Aunt Bridie

Irish Republicanism was in Dolours Price’s DNA. Her father, Albert Price had joined the IRA in the 1930’s and took part in the organisation’s English bombing campaign in 1939 and 1940. Two of his colleagues were convicted of involvement in the bombing of Coventry in August 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. They were hanged for the murder of five civilians killed in the explosion.

It was Dolours’ mother’s family, the Dolan’s which had the longer and deeper tradition of militant republicanism. Her grandmother was imprisoned in Armagh jail for attempting to steal a policeman’s gun while all six of her daughters, including Dolours’ mother, Chrissie, joined Cumann na mBan, the women’s branch of the IRA in 1932/33. Ironically, Dolours Price refused to join the group in 1971, demanding instead that she be allowed to enlist in the all-male IRA.

The six sisters were involved in a celebrated clash with the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in March, 1937 during the annual commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916. Sporting paper Easter Lillies, the symbol of Irish Republicanism, was then an offence under the draconian Special Powers Act and the six sisters wore them brazenly on their coat lapels as they left a church service.

They were stopped by the RUC who demanded that they remove them. They refused, there was a struggle, two of the sisters managed to escape but the remaining four were arrested and arraigned in court. They refused to give their names and addresses and were sentenced to between 14 and 30 days at Armagh jail.

When Dolours and her sister Marian were transferred from Durham jail in 1975, they became the third generation of women in the family to serve time in the prison.

It was, however, the fate of one aunt, ‘Aunt Bridie’ as the children called her, which left the darkest mark on Dolours upbringing.

By May 1938, the IRA was making preparations for the upcoming bombing campaign in England and weapons were being obtained and stored in arms dumps. One dump was underneath the floorboards in a small two up-two down house in Leeson Street in the heart of the lower Falls Road in Nationalist west Belfast.

Bridie Dolan was by this time a ranking member of Cumann na mBan. She was ordered to meet up with a member of the IRA, a man of course, go to the house and transfer the weapons and explosives to a different hiding place. The man did not turn up and so ‘Aunt Bridie’ decided to complete the mission by herself.

Amongst the weaponry underneath the floor were thermite bombs in the shape of grenades. Thermite, a mix of metal dust and metal oxide, is the main ingredient in incendiary bombs of the sort that were rained onto cities in Britain, Japan and Germany during World War 2. Thermite can cut through steel and is said to be the hottest burning man-made substance in the world.

The thermite bombs in the Leeson Street dump were evidently unstable. When ‘Aunt Bridie’ reached down to pick them up there was an explosion.

In his classic study, ‘The IRA in the Twilight Years, 1923-1948’, Uinseann Mac Eoin described a 1941 meeting in Dublin of ‘Aunt Bridie’ and Southern IRA leader Peadar MacArdgail.

Bridie, he wrote, was:

 ‘….the victim of explosive injuries received three years before….when she had been sent to remove grenades from the home of the Bradys of Leeson Street. (So sensitive were these grenades that two bomb disposal experts, detailed from Kilroot Fort to remove them were also injured). She had lost both hands and her eyesight, and with her face disfigured, had her head still swathed in bandages as she underwent skin grafting, with a slit only for her mouth. A remarkably brave and uncomplaining woman, Peader says; we used to spoon feed her and then light a cigarette for her to smoke.’

Growing up, with a living martyr to the IRA’s cause in an upstairs bedroom, Dolours Price’s childhood and adolescence was dominated by the blind and helpless Aunt Bridie for whom even the most basic human function was impossible without assistance.

Another aunt looked after Bridie on a semi-permanent basis but the other Dolan sisters took turns giving their sister a break by taking Bridie in for a week or two. But everyone had to feed Bridie cigarettes, food and cups of tea, and help take care of her other needs.

From Dolours Price’s interview it is clear that ‘Aunt Bridie’ was a seminal influence on her political development, a ghastly reminder that the cause for which she had been so terribly disfigured had still to be fought for and won.