Farrell, Mairead (1957–88), republican paramilitary, was born 3 August 1957 in Belfast, youngest of six children and only daughter of Daniel Farrell and his wife, whose surname was Gaffney. Farrell's family were middle-class Catholics who owned a hardware and grocery shop. Her maternal grandfather, John Gaffney (d. 1974), a former railwayman who lived in Leitrim, was interned in 1920 for refusing to carry Black and Tans on a train; he was a Fianna Fáil senator (1937–8) but thought that party insufficiently republican.
Farrell was educated at Rathmore Grammar School, Belfast, and left after her O Levels to work in an insurance office. She attributed her politicisation to stone-throwing loyalists, British army road-blocks and the 1970 Falls Road curfew. She joined the IRA youth wing, aged 14, undertaking ‘military duties’ two years later. Her IRA unit was intercepted on 5 April 1976 after planting a bomb in the Conway Hotel, Dunmurry, Co. Antrim. Farrell was captured and her boyfriend, Sean MacDermott, was killed by a police reservist whose car he tried to hijack.
She was sentenced to fourteen-and-a-half years' imprisonment for possessing explosives and IRA membership. As the first prisoner sent to Armagh women's prison after the abolition of political status, she began a ‘no work’ protest, losing one day's remission for every day on protest. As other newcomers arrived she became IRA OC in the prison. The Armagh prisoners began a ‘dirty protest’ on 7 February 1980, smearing menstrual blood and faeces on cell walls, after their quasi-military demonstration led to a violent and intrusive search of their cells. This continued until January 1981. Farrell and two other Armagh prisoners joined the first H-Block hunger strike in December 1980. The protest combined elements of catholic ritual and imagery (Farrell always remained a practising catholic), with shocking violations of decorum and deployment of the body itself as a weapon. She contested Cork North Central in the June 1981 Dáil general election, polling 2,751 (6.05%) first preference votes. From October 1982, Farrell ceased to accept visits in protest against the ‘psychological torture’ of strip-searching. When Armagh prison closed in March 1986, she was transferred to Maghaberry prison, Co. Antrim.
During her last years in jail Farrell took Open University courses in politics and economics; she was released on 19 September 1986. Over the next year Farrell addressed anti-strip-searching meetings, canvassed for Sinn Féin, gave numerous interviews, and rejoined the IRA. ‘I would bomb and kill again in a minute if asked to do so’, she told American interviewer, Elizabeth Shannon, who thought her hardened by imprisonment and frustrated by the economic and political stagnation around her (Shannon, 1997). Farrell declared herself a socialist, saying Sinn Féin would abolish capitalism throughout Ireland when it received sufficient electoral support: ‘Reunification is only the beginning.’ She lived with Seamus Finucane, an alleged intelligence officer of the IRA Belfast brigade, brother of Patrick Finucane (qv), and they became engaged. In autumn 1987, Farrell enrolled at QUB.
Farrell and two other republicans, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, were shot dead on 6 March 1988 in Gibraltar by an undercover SAS squad. They were planning to plant a car-bomb at a military parade some days later but were unarmed when shot. Initial British government statements were misleading, and it became clear that the government had known of their plans in advance. It was widely believed that a high-level informer betrayed them. Many commentators, including some Conservatives, feared the rule of law had been undermined. Eyewitnesses disputed the soldiers' claim that they called on the bombers to surrender and a Thames Television documentary, ‘Death on the Rock’, raised these questions in April 1988.
In Belfast, republican students criticised the refusal of the university authorities to commemorate the death of a student, while unionist students protested when the students' union building closed for Farrell's funeral. At the funeral mass for McCann, Savage and Farrell, Fr Raymond Murray, a former Armagh prison chaplain, compared her to Jesus ‘barbarously assassinated . . . as she walked in public on a sunny Sunday afternoon’. The funeral in Belfast's Milltown cemetery was attacked by a loyalist gunman, Michael Stone, and three mourners were killed. A Gibraltar inquest ruled the killings lawful in September 1988 but the families' legal representatives criticised the proceedings, and some British newspapers were successfully sued for libel after smearing witnesses who disputed the official account. In June 1994 the European Commission of Human Rights declared by 11 to 6 that lawful force had been used, while criticising several aspects of the operation. But in September 1995 the European Court of Human Rights decided by 10 to 9 that the killings were unlawful on account of the use of excessive force.
Farrell and her colleagues were represented as republican martyrs. Ballads were composed in their honour and a mural of Farrell on the Falls Road proclaimed: ‘I've always believed we had a legitimate right to take up arms to defend ourselves against the Brits' occupation.’ A mural of the Gibraltar Three appeared on McCann's house on the Falls in January 2000 and a west Belfast camogie tournament was named after Farrell.
Shortly after her release from prison, Farrell gave an interview for the television documentary, ‘Mother Ireland’. Her recollection of how she and her colleagues in Armagh jail joked about traditional images of Irish femininity, ‘Mother Ireland, get off our backs’, strengthened her reputation among republican feminists. The film was widely publicised when its transmission was prohibited after Farrell's death. Violent delights (1997), by Scott Graham, describing a supposed affair between Farrell and an undercover British soldier, contains demonstrable inaccuracies, e.g. her supposed reminiscences of Armagh jail; it was denounced by her family, and is widely regarded as inauthentic.
Artworks include Mairead Farrell: dirty protest by the London-based artist, Stuart Brisley, based on a widely-publicised photograph smuggled out of Armagh in 1981 and The hard place (for Mairead Farrell) by the Arizona artist Brisley Doogan, depicting Farrell's death.