‘Ní Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan. There is no Freedom until the Freedom of Women.’
In a month which has seen British abortion rights tentatively extended to Northern Ireland, a book arrived on my doorstep. An anthology, to be precise, of poems, essays, letters and emails celebrating the Republic of Ireland’s historic vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
On 25 May 2018, Together for Yes won the referendum with a significant majority. Announcing the result outside Dublin Castle, Ireland’s Taoiseich Leo Varadkar described the campaign as a ‘quiet revolution.’
Until then, abortion was effectively illegal regardless of rape, incest or severe danger to the mother’s health. Irish women and girls were forced to travel, mainly to the UK, for the procedure. This repeal means it can be carried out safely within Ireland and represents a positive step forward in the broader fight for a fairer future for women.
Rise Up & Repeal is the result of a collaboration between contributors of all walks of life, both from Ireland and abroad. People had worked tirelessly during the campaign to raise awareness of the issues, and poetry written in response was shared on social media. That spontaneous creative capturing of the zeitgeist grew into this thought-provoking anthology.
The reader bears witness to some frank discussions. A 14-year-old girl unsure whether to call it rape when her 32-year-old boyfriend makes her feel like she can’t say no. Abandoned babies placed in carrier bags and left in fields. Illegal abortion pills carrying the threat of imprisonment. It’s a challenging read that doesn’t hold back but it’s joyful too and there are moments of humour throughout.
In Radical Doula by Sally Shakti-Willow, clinical details about the abortion procedure are interwoven with an aching sense of loss. Her words highlight the gravitas of a process that it is in no way an easy option. Physical, mental and emotional pain are laid bare, both on the operating table and across the page, as the unborn ‘would not uproot – hanging on for life (in the earth of my body). Dark in there and warm.’
An urgent need is expressed for ‘continuous uninterrupted support’ without judgment. Sally explains: ‘This text is written with the intention of performing a ritual, as a long-distance doula for the birthing of conscious and supportive abortion practices in Ireland.’
A recurring theme in this anthology is the grip and reach of strict religious practices which have repressed people for generations. Keeping girls in the dark about sex and then vilifying them if they find themselves ‘in trouble’ is a very effective way of putting women in their place. Stigma and shame permeate the pages, chronicling years of powerlessness and restricted choices.
This unique anthology doesn’t tread lightly around complex and often contradictory attitudes. But it also pays tribute to what a wonderful country Ireland is and its culture of kindness and compassion. The sense of jarring disconnect between that reality and the fact women had such limited autonomy over their own bodies for so long is not lost.
In a world that seems to be veering ever further to the right, Ireland continues to rise up for what matters. When marriage equality was voted in, I was in Italy and joined the Irish Club of Rome at Pride. We marched with a banner declaring in Italian, Irish and English that ‘Ireland said Sì, Tá, Yes!’
Tackling difficult subjects such as domestic violence, unequal pay and harassment, while ultimately sharing a message of hope, Rise Up & Repeal is a timely collection promoting the possibility that after years struggle, perhaps now women in Ireland and elsewhere will have a stronger voice.