‘Some said it wasn’t the place but we called for abortion rights in the London parade’

With a theme inspired by Emmet Kirwan’s poem 'Heartbreak' the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign got a coveted spot in the official London St Patrick's Day parade

 

Every year cities around the globe go green for our patron saint but this year London achieved a St Patrick’s Day first by allowing a pro-choice group to march in its parade.

Knowing the whole world would be watching, we wanted to put the rights of women front and centre.

Under the banner of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign we sought to celebrate our homeland, while acknowledging one of its imperfections. Abortion is illegal on both sides of the Irish border, more than 9 women a day to travel to Britain to access the healthcare they need. We have nearly 1,000 members who want to change that.

Our theme, inspired by Emmet Kirwan’s poem Heartbreak, was “Stand in Awe of All Mná”.

We wanted to pay tribute to the courageous women of Ireland who have fought for equality for generations - but also to show that there’s still more work to do.

Our placards featured Queen Meabh, St Brigid, Countess Markievicz, Bernadette Devlin, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Mary Robinson.

In ‘Repeal’ jumpers and ‘Choice’ sashes we joined the queue with the other marchers. No-one knew what to expect at a family event in one of the biggest cities in the world, so we were a bit nervous.

It feels odd to believe so much in a cause but be so wary about the public reaction. Our goal was simple: to make Londoners aware of the fact abortion is illegal in most circumstances in Ireland and thousands of women a year are therefore exported to British clinics. Few know women face long jail terms if they procure abortions in their own countries. We wanted to make them aware women in the North, a part of their United Kingdom, have been under threat of prosecution.

As we waited, an elderly Meath man gave us a big thumbs up and got rapturous hollers in return. It was unexpected and strengthened our resolve. Politicians and celebrities joined us too, including the TV presenter Angela Scanlon.

Of course, not everyone was on board. I noticed a couple of women with a group of children. One of the girls started to sound out our banner; London Irish A-bor-tion ... before she could finish her mother whisked her off.

A couple of others told us that the parade “wasn’t the place” for our message. But they were in the minority.

As we started marching, good vibes filled the air. Young and old cheered us. Some even had tears in their eyes. Others had knitted green hats, which they placed on our heads before joining us on the route.

Parents lifted their kids into the air and waved the tricolour as we passed.

The further we marched, the bolder we became. Chants of “CHOICE” and “Stand in Awe of all Mná”, were interspersed with verses of Molly Malone, and “Here’s to You, Mary Robinson”.

Our courage was met with solidarity. MacNas Ireland Theatre Group wanted a photograph with us. And then, towards the end of the parade, a man in uniform approached with his young daughters.

More nerves.

“Hi”, he said. “I’m part of the fire brigade. We’d like to invite you to the pub for a pint and a bit of a session”.

We expected confrontation, but instead received an invitation.

The London Fire Brigade Emerald Society were up for some craic on Paddy’s weekend. Immigrants too, they told us about the conditions in which they left Ireland in the 1980s. A few were aware abortion was still illegal in the Republic of Ireland, but not in the North.

We settled in for a proper session. Some of these new friends have been living in London since before I was born. But they still care deeply about what happens back “home”. So do we.

Time or distance can’t erode your Irishness. We know what’s going on and we want to help bring change. We stand with our sisters at home. We do whatever we can to fight for women’s right to choose. And, above all, we will always be proud to Stand in Awe of all Mná.