Written by Orla Egan
A Women’s Place was established as part of the Quay Co-op when it opened in May 1982. The Co-op Policy Document noted that “Women as the single largest ‘minority’ grouping have a special place within the Co-op.”
Two rooms on the second floor in the Quay Co-op were reserved for the Women’s Place. It was a drop-in space, where women could come for a cup of tea and a chat or to get information. Various activities were organised in the space and the Cork Women’s Collective began to meet there.
According to some of the interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study on The Womensplace, there seems to have been some confusion and lack of clarity in the beginning about what the Women’s Place was to be, who it was for and how it was to be organised. There were lots of different women involved, coming from very different political perspectives and it was difficult to find a common denominator. For some women the location of the Women’s Place in the Quay Co-op was problematic: it was seen as ‘too alternative.’ Some heterosexual women were uncomfortable with the number of lesbians involved. (Jacqui O Riordan The Womensplace B.A. Thesis, Sociology, Arts III, UCC, 1992.)
It appears that the Women’s Place fell apart after about nine months in existence, but started up again in Autumn 1983. At this stage it would seem that it was mainly run by lesbians. A part-time co-ordinator was employed. A Women’s Action Group began to meet on Friday nights: “that was kinda supposed to be everything, a consciousness raising group and organising group and an action group.” (Interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study) A smaller group of women would meet before the Friday night meeting to discuss organisational issues to do with the running of the Women’s Place and to provide support for the Co-ordinator.
From the beginning there appears to have been tensions between the Women’s Place and the Co-op. Some women felt that they were being pressurised to work on a voluntary basis in the cafe, which was seen as the facility that would resource the other activities of the Co-op, including the Women’s Place. Some women felt that their energies were being diverted away from the Women’s Place and that women were doing the ‘donkey work’ without being paid. They felt that, while in principal the women’s centre was seen as integral to the ideal of the Co-op, in practice it was given low priority and the women felt they had to constantly fight to justify its continuation. (Interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study)
The ethos of the Women’s Place was clearly feminist. The Women’s Place Newsletter stated that “the women in the Co-op have taken a separate place for ourselves as a base from which to work on issues affecting our lives, incorporating a feminist perspective.” (Women’s Place News Cork (undated but probably September 1984)) In addition to the Women’s Action Group a number of other groups began operating using the Women’s Place as a base. The Cork Women’s Collective met there until it fell apart over difference on the Northern Ireland issue and the question of support for the women’s dirty protest in Armagh prison. (Interviewee in Jacqui O Riordan’s study)
The Cork Rape Crisis Centre (RCC) operated initially out of the Women’s Place. It had a lockup cupboard in one of the rooms in which it stored its telephone and files. However there were fears that the Rape Crisis Centre couldn’t guarantee clients’ confidentiality while based in the Women’s Place, particularly after a Special Branch raid on the Co-op in 1983 (on the pretext that subversives were meeting there). RCC members were on the phone with the files out when the Special Branch raided and the files were looked at. While the RCC complained to Nuala Fennell, then Minister for Women’s Affairs, and did receive an apology, they decided to move from the Co-op to premises on McCurtain Street. (Interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study)
A Women’s Health Group operated from the Women’s Place up until 1984. The group was formed “out of a commitment to improve the level of health education amongst women.” The group aimed “to increase the amount of information available to women on all subjects relevant to their health, so that women will be better equipped to make decisions on issues which so deeply affect their lives e.g. maternity care, nutrition, mental health, conditions hazardous to health at work etc.” (“Cork Women’s Health Group” in Women’s Place News – undated but probably September 1984) The group was particularly concerned with family planning issues and the consequences of the 1983 ‘pro-life’ amendment for women’s health. (Interviewee in Jacqui O Riordan’s study)
A women’s library was gradually built up in the Women’s Place. Book parties were held, with an evening of music, readings, videos and food, for which the entry fee was a few books for the library. Publishers also sent free books to the Women’s Place to review. In this way the stock of books was increased and the library became a significant part of the Women’s Place. (Interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study and also article in Women’s Place News)
A number of women linked with the Women’s Place were involved in anti-nuclear and disarmament groups. A group of Cork women travelled to Greenham Common in December 1983 to join in protests at the women’s peace camp there. Following the Greenham Common trip a number of women became involved in the Veronica Kelly support group, organising publicity and fundraising for a Cork woman who was one of twelve women from various countries who had been arrested at a protest at a cruise missile base in Comiso, Sicily. Cork women were also involved in the protests against Ronald Regan’s visit to Ireland in 1984. (Personal recollection)
Following a visit to Cork by Mary Daly some women began to meet in the Women’s Place to discuss women’s spirituality and issues in relation to religion and the educational system in Ireland. (Women’s Place News) Some women from the Women’s Place were involved in anti-pornography campaigns. Pickets were organised to protest at restaurants which displayed sexists pictures. (Interviewee in Jacqui O Riordan’s study)
A Munster Women’s Conference was held in Cork in 1984. Women’s groups from Tralee, Clonmel and other towns throughout the southern region came together at this conference. A newsletter / magazine was produced from this conference and there were plans to rotate responsibility for producing it around different women’s groups. (Interviewee in Jacqui O Riordan’s study) Men from the Cork Gay Collective organised and operated a creche for the Women’s Conference. (Cork Gay Collective minutes 13 Dec. 84 and also a letter from Deirdre Walsh for the Women’s Place thanking the Gay Collective for doing the creche (11/12/84))
Women from the Women’s Place also attended and supported demonstrations in Tralee in relation to the Joanna Hayes case – this became know as the Kerry Babies case. (For more detailed discussion see Nell McCafferty’s book A Woman to Blame)
In concluding her study on the Cork Womensplace, Jacqui O Riordan comments: “Since its inception it has been involved in promoting women’s issues in Cork. In this it joins in the attempt to widen the traditionally narrow definition of women’s place in Irish society. Throughout this time, despite its difficulties, it has provided an inexpensive meeting place for women’s groups wishing to establish themselves. It has also been at the forefront of many of the debates on women’s issues in the 80s. Also, through the influences of many of the women, who were involved in similar groups elsewhere, it has been instrumental in bringing and maintaining an interest in feminist issues locally….In spite of poor and inadequate resources, it has provided a public face for feminism in Cork, throughout the increasing conservatism of the 80s.” (Jacqui O Riordan 1992)
For further discussion on lesbian groups and activities in the Women’s Place see the post on Lesbian Activism 1980s