, Eileen Baker was assaulted – presumably by local IRA volunteers – in her family’s hotel on Eyre Street. She was the 23-year-old daughter of Corkman James Baker, a retired Sergeant Major in the Connaught Rangers and proprietor of Baker’s Hotel. It appears that Eileen was targeted as she had given evidence at the military inquiry into the death of Constable Edward Krumm, who had been drinking in the hotel bar before he was shot dead at Galway train station on 8/9 September. She was still shaken up when interviewed the following morning; she recalled:
“I came down about half-past seven this morning. The first thing I did was to open the door to admit the postman. He had just got to the opposite side of the street on the footpath, and I had turned my back when the folding doors were flung open. I heard the bang as I turned round. Six tall men came in. They wore black cloths all over their heads and faces. One man walked up to me with a revolver. I thought at first they wanted to go upstairs to the police who were staying with us. Instead another man pulled me into the hall, and the other held the revolver to me, whilst the man behind cut my plait. I had my hair in plaits at the time near the head. I was too terrified to cry out and there was no one about but myself. They cut the plait with a single clip. The whole thing came on me suddenly, and was over in five minutes. They said very little, but they searched all the police coats and capes before they walked out. They said before they left that they would be back again. The man with the revolver had a razor, as if they intended to shave my head. I stooped down to pick up my hair after they had left, and was in a state of collapse in the middle of the hall when my little sister […] came down and found me.”
Crown forces’ reprisals followed that evening, the “Connacht Tribune” reporting that “during curfew hours on Saturday night, parties of men carrying revolvers and electric torches, wearing black and white masks, slouch hats and uniforms” visited “the houses of Mrs. Madden, St. Brendan’s Terrace; Mrs. Broderick, Prospect Hill; and Mr Turke, College Road” where “Miss Gertie Madden, Miss Margaret May Broderick and Miss Margaret Turke were taken outside the doors and their hair cropped close with three pairs of scissors wielded by three men who spoke with an English accent, while the fourth held an electric torch”.
Galway, at that time, was under a military curfew, which required people to remain indoors between 9pm and 4am; to add to the eeriness the Urban District Council turned out the street lights during these hours, leaving the city in darkness.
Gertie Madden, aged 22, was a gifted and popular musician, who played the piano with the orchestra of the Empire Theatre (situated off William Street) on Sunday afternoons. Despite her terrifying ordeal, she turned up for work on Sunday with “a neat toque covering the close-cropped hair”. She told the reporter:
“At about a quarter to eleven, I was in the kitchen reading when the knock came to the door. The men said they wanted Miss Madden. Mother called to me, and I went out. They brought me outside, and closed the door, leaving mother in a terrified condition inside. They had shouted ‘hands up’ in the first instance and held revolvers to me, but when I went outside, they told me it would be alright if I would be quiet, and they treated me gently in the circumstances. Four or five of them got around me, and rapidly cut off my hair, one of them laughingly handed me a comb which had fallen out. Mother was locked inside during this ordeal, and she felt the whole thing much more than I did. When they had cut my hair off, they let me go. They spoke with English accents, but I was too upset to notice the uniforms they wore”
The daughter of parents with a “strong nationalist outlook”, Maggie Broderick, aged 18, was the next target. She described her ordeal as follows:
“It was nearly eleven o’clock when they came to our door […] They asked for me. I shouted down to ask if they would give me time to dress. They would not. I came down in my nightdress, and took a coat from the hallstand which I put on. My mother called to me to be brave. They took me outside, treating me gently, and cropped my hair close, using electric torches to give them light as the street was in darkness. “What lovely locks she has got!” one remarked with an English accent; and after they had finished they all called out, ‘Good night,’ and went off apparently to join the two motor lorries that were standing some distance up the road. There must have been about a score of men around. They appeared to be in uniform, but were disguised by slouch hats, black and white masks, and Burberry coats. Those who came for me showed revolvers.”
Maggie’s mother remarked: “we are used to this kind of thing now, and Maggie went through it like a brick.” Years later, Maggie would admit: “I thought at first they were going to shoot me” and that, following the assault, “I had to have my head shaved by a barber next day in order to have the hair grow properly” (BMH.WS1682).
The Museum’s “Revolution in Galway, 1913-1923” exhibition features a now-faded photograph of Maggie with her hair shorn, which has been kept inside of the brass cap of a petrol canister, which was used by Crown forces to torch the Broderick family home in September 1920. It is a powerful and visceral reminder of the suffering of Irish women during the War of Independence.
In a third reprisal attack, Margaret Turke, a 31-year-old weaver at Galway Woollen Mills, was assaulted at her family home on College Road. The newspaper reporter noted that, as a result of the attack, Margaret “was in a condition bordering upon nervous prostration” and that “tears came to her eyes as she and her mother recounted the story”. He continued: “a number of masked men dashed into the little kitchen and turning to the right entered the mother’s room, where an altar lamp was burning. They asked for Miss Turke, and taking Margaret from the room adjoining brought her into the street. She wore only her night attire, and snatching up a woollen jumper she wrapped this around her legs. The mother pleaded with the men, and asked them if they had daughters or sisters of their own, or if they realised that God was looking down upon their actions. Without answering, they took Miss Turke outside and closed the door. The unhappy girl collapsed upon her knees; a beautiful head of long hair was rapidly shorn away; and she was permitted to return. All the raiders had revolvers, and Miss Turke anticipated the worst, but she says they did not at any time treat her roughly. Despite her harrowing experience, Miss Turke was able to resume her work as a weaver at the City of Galway Woollen Mills, Newtownsmith, on Monday. She has been a faithful servant of the company for twelve years.”
One witness, giving evidence to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, stated that the women had been targeted because they were all “strong Republicans” and members of Cumann na mBan (Evidence on Conditions in Ireland, 1921, 855). Additionally, two of the women were related to well-known IRA volunteers; Margaret Broderick and Margaret Turke were the sisters of IRA volunteers John Broderick and Seán Turke. And IRA volunteer Joseph Cummins, who along with John Broderick had been shot and wounded by Crown forces on the night of 8/9 September, had been staying with the Maddens at St Brendan’s Terrace. Of the perpetrators of the assaults, one witness told the inquiry that “they were supposed to be the military” because “nobody else could be out, especially in a military lorry, at that hour of the morning”. If true, it would seems that the perpetrators felt the need to avenge the attack on Eileen Baker, the daughter of one of their fellow comrades.
You can browse through the “Revolution in Galway, 1913-1923” exhibition in the ‘Current Exhibitions’ section of our website to learn more about this seminal period in our history.
18 September 2020