The United States of America and Northern Ireland


Dolours Price, Boston College, and the myth of the "Price sisters"

January 24, 2013

Andrew Sanders


Various news outlets have reported that Dolours Price has been found dead in her Dublin home at the age of 61.  In recent months, she has become well known for her role at the centre of the Boston College Oral History project controversy, having apparently admitted her role in the IRA's abduction of Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville in 1972 during interviews for the project.  Her involvement in the project, which had attempted to guarantee all participants anonymity until after they had passed, became a matter of public knowledge when Price was interviewed by Allison Morris of the Irish News in February 2010.  While Morris's report in the Irish News was somewhat measured, a few days later Ciaran Barnes of the Sunday Life wrote an article in which it appeared as though he had gained access to the Boston College tapes:

In his "The Broken Elbow" blog, journalist Ed Moloney suggests that Barnes's article was a decisive factor in the US Attorney's decision to serve the subpoenas on the oral history tapes since it suggested that Barnes had been given access to tapes which had otherwise remained sealed.

Moloney has argued that Barnes was deliberately misleading about his source for this information.  Certainly Barnes used vague language when referring to a tape and the implication was that he had somehow acquired access to the Boston College tapes, which of course he could not have.  Rather the information appeared to have come from Morris's interview with Dolours Price and was information which had been left out of the Irish News story at the request of the Price family.  Moloney and others have made their position on this incident very clear, particularly in the above link.

Both Barnes and Morris were roundly criticised for taking advantage of Price who had suffered from serious health issues during her later years, partially as a result of the brutal treatment she and her sister Marian endured during their incarceration for the 1973 Old Bailey bombing.

Daughters of 1940s veteran Albert Price, Dolours and her younger sister Marian joined the republican movement during the 1970s following the outbreak of violence during the summer of 1969.

Something that is often overlooked about the Price sisters is that, in their own way, they broke new ground within Irish republicanism.  Female members had always joined Cumann na mBan, which had formed as an auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers in 1914.  During an interview, Marian Price told me:

The men I was working with in the movement were fairly forward thinking, of course there was always the idea of “this wee girl wants to join the movement, we’ll send her to Cumann na mBan” from some people but most were forward thinking.  I was fortunate to mainly work with men like that, I wouldn’t have worked with anyone else, you would come across them.  Funnily enough there were quite a few women who had the same idea, “why do you want to join the army when you can join Cumann na mBan?”  I just didn’t see a need for two separate organisations.  I was lucky enough to have a very good time with the people I worked with.  In saying that, in the wider movement there would probably have been some degree of sexual inequality.  I found that more with people who didn’t have a lot going on upstairs.

Women have always been very prominent in the republican movement, in Cumann na mBan, it just came to the point where we said there’s no need for two separate organisations.

During the period which the Price sisters joined the movement, female volunteers were often forced into "honey trap" operations, typically directed against young British soldiers who were lured from the relative sanctity of Belfast city centre with the promise of a "party".  All too often, these "parties" involved a group of armed IRA volunteers who executed the soldiers.  One such example was the 9 March 1971 murders of seventeen year old John McCaig, his eigtheen year old brother Joseph, and Dougald McCaughey all from the Royal Highland Fusiliers regiment.  The three were drinking in central Belfast during an afternoon's leave from their north Belfast base and were found, shot dead, at the side of a quiet lane on the edge of Ligoniel, some hours later.

Marian Price commented to me that:

I was never involved in honey traps, that is something I would have refused to do, I just don’t agree with that.  I don’t approve of that anyway.  I think the concept of a honey trap doesn’t sit right.

I do have a problem with things like [the execution of the three Royal Highland Fusiliers].  I don’t think it makes me a better republican, I don’t see how it makes me any less of a republican.  I think as republicans we should have certain standards, we’re supposed to be revolutionary soldiers we need to have higher standards.

The two were part of an IRA active service unit, which also featured prominent Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, which was tasked with the bombing of the Old Bailey in London in March 1973.  Following the bombing, the group was arrested as they attempted to board a plane to return to Ireland.  Marian Price reflected:

We knew from day one that we had been informed on...they stopped us at the airport but they were actually waiting on us coming...there were ten people arrested and then eight were convicted, nine had been convicted but one girl turned Queen’s evidence and she got off...we were fully aware that we had been informed on so we knew no matter what, we were going to prison

The sisters embarked on a traumatic hunger strike in protest at their imprisonment in England and were force fed.  In an interview with journalist Suzanne Breen, Marian Price recalled:

Four male prison officers tie you into the chair so tightly with sheets you can't struggle. You clench your teeth to try to keep your mouth closed but they push a metal spring device around your jaw to prise it open. They force a wooden clamp with a hole in the middle into your mouth. Then, they insert a big rubber tube down that. They hold your head back. You can't move. They throw whatever they like into the food mixer – orange juice, soup, or cartons of cream if they want to beef up the calories. They take jugs of this gruel from the food mixer and pour it into a funnel attached to the tube. The force-feeding takes 15 minutes but it feels like forever. You're in control of nothing. You're terrified the food will go down the wrong way and you won't be able to let them know because you can't speak or move. You're frightened you'll choke to death.

The trauma of this period of their lives stayed with the sisters.  Marian told me about her life following her release:

When I came out of prison I was extremely ill in those first few years, it took me about five years to recover because I had anorexia.  So I was basically released from prison to die.  I didn’t have a very healthy relationship with food so it took me a few years to get over that.

She eventually became involved in the republican struggle again during the 1990s in opposition to Sinn Fein's peace process strategy and has remained an outspoken opponent of the Adams and McGuinness leadership ever since.

I think more and more people are beginning to realise that this whole strategy has not been controlled by republicans, or even by so-called republicans.  This whole strategy has been controlled by the British.  There are high placed agents within the Provisional republican movement and always have been and I think it’s very telling that after Cheney Walk, British civil servants were able to say publicly on television that the two men they could do business with were Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness.  In 1972, they realised then that they could do business with them.  Then you had the loyalists going to shoot Gerry Adams...their ammunition was doctored so that it was never going to kill anybody...doctored by British agents so who was protecting who?

Following their release from prison, the sisters were rumoured to have been approached by the republican leadership to make a fundraising tour of the United States, although their respective ill-health following their hunger strike prevented any such trip from taking place.

Dolours married actor Stephen Rea in 1980 and the two had two sons before their 2003 divorce.  She was less prominent than Marian but nonetheless became involved in the Boston College Oral History project, the first part of which was published as "Voices from the Grave" in 2010.  Her account, which appears to implicate Gerry Adams in the disappearance of a variety of people during the 1970s, but most notably alleged informer and mother of ten Jean McConville, became the subject of a subpoena which has threatened the integrity of the entire project.  Her death will likely mean that the transcript of her interview, along with that of Brendan Hughes, who pre-deceased her, will be handed over without a great deal more fuss.

Marian remains imprisoned for supporting an illegal organisation following her statement at an Easter commemoration in Derry in 2011.  This statement prompted Secretary of State Owen Patterson to revoke her release from prison on licence.  He claimed that the threat she represented had "significantly increased", although it seems more likely that the real threat offered by Price is that of her influence over other republicans, rather than any direct threat of violence.  The campaign to release her from what her family and supporters term "internment" continues.