Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Nobody could have imagined how much Ireland has changed

For a country which used to lock single mothers up in laundries for the ‘crime’ of having children right up until the 1980s, Ireland has utterly changed.

A country which branded a woman who became pregnant for a second time as a “repeat offender” seems to belong to a different planet from the Republic which voted overwhelmingly in favour of abortion rights on Friday.

Gone are the days when children were taken from their mothers in Mother and Baby Homes throughout the country, in some cases to be adopted by “good” Catholic families in the United States, perhaps illegally and certainly against the wishes of the heartbroken women.

In many cases, Gardai, priests, or family members had transferred the young women to those bleak homes, because the shame of having a baby outside marriage was too much to share with neighbours or friends. Those women just “disappeared”.

For those of us who were too young to vote on the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which gave equal rights to the mother and the unborn child, the scale of the change has been unthinkable.

No woman under the age of 53 had a vote on Ireland’s strict abortion laws prior to last Friday and few could have envisaged the scale of the desire for change, with 1,429,981 people (or 66.4% of the electorate) voting in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

When the Eighth Amendment was passed 35 years ago, homosexuality, divorce, and even contraception were illegal, and young mothers were still incarcerated in the infamous Magdalene Laundries throughout the country.

At the end of a heated and divisive campaign, which included interference from anti-abortion groups in the United States, few could have predicted the massive desire for change across the country which emerged in Friday’s vote.

Campaigners could hardly have believed the extent of support for repeal, given how divisive and emotional the issue of abortion has been in Ireland for decades.

And yet it was evident all around us, in social media posts and in conversations with friends, if we dared to believe.

My friend Eimear, for example, flew home from Vietnam to vote.

A work colleague’s friend flew in from Canada for a short, but emotional, trip home. Her friends raised the money for her flight through a crowdfunding website.

The issue meant so much to them, and to so many other young Irish women scattered across the globe, that the arrivals area of Dublin Airport was transformed into an emotional meeting point in the days leading up to the vote.

Young women arriving on flights from cities such as London, Liverpool, Toronto, and Brussels, were greeted by a lady with a huge box of Tayto crisps, who went out to the airport just to hand them out to the exiles and give them a warm welcome home.

There were emotional hugs and tears shed at the airport, as many noted the contrast with the silent journeys which so many Irish women have made to the UK and other countries over the past 35 years.

Nine women make the journey in the opposite direction every day. A hospital in Liverpool has a special section for Irish women with fatal foetal abnormalities, whose babies were going to die but the women could not get terminations in their own land.

Another friend Jennie was in terror at the prospect of canvassing when I met her at the launch of Together for Yes in Galway at the start of the campaign.

She was weighing up whether or not she had the strength to go around to people’s houses and knock on doors.

She had moved to a new town, where the cost of housing was cheaper, just two years ago and worried about the kind of reception she and other canvassers would receive.

Instead, she discovered a fabulous reception on the doorsteps, where ordinary rural people showed genuine compassion for women with fatal foetal abnormalities who were forced to travel to the UK for terminations in recent years.

Many wanted to listen to, and share, stories of heartbreak and trauma.

Other young women I know went out and canvassed in Galway every night. It was remarkable to note how many of them were truly engaging with politics for the first time.

But none of them dared to imagine the extent of the ‘Yes’ vote as many people were too shy to reveal how they would vote on such a personal issue when they talked to them at their doorsteps.

It now seems that those who were unwilling to reveal how they intended to vote on the doorsteps had actually made up their minds to vote ‘Yes’, despite the urgings of the Catholic Church and those who described themselves as ‘pro-life’.

As news of the landslide win came through on Saturday, tears were shed at count centres throughout the country.

At the Galway West count, I met women who had canvassed tirelessly to Repeal of the Eighth amendment over the past 35 years.

One woman in her early 50s hugged her mother, now in her 80s, who had campaigned against the Eighth Amendment back in 1983. Back then, activists had warned that the legislation would pose a threat to women’s lives. In Galway, sadly, and elsewhere they were proved right.

Many women in the hall had been waiting for this moment for all of their adult lives.

It is not as though Irish people have suddenly become “baby killers”, as depicted  with such hostility by the no side, but real stories such as that of Arlette Lyons, who founded Termination for Medical Reasons (TFMR), forced us to look again at our restrictive laws.

Heartbroken, after being given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, Arlette and her husband had to travel to Liverpool Women’s Hospital for a termination. She was so traumatised by the experience that she took the boat because she could not face the flight home to Ireland.

On Saturday, as the result of the landslide vote came in, Arlette tweeted that the women of Ireland could now seek care in a safer, kinder country. The result would now allow her to let her little Skye rest in peace.

People talked again about the infamous 1992 ‘X Case’, in which the Irish authorities took out an injunction to prevent a teenage rape victim from travelling to the UK after her parents had alerted the Gardai to their plans.

The direct intervention by the Attorney General, which created headlines across the globe, was a direct result of the Eighth Amendment which said that the unborn child had a right to life which was equal to that of the traumatised girl.

My city is also the one in which an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, died in a public hospital after her plea for a termination was turned down.

People all over the world were shocked when she was told “This is a Catholic country” as she pleaded for a termination which could have saved her life.

Her death led to a huge outpouring of grief, a beautiful candelight vigil in the centre of Galway, and gave huge impetus to the campaign to change Ireland’s abortion laws.

A beautiful memorial to Savita has been constructed on a Dublin street in recent days and her parents have expressed satisfaction at the outcome of the vote.

If anything, the landslide in favour of abortion rights has shown a massive disconnect between modern Ireland and some parts of the Irish-American diaspora.

Many Americans flew in to Ireland to campaign for a ‘No’ vote and funds from the United States were poured into the losing side.

Some ‘pro-choice’ campaigners, particularly women with fatal foetal abnormalities who had undergone terminations in the UK, were shocked and dismayed by the abuse they received from social media trolls in the United States.

Modern Ireland has not suddenly become a land of “baby killers” and “murderers” as depicted by the other side, but the real stories of heartbreak and suffering expressed by Irish women for the first time showed compassion and care for women trumped the ideology of the Catholic Church in a way which would have been unthinkable in the 1980s.

The two-thirds majority comes at the end of three decades of campaigning by Irish women, who faced the wrath of Irish priests, politicians, and ‘pro-life’ campaigners throughout.

Ultimately, it was the personal tales of heartbreak and personal tragedies which prompted a significant majority of Irish voters to vote in a way which would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, travel writer, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. http://ciarantierney.com/

Find Ciaran Tierney on Facebook http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Farewell to the land of shame

Laying flowers for the Magdalenes in Galway

It can be very empowering when the marginalised, the denigrated, and the shamed overcome their fear and find their voices.

In a quiet Galway graveyard last year, I heard an amazing man tell a heartbreaking truth with unbelievable conviction and power in his voice.

Where, he wanted to know, was his little sister?

Why was nobody giving him any answers?

It brought tears to many an eye to hear him speak his truth. I stood there, stunned in admiration, listening to a man who had been told he was worthless for much of his life.

Born into a horrible institution, fostered out to a family who beat and abused him; dealing with the terrible stigma of being branded as “illegitimate” as he set off on his journey through life.

And now, late in life, he had found out that he had a little sister who may or may not have been buried in a septic tank.

I marvelled at the conviction in the voice of a man who had found love and become a good father against all the odds, despite rather than because of a land which proclaimed to cherish all of its children equally ... while it branded some of them “bastards”, the cruellest label of all.

In the same graveyard this year, I heard an amazing woman find her voice.

She wanted to know why she had been locked up for years, even though she had committed no crime.

She wanted to know why she worked as a slave for nuns in a laundry, within a two minute walk of the beating heart of an Irish city.

Why was she imprisoned?

Why was she forgotten by the world outside?

Why? Why? Why?

And, in case we wanted to blame the nuns, she reminded us of a girl, a fellow inmate, who managed to persuade a workman to sneak a letter out to her sister in affluent Salthill.

The man thought he was doing the poor girl a favour.

So he delivered the letter to her family home.
Remembering the 796 Tuam Babies

It was a desperate plea for help, to be rescued from this life of slavery. Instead, she was beaten black and blue, and bullied by the nuns for months for daring to make contact with the outside world.

As soon as she had received the letter, her sister had contacted the nuns. She let it be known that she never wanted to hear from her again.

She had brought shame to the family. She had no sister, she was told.

The poor woman was distraught for months afterwards, if not for the rest of her life. The trauma of being locked up in an institution was only compounded by being rejected for a second time by her own family in caring, 'Catholic' Ireland.

This country owes a massive apology to these two individuals; and to so many women, elderly now, who were locked in institutions for the terrible crime of bringing a child into the ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’.

Yet it continues to fight them, to deny them the redress they are owed.

Funny, how I never see the prominent ‘Vote No’ campaigners in my area attend the poignant annual ceremony of remembrance for the Magdalene Laundry women in Galway each February.

They express such concern for the sanctity of human life, but don't seem so concerned with showing compassion for those who were victimised or had their lives ruined by the land of shame.

But the time has come . . .

The voiceless are finding their voices now.

Their testimonials are so, so painful, and they remind us of an appalling past when our nation shamed its own women.

If you became pregnant outside marriage, you were locked up for a year before your baby was taken from you. Forever.

If your baby died, he or she may have been buried in a septic tank. Or – and you may never know because there are no 'official' records – the child was adopted, illegally, by a ‘good’ couple in the United States.

If, God forbid, you were unlucky enough to become pregnant for a second time, you were branded a “repeat offender”.

Even though you may have been raped, or totally innocent to the ways of the world after being incarcerated in a Mother and Baby Home.

This was the land which locked up women for a year and confiscated their babies for the ‘crime’ of having a baby outside marriage.

It locked them up for two years if they were unfortunate enough to become pregnant for a second time.

It was unimaginable how badly this country treated these women and their “illegitimate” children, treating them as second class citizens when they attended 'normal' schools or locking them up in harsh Industrial Schools, where abuse was rife and nobody heard their cries of despair.

Compassion was nowhere to be found.   

Savita: her death made headlines all across the globe

This is the land that told us sex was sinful, that the most natural thing in the world was somehow shameful, and that a pregnant daughter or sister was the biggest shame a “respectable” Irish family could face.

It's the land which stopped a teenage rape victim from travelling to the UK, because our constitutional ban on abortion put the rights of the unborn child on an equal footing as that of a traumatised teenage girl.

No wonder so many of us buried ourselves in alcohol, suppressing the natural Irish joy for life, and that alcohol abuse led to risky behaviour and yet more crisis pregnancies.

During my own university days, I had no idea that a group of women I was friendly with were so brave.

They were the first generation of ordinary Irish women who dared to bring their children up as single mothers. Had they become pregnant just a decade before, they could have been seized from their own homes in the dead of night and locked up in Mother and Baby Homes.

Perhaps the women themselves, struggling to juggle motherhood, work, and college, did not even realise how ground-breaking they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is the land that told an Indian woman in distress that “This is a Catholic country” when she was denied the health care she was crying out for at my local hospital.

The death of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway led to a huge outpouring of grief in my city, a beautiful candlelight vigil in Eyre Square, and the start of a movement for change.

It is the land which told hundreds of women there was nothing it could do for them when they received a terrible diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

Arlette Lyons of Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR)
has spoken bravely of her harrowing journey to the UK

They found there was a special section in Liverpool Women’s Hospital just for Irish women, who made the same lonely journey knowing that the child they desperately wanted had no chance of survival.

This is the land which banned books by the likes of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, which seem so innocent now but were seen as “controversial” because they dared to explore issues of sexuality in a place gripped by guilt and shame.

This land had the power to destroy a writer’s livelihood, or force him or her into emigration, for daring to explore issues which seem so tame to the modern reader.

It’s a land where priests had the power to name and shame single mothers from the pulpits, or could collude with Gardai to drag them from their beds at dawn, never to be seen in their homes and villages again.

It’s a land which had the power to force the resignation of a Government Minister for daring to try to introduce a mother and child healthcare system.

It would have greatly enhanced the ability of single mothers to bring up their own children, rather than being locked up in horrible institutions.

Dr Noel Browne, forced to resign in 1950, was way ahead of his time. His radical measure was seen as too much of a threat to the power structures in Irish society at the time.

It’s a land which has exported so many of its problems. As a much younger man, I met so many wonderful but troubled Irish people in Britain who had fled their native land, branded as “illegitimate”, beaten or abused, and many dealing with addiction issues brought about by so much pain.

In 2018, Ireland is still exporting its ‘problems’ in terms of so many women with crisis pregnancies from every one of the 26 counties who travel to the UK for terminations every day, week, and year.

But those women are finding their voices now.

In recent weeks, they have shown incredible bravery to face the TV cameras or radio microphones and tell the stories of the crises they faced and the obstacles they overcame. How they had to sneak away, like criminals, to another country because of our nation's shame.

They have faced hostility and derision from the kind of people who once locked unmarried mothers up in Mother and Baby Homes. But they have faced their detractors with dignity, because they believe that Ireland needs to change.

None of the women who formed Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR) six years ago wants to see another woman go through the agony and pain of facing the loneliest of journeys, on a plane load of revellers heading over to Liverpool for the weekend.

Not many people I know want to see a widespread “culture” of abortion in this country.

Nobody I knows believes in the concept of "social abortion" which has been repeated as a mantra over the past few weeks.

But we do have compassion for women in crisis and we sure as hell want an end to this land of shame.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook: http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Is it time to stop punishing tragedy?

On the daytime radio show in which the host gets paid almost €500,000 per year to hear the concerns of the ‘plain people’ of Ireland, I heard a middle-aged man proclaim his total opposition to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment this week.

If his daughter became pregnant because of rape, he told the host, he sincerely hoped she would choose to keep the child rather than go through with an abortion.

A few weeks earlier, in a vast hall, I heard a woman tell an audience of about 400 people that the act of giving birth “heals the effect of rape”.

She called on the people at the Save the Eighth campaign launch in the West of Ireland to stop rape from happening rather than kill an unborn child.

She didn’t explain how that could be done.

At the same event, a woman told me that the proposed legislation for unrestricted abortion would bring a culture of ‘social’ abortion to Ireland.

I was shocked.                                                      
Laying flowers at the graves of the Magdalene Laundry women
in the heart of Galway City. Photo by Ciaran Tierney

She made it sound as though some women decided to have abortions in the same way as they decide what make-up to wear or what club to go to on a Saturday night.

This deeply personal issue is not something that is discussed much, if ever, among my circle of friends. But I am pretty sure that no woman I know has ever opted to have a ‘social abortion’, given the trauma, the heartbreak, the soul-searching, the sense of loss, and the secrecy involved.

There is the fear of confiding in an Irish doctor, given the very real threat of facing 14 years’ imprisonment, or of taking pills in secret, without any guidance or medical support because of the stigma – in fact the criminalisation – involved.

There is no doubt that people I have spoken to in recent months on the ‘No’ side have sincerely held views, and that they believe right is on their side.

And many people share their concerns.

But I live in the city where Savita Halappanvar lost her life at just 31 years of age. The young woman in distress, who was found to be miscarrying, died of blood poisoning after doctors declined to terminate her 17-week long pregnancy.

“This is a Catholic country,” she was told at University Hospital Galway, a comment which made headlines all across the globe and shamed huge swathes of the Irish population.

Regardless of whether or not Savita’s life could have been saved, she was shown an appalling lack of compassion in a country which has a long and shameful history when it comes to how it treats its women.

Every October, Savita is remembered at a candlelight vigil in the heart of my city. The overwhelming feelings are of sadness and shame, sadness that a beautiful young woman lost her life in Galway and shame that she was treated in such a way.

The late Savita Halappanvar is remembered with a
candlelight vigil in Galway each October. RIP.

The candlelight vigil takes place in Eyre Square, just five minutes away from the Magdalene Laundry where women were locked up for decades. There is such raw emotion, sadness, and pain when a small group of people gather to honour the women of the laundry each February.

The speeches at Bohermore remind us of how Irish women have been discriminated against, shamed, and mistreated for decades.

I also live in the same county as the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, another place which made headlines all over the world in recent years.

It could be argued that the way in which the bodies of 796 dead bodies were discarded around a septic tank has nothing to do with Ireland’s current abortion debate.

But at the moment I am reading Alison O’Reilly’s harrowing new book, ‘My Name is Bridget’, which looks at how a young woman called Bridget Dolan was incarcerated against her will for the terrible ‘crime’ of expecting a baby outside marriage.

As Alison puts it, she was “following in the footsteps of more than a century’s worth of lost souls” when her family sent her in such shame to the Tuam home.

In those days, unmarried mothers could be named and shamed by priests from the altars of Catholic Churches throughout Ireland.

Their families were quick to judge and to bring them to the grim institutions where they were shown no love as they struggled to survive.

Catherine Corless won a People of the Year award after
uncovering the gross injustice at the Tuam Home

“The mothers-to-be were generally sent into the Home either by their doctor or parish priest or their family, normally arriving at the forbidding front door around a month before they gave birth. When their time came, they were offered no pain relief during labour, another facet of their punishment,” wrote Alison.

Nothing to do with abortion, you might say, but a grim reminder of our nation’s shame in the not-so-distant past.

For the children of these women, it was impossible to leave this stigma and shame behind.

“You were just a bastard in their eyes . . . We were nothing but a kind of scum, you weren’t normal because you didn’t belong to a wedded family. It is totally crazy,” said one survivor last year.

Tuam Home survivor Peter Mulryan at his mother's grave.
She was locked up in the Magdalene Laundry in Galway. 

This afternoon I undertook a walking tour of Galway with a group of female foreign language students. The issue of the referendum came up when they asked about the posters on lamp-posts and all of them were shocked when they heard that a woman could face 14 years in prison for having an abortion in Ireland.

Two of them had seen social media images of a ‘pro-life’ street procession in Limerick City at the weekend, in which young girls dressed in their First Communion dresses marched behind a car which was blaring out The Rosary from loudspeakers.

They found those images “totally crazy”.

A few weeks ago, I met a brave woman called Arlette who is a member of a group called Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR).

Arlette is not the kind of woman to get up on a soapbox, but her life was changed utterly when she was diagnosed with a case of fatal foetal abnormality six years ago.

After being told that her baby was going to die, she was then told that nothing could be done for her in Ireland. Her only options were to travel to another country or to go full-term.

She spoke of the agony she went through, the sadness and loneliness of her journey to Liverpool, and how she travelled home by boat because she could not face the ‘plane.

Then she found out there were hundreds of other women like her, women who were forced to travel to the UK or to carry a baby which had no chance of life full-term.

And her pain and sorrow turned to anger, prompting her to set up TFMR with other women who had dealt with the same injustice.               
Arlette Lyons of TFMR speaking in Galway

One of her colleagues, Tracey, has spoken of the devastation of being surrounded by revellers enjoying a weekend away on her short flight to Liverpool on St Patrick’s weekend.

She was 22 weeks pregnant when she found out that little Grace was terminally ill, with a condition which would ensure she would die of respiratory failure upon birth.

“I couldn’t bare this happening to my baby,” she says.

“I spent four weeks nodding along to people’s excited questions. I was slowly losing my mind. I had to go somewhere where they understood what me and my baby were going through.”

The slogan of TFMR is to “stop punishing tragedy”.

Women in the terrible situation faced by Arlette and Tracey should not have to deal with the shame and trauma of having to leave their friends, family, and familiar faces behind after being given such devastating news.

Abortion already is a reality in Ireland, but women facing such a tough, life-changing decision are being forced to travel to the UK or Europe for terminations or take illegal pills in secret at home.

Those who have been raped, sexually abused, or are carrying foetuses with no chance of life deserve so much more than being criminalised, with the threat of 14 years in prison.

It’s time to put an end to Ireland’s culture of shaming women and brushing issues under the carpet, whether by locking up young women in Mother and Baby Homes or condemning them to secret and lonely trips to England.

We can put that shame behind us – and stop punishing tragedy – by voting ‘Yes’ on May 25.

 Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia/

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