Mairéad Butler, a Trinity College Dublin Laidlaw Scholar, on uncovering untold stories and the importance of sharing tales of the past, present and future.
Research title: Women as Survivors of Civil War Violence: A Comparative Study of Ireland and Spain
Civil wars represent a crossroads in a nation’s history that pits brother against brother, father against son. However, this explicitly gendered language hides the fact that civil wars, by their very nature, do not obey the strict distinction between soldier and civilian, combatant and noncombatant, many of whom are women. This repression of women’s voices is exemplified by the taboo subject of gender-based violence.
My research project studied the memory, experience, and discourse of gender-based violence during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). I conducted archival work in Ireland and Spain to compile case studies of gender-based violence and women’s experience of such violence during these wars. Through my research, I found that despite the severely limited availability of primary sources, gender-based violence was certainly a feature of both civil wars. The discourse of femininity and masculinity was pivotal in its execution, contemporary understanding, and subsequent memory. Furthermore, the lack of first-hand accounts illustrates the censorship of women’s stories of gender-based violence at a personal, societal, and institutional level, both during and after these civil wars.
Civil wars are not confined to the past but rather continue to be part of the global socio-political reality, Neither, unfortunately, is gender-based violence relegated to history. However, by studying how this stigmatised violence was understood by the societies in which it was perpetrated and by the women who survived it, we can build tools to help the women who experience it in our time and combat their marginalisation. We can do better for the women of the past, of our present, and of the future.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
I have always been fascinated by civil wars, having grown up in Ireland and hearing stories of the Irish Civil War from my grandparents. However, I was always struck by the observation that the experiences of women were absent from these discussions, not merely at a familial level but also in my textbooks and the wider societal discourse of the war. As a feminist, and a woman myself, it is of the utmost importance to me that women’s voices are empowered within history at large and the history of civil wars in particular. This is encapsulated by my research project’s title: “Women as Survivors”.
Moreover, I wanted to explore an aspect of the Irish and Spanish civil wars, gender-based violence, which remains almost as taboo, stigmatised, and marginalised in our time, as it did in theirs. I wanted to try to give these women’s traumatising experiences meaning by analysing and including them in the broader story of these civil wars. I could not and cannot change what happened to them, or indeed reverse the repression of their experiences, but I can listen to them and serve as a conduit for their voices.
Furthermore, as a student of European Studies, conducting a comparative study of Ireland and Spain allowed me to use my language, history, and social science expertise to centre women in history on a European level. It is important to view the world, and indeed history, not as divided along neat national lines but as a global, interconnected process.
What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw experience?
The most memorable experience of my Laidlaw scholarship experience so far was my research trip to Spain. It was fascinating to put my research, communication, language, and cultural skills into practice in an entirely new environment and to really challenge myself academically and personally, especially when things didn’t quite go as planned all the time!
The moment that sticks out to me in particular, however, occurred while I was conducting research in the Archivo General Militar in Ávila. A small group of people came to the archive to search for information regarding their long-dead family member who had been involved in the Spanish Civil War. I was reminded of the importance of history not just as an academic discipline but also as a living entity that continues to produce meaning in the present. History is made up of real people with stories to tell, and by looking to the past, we can learn about ourselves in the present. It reminded me of the importance of the work of historians and of the continuing need to interrogate the past in order to have a more inclusive understanding of history.
What is the biggest challenge you came across, and what did you learn from it?
I did not expect to find the research project experience as emotionally challenging as I did. It was harrowing to read these limited accounts of gender-based violence and even more upsetting to realise that they represented a mere fraction of Irish and Spanish women’s experiences. However, as a result of the emotional intensity of my research, I discovered the importance of self-care and of a work-life balance. I also developed the skills to maintain a healthy professional distance from the subjects of my research, all whilst maintaining a high level of empathy in my research approach.
I learned that you do not need to give all of yourself all the time to make a difference. In the case of my project, by giving too much of myself, I would lose the authenticity of the voices of the women I wished to highlight, centering myself as the researcher and not the marginalised women I had aimed to empower. At the time, this seemed like an insurmountable challenge, but now I view the resilience that I gained and the lessons I learned as the greatest achievement of my Laidlaw experience thus far, and one of which I am most proud.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar is being someone who cares deeply about the world and the people around them. However, this care does not remain merely abstract. Instead, a Laidlaw Scholar is someone who takes action in a practical sense. They do not wish to stay silent against the injustices and problems they see in society, but rather they choose to play an active role in making a tangible difference. They use their skills, knowledge, and expertise to help effect positive change, however, their leadership is guided by the core values of empathy, respect, and compassion. A Laidlaw Scholar is someone who can step forward when they are needed but also who knows when to step back to give others space and amplify their voices. The best thing about being a Laidlaw Scholar is that you become part of a worldwide community of other like-minded, passionate, empathetic people.
Which leaders inspire you and why?
I am most inspired by the leaders I see around me in my everyday life, in university, in my community, and within my own family. I particularly admire the women in my life: my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my friends, and my peers. Often when we think of examples of positive leadership, we look to the upper echelons of the business and political worlds when really we are surrounded by true leaders in all walks of life. Anyone who cares for other people does their best to serve those in their community, and works to affect positive change, albeit small or seemingly insignificant, is a leader in my eyes. The example of my mother’s kindness, empathy, and compassion in her work as a palliative care nurse is one that always inspires me and has indeed shaped me into the person that I am today.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
My work regarding gender-based violence has inspired a reflection on the current reality of gender-based violence. I want to live in a world where women do not fear gender-based violence, where their experiences of gender-based violence are not relegated to mere statistics of war, and where their pain and suffering are recognised as survival, not victimisation. I want to work towards a future whereby we can bring about an end to the stigma and shame which is associated with gender-based violence. I want to live in a world where the most marginalised in our society are supported, their voices are heard, and where they are not dismissed or silenced. I want real equity and equality for people of all genders, races, nationalities, sexualities, religions, and classes who face oppression and marginalisation. No one should live in fear, and no one’s voice should be silenced, especially not those whose stories have long gone untold.
Something personal to add
I am on the Youth Advisory Panel for Plan International Ireland, a global children’s rights and gender equality NGO. Follow us @plan_irl_yap on Instagram for updates on our work!
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I have recently moved to Salamanca in Spain, for my Erasmus and the constant, glorious sunshine makes me feel joyous, even when I have to get up for 8am lectures.
You can find Mairéad on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Mairéad's research, check out her research poster.
Mairéad is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Trinity College Dublin. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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