10 June 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Ciara Hyland discusses Cogadh ar Mhná
23 Sep 2020 : Nathan Griffin
TG4's Cogadh Ar Mhná.
The new historical documentary on TG4 examines the lost and untold stories of sexual violence against women during the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.

“Back in 2015 I was watching an excellent documentary on Cumann na mBan that aired on TG4 and one line in it stopped me dead in my tracks,” said director Ciara Hyland when discussing the origins of the documentary with IFTN.

“Historian Mary McAuliffe said, and here I’m paraphrasing, that the sexual abuse of women by all sides in the Revolution had never really been talked about. That was it, just one line, but it stuck with me. It was an aspect of the Irish Revolution that I honestly had never even thought about before but it was like a light bulb had gone off in my brain.”

“I had that sense that of course it had to have happened,” Hyland continued. “Wherever there are men armed with weapons and an unarmed civilian population, wherever there is that accentuated power difference, there is the potential for sexual abuse to become part of the picture. But why had we never talked about it before?”

A different view is slowly coming to light due to the new ground-breaking research from people like historians Mary McAuliffe and Lindsey Earner-Byrne, sociologists Linda Connolly and Louise Ryan and writer-historian Ann Mathews. Taking a fresh look at old sources and new material, they are uncovering many new and previously untold stories of violence against women.

“These scholars – Linda Connolly, Mary McAuliffe, Lindsey Earner Byrne, Louise Ryan and Ann Mathews among others had uncovered many first hand stories of women detailing in their own words what had happened to them during the Irish Revolution,” Hyland said. “I decided to make a documentary based on these first-hand accounts. TG4, RTÉ, and the BAI all saw the importance of these stories and supported the making of that documentary and the result is ‘A War on Women?/ Cogadh ar Mhná.’”  

The documentary, which airs on TG4 this Wednesday at 9:30pm, takes these new, untold stories, and dramatises them in an incredibly evocative way using the words of these women wherever we have their first-hand accounts. It aims to allow these women’s voices in their own words to be heard for the first time in a hundred years and as a result, redress the balance of the history of the period that has been largely focused on fighters and military tactics.

“One of the greatest challenges while making this documentary was to recreate some of the stories themselves,” said Hyland when discussing the production process. “They were often quite harrowing and ranged from beatings, to forced hair cuttings to sexual assault and rape. I was initially quite daunted as to how to film these stories. The challenge was to not be too explicit and make them unwatchable or possibly exploitative but not to soft soap them either or whitewash what happened.”

“There was also the issue of directing actors both male and female in these difficult scenes that would not be easy for them, for me, or for my crew. An excellent workshop in London on directing actors in intimate scenes gave me the tools to put all the necessary safeguarding in place for these scenes as well as a vocabulary around sexual acts that would make sense for my actors.”

This documentary, which is a ForeFront Production for TG4 and RTÉ funded by the BAI with the Television Licence Fee, “is not an easy watch,” warns director Ciara Hyland, “but it is a truthful one and I think it’s a very important one.”

“The stories of the women we feature in it have been silenced in one way or another for a hundred years – it’s time to hear them now. To paraphrase another contributor - the brilliant Tom Clonan, who had the guts to blow the whistle on sexual abuse within the modern Irish army – it’s important that we understand the full sordid truth of conflict on this island in order that we do not go down that route again.”

A War on Women/ Cogadh ar Mhná will be shown on TG4 this Wednesday, 23rd September  at 9.30pm.

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