“Mairéad Farrell might be dismissed as some wild-eyed fanatic except that part of her life has been preserved in several home movies and a television interview taped shortly before her death. What emerges is a portrait of a soft-spoken, attractive woman determined to end what she perceived as the injustices surrounding her everyday life…. The program leaves us pondering the obvious conclusion: To the people of Falls Road she was a patriot. To the British she was a terrorist. To her family she was a victim of Irish history.”
So said the New York Times review of Death on the Rock the controversial ITV current affairs documentary from 1988 that reported on the murder of Farrell, along with two other IRA volunteers Daniel McCann and Seán Savage, on the streets of Gibraltar by the SAS on this day, 6th March, in 1988. In the 2014 documentary entitled An Unfinished Conversation, filmmaker Bríona Nic Dhiarmada (who had been meeting regularly Farrell prior to her execution as she was working on a book about her – hence the title) reaches a similar conclusion; “I strongly believe that Mairéad Farrell was a product of her environment and a product of Irish history”
For anyone interested in the Troubles, Irish history and the republican movement, Mairéad Farrell is not only a significant figure (the unlawful execution of her, McCann and Savage – the Gibraltar Three – as part of the British Army’s Operation Flavius led to further devastating violence in Ireland, as Vanessa Engle’s film The Funeral Murders, broadcast by the BBC on the 30th anniversary in 2018, documented) but a fascinating one too. An attractive, intelligent and articulate young woman, at the time of her death it seemed like Mairéad Farrell was undertaking a different path towards her goals of a united Ireland, but those fateful, controversial events in Gibraltar proved otherwise.
Born in West Belfast in 1957 to a Catholic family, Farrell came of age in the tumultuous early ’70s, gaining a political education as she witnessed at first hand the brutality of the British forces and the discrimination towards Catholics in Northern Ireland at that time. Joining first cumann na gcailini and later the IRA whilst still a teenager, Farrell made the headlines when, along with two other IRA volunteers, she attempted to plant a bomb at a Belfast hotel on April 5th, 1976. Portentously echoing her fate twelve years later, Sean McDermott, one of her fellow volunteers and someone she was romantically involved with, was shot dead as he attempted to evade capture. Sentenced to fourteen years in Armagh gaol, Farrell was given the responsibility and privilege of serving as the OC (Officer Commanding) of her fellow prisoners and set to work ensuring their right to be recognised as political prisoners, refusing to carry our prison work or acknowledge the authority of their warders. Following a brutal attack by male warders brought from Long Kesh on 7 February 1980, the women were locked in their cells and denied access to the bathrooms, which lead to a no-wash protest that lasted over a year. When the male IRA prisoners in the H Blocks began a hunger strike, the women too embarked on such a protest, despite discouragement from a leadership that was predominantly male and less than progressive in terms of sexual equality. For Mairéad Farrell, such protests were all part of the struggle for female emancipation as well as the fight for a free and united Ireland. She began her hunger strike on December 1st, 1980 alongside fellow prisoners Mary Doyle and Mairéad Nugent. It lasted nineteen days. Whilst still serving her sentence, Farrell stood in the 1981 general election – the only woman prisoner to do so – gaining 2,751 first preference votes in the constituency of Cork North Central. Maeve Murphy’s 2001 film Silent Grace is loosely based on Farrell’s time at Armagh and stars Orla Brady in a role clearly inspired by her.
The Mairéad Farrell that was released after ten and a half years in October 1986 was seemingly a different one than the girl who went in. Her political education had matured; she had pursued an Open University degree whilst in prison and her understanding of feminist politics and social equality had progressed. She enrolled for political science and economics at Queen’s University Belfast, believing that the path to a socialist Irish republic may lie with the ballot box rather than the Armalite. She continued to campaign for the rights of female prisoners and insisted on gender equality, arguing “Everyone tells me I’m a feminist. All I know is that I’m just as good as others…and that especially means men. I am definitely a socialist and I’m definitely a Republican. I believe in a united socialist country…definitely socialist. Capitalism can offer our people nothing, and yet that’s the main interest of the British in Ireland.”
But here lies the paradox that makes Farrell so intriguing. She remained an active member of the IRA throughout this period, which ultimately led to her fateful mission in Gibraltar where they planned to plant a car bomb at a military parade. Quite why someone who was a notable ‘red light’ (ie one security services would no doubt be watching, particularly if she travelled abroad) was tasked with this particular active service remains a mystery, though one of Bríona Nic Dhiarmada’s interviewees in An Unfinished Conversation suggests that it was simply because she was a very reliable volunteer. Whatever the circumstances, the decision was a disaster. At the direction of a British Conservative Cabinet sub-committee, plain-clothed SAS soldiers murdered all three unarmed volunteers in broad daylight on the streets of Gibraltar thirty-three years ago today. Farrell and McCann were shot in the back outside the Shell petrol station on Winston Churchill Avenue, without challenge, identification or any attempt at an arrest or detainment by SAS men who subsequently pumped several more bullets into their bodies. One soldier testified that he shot McCann a further three times, once in the body and twice in the head, whilst another stated that he shot Farrell twice, then shot McCann once or twice himself, before firing upon Farrell’s body three more times. A bullet also passed through her body, grazing an innocent passerby. Meanwhile Savage had attempted to flee the scene but died under a hail of SAS bullets some three hundred yards away. Two soldiers testified to having shot him six and nine times respectively, with civilian eye witnesses giving evidence that the twenty-three-year-old volunteer was incapacitated on the ground as they opened fire in a manner that pathologist Prof. Alan Watson termed “a frenzied attack”. It was, indisputably, cold blooded murder; executions performed so close-up that scorch marks from the muzzle flash appeared on one body. At the inquest into the deaths held in Gibraltar the jury returned a verdict of lawful killing by a 9–2 majority, the smallest majority allowed. Paddy McGrory, lawyer for Amnesty International, believed that it had been a “perverse verdict,” and that it had gone against the weight of the evidence. Seven years later in 1995, the European Court of Human Rights found that Britain had been guilty of unlawful killing all along, but no sanctions against Britain were forthcoming from the Council of Europe, thus allowing British shoot-to-kill policy to continue in Ireland and elsewhere.
She remains for me a fascinating woman and it feels important to take time out today to remember her and her comrades, Savage and McCann. You can watch Death on the Rock on YouTube, An Unfinished Conversation on the IFI Player, and The Funeral Murders on Vimeo, whilst Silent Grace is available on DVD and to rent or buy as a download on platforms such as Amazon Prime. There are also some examples of rare interview footage with Farrell on YouTube both here and here, as well as a talk given by Joe Austin about his part in bringing the Gibraltar 3 back home, also on YouTube.