Turning the Tide: Protest Photographs & Resistance from The Archive of Rose Comiskey

by: , June 25, 2022

© Rose Comiskey, Sistership arrival back in Dun Laoghaire after trip to Holyhead, Dublin 1992.

This paper considers the photographic practice undertaken by Rose Comiskey, whose images of street protest depict the major issues affecting Irish women in the late twentieth century. [1] Spanning from 1982 to 1992, they reflect challenging times, during which issues such as abortion, the anti-apartheid movement, and Travellers’ rights were aired through collective action on the streets of the country’s capital, Dublin. Comiskey was part of the women’s movement, and her images provide a record of, and bear witness to, its activities. Working independently from the mainstream media, her black and white images have a particular resonance for contemporary activists whose long fight for abortion rights culminated in the 2018 repeal of the constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion.

Before commencing upon a discussion of Comiskey’s work, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the country for those unfamiliar with its history, and to outline the concerns of second-wave Irish feminism. Following on from the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence (1919-1921), and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923), an independent state called Saorstát Éireann, was established as one of two entities on the partitioned island of Ireland. Six of the country’s thirty-two counties remained under English rule when the state of Northern Ireland was formed. Despite the important role played by Irish women in the fight for independence, the new 1937 constitution for the Republic of Ireland contained clauses which were restrictive and discriminatory towards women—for example, enshrining the place of the woman within the home (McCoole 2016, Beaumont 2018, Ryan 2018, Ward 2019 & Connolly 2020). During the early decades of the state, the Republic struggled to become economically viable, though matters did improve upon joining the European Economic Community in 1973. Ireland in the 1980s was, however, a place which had high unemployment and emigration. There was no access to abortion, limited access to contraception, and no access to divorce. Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country, and the close relationship between Church and State continued long after the Second World War. As Earner-Byrne notes, ‘many in the medical profession were deeply influenced by Catholic Social thinking and used papal teaching to bolster their arguments against any form of state medicine and to promote Catholic control of medicine’ (2010: 221).

The country did, however, have a youthful and increasingly educated population who began to question the status quo. As Kelly (2020), and others have noted, women were increasingly willing to re-interpret Catholic teachings on contraception and other matters. It is against this backdrop that Irish second-wave feminism attempted to gain fundamental rights for women, and to overturn the restrictive legislation which governed women’s lives. The ongoing violence in the North of Ireland, and its impact upon women and children, were also of concern to some second-wave Irish feminists, and this is reflected in Comiskey’s photographs of protests against the strip searching of Republican women prisoners.

Comiskey was not a photojournalist working on commission: rather she photographed the various collectives and women’s groups in which she often played an active part. She also recorded the Gay Pride march in 1984—the second such event to take place in the capital—hunger-striker protests at the British Embassy, and marches by Concerned Parents Against Drugs. Her work is analogous to that created by independent photographers covering various social issues in New York during the 1980s and 1990s, who ‘saw themselves as activists or organizers first, and their cameras as tools for strengthening their movement’ (Carroll et al. 2021: 46). This article provides an overview of Comiskey’s resistance photography, and is informed by an in-depth interview undertaken with the photographer that reveals that the dissemination and reception of her work was influenced by the collective ethos that permeated the women’s movement during these decades. [2] This research method is particularly suited to capturing feminist activism which has hitherto left little trace in official and mainstream records and media. As a method ‘it involves relatively direct exchanges of views and perspectives among researchers, participants, and readers,’ albeit with the caveat that research relations are always complex, subjective, and influenced by the biographies of both the interviewer and interviewed (DeVault and Gross 2012: 229).

Although originally from Ireland, Comiskey attained her photographic skills through classes offered at polytechnics that she attended whilst living in London in the 1970s. During this period, she worked in bookshops and publishing and was, for a time, an active member of the squatters’ movement. Inspiration was also gleaned from the photobooks she encountered in the various bookshops where she worked. The skills—both photographic and organisational—which she gained during this period were then put to use upon her return to Dublin in the early 1980s. Indeed, this transferral of skills from one place of activism to another is integral to many social reform movements.

Comiskey describes her photographic skills as having been picked up along the way, and while this could be viewed as a drawback, it also offered creative freedom. This mirrors the D.I.Y. ethos of feminist cultural production, which can be seen in fanzines, banners, and the output of photography collectives. Comiskey was not pigeon-holed or directed towards a particular style. Her choice of black and white was practical and in keeping with the aesthetics of the period, whereby colour was reserved for advertising and commercial work. Working in black and white gave her control over the means of production:

Wherever I lived, I would set up a dark room. It was primitive. I had learnt how to do my own printing. I did courses in England and I did courses when I came back to Ireland. I loved film and I always have a yen to go back to it. (Comiskey 2019)

Comiskey’s work was not widely published/circulated during the 1980s—instead, the outlets for her photographs were small scale exhibitions at the Dublin Resource Centre D.R.C. (a collective formed in the early 1980s), or in local cafes. As an activist with photographic skills, the recording of marches and protests was a natural and logical step. Her photographs were a record of the protest events she attended, which were in turn utilised by various organisations in publications, flyers, and fanzines. There were limited career and exhibition opportunities for photographers in general—and for women photographers in particular—in Dublin during the period, and it would appear that any circulation of her images (until their later publication in the twenty-first century) was confined to the groups and collectives in which she participated, feeding back into the movement, and acting as both a record and an inspiration. Given her position in the 1980s Dublin world of co-ops and collectives, Comiskey’s work does not conform to current careerist or fine art notions of photographic practice, with their emphasis upon solo exhibitions, awards, gallery representation and sales. She knew that these events were worth photographing but the images were not monetised through sale to magazines or mainstream media outlets. In many ways, Comiskey’s black and white aesthetic conforms to that of street photography and journalistic reportage of the time, although it is her activist and insider knowledge which allowed her to be both a participant and recorder of these events. It is true that national newspaper photojournalists recorded the protests against Ronald Reagan’s 1984 visit; nonetheless, how many of them were at the marches for Traveller rights, or were able to gain access to the workshops which took place as part of the 1992 Sistership ferry journey?

Comiskey worked on the first floor of the Dublin Resource Centre (D.R.C), which was given over to a print co-op which offered ‘typesetting, design, layout, origination and a printing and silkscreen service.’ [3] Her photographs were sometimes included in the magazines, fanzines, and leaflets produced by the various groups using the co-op. O’Toole’s study of the cultural output of second-wave Irish feminism highlights how access to services and equipment enabled an underground press to exist in Ireland noting that many ‘feminist activists involved in these magazines worked to demystify the skills and techniques involved in journalism’ (Connolly and O’Toole 2005: 131). These books, fanzines, and newsletters were distributed via mail order, or were available through a network of underground and non-mainstream bookshops and centres such as Well Red Books at the D.R.C, Books Upstairs, and New Books on Earl Street (Dublin’s Socialist Bookshop). These alternative media spaces, although not without their own problems, were generally freed from the hierarchal and profit-driven concerns of mainstream publications. Comiskey’s roles at the Dublin Resource Centre and the women’s centre meant that she was ideally positioned to know about the various movements and protests that were taking place in the city: ‘I went to marches, took photographs, and I was sometimes the only photographer there’ (Comiskey 2019).

It is necessary here to place the protests recorded by Comiskey within the context of Ireland’s abortion laws. This short overview cannot stand in for the lengthy studies referenced below, which trace the legal measures enacted since the formation of the state, and also the long campaign seeking reproductive rights. [4]

The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution was inserted into the Constitution by referendum in 1983, and it accorded an equal right to life to an unborn foetus as that of its mother. Later referenda gave women the right to travel abroad for an abortion, and to receive information about abortion services. The 1992 X case centred upon a fourteen-year-old girl who had become pregnant through rape, and who wished to terminate the pregnancy. After an initial refusal, she was granted permission as she was deemed to be at risk of suicide; however, the wording of subsequent rulings left a grey area with regard to the threat to maternal life.

The many phases in the campaign for reproductive rights were recorded by Comiskey’s camera. In 1992, Comiskey photographed a protest trip called the ‘Sistership’ which was organised by the Women’s Coalition Group. It symbolically re-created the journey of the Irish women who travelled to Britain every week for an abortion. Activists boarded the ferry from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead in Wales, using their time aboard to discuss their experiences. They also wrote in a journal while their children coloured-in a picture of Irish women in a boat, with ‘Our Right to Choose’ emblazoned on flags. They returned with pamphlets containing information on the abortion services that were available in England. This action has echoes of the earlier Contraceptive Train which took place in May 1971, when members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, in protest against the law prohibiting the importation and sale of contraceptives in the Republic of Ireland, travelled to Belfast to purchase contraceptives. It also has a resonance with the work of Joanne O’Brien, who depicted Irish women’s abortion journeys, and that of the Belfast contemporary activist and artist, Emma Campbell, whose series When they put out their hands like scales (2013), re-enacts such journeys. The sistership was an act of civil disobedience as it was illegal at the time to bring such information into Ireland. Following speeches, purple helium balloons were released on the dock.

These visual and symbolic tactics are analysed by Taylor:

Taking the symbolic trip to England for abortion services, then, achieved three purposes. First, feminists employed themes of national importance such as economics, emigration, and the European Union to legitimate their desire to hold political space and attract public attention. Second, by traveling the ‘abortion trail’ as it was called, they made visible an experience particular to women borne of their lived experiences and personal challenges in seeking reproductive control. Last, few men or WP activists participated in this direct action because it did not conform to dominant modes of protest and was directly related to women’s experiences, enabling feminists to maintain control. (Taylor 1998: 685)

Comiskey’s photographs capture all stages of the ‘Sistership,’ from the send-off to the on-board workshops and the return to Dun Laoghaire harbour. These black and white images of the event often record, at close-quarters, moments of conversation and connection on-board the ship. Being part of the protest enabled her to get close to the participants, and this experiential aspect of activism contrasts with the detached or neutral stance of a press photographer. As Taylor notes, this event was women-led, and Comiskey’s position as a female activist perfectly positioned her to witness the event in its entirety in an intimate and striking manner, as access of this kind would not have been available to a male photojournalist (1998:685). Figure 1 shows three participants in an on-board workshop. The young women sit around a small table upon which several documents have been spread. They look intently at one another. In the background we can see other women, and a hand-made banner for Trinity College Dublin (T.C.D.) Women’s Studies. One is struck by the youth of the women, the earnestness of their conversation, and how Comiskey has successfully visualised the spirit of the event. Figure 2 shows another, larger workshop group gathered in a circular formation in the ferry lounge. Here there are women of all ages: from older women to young ‘alternative’ Doc Martin-wearing teenagers. The seating arrangement reflects a non-hierarchal structure, and the workshop element contrasts with the outdoor crowd shots, which are more raucous and boisterous.


Fig. 1: Rose Comiskey, Sistership workshop, 1992.
Fig. 1: Rose Comiskey, Sistership workshop, 1992.


Fig.2: Rose Comiskey, Sistership workshop, 1992.


In addition to working in the Print Co-Op at the Dublin Resource Centre and the Women’s Centre, both in Dublin’s Temple Bar, Comiskey was also involved in an illegal helpline which offered abortion information to women. A series of cases throughout the 1980s and 1990s revealed the harshness and inhumanity of the legislation, and each generated a wave of protest and growing dissatisfaction. In 2018, the 8th amendment to the Constitution was repealed, as the movement for reproductive rights became a mass movement. Comiskey’s photographs provide an archive and record of the incremental steps that lead to this landmark vote, in the form of protests calling for the right to information, the right to travel, and to save clinics. Her visual record and validation of this long struggle for reproductive rights is vital in the face of the self-congratulatory and audacious manner in which a government (who were reluctant participants in the quest for reform) placed themselves at the centre of the events and ceremonies which marked the repealing of the amendment in 2018. The two main parties in Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, were socially conservative, politicians were slow to legislate on the issue, and those involved in the earlier campaigns were fully cognisant of the historical stalling.


Fig. 3: Rose Comiskey, Judge puppet at the Defend the Clinics Campaign, Dublin, 1987.
Fig. 3: Rose Comiskey, Judge puppet at the Defend the Clinics Campaign, Dublin, 1987.


Comiskey’s photographs reveal the dynamism and creativity inherent in activism, be that through handmade banners, puppets, or innovative street art and performance. Figure 3 shows a large-scale puppet of a male judge, and it provides a valuable record of the vibrant street life, public sphere, and protest culture present in Dublin during this period. The large male figure looms over the young woman whose body is controlled by the judiciary he symbolises. Other photographs show a bishop puppet made of the same material and to the same scale, which represents another institution controlling women’s reproductive rights. The photograph was taken during a ‘Defend the Clinics’ march in 1987. This campaign was a reaction to an Irish High Court injunction preventing the dissemination of information relating to abortion clinics in the United Kingdom. The following quotation, taken from the feminist newsletter Round-Up (to which Comiskey was a contributor), outlines a broad and expansive definition of art, which includes the material culture of protest:

Among feminist and lesbian women at the moment there is a lot of creative activity. Greenham Common is one of the best known examples. Women have been painting themselves and placards, sewing banners, weaving webs, decorating the fences, taking bits of it away and making it into new forms. They have been making films and videos, songs and dance. A great wave of creativity, ability, talent and artistry, is emerging and being born. And these are wimmin from all walks of life, not all College or University educated art and drama and music students. We are all artists. [5]

Comiskey is keen to emphasise that her images were produced and circulated outside of the mainstream media. This gave her an autonomy which those acting on commission often lacked. Citizen journalists and local activists, when freed from the constraints of the market, can often produce more vital and intimate portrayals of protest. As Murphy and McCafferty noted with regard to the work of a Derry-based photographic collective Camerawork, ‘their work is in opposition to the “professional” photojournalist’s “hunter ethic” of “capturing images”’ (1986: 9).

Comiskey’s photographs were used in the magazine Round-Up, which was published by the Women’s Centre on Dame Street, Dublin, where she also volunteered. Published between 1983 and 1985, its contents reflect the concerns of second-wave feminism, including articles on women’s health, childcare, divorce, and equal pay. It also reported on lectures given in Dublin by feminists such as Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin, and Julie Burchill, as well as offering writing workshops, lectures, clothes swaps, meeting rooms, helplines, and assertiveness training. Numerous courses were listed, including one based on the book Fat is a Feminist issue, which recommended that all attendees should have read the 1978 Susie Orbach title. Round-up’s editors emphasise that ‘[t]he centre itself is non-political, meaning it does not take stands on political issues, or support any groups involved in political campaigns.’[6] Instead, they saw themselves as a conduit for the dissemination of information, and for a pooling of resources and facilities. Access to the means of production was egalitarian and not-for-profit. Photography lessons and dark room rentals were offered both at the women’s centre and at the Dublin Resource Centre, with lower rates for the unwaged. This sharing of skills and knowledge was very much to the fore of the centre’s aims and its democratic power structure. This kind of non-hierarchal way of working often makes it difficult to trace the histories of collectives, as roles and authorship were fluid and less ego-driven than in conventional businesses and media organisations.

Veneti has outlined the tactics employed by those photographing protest, identifying the types of images created by photojournalists and other photographers. Most include establishing shots, often taken from above, showing the scale of the crowd. They are followed by photographs capturing the atmosphere and mood of the crowd showing banners, movement, and action. She notes ‘although photographing banners can be considered as merely part of their routine, Nondas (SOOC) [Straight Out of Camera] argues that some protest banners and posters can be very powerful and, with the right composition, can constitute a visually stunning image’ (Veneti 2017: 287). Frenzel et al note that ‘as objects banners mediate social interaction as they become invested with protestors’ feelings and ideas’(Dew 2021:9). Naturally, banners occur throughout Comiskey’s protest work, where they not only identify the cause or issue at the centre of the protest, but also reveal the creativity and sometimes humour of the protesters. Figure 4, taken during the 1992 Sistership event, shows a banner wrapping around a group of protestors, unifying them as a group and providing a striking visual image. During the 1987 Defend the Clinics march, Comiskey also photographed a banner in which the Woman’s Information Network phone number is clearly visible, in contravention of the Irish High Court injunction preventing the dissemination of information relating to abortion clinics in the United Kingdom. Comiskey’s photographing of this banner is an act of civil disobedience which clearly demonstrates the role that photography can play. Another stratagem of protest photography is to pick out individuals who, in addition to being visually striking, also encapsulate or exemplify the reason for the protest. Figure 5 reveals Comiskey’s ability to identify and photograph such individuals. This framing and editing were undertaken in quick reaction to the fluid and moving crowd and is a testament to her skill as a street photographer.


Fig. 4: Rose Comiskey, Sistership arrival back in Dun Laoghaire after trip to Holyhead, Dublin 1992.
Fig. 4: Rose Comiskey, Sistership arrival back in Dun Laoghaire after trip to Holyhead, Dublin 1992.


Fig. 5: Rose Comiskey, Anti-Reagan protest, O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, 1984.
Fig. 5: Rose Comiskey, Anti-Reagan protest, O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, 1984.


When do people mobilise socially, and what are the conditions that allow this to happen? As Hanna notes, ‘photographers were part of a febrile political climate which was increasingly pushing at the boundaries of political discourse in Irish life during the 1980s’ (Hanna 2020: 9). Demographics, economics, and educational attainment conspired to make this period one in which many long-held truths were questioned. In their discussion of the Amber film and photography collective, Vail and Hollands ask: ‘are there social periods where oppositional cultural rather than political opportunities are most propitious, and what are the main factors that combine to produce this?’ (Hollands and Vail 2012: 29). It would appear that factors such as relatively inexpensive rent, a youthful, educated population, and a collective mentality coalesced to facilitate certain sectors of Irish society’s engagement in activism and protest in the 1980s.

The importance of the Temple Bar area of Dublin as a hub and site for creative, political, and co-operative activities during this period cannot be underestimated. Prior to the so-called regeneration and development of the area (which indeed destroyed much of its vibrancy), this small urban enclave housed a high concentration of political and creative activity (McCarthy 1998: 271-281). By the 1980s, the Council’s plan to level and demolish the area to make way for a bus station was in abeyance, and this resulted in cheap rents. Spacious warehouse buildings became available to artists and co-ops, including Temple Bar Galleries and Studios, the Project Arts Centre, the Attic feminist press, the Dublin Resource Centre, the Hirschfeld gay rights centre, and the Dublin Women’s Centre. In many ways, the conditions which facilitated this activity mirror those which enabled the flourishing of post-punk music in various English cities. These were the opening up of free second level education, low rents, and adequate social welfare payments, combined with a collective mentality. Gavin Butt, with reference to the Leeds art and music scene of the same time, applies the notion of the Commons to the city, whereby sharing the economies of production facilitated groupings which had a transformative potential (Butt 2016:64). Comiskey outlines the level of activity within this small district:

We printed them [magazines, fanzines, leaflets etc.] ourselves and my photographs were used in some of these. People came from outside—we did a gay rights magazine—the Hirschfeld Centre was just across the road. There were a lot of artists around Temple Bar then. There was also the Women’s Centre. Temple Bar was quite a centre for political activity and we took it all for granted that it would continue. Then the ‘capitalist giants’ moved in. I don’t know what happened there. The property boom changed things. Temple Bar was supposed to be a bus station, then it was going to be a cultural centre, but there is less of that remaining. (Comiskey 2019)

According to McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in their work Dynamics of Contention, groups and movements seeking social change shield themselves from the mainstream, and gain benefits from seeking out links with other like-minded organisations (2001: 154). This observation is particularly apt for the groups, co-ops and galleries operating in this small area of Dublin city in the 1980s.


Fig. 6: Rose Comiskey, Garda Síochána at Dáil Éireann, 1980s.
Fig. 6: Rose Comiskey, Garda Síochána at Dáil Éireann, 1980s.


Fig. 7: Cover of Round-Up, January/February 1985, featuring photograph by Rose Comiskey.
Fig. 7: Cover of Round-Up, January/February 1985, featuring photograph by Rose Comiskey.


The cover of the February 1985 issue of Round-Up includes a photograph by Comiskey of members of the Irish police force, the Garda Síochána, outside the country’s parliament Dáil Éireann [Figures 6 & 7]. Handwritten text bubbles reflect the journal’s contents. The theme for this issue was ‘women and art,’ and the cover shows a speech bubble with the text ‘Women in Art?’ emanating from a Garda’s mouth. The cover also highlights the Kerry Babies case, with the phrase ‘I hear you can get a grand frame in Kerry.’ This hand-written intervention references the manner in which Joanne Hayes, the young woman at the centre of an infanticide inquiry in County Kerry, was treated by the police force, the judiciary, and the mainstream media. [7] A photographic portrait of Hayes has been placed over the bottom of Comiskey’s photograph. Within the newsletter, an article by Mary Phelan entitled ‘Kerry: Who’s trial anyway?’ outlines the horrific manner in which Hayes was questioned stating that

Even though no charges are being brought against her, it is Joanne Hayes who stands accused at the Tralee inquiry. The really important questions surrounding this case— why is it that, in the course of one short year, two Irish women have found themselves forced to give birth in fields. Why is it that a proper family planning service still isn’t available in this country?

These hand-written interventions add new meanings to the original photograph and have an aesthetic that mirrors the feminist interventions in advertising. Whilst the overall look of the newsletter reflects the D.I.Y. and fanzine-like ethos and aesthetics of the group, its treatment of the raw photographic content contrasts with the more straightforward and reverent treatment of photographic imagery to be found in mainstream newspapers and in galleries. Comiskey photographed the Joanne Hayes solidarity march which took place in Tralee, County Kerry, during a tribunal which sought to examine the behaviour of the guards, but which resulted in an assassination of the young woman’s character (McAuliffe 2020). Her photographs show a woman carrying a single rose, which was a sign of the group’s solidarity with Hayes, to whom they sent flowers during the trial.

In June 1984, the then-President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, visited Ireland, addressing Dáil Éireann and visiting his ancestral family home in Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. The pervasive mainstream image of this event (outside of Ireland) was of the Tipperary leg of his visit with photographs showing the President in receipt of a traditional Irish welcome, as he sipped the obligatory pint of Guinness in a local pub. However, many in Ireland were against the visit, for reasons mainly linked to the United States’ foreign policy and nuclear proliferation. On the 3rd of June, a protest in Dublin’s city centre, dubbed ‘Ring Around Reagan,’ attracted over ten thousand individuals. According to Gosse, the Irish Times listed sixteen protests against Reagan’s visit, noting that ‘their overwhelming focus was Central America.’ Indeed, the United States’ actions in that region were behind the Catholic hierarchy’s boycotting of the visit (2013: 1158). Comiskey photographed these protests at several locations across Dublin, and her images were included in reports about these events in Round-Up. Her photographs show banners referencing Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Philippines. The on-going deployment of nuclear cruise missiles in Europe also featured at the protests. Protestors, some encased in Papier-mâché cruise missiles, descended upon the American Embassy, the Consulate, and locations Reagan was due to visit. The current Irish President Michael D. Higgins, then a government minister, refused to meet with Reagan, and protestors formed a circle around Dublin Castle on the evening that Reagan and guests attended a state banquet.

Many of the tactics and protest actions were borrowed from the women camping at the joint Royal Air Force/American base at Greenham Common, Newbury, England. This encircling of a site as a form of direct action and symbolic protest was a tactic employed by the women protesting at Greenham, most notably the attempts to ‘Embrace the Base,’ which took place in December 1982. As Laware notes in her study of the camp, the ‘Greenham women used their bodies to rhetorically challenge the real and symbolic boundary markers that the base represented’ (2004: 19).

In addition to encircling Dublin Castle, a group of women, some of whom had come from Greenham, camped outside the American ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park on the outskirts of the city. Their activities are described in Round-Up by one of the protestors in the following way:

I was among the 60 or so women who set up a Peace Camp in the Phoenix Park. During the days we were there, we engaged in such sinister activities, as making flowers, playing with children and dogs, weaving webs in trees with wool, painting our faces, sewing a quarter-mile long patchwork snake, singing.

 The role of Irish women at the Greenham protests requires further exploration, as does their subsequent application of feminist protest tactics in the fight for reproductive rights back in Ireland. The camp’s impact upon Irish performance artists, including Alanna O’Kelly and Mary Duffy, has been noted by Antosik-Parsons (2014: 206-207). O’Kelly’s early work Chant Down Greenham Common (1984-1988) utilises keening and was inspired by the Sounds Around the Base demonstration which took place in 1983. Experience of other campaigns is one of the factors highlighted by Vail and Hollands as being a catalyst in any oppositional movement (2015: 173-190). Comiskey’s images of the anti-Reagan street protests provide a powerful counterpoint to the prevailing media image of that visit, and give a strong message to contemporary Ireland where fear of impacting upon foreign investment from American tech companies is given as a valid reason not to protest that country’s current foreign policies.

The transnational solidarity displayed during the Reagan visit can also be witnessed in Comiskey’s photographs of the Dunnes Stores strikers. Figure 8 shows a street view of their anti-apartheid strike in Dublin. In July 1984, Mary Manning, a shop worker in the Henry Street outlet of Dunnes Stores, refused to handle the sale of grapefruit from South Africa (Manning 2017). Her union had issued directions to its members not to handle South African produce in protest at South African apartheid policies. When Manning and shop steward Karen Gearon continued to refuse to handle South African produce, they were suspended and ten members working in the store went on strike. The strike lasted until April 1987 when the Irish government banned the import of South African goods. The ban came about as a result of public pressure in support of the strikers, and was the first complete ban of South African imports by a Western government.


Fig. 8: Rose Comiskey, Dunnes Stores, Anti-Apartheid Picket, Dublin,1984.
Fig. 8: Rose Comiskey, Dunnes Stores, Anti-Apartheid Picket, Dublin,1984.


Thomas has traced how ‘archives of music, images, and poetry travel across time and space and serve as a conduit for raising awareness about injustice and for forging transnational solidarity’ (2021: 42). She outlines the role of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (I.A.A.M.) which was founded in 1964. In addition to exploring how photographs by South African photographers (such as Paul Weinberg) were put to use by Irish non-governmental organisations, she also analyses photographs of the Dunnes strikers taken by Derek Speirs and Eamonn Farrell. Her analysis draws on Campt’s theories around ‘listening to images’ (2017), and whilst she recognises the currency that the images of the Irish strikers had around the world, she is also keen to highlight the role played by the black South Africans who were in exile in Ireland during the period. She is also wary of a simplistic collapsing of distinctions between various struggles: a distinction that was recognised by the strikers. Thomas references how the campaign in turn shaped events in Ireland causing the political awakening of the Irish strikers and their followers, leading them to question injustice within their own country. Awareness of the plight of Irish Travellers was mentioned in particular by one of the strike leaders, Cathryn O’Reilly, and their quest for equal rights and an end to discrimination is one which Comiskey also photographed (Thomas 2021:57).

Irish Travellers (known in their own language as Mincéirí) are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, and Comiskey recorded protests reflecting their concerns. As noted by Haynes at al ‘policies were developed specifically to eliminate Traveller culture and ethnicity by means of settlement and assimilation’ (2021: 274). Life expectancy for this cohort remains low and racism and discrimination are rife.

Figure 9 shows two Traveller women speaking outside the General Post Office, a place with a deep resonance for Ireland’s struggle for independence and autonomy. It was a locus for much of the action of the 1916 Rising against English rule, and the spot upon which the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was revealed. Its association with concepts of an egalitarian society and its location on the city’s main thoroughfare makes the G.P.O. a compelling location for protest. Comiskey recorded the active role played by women within these protests, focusing upon community leaders such as Nan Joyce (1940-2018), who in 1982 was the first Traveller candidate in an Irish general election (Wagman 1985; Pollack 2018). She was the co-founder of the Committee for the Rights of Travellers, and Comiskey’s photograph shows her in full flow as she commands the platform outside the G.P.O. (Figure 10). An examination of mainstream newspapers from these dates reveals scant coverage of these protests, with only short articles and no photographs appearing in the national press. [8]

Comiskey knew some of these women, and this intimacy and familiarity with her subjects meant that she was not confronted with the difficult encounters and hostility faced by street photographers in unknown environments. While she stressed that she mostly asked people for permission before picturing them, she also noted that most wanted to be photographed as part of the collective event. Although Comiskey remains active within publishing and photography and associated with the women’s movement, with regard to photographing on the street she states: ‘I can’t do it as much anymore. It all depends upon what kind of street photographer you are and whether you have a political resolve or not. I think it was easier to photograph street scenes then’ (Comiskey 2019).


Fig. 9: Rose Comiskey, Travellers Rights March, Dublin,1984.


Fig. 10: Rose Comiskey, Travellers Rights March, Dublin,1984.


Comiskey photographed a protest of bare-back riders passing Dáil Éireann at Kildare Street, Dublin (Figure 11). They were mobilised against new legislation such as the 1997 Control of Horses Act, which places restrictions upon the ownership of horses. This especially impacted Traveller culture, which has a long and on-going tradition of horse-ownership, training, and breeding. The location of the parliamentary buildings on Kildare Street is repeated on several occasions in Comiskey’s archive, and is evidence of this street as a focal point for protest and a site for spectacle and action.


Fig. 11: Rose Comiskey, Protest at Dáil Éireann, Dublin.
Fig. 11: Rose Comiskey, Protest at Dáil Éireann, Dublin.


Acts of Retrieval: Irish Women Photographers

Mainstream outlets for photography in Dublin during the 1970s were limited, though the scene improved in 1978 when the Gallery of Photography was opened by John Osman. However, women photographers were not well represented in the gallery’s formative years. Several new magazines appeared during this period, and in his overview of the 1980s media landscape, Mark O’Brien acknowledges that the audience for the magazine In Dublin was younger and more radical than that of the other political magazine Magill, and their use of young photographers is indicative of this. Comiskey recalls contributing some photographs to this publication, though she notes that press photography was something that was not available to her as a woman, stating:

It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in becoming a press photographer, I just didn’t see a way of becoming one. I felt it was a world cut-off from me although more recently I have done some press work. (Comiskey 2019)

In relation to exhibition opportunities during the 1980s, Comiskey reported that she ‘felt a little bit intimidated, in the sense that they were doing exhibitions of art. It was art photography and that wasn’t the area that I was working in. Now they exhibit a wider variety of photographs, for example, the recent exhibition of photographs of the North’ (Comiskey 2019). It is perhaps natural that Comiskey felt more comfortable in non-traditional art spaces, a stance that was in in keeping with the egalitarian aims of the co-ops and collectives where she worked.

Clodagh Boyd was a photographer whose work parallels Comiskey’s both in style and subject matter. Her protest photographs appeared alongside those of Derek Speirs on the front page of a special issue of Round-Up, marking International Women’s Day in March 1985. Boyd also taught photographic courses in an attempt to encourage more female participation in the medium. She noted the dearth of women on the photographic scene in a special issue of the magazine In Dublin[9]

There are more [women] than before studying photography at the College of art now, where I just took my degree. Yet you still don’t see them in the professional world. I am the only woman photographing woman’s events, so my photographs have been the ones to be printed. Why there aren’t women working in photography I don’t know. It is difficult to know. (Boyd 1985)

In reaction to this male domination of mainstream media, the feminist Attic Press [founded in 1984] published a photobook Women In Focus: Contemporary Irish Women’s Lives (1986). The ethos which informed its production was one of inclusion and co-authorship, reflecting the thinking and beliefs held by many in the women’s movement. Edited by the journalist Nell McCafferty and the filmmaker Pat Murphy, the 116 black and white photographs were all taken by women. Its contributors included members of women’s collectives and community groups as well as professional photographers, journalists, and artists. [10] The volume represents a unique visual record of Irish women’s lives during a specific period, while also providing an insight into the photographic culture of the 1980s. The photographic imagery within the book attempts to present a full picture of women’s lives within the country, showing quotidian scenes of work, education, childrearing, arts, and politics. In their introduction, the editors hope that it would become the beginnings of an attempt to develop a visual language which is specifically female. With regard to the feminist activities of the 1970s, they bemoan the fact that their activities remain visually undocumented: ‘there are, of course, missing images and missing photographs. The reasons for their absences are many. There were, simply, no women news photographers around’ (Murphy and McCafferty 1986: 10). The imperative behind this publication backs up the observations of Comiskey and Boyd with regard to the barriers facing female photographers in 1980s Ireland.

Comiskey’s work has recently received attention through the publication of her photographs by the independent UK publisher Craig Atkinson’s Café Royal Books (CRB) and Photo Ireland’s Library Project. Atkinson has previously published Janine Wiedel’s Greenham Common, Black Power, and Berkeley Riots images. This new-found interest in the kind of black and white protest work produced by Comiskey is in keeping with Stacey’s observations with regard to the output of 1970s photography collectives, where she notes that ‘much material from the photography collectives of the 1970s lay undiscovered in personal archives, and there was little interest in academia or cultural institutions in black and white politically charged photographs or collectives—until now’ (Stacey 2020: 12).

Both the Library Project’s and C.R.B. publications, were, however, produced in small print runs for a relatively niche audience, and Comiskey’s work is not well known outside of the photographic community. Irish photographic historians have yet to fully tackle the status of the medium during the 1980s; however, Hanna’s recent study has shed light upon the activities of the Dublin inner city community workshops which took place in Dublin in the 1980s (Hanna, 2020). Therefore, this article represents the first discussion of Comiskey’s practice.

These acts of retrieval follow on from a 2013 exhibition of Comiskey’s images of reproductive rights protests entitled Against the Tide. At this time, the photographer recognised their value as an archive, but also the role that they might play in spurring on further activity. In recent years, the importance of Comiskey’s visual record of the Dunnes strike has also been acknowledged with her images featuring in Blood Fruit (dir. Sinead O’Brien), a documentary about the strike, and in Tracy Ryan’s play on the subject Strike! (Ardent Theatre Company, 2010).

It is also worth noting that interest in Comiskey’s work was re-generated by small independent publishers and that documentary work like hers, has rarely entered national collections in Ireland. Indeed, the National Gallery of Ireland has only in 2019 had its first exhibition of photography, and while the Gallery of Photography has shifted its emphasis beyond the Fine Art realm to consider photojournalism and vernacular photography, it was not a collecting institute until 2021. The National Museum of Ireland has recently begun what it calls ‘contemporary collecting,’ starting with the material culture of the Repeal movement—a collection which matches Comiskey’s images. These omissions, however, do not necessarily perturb the photographer, who feels that the model and distribution of Atkinson’s inexpensive Café Royal Books is in keeping with the spirit in which the work was made.

The early 1980s to the 1990s is a period in Irish feminist activism which had received less consideration than both those that preceded it and those that followed it, although measures such as Archiving the 8th are recognising the importance of activist archives. [11] Photography plays an integral part in protest, providing a record for those involved but also assisting in a re-affirmation and visualisation of collective action, which can validate an organisation and provide impetus for further campaigns. Street protest remains an important and vital part of the political process in Ireland with recent marches on the streets of Dublin against homelessness and climate change receiving considerable media attention.

Comiskey documented the earlier activists who worked for women’s rights and against discrimination, and her work reflects her own role as a participant-observer and archivist of the movement. It was no accident that Comiskey’s work re-appeared in the years preceding the successful repeal of the prohibition of abortion.

I will conclude with the photographer’s own words:

After the death of Savita Halappanavar, [12] I decided to have an exhibition of the photographs; Paula Geraghty helped me a lot and Kitty Holland had it in the Irish Times. I felt the exhibition was my contribution and would remind people of the earlier generation. Show how we did it and how it could continue on. There is a lot more film of the 1970s activists and there is a little bit of a gap in the record there. I knew it would be interesting to look at. (Comiskey 2019)

The increased, albeit limited, visibility of her photographs, and indeed a focus on the historical trajectory of the feminist movement, can embolden younger women and trans and non-binary people who are also engaged in on-going struggles around reproductive rights and healthcare.



[1] See https://www.rosecomiskeyphoto.com/ for examples of Comiskey’s photography.

[2] Author Interview with Rose Comiskey Dublin Monday, 4th November 2019, 11.30 am.

[3] Advertisement for the Dublin Resource Centre, Round-Up, January/February 1985, 17

[4] See Field, Luke, ‘The abortion referendum of 2018 and a timeline of abortion politics in Ireland to-date,’ Irish Political Studies, 2018, pp. 608-628; Smyth, Ailbhe, The abortion papers, Ireland, Dublin: The Attic Press, 1992; Quilty, Aideen, Sinéad Kennedy and Catherine Conlon (eds.), The abortion papers. Ireland. Volume 2, Cork: Attic Press, 2015 and Earner-Byrne, Lindsey and Diane Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 1920-2018, London: Palgrave, 2019.

[5] Anonymous, ‘On Being a Woman Artist,’ Round-Up, January/February, 1985, 2-4.

[6] Anonymous (1984), Round-Up, No.9, July/August, p.9

[7] This case was covered by the ground-breaking feminist journalist Nell McCafferty in her book A Woman to Blame: The Kerry Babies Case and in Hayes’ account: Hayes, Joanne, My Story, Kerry: Brandon Books, 1985.

[8] The following short notices were published: ‘Itinerant “apartheid” protest,’ Sunday Independent,7 July 1985, p.3 and ‘Travellers in Protest Walk,’ Evening Herald, 6 July 1985, p.8. There was no mention of the protest in the Irish Times.

[9] There are parallels between Comiskey’s work and that of Derek Speirs, with both spending time in London and covering subjects such as Travellers rights, the Dunne Stores Strike and reproductive rights. Speirs published regularly in Magill magazine, and also appears to have had larger scale exhibitions. See Erika Hanna’s chapter ‘Power and Place, Documentary Photography, Politics, and Perspectives,’ in Hanna, E (2000), Snapshot Stories: Visuality, Photography, and the Social History of Ireland, 1922-2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.186-233.

[10] Among the contributors are Jo Boatman, Clodagh Boyd, Jole Bortoli, Joan Collins, Lynn Connolly, Brenda Fitzsimons, Lucy Johnston, Anne Kennedy, Fionnula Molloy, Paula Murphy, Geraldine Norrby, Joanne O’Brien, Beth Ridgell, Ruth Rodgers, Maeve Stafford and Amelia Stein.

[11] archivingthe8th.ucd.ie

[12] Savita Halappanavar, was a thirty-one-year-old Indian national, who died of sepsis in a Galway hospital on 24 October 2012. Seventeen weeks pregnant and miscarrying, she was denied a termination as a foetal heartbeat was present. Her case perfectly encapsulated the dilemma faced by medical practitioners dealing with Ireland’s prohibition on abortion. Her fate galvanised activists and the public in their struggle to repeal the Eight Amendment to the Constitution.


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