Feminist Activism, Rona Fields and the History of Trauma during the Troubles

by Ian Miller, Ulster University

In the early years of the Troubles, some Northern Irish doctors began to worry that conflict was causing psychological and emotional problems. Alex Lyons, a Purdysburn Hospital doctor, investigated a period of rioting in West Belfast in August and September 1969, a time of arson, looting and intimidation that helped consolidate Catholic-Protestant segregation. Lyons noted unusually high anxiety levels but few signs that conflict was causing directly severer mental health conditions. Accordingly, Lyons offered tranquilisers to anyone affected.[1] For a short time, Lyons was a minor celebrity. He discussed his findings internationally in magazines including New Scientist and featured on NBC documentary, Suffer the Little Children.[2] Throughout the 1970s, Lyons continued publishing research on the psychological effects of bomb explosions and civil violence.[3] The idea that young children were somehow being emotionally traumatised by the Northern Irish conflict alarmed an international audience.

In 1971 Rona Fields arrived in Northern Ireland after corresponding with concerned local doctors. Rona was an internationally well-known American social psychologist and political activist. Since the 1960s, she had worked on the Task Force on the Status of Women and developed community mental health initiatives in African American communities. Rona compared the socio-political suppression of Northern Irish Catholics to that of African Americans in USA.[4] Outraged by policies such as internment, throughout the 1970s she made numerous ‘research expeditions’ to Northern Ireland, usually living with families and personally getting to know them.

Feminism in 1970s’ Northern Ireland

At the end of the 1960s, a second wave feminist movement had emerged, even in conflict-torn Northern Ireland. Internationally, many feminists saw the medical profession as a patriarchal source of power and believed that decisions on women’s matters – contraception, abortion and childbirth – too often rested in the hands of male doctors. Feminists spoke out about female patients being provided inadequate information on the side effects of tranquilisers and safety of the contraceptive pill, among many other issues. Internationally, feminists developed their own self-help movement and encouraged each other to learn skills usually performed by doctors (including medical inspection of their own sexual organs) to re-assert control over their own bodies.[5]

In Northern Ireland, women’s legal status differed from other parts of the United Kingdom, as evidenced by Stormont’s 1967 rejection of the Abortion Act.[6] However, Northern Ireland’s feminist community struggled to unite in the context of the Troubles, largely due to the Catholic-Protestant divide.[7] Groups of women mobilised to campaign against internment and poor housing conditions, but often in their own communities.[8] Some Catholics accused one group, Women Together, of reluctance to criticise internment or the army despite openly criticising Irish Republican Army (IRA) activities, the implication being that Women Together were essentially Protestant.[9] Some Catholics re-named Women Together as ‘Informers Together’.[10] Nonetheless, some Northern Irish feminists overcame their differences, joined groups such as Belfast Women’s Collective and published radical magazines such as Women’s Action (available in the Linen Hall Library). It was in this context that Fields arrived in Northern Ireland.

A Society on the Run

Rona Fields drew intellectual inspiration from a range of counterculture ideas including neo-Marxism, post-colonialism, feminism, anti-psychiatry, among others. In 1973, her book, A Society on the Run: A Psychology of Northern Ireland attracted international attention. In this, she claimed that the British army were using ‘psychological torture’ and brainwashing while interrogating internees. Rona also suggested that soldiers themselves had been psychologically conditioned, essentially brainwashed, into losing their identity, and turned into automatons (or killing machines).[11] Rona also drew from contemporary feminist theory to portray Northern Ireland as a patriarchal country in which women were the ‘slaves of slaves’ (a reference to Northern Irish men being enslaved to the British).[12]

Fields was particularly concerned about children’s emotional well-being. She started to survey working-class children aged between 6 and 15, but ran into problems. The Ministry of Education stopped her testing children in schools. Queen University’s School of Psychology refused to take part or co-operate, dismissing Fields’s work as ‘journalistic’ and ‘unscholarly’.[13] Regardless, Rona managed to test around 150 children. Similar to Lyons before her, she concluded that ‘these children neither hospitalized nor in psychiatric treatment, neither criminally delinquent nor educationally retarded – these ‘normal’ children are suffering an abnormality’.[14]

Rona Fields, A Society on the Run: A Psychology of Northern Ireland (London: Penguin, 1973).

Initially, A Society on the Run received favourable reviews. However, the publisher, Penguin, withdrew the book just a week after its publication. Penguin claimed to have spotted many typos, but Rona suspected that Northern Ireland’s Community Relations Office had pressured the publisher.[15] Penguin promised to reprint the book, this time free from mistakes, but never did.[16] Nonetheless, Rona’s international profile continued to grow. In February 1972, the United States Congress discussed her views on the alleged psychological torture of internees.[17] She worked with the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science to lobby (unsuccessfully) to send an independent team of psychiatrists to work with internees.[18] However, Rona faced persistent hostility from the British and Northern Irish authorities, partly due to her tendencies to publicly compare the British and Nazi governments.[19] She regularly encountered problems entering the United Kingdom and believed that the Special Branch was monitoring her movements.[20]

A Society Under Siege

Determined to proceed, in 1976 Rona published a new version of her book, this time renamed Society under Siege: A Psychology of Northern Ireland. In this, she claimed to have become good friends with many Northern Irish people over many years. In her words, ‘there are hundreds of children, Protestant and Catholic, into whose lives I wandered in the pursuit of my research’. However, Rona added that she knew children who ‘haven’t lived to grow up or have become crippled bodies and damaged minds’, victims, in her opinion, of British ‘psychological genocide’.[21]

In the 1970s, such strong claims made the topic of conflict-related trauma politically volatile. Rona’s views undoubtedly aligned closer to republicanism, making them less endearing to Protestant communities. This often meant that valid concerns about matters such as tranquiliser over-prescription fell on deaf ears locally. Contemporary autobiographical accounts make numerous passing references to individuals exposed to bomb blasts ‘throwing down the Valium like Dolly Mixtures’ and men ‘taking to drink’.[22]

Rona remained active in Northern Ireland until the early 1980s. During the 1980-81 hunger strikes, she campaigned for better treatment of women in Armagh prison.[23] She even claimed to have personally visited the H-Blocks but once again drew comparisons with the treatment of Jews in concentration camps.[24] The government refused her permission for further visits.[25]

The Psychologists Respond

Given how prominent the issue of trauma has since become in discussion of the Troubles, why were Rona’s ideas not taken more seriously at the time? How did local psychologists respond? At the 1978 British Psychological Society’s annual meeting, Northern Irish practitioners discussed how the ‘regrettably simple-minded nature’ of Rona’s work had discouraged local practitioners from investigating conflict-related trauma. In contrast, Rona’s view was that ‘most of the medical people in Northern Ireland choose to remain silent’; some even colluded with the military by covering up injuries inflicted by soldiers.[26]

In the late 1970s and 1980s, local research arguably swung the pendulum the other way almost by denying the existence of conflict-related trauma. Scholarly collections such as Joan Harbison’s Children of the Troubles, published in1980, concluded that children were coping well.[27] One contributor, Liz McWhirter, called Rona a troublesome ‘outsider’.[28] When local researchers did acknowledge Northern Ireland’s comparatively high tranquiliser prescription levels, they refrained from linking this to prolonged conflict.[29] Researchers investigating high anti-depressant usage similarly refrained from fully exploring conflict’s potential role.[30] Rona described these conclusions as ‘a kind of piecemeal wishful thinking’.[31]

A mural in Belfast depicting the devastation of the summer of 1969. | Google Images

One lone voice, Anthony M. Gallagher, pointed out in 1987, on the subject of the newer research, ‘unfortunately, while attempting to disprove an excessively pessimistic picture, much of this work seemed to be producing an excessively optimistic picture of, if you like, the psychological state of Northern Ireland’.[32] Gallagher considered local mental health practitioners unwilling to confront the political aspects of emotional distress, and prone to over-stating the normality and ordinariness of Northern Irish life.[33] In 1987, psychologist Ed Cairns, refuted a ‘conspiracy of silence among social scientists’ but admitted that politics and religion had become ‘taboo’ subjects in Northern Ireland. In his words, social scientists ‘felt that to attempt to mention this taboo topic even in a research context would not only be breaking a strongly held social convention but would also possibly upset the barely maintained political equilibrium which balanced Northern Irish formal politics against sectarian violence’.[34] This statement suggests a desire among local psychologists to distance themselves from political controversy and intervention at a time of widespread emotional suffering. Worse still, this attitude of ignoring the psychological impact of trauma seeped into leading local mental health committees and organisations. PRONI records show that these groups never formally acknowledged or discussed matters such as PTSD.

Acknowledging PTSD

From the 1990s, Northern Irish psychologists finally began to discuss gaps in service provision for Troubles, albeit rather late in the day. With much regret, a new generation looked back at missed research opportunities for better understanding PTSD in civil conflict.[35] In 2003, O.E. Daly and T.G. Johnston lamented that ‘some very valuable opportunities for researching different traumatic incidents and their psychological sequelae have probably been missed’.[36] Northern Irish researchers now worked in an environment more open to discussing the emotional impacts of conflict. Some looked back puzzled and dismayed by the sparsity of research undertaken during the conflict.[37]

Image Source: Getty Images

Mental health professionals began to position themselves as having to deal with ‘a well of previously unmet emotional and psychological need’.[38] Post-conflict research acknowledged widespread psychological symptoms that, in some cases, had persisted for decades. They also began to examine more seriously the reality of self-medication and pharmaceutical over-use.[39] Ideas emerged of an ongoing ‘PTSD burden’ caused by having unexpectedly lost a loved one, being caught up in a bomb explosion or having witnessed death. In the 2010s, researchers suggested that around 40% of the Northern Irish population experienced such an event, with around 17% having suffered ongoing PTSD.[40] Initiatives such as Wave Trauma Centre currently work with people affected by the Troubles/conflict in Northern Ireland.

However, it seems clear that social activists, most notably Rona Fields’, in fact first drew attention to these matters at the peak of the Troubles, a time when her ideas might have done much good if local psychologists had been less intent on discrediting the perspectives of activists working on the ground, and under-estimating the extent of trauma in Belfast.

This post draws from Ian Miller’s article ‘Silence, Distance and Neutrality: The Politics of Emotional Distress during the Northern Irish Troubles’ which can be read for free here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03071022.2021.1967641

[1] H. Alexander Lyons, ‘Psychiatric Sequelae of the Belfast Riots’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 118 (1971).

[2] New Scientist, 22 April 1971; Suffer the Little Children, NBC News (11 Jan. 1972). Retrieved from https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=65203 9 Jan. 2020, 14.12.

[3] H. Alexander Lyons, ‘Terrorists’ Bombing and the Psychological Sequelae’, Journal of the Irish Medical Association, 67 (Jan. 1974); H. Alexander Lyons, ‘Civil Violence: The Psychological Aspects’, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 23 (1979), pp. 384-5 and p. 391.

[4] Rona M. Fields, A Society on the Run: A Psychology of Northern Ireland (London, 1973), p. 18.

[5] Recent accounts include Jennifer Nelson, More than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015); Hannah Dudley-Shotwell, Revolutionising Women’s Healthcare: The Feminist Self-Help Group in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020).

[6] Sally Sheldon, Jane O’Neill, Clare Parker and Gayle Davis, ‘‘Too Much, Too Indigestible, Too Fast’? The Decades of Struggle for Abortion Law Reform in Northern Ireland’, Modern Law Review 83:4 (July 2020).

[7] See, for example, Marie Hammond-Callaghan, ‘‘A Tender Flower…To Be Carefully Nourished’: The Northern Irish Women’s Peace Movement, Gender Order, State Security and the Cold War, 1970-76’ and Maria Power, ‘‘A Republican Who Wants to Further Human Rights’: Women, Provisional Republicanism, Feminism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, 1972-98’, [both] in Gillian McIntosh and Diane Urquhart (eds) (2010), Irish Women at War: The Twentieth Century (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010).

[8] Carmel Rouston, ‘Women on the Margin: The Women’s Movement in Northern Ireland, 1973-1988’, Science and Society, 53:2 (Summer 1989).

[9] Irish Press, 27 April 1972.

[10] Irish News, 24 May 1972.

[11] Fields, A Society on the Run, chapter two.

[12] Fields, A Society on the Run, 143-64.

[13] Fields, A Society on the Run, pp. 103-4.

[14] Fields, A Society on the Run, p. 123.

[15] Irish Press, 30 October 1973, p. 1.

[16] Irish Press,29 October 1973, p. 1.

[17] ‘American Social Scientist behind the Wires in Northern Ireland Detention Camps’, Congressional Record (16 February 1972), 4239-46.

[18] Reprinted in ‘American Social Scientist’.

[19] Irish Times,29 October 1973, p. 10.

[20] Irish Press,25 July 1974.

[21] Rona M. Fields, Society under Siege: A Psychology of Northern Ireland (Philadelphia, 1976), p. xi.

[22] John Conroy, War as a Way of Life: A Belfast Diary (London, 1988), e.g. p. 16, p. 75.

[23] Irish Independent,19 July 1980, p. 9.

[24] Irish Press,25 June 1979, p. 4.

[25] Irish Times,23 June 1980, p. 7.

[26] Fields, Society on the Run, p. 218.

[27] Joan Harbison, ‘Children in a Society in Turmoil’, in Joan Harbison (ed.), Children of the Troubles (Belfast: Stranmillis College, 1983).

[28] Liz McWhirter, ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward: An Inside Perspective’, in Joan Harbison (ed.), Children of the Troubles (Belfast, 1983), pp. 153-4.

[29] D.J. King, K. Griffiths, P.M. Reilly and J.D. Merrett, ‘Psychotropic Drug Use in Northern Ireland 1966-80: Prescribing Trends, Inter- and Intra-Regional Comparisons and Relationship to Demographic and Socio-Economic Variables’, Psychological Medicine, 12 (1982), p. 819 and p. 829.

[30] D.J. King, C. McMeekin and P.C. Elmes, ‘Are we as Depressed as we Think we are?’, Ulster Medical Journal, 46 (1977), pp. 109-11.

[31] Fields, Society under Siege, 55.

[32] Anthony M. Gallagher, ‘Psychological Approaches to the Northern Ireland Conflict’, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 13 (1987), p. 22.

[33] Gallagher, ‘Psychological Approaches’, p. 21.

[34] Ed Cairns, Caught in Crossfire: Children and the Northern Ireland Conflict (Belfast, 1987), pp. 13-14.

[35] Oscar E. Daly, ‘Northern Ireland: The Victims’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 175 (1999), p. 203.

[36] Oscar E. Daly and T.G. Johnston, ‘The Derryhirk Inn incident: The Psychological Sequelae’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 15 (2003), p. 461.

[37] D. O’Reilly and M. Stevenson, ‘Mental health in Northern Ireland: Have the ‘Troubles’ made it Worse?’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57 (2003).

[38] Jim Campbell and Patrick McCrystal, ‘Mental health social work and the Troubles in Northern Ireland: A study of practitioner experiences’, Journal of Social Work, 5 (2005).

[39] Orla T. Muldoon and Ciara Downes, ‘Social Identification and Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 191 (2007), 146-9.

[40] F. Ferry, B. Buntin, S. Murphy, et. al., ‘Traumatic Events and their Relative PTSD Burden in Northern Ireland: A Consideration of the Impact of the Troubles’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 49 (2014).