Last Saturday, thousands of protestors marched through Dublin city centre in opposition to the election of Donald J. Trump. U.S presidents have inspired large protests here before, not least the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War, but what was particularly interesting about the demonstration last weekend was the emphasis on women, given that it was called in solidarity with the ‘Women’s March on Washington’ in America.
For the historian in me, the demonstration through Dublin brought to mind an earlier protest against a U.S president which was led by female activists, in the form of the Women’s Peace Camp established in the Phoenix Park in 1984, designed to coincide with the visit of Ronald Reagan to Ireland. More than thirty women were ultimately forcibly removed from the park, and spent 30 hours in the Bridewell and other Garda stations until the formalities were all over. Activists, nuns and young mothers in their midst, it was a mystery just why they had been arrested, with recently released state papers suggesting that Gardaí certainly exceeded their powers in the process.
‘Hey Ronnie Reagan’: Thatcher, Latin America and the road to Ireland:
In the 1980 U.S presidential election, Reagan had fought off Jimmy Carter, who labeled Reagan “a dangerous right wing radical” on the campaign trail. Looking at the things he won the election on, there are echoes of more recent times – lower taxes, a tough national defence policy at home and less government interference. He took 51% of the vote, Carter a mere 41%, and an independent republican polled respectably. Reagan’s campaign slogan certainly resonated with voters: Let’s Make America Great Again. It appeared on posters, badges, but not red hats.
A few things wouldn’t have endeared Reagan to all in Ireland – his closest political ally was, of course, Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady described Reagan as “the second most important man in my life”, while Reagan jokingly referred to her as “the best man in England.” Thatcher would later maintain that Reagan “won the Cold War without firing a shot”. Interestingly, during the 1981 hungerstrikes in Ulster the Reagan administration did warn Thatcher’s government that they were “in danger of losing the media campaign here in the United States”, but being so closely aligned to Thatcher affected how Irish nationalists would have viewed the American president.
Much further from home however, it was undoubtedly Latin America that was the catalyst for much of the opposition to his visit here. This was an on-going event, part of the global power play between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union, and it had entangled the Catholic Church in some surprising ways. Michael D. Higgins would condemn Reagan for fighting “a holy war against communism”, while Reagan regarded it as the obligation of the U.S to support those who fought Soviet influence, maintaining:
We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth . . . Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.
In Latin America, radicalism came in many different guises, including from priests and nuns. There, there existed a belief known as ‘Liberation Theology’, something John Paul II understood but tried to distance the Catholic Church from, and which was regarded as a sort of fusion of radical social politics and Catholicism. John Paul II maintained that such thinking “does not tally with the Church’s catechism.”
When Archbishop Oscar Romaro of San Salvador was gunned down in 1980, because of his opposition to the right-wing regime there, there was shock and revulsion internationally – he had just completed celebrating mass and stood upon the altar at the time of his murder. To compound the misery of the people, dozens were killed when Romaro’s funeral was fired upon by right-wing death squads. Bishop Eamon Casey was at that funeral, and it sparked something in sections of the Catholic Church internationally; one American priest recalled in his memoirs that “I had already been involved in some activism. But Romaro’s death was the beginning of my serious commitment to a life of prayerful activism.” There was a belief that the American government supported those death squads in Latin America, in the realpolitik of the anti-communist struggle.
Shannon, Ballyporeen and mixed receptions:
Reagan arrived in Ireland on 1 June,1984. About 500 people marched on Shannon Airport according to the newspapers, including Michael D. Higgins, who condemned what he saw as American interference in Nicaragua. The President of the Union of Students in Ireland, Joe Duffy, spoke too, saying that the Gardai on duty should be protecting them from Reagan and not vice versa. At all points of the Reagan visit, the protestors were kept well away from the visiting president, but still it was very clear to all visiting media that this visit was very different from that of John F.Kennedy in the 1960s.
Reagan played his cards well for an Irish American audience at home – recording a radio address that began with the words “top of the morning”, and borrowing a few words to describe Ireland as “a place as kind as it is green, the greenest place I’ve ever seen.” Reagan visited Ballyporeen, a little Tipperary village of a few hundred people. There was something of the Kennedy visit about it, the ‘Welcome Home’ banners appeared again, but a few hundred protestors were kept out of sight. The speech he gave there touched on the role of the Irish in America:
From the time of our revolution when Irishmen filled the ranks of the Continental Army, to the building of the railroads, to the cultural contributions of individuals like the magnificent tenor John McCormack and the athletic achievements of the great heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan—all of them are part of a great legacy.
He had a pint of Smithwicks in O’Farrell’s Pub – after a Secret Service Agent tried it first – and the pub’s interior was later shipped off piece by piece to America – it is in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Museum and Library in California today. It was Paddywhackery by numbers, but it was all aimed at an Irish American audience, with a visiting contingent recording every moment.
In Galway, there was one embarrassing protestor in the midst of the crowds: Professor Marion Robinson, who was a visiting lecturer at the College, was a cousin of Reagan’s wife Nancy, but joined the demonstrations against him. The Church proved a major headache for the authorities, and an embarrassment in the sense that they turned almost all invitations to be near the President. Bishop Casey, Cardinal O Fiaich and others either condemned Reagan publicly, or found excuses not to attend ceremonies and events. In the Irish Independent, Desmond Rushe complained that like most protest movements in Ireland it was a “general assortment of reds and pinks…the slightest excuse is sufficient to send them away on their predictable anti-American kick”, but this was more Mass than Marx.
Phoenix Park Peace Camp:
In Dublin, opposition to Reagan had been building in the weeks before his arrival. The New York Times reported a week before his arrival of a demo through the streets led by unusual protestors:
The downtown march was led by nuns from the Dublin-based Sisters for Justice Convent. They carried a coffin inscribed with the names of three American nuns slain along with a Catholic lay worker by national guardsmen in El Salvador four years ago.
Female protestors, from the group ‘Women For Disarmament’, took up protest in the Phoenix Park, positioning themselves near to the residence of the U.S ambassador. Certainly, the protest was influenced by the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, but also by other non-violent feminist camps which had spun up in the United States too.
In his entertaining memoir Just Joe, Joe Duffy remembered stopping at the camp on the way to Shannon Airport:
On the drive to Shannon, we traveled through the Phoenix Park to express our support for the ‘women’s peace camp’ installed near the residence of the US ambassador. Gerard Cushnahan, a USI official who was driving the car, got a shock in Chapelizod when he was overtaken by a speeding unmarked Avenger car. It was the Special Branch, stopping us to ask why we had supported the women.
The protestors had done their groundwork and come prepared; as Gene Kerrigan has written, they consulted with the Office of Public Work about the rules governing behaviour in the park weeks before the demonstration, and had sought the advice of solicitors.
Despite all its planning, the protest began small. The Irish Press delighted in reporting that it seemed to be “just a whimper, with 12 women, six children and a dog encamped.” There was a minor confrontation between Gardaí and the activists when they attempted to paint slogans onto the wall of the U.S ambassador’s residence in red paint. One woman, Petra Bretnach, was separated from the others and arrested, taken to Cabra Garda station.
Then came the unexpected. Gardaí moved in on the camp before Reagan’s arrival in Dublin, detaining 32 more women. It would later emerge that the women were arrested “under a new regulation made under the Phoenix Park Act 1925. The regulation was rubber-stamped just 90 minutes before president Reagan landed at Shannon Airport.”
The 32 women were taken to the Bridewell, where they were destined to spend more than thirty hours. The women included Sister Francis from Sisters of Justice, a reminder of Catholic opposition to Reagan’s Latin American policies. Ten thousand would march at Dublin Castle in opposition to a banquet held there in his honour, in a demonstration known as the ‘Ring Around Reagan’, after which a few hundred protestors broke away for the Bridewell in solidarity with the women.
When Reagan left Dublin, having delivered a speech to the Dáil in which he denounced “the support a tiny number of misguided Americans give to these terrorist groups” in reference to the IRA, the women were released from custody. To them and many others, it was still a mystery why they had been detained at all. As Kerrigan has noted:
Twenty-eight of the women filed civil suits against the state. The matter slowly shuffled its way through the clogged arteries of the legal system. On 31 March 1987, almost three years after the mass arrests, the state settled out of court when Jane Morgan’s civil suit was due to be heard. They agreed to pay her £1,000 damages and £900 special damages, plus costs. Twenty-seven other women also settled their claims, receiving £1,000 each and costs. It was a cheap way for the state to keep the matter out of court.