«Stories about the Price sisters began to circulate among British troops stationed in Belfast and to find their way into the accounts of visiting war correspondents. They developed an outsize reputation as deadly femmes fatales who would Venture into the mean streets of Belfast with an assault rifle hidden ‘down a bell-bottomed trouser leg’. Marian was said to be an expert sniper and was referred to, among British squaddies, as ‘the Widowmaker’. Dolours would become known in the press as ‘one of the most dangerous young women in Ulster’.
It is hard to judge how seriously to take such folklore. Some of it was the kind of frisky sexualized rumour that occasionally circulates in times of violent upheaval. A society that had always been a bit fusty and repressed was suddenly splitting apart in the most cataclysmic fashion. The perceived threats of sexual liberation and paramilitary chaos converged in a mythical spectre of a pair of leggy, rifle-toting libertines.
But if this image was to some degree a battlefield fantasy, one of the key people projecting it was Dolours Price herself. ‘Would you like to be shown round out bomb factory?’ she asked a visiting reporter in 1972, adding, ‘We had Paris Match magazine taking pictures of the place last week’. Eamonn McCann, the activist from Derry who befriended Price on the Burntollet march, would still see her from time to time. She never told him explicitly that she had joined the Provos, but McCann knew. He was dismayed. He desperately wanted revolutionary change in Ireland, but he was certain that violence was not the way to achieve it. He told his friends who joined the armed struggle, ‘Nothing is going to come out of this that is commensurate with the pain that you will put into it’.
When he saw Price, McCann was always struck by her sheer glamour. Most of the republican women he had known growing up were stern and pious -if not the Virgin Mary, exactly, then the Virgin Mary with a gun. The Price sisters were something else altogether. Dolours always dressed elegantly, her hair and makeup impeccable. ‘They were sassy girls’, McCann recalled. ‘They weren’t cold-eyed dialecticians or fanatics on the surface. There was a smile about them’. In those days there was a discount shop in Belfast called Crazy Prices, and, inevitably, Dolours and Marian became known among their friends as the Crazy Prices.
Once, officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary barged into the house on Slievegallion Drive at six in the morning and announced that they were arresting Dolours as a suspected member of an illegal organisation. ‘She’s not going out there until she’s had their breakfast’, Chrissie said. The police, cowed by this small but formidable woman, agreed to wait, and Chrissie instructed her daughter to go and put on makeup. She was buying time so that Dolours could collect her wits. When Dolours was ready to go, Chrissie put on a fur coat, which she normally reserved for special occasions. ‘I’m going with her’, she announced.
For a moment, Dolours was embarrassed, thinking, I’m in the IRA and my mother is coming with me to get arrested. But off they went. At Castlereagh police station, she was interrogated. She knew the rules, however, and she gave the police no information, repeating only ‘I have nothing to say’. Eventually, she was released without charges. It would be difficult to make a case against Dolours: after all, she was still a student, with good marks and an attendance record to show for it. Before they left the station, Chrissie paused to admire the mug shot that the police had taken of her daughter.
‘Can I keep that?’ she deadpanned. ‘That is a nice one’.»
PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE