If you saw RTÉ’s “Centenary” last week, you might have heard a snippet of Gay Byrne’s voice saying “The fact that an Irish schoolgirl died in a field, giving birth to her child, is a reproach to –”
Byrne was responded to by a female voice saying “Let there be no doubt that she died in the arms of Mary, to save all other girls—”
“Centenary” was glorious and fun and it had Imelda May singing (with a big smile) “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.
It also had President Higgins being his usual erudite and decent self. I’d travel back to 2011 to vote for him again except it seems John Bruton has stolen the DeLorean so he can go back to 1916 and prevent the Rising, in the hope of one day becoming First Minister of Southern Éire.
“Centenary” acknowledged the contradictions of the Rising, and all that came after it. It should be commended for celebrating our best achievements while taking the time to remember that much is still very wrong in Ireland. After all, as President Higgins said, “Our story is still in the making”.
A vital part, a tragic part, of that story and a part that should never be forgotten, is Ann Lovett.
On the cold, wet afternoon of Tuesday 31st of January, 1984, Ann Lovett, a 15 year old girl, left Cnoc Mhuire (The Hill of Mary) Secondary School in Granard, County Longford. She went to the grotto of the Blessed Virgin, to give birth to her son.
Around 4pm, other schoolkids found her schoolbag and tracked her to the grotto. They raised the alarm and a local farmer came to their aid.
Ann was carried to the nearby house of the parish priest, who said “It’s a doctor you need”. From there, she was taken to her home and an ambulance was called.
It was far too late.
Ann and her baby were buried, quietly, in Granard that Friday, three days later.
Emily O’Reilly broke the story in the Sunday Tribune and Gay Byrne previewed its headline on that Saturday night’s Late Late Show.
“Girl, 15, Dies Giving Birth In A Field” read Byrne, before putting the paper aside. “Nothing terribly exciting there,” pronounced Gaybo.
Within a fortnight, Byrne would change his tune as his radio show became inundated with letters from women telling similar stories.
As hearts broke and walls – built up stone by stone across generations – began finally to crumble, Gay Byrne read out letter after letter, saying, “Too many letters. They couldn’t be ignored.”
It became a watershed.
This was only four months after the Eighth Amendment, where two thirds of the electorate enshrined in our Constitution the notion that the unborn – regardless of their development between the moment of conception and the moment of birth – have an equal right to life as the fully-sentient human being carrying them, whether she wants to or not, whether her pregnancy is viable or not and whether she had a choice to become pregnant or not.
Ireland was a strange place then, in the days before the sheer scale of sex abuse revelations loosened the Catholic Church’s stranglehold. It was an Ireland of Kerry Babies and moving statues, an Ireland where contraception was prescription-only, where divorce was impossible and homosexuality was illegal.
I’ve suggested before that the Eighth Amendment would prove the last stand for Ireland’s Catholic fundamentalists and wasn’t really about abortion at all. Either way, it has come to blight the lives of generations of Irish women since.
As a teenager at the time (Ann Lovett and I were born in the same year) I found it fascinating that those who so vociferously opposed both sex education and contraception were also those who fanatically denied bodily autonomy to women. I found it hard to get my head around the idea of opposing abortion while favouring the most usual causes of unwanted pregnancies.
The Eighth Amendment was really about trying to hold back the tide of social change which would remake Ireland completely in the years since the 1980s. It was about perpetuating an Ireland of ignorance and shame and fear. It was about telling Irish women who’s the boss.
Despite the best efforts of some, Ireland today – for all its faults – is a far better place than it was in the 1980s but, to quote President Higgins, “Our story is still in the making”.
In the US last week, Donald Trump did something unusual. He withdrew a comment. Trump had said women should be punished for having abortions. Such was the outcry, he thought better of his latest inflammatory remark and actually backed down.
He shouldn’t have. As Jill Filipovic pointed out in Time Magazine, if Trump truly believes life – life equal to that of a sentient adult – begins at conception, then – logically – abortion is murder and murderers should be punished. Of course, those who self-describe as “pro-life” tend to shy away from that extreme position in public because they know most people don’t subscribe to their simplistic, black-and-white view of the world.
Talk of punishing women tends not to play well.
But in Ireland, 32 years after 15 year old Ann Lovett bled out beneath the uncaring gaze of a stone Virgin, the Eighth Amendment remains in our Constitution. An Irish woman procuring an abortion can be punished with imprisonment of up to 14 years. Every single day, twelve Irish women are forced to travel abroad for a termination.
Maybe we Irish shouldn’t be so snooty about Donald Trump.
It’s past time we repealed the Eighth Amendment. It’s past time our legislators – and those of us who elect them – grew up. It’s past time we remembered Ann Lovett and all the other girls and women whose lives were ruined by a loveless, sex-obsessed, authoritarian Ireland.
It’s past time Ireland trusted women as the owners of their own bodies.
“Our story is still in the making.”
Repeal the Eighth.