Peacebuilders / co-founders of Women Together
In June 1970, Ruth Agnew, a Protestant woman, had a dream; in it, she said, Jesus told her to ‘get all the women together and work for peace.’ She had this dream persistently until one day she saw a notice in the newspaper from Rev. Desmond Mock which invited anyone who needed help to contact him. She did and told him of her dreams. He asked her if she would be willing to speak to a Catholic woman, and she said she would, so he sent Monica Patterson to see her. Patterson was born in England to a Cork father and Wexford mother. She spent twenty years working as a teacher in London before moving with her husband to Belfast in about 1966.
From the moment she arrived in Northern Ireland, Patterson was against violence. As a strong Catholic woman, peace was important to her, and she quickly became involved with PACE (Protestant and Catholic Encounter). One day, while looking out her window, she noticed a gang of youths ‘in an entry. One of them had a gun and they were obviously waiting for an Army foot patrol.’ Despite protests from her family, Patterson went out to the group and invited them to ‘shoot me.’ Of course, the boys didn’t, but they did wander off thanks to her presence.
On 8 September 1970, PACE organised a meeting – called ‘Women Together’ – encouraging women from Belfast trouble spots ‘to discuss ways in which women could bring their influence to bear for better community relations.’ It was one of a few tentative meetings run with the help of Patterson and Agnew, set up to raise morale and make women feel ‘that they have a contribution to make.’ On 27 October, Women Together was formed in its own right, as a group of women working locally for peace in Northern Ireland. At a meeting on 15 December, Patterson was elected chairman, and Agnew vice-chairman.
‘Every man, youth or child who goes out causing riots in the streets has come from a home, and it is round the women that the homes revolve […] The time has come when we must stop feeling useless or worthless or hopeless, and realise that if it all starts in individual homes, this is where our influence starts.’ - Patterson
By February 1971 there were five local groups of Women Together working across Belfast, and a meeting on 18 February saw upwards of five hundred women in attendance. Women from the group (and subsequent branches across Northern Ireland) were a constant on the streets stopping rowdyism and vandalism between gangs of youths and removing burnt out cars as well as publicly supporting peace and victims of intimidation. It was a full-time job.
On 30 March 1972, Martha Crawford, a 39-year-old Catholic woman and mother of ten, was shot during a gun battle between the IRA and British Army in her estate in Andersonstown. She died and was buried on 3 April. A peace meeting was held that evening by her neighbours and a few members of local Women Together groups. It is estimated that up to one hundred female supporters of the IRA also attended the meeting and pelted the women with eggs while waving placards and allegedly tearing up Women Together leaflets. Patterson, who only ever attended such meetings upon invitation, was called twice and asked to come down to address the meeting. The coverage of the meeting catapulted both Patterson and Women Together into the limelight for some time.
On 17 January 1973, Patterson resigned from her position as chairman of Women Together stating her reason for leaving as that she had ‘become a cause of contention’ within the ranks of the committee. She refused to elaborate further at the time because she believed there was ‘enough public quarrelling in Northern Ireland’ however, a few years later in 1978 she explained that ‘the democratic necessity of a committee inevitably means that one’s vision and one’s dreams are watered down,’ something she found difficult to get over. As well as that, she felt that her Englishness and middle-class image made her a ‘lone figure’ within the organisation.
Following her resignation, Patterson continued to write and speak publicly, however not to the same extent as she did within Women Together. She left Northern Ireland and returned to England in 1978 with the understanding that ‘I had much to offer but […] it was not wanted.’ She died in Cheltenham in September 1983 after a long illness. Agnew remained President of Women Together for the rest of her life and died on 3 June 1996, aged eighty-five.
‘Peace won’t be the end of the movement – more likely the beginning.’ - Patterson
While little is known of their specific work during the early years of the Troubles, both Patterson and Agnew founded a cross-community group that would go on to play a vital role in the peacebuilding process in Northern Ireland. Not only peacebuilding, but eventually they instituted new initiatives to help people move on past the violence following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It was a group that encouraged women from every walk of life to take an active role across all communities, in order to achieve peace together.
Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to firstname.lastname@example.org
Belfast Telegraph, 9 Sept. 1970.
Belfast Telegraph, 16 Dec. 1970.
Belfast Telegraph, 23 Dec. 1971.
Belfast Telegraph, 4 April 1972.
Belfast Telegraph, 5 April 1978.