Watching Women’s History in the Irish Pro-Choice Referendum

“None of this is happening. We think we’re here but we aren’t.” I am in Tigh Neachtain in Galway with Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A.on the 10th of April.  We are having an abortion referendum in Ireland on May 25, to repeal the anti-abortion Amendment they put into the Constitution in 1983. All over the country, there are canvasses, there are gatherings.  I have been talking at my first of manyTogether for Yesmeetings. The Imeldas, weary, sharp, wise,  have come from London and travelled the country interviewing rural organisers for abortion law reform in Ireland. They have been to markets and town squares. They came to Galway from the cattle mart in Ennis. They joke that they almost bought a bullock. We are talking about history and law reform: they are archiving a grassroots movement already overlooked. It can’t be left to official narrative.

I have this conversation, urgently, day on day. In Claremorris, campaigners for a ‘Yes’ vote tell me how they meticulously photograph every meeting – they might donate the pictures to the local council. In Dublin in the corner of the Fumbally cafe my friend Sarah and I talk about how we need a women’s library; a squat, a meeting place for lush archiving and intergenerational exchange. Two weeks later, Anna and Jesse separately tell me we need the same. We feel the need to build a link, win or lose, between ourselves and the past and future law. Otherwise, Tina says, it’s Demeter and Persephone all over again– the same old rupture in women’s speech; the fault in the transfer of knowledge from one generation of women to the next.

The older political resistors emerge in ones and twos to join us up again. In Galway an older woman comes up to me after a speech in which I mentioned the 1970’s family planning movement. “You don’t know who I am”, she says. In Kinvara, another Sarah asks if anyone is present who campaigned in 1983, and a woman my mother’s age raises a closed fist. Weeks later, a bearded man stands up at a meeting in Mullingar. Gingerly, he touches the nape of his neck: “In 1983, I caught a stone to the back of the head campaigning against the Amendment in Navan. My brother was hit with a walking stick in Kells. We couldn’t have ever had a meeting like this with you people here…”  Their stories of 1983, left unwritten in favour of reports of parliaments and court.

People say this is a young women’s movement – too shrill, too demanding, too much for their mothers. The young women are working on the link between them and women older; prising open channels of shared experience and care. Sometimes they resist us. At meetings in villages close to where I grew up, a woman I knew well as a child disagrees with me vehemently; I am taking away the constitutional rights of babies not yet born. She tells me she is proud of me anyway. Another, who I know to be kind asks sincerely if the new law would make it too easy for young women. Afterwards my colleague says she wishes she had asked back: “But don’t you think it should be easier for us, than it was for you?” And maybe they don’t.

Other times, the way is smoother. In Galway the young woman who opens the meeting tells us that her grandmother texted to say how proud she was of her, and people dab their eyes. At such meetings, sometimes there are moments – often when a young woman is speaking about her own experience of the law – when it seems the whole room, men and women, are weeping together. Sometimes, when I am speaking about the law, I catch the eye of a woman crying to herself. I always have a lump in my throat now – I make a joke of not being able to hold it together.

In every town, though, there is peculiar solidarity. We come back from a meeting to a late night sing song. I almost miss my train out of Claremorris, but I catch the drivers’ eye as I wave frantically from a bridge and he holds it for me. Ireland has taken on a ridiculous intensity for me. I meet the women organising in rural places – teachers, nurses, members of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. These are women who know each-other from the Parents for Choice facebook group, sitting up discussing abortion law, feeding babies, consoling fractious toddlers. They are worrying about the posters now on every street corner; pink with imaginary babies to chide and scold the guilty voter. They are holding eachother together, and I am over-awed by them. The rural meetings aren’t the only thing I’m doing – there are talks to students too, and academics. There are training sessions for lawyers. None of them have the ache and heft of the meetings in country hotels and parish halls. I am so grateful that people ask me. I am so grateful that I am only visiting.

Today I am at home in Birmingham with an Irish newspaper, reading through the letters and articles about the law reform campaign. The talk is about constitutional principle. The talk is about Ministers grappling with legal change. There are 150 lawyers, two of them judges, for ‘No’. There is a press conference for Lawyers for Yes. “None of this is happening. We think we’re here but we aren’t.”

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  5 comments for “Watching Women’s History in the Irish Pro-Choice Referendum

  1. Shilpa
    4 May 2018 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks so much for this piece Máiréad. I am actually writing an article about the role of women’s stories and testimonies in the referendum campaign, as well as the impact of their absence in the ’83 vote. Would you be interested in speaking with me further? I’d love to hear more from you.

    • Mairead Enright
      4 May 2018 at 4:12 pm

      Hi Shilpa – yes that’s fine. @maireadenright on twitter.

  2. Jill Crosher
    4 May 2018 at 3:51 pm

    This is an important time for women’s history in Ireland. Participate and record.

  3. Mairead Enright
    4 May 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Hi Shilpa – yes that’s fine. @maireadenright on twitter.

  4. Bernadette Carroll
    6 May 2018 at 9:01 pm

    I heard you speak in Claremorris, you are brilliant, made everything clear to all of us using language we understand. We’ve been canvassing and talking to everyone who will listen – some people are staying hidden for their own reasons but will vote Yes on the day. All that matters now is that this archaic piece of legislation is dispensed with. Roll on 25th so we can all return to our own reality. Thank you for all you do.

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