A dramatic photograph was making the rounds on Facebook and Reddit in late 2019/early 2020 with an equally dramatic story attached: A woman, dressed in a patterned skirt and in what appears to be a leather jacket, stands against a wall, wielding an assault rifle. The attached story claimed the picture was taken in Ireland in 1972. The story continued:
... a girl shooting from the gun of her fiancé who was wounded in a battle against the British army, her wounded fiancé survived after being transported by car to a safe place, while his girlfriend clashed with British soldiers until she was killed.
The post went on to say that when a British commander realized the fighter was a woman, he ordered his soldiers not to touch her body, and to let the Irish bury her. The story claims he even referred to her as a "queen" who "cares about her lover and her land," and that the picture was chosen for Women’s Day in Ireland.
Just a half a century ago, sectarian conflict sparked in Northern Ireland, leading to the creation of the Provisional IRA, a newly dominant faction of the Irish Republican Army. What became known as "The Troubles" began in the late 1960's and lasted almost 30 years during which time the British army engaged in fierce fighting with paramilitary groups across Northern Ireland.
Conversations with historians and the photographer himself reveal different stories behind the picture. Snopes was unable to determine why the photograph was circulating on the internet in late 2019 and spring of 2020. But what seems clear is that the narrative of the woman picking up her fiancé's gun was fabricated.
A preliminary search for the origins of the photograph reveal it was taken by veteran Irish photographer Colman Doyle in West Belfast, Northern Ireland. Digitized in the National Library of Ireland Catalogue as part of Doyle's collection, the picture was published between 1970 and 1979. The accompanying caption states: "A woman IRA volunteer on active service in West Belfast with an AR 18 assault rifle." Snopes reached out to the National Library of Ireland for details, but it had no more information.
Who Was the Woman?
No historian we spoke to was able to identify the woman, including Niall Gilmartin, a lecturer in the department of sociology at Ulster University whose research has focused on female combatants.
Experts, and Doyle himself, agree that the story accompanying the picture was fabricated and do not know the source of the narrative. Dieter Reinisch, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, Central European University, was familiar with the photograph and said, "The story was invented much later and not by the Irish Republican movement."
During his research, Reinisch was also told by a leading republican woman, who was active in Belfast during the early 1970s, that the female in the photograph was a member of a republican women’s organization called the Cumann na mBan.
The Provisional IRA was male-only, and women who wanted to participate in military activities were part of the auxiliary unit, Cumann na mBan. According to Gilmartin, Cumann na mBan provided support — weapons transportation, communications, and more — to the IRA. In the late 1960s, they demanded access to military training. By the early 1970s, some women joined the military service.
Accompanying notes under the photo on the National Library of Ireland's web page support this claim: "A minority of women broke away from the Cumann na mBan, wanting to play a more active role in the 'armed struggle.'"
But Doyle, the photographer, was never sure of the identity of the woman whom he captured on film one day in the mid-70s. Snopes described the picture to Doyle, now in his late 80s, during a phone call, and he acknowledged that he could not remember every detail of an event that took place more than 30 years before. He described the moment he saw the woman as "brief."
He had been returning from the North Belfast neighborhood of Ardoyne, a republican stronghold, where he was meeting with Martin Meehan, then a commander with the Provisional IRA. As Doyle walked back to the city, he said he "came across this young lady [who] fired two shots, I think ... then she just vanished."
Doyle heard no return fire. At the time, he said, it was common for fighters to shoot and run, because any British forces they encountered would have an individual keeping an eye on where the firing was coming from. "It was all over in a minute and a half," he said of the incident with the woman.
Snopes asked Doyle about the likelihood of an IRA combatant wearing a skirt and leather jacket. "They always try to look normal, physically," he said. "That was their best cover."
Reinisch concurred with this account of the combatant’s outfit: "The IRA and Cumann na mBan were/are an irregular army and as such, they didn’t wear uniforms or insignia."
Was the Photo Staged?
Gilmartin is confident that the photograph was staged. From his conversations with numerous republicans, many of whom did not recognize details in the photograph, he said, "It is almost certain that this is a staged publicity shot and not a gun battle."
The IRA’s efforts to showcase its work was often varied. In a series of IRA publicity images shared with Snopes, Gilmartin described the nature of such staged pictures. Many feature men and women in balaclavas, military gear, but also in civilian clothing, either posing with guns, or at car checkpoints.
"The IRA put on many shows of strength, not always for cameras, but often just for the local community also," he said.
He finds the picture of the woman curious, in that many republicans appear to have little information about it. "There is just something about the Doyle picture that does not fit the pattern of other famous pictures of IRA persons ... Belfast and Derry and other towns are small places and very distinctive, and people recognize street locations from the slightest detail and certainly recognize republicans who are in the open with weapons," he said.
Reinisch, whose sources have described this photograph as a Cumann na mBan woman "on a mission," said "this wording can mean anything; a mission can be both combat and staging a photo." Though Reinisch's understanding was that the photograph was staged, he added that he doesn’t see any reason why Doyle would give an incorrect account.
Tara Keenan-Thomson, author of the book "Irish Women and Street Politics," said, "You can't assume it was or wasn't staged; things were just in a process of changing. That it was staged is everyone's best educated guess, including my own."
What appears to be an expanded version of the picture also exists on various web sites, including Tumblr and Pinterest, depicting the same woman against the wall, with another woman standing behind her while also wielding a gun. So far, Snopes has been unable to find a reputable online source for this additional picture, but according to Gilmartin, it and similar photographs have "all the trademark characteristics of a staged publicity opportunity, which republicans did throughout the entire conflict."
Doyle said he does not recall another woman being present while he shot the photo. "I didn’t see anybody behind her at the time," he said. "It was such an odd situation."
He added: "You can't stage a thing like that in a district like that. You would be mad."
Was the Picture Used for Propaganda?
The photograph can even be found on merchandise. Reinisch, who researched republicanism in Ireland for 15 years, saw it crop up on postcards, T-shirts, and coffee cups.
As a photographer known for gaining access to spaces off limits to most, Doyle made no stipulations about how his picture was to be used. "I have to work on that principle," he told Snopes. "I had to let [the IRA] use them. You had to have a two-way street of cooperation."
Keenan-Thomson argued that this picture was likely used as "solid propaganda … to urge young women into the movement."
Regardless of the truth behind the photograph, it does present a certain narrative: Few people know the exact details behind it, yet its presence has become ubiquitous. "This fact alone stresses how it helped to mythologize the role of women in the Irish republican struggle," Reinisch said. "The miniskirt, the gun, the long hair — all of it shows a tough, young woman participating in the struggle." He doubts that this image shows the real story, "but that's how propaganda works [doesn't] it?"
Gilmartin said the picture and its accompanying story have a distinct longevity: "... The fact that the picture still evokes such debate and attention is testament to the power of it and the gendered conventions surrounding war and violence," Gilmartin argued. "When armed women do manage to come into view (literally), they are often dismissed as disturbed ... or, as in the case of the story of this photograph, simply following men and/or a male lover."
For Doyle, the man who shot the picture, the false story attached to his photograph is "a good example of all the crap that goes out on the internet among everything else."