Autonomy edited by Kathy D’Arcy, Repeal the 8th edited by Una Mullally review
‘People could could learn surprising things about their fellow Irish women if they opened these books’
Protesters mark out five bar gates to illustrate the number of women who have travelled over to England to have abortions from Ireland outside the Embassy of Ireland in central London on September 30th, 2017. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images
“Abortion is awful. Necessary and awful. It’s like a riddle; something needed but never wanted. Nobody wants it.” says Helen Linehan in Repeal the 8th. Helen Linehan made the decision to abort a foetus who could not survive birth.
In Autonomy, Tracy Smith tells the harrowing story of her baby Grace, slowly dying in her uterus of respiratory failure while Ireland’s law dictated that she could not be induced early. Tracy and her partner were forced to travel to Liverpool for the induction and a painfully brief funeral before wrenching themselves away in order to catch their return flight. Three weeks later Tracy signed at her front door “for my daughter’s ashes like an order from ASOS . . .” If I didn’t already know about the X case or the Y case, I might say that it is the saddest story I have ever read and like every story here, time is the enemy if it isn’t money as well. And as we all know, time is money most of the time.
Several stories in both books map that terrifying, sad journey across the Irish sea
Appointments, trains, planes and ferries to catch, decisions to be made usually in secrecy, often in shame while the clock ticks loudly. “We are beginning the descent into Gatwick Airport,” announces the pilot like a modern-day Charon in Sinead Gleeson’s Infinite for Now whose striking chapters are divided into days. Kitty Holland’s brave and generous true story of her tormented decision highlights the need for time to recover as much as it features the anguish of making that decision under pressure. Several stories in both books map that terrifying, sad journey across the Irish sea – an odyssey more likely to occur by air – but only for those who can afford it. Working class women without a voice slip under the radar. These women are Siobhan Fenton’s concern in her eye-opening essay, On Northern Ireland which also highlights the depressing duplicity of politicians. Lisa McInerney’s subversive, The Important Thing Is That We Start A Conversation skewers class inside the schoolroom cradle – where that clock is already ticking louder for some girls more than others.
The four texts above come from Repeal the 8th which Una Mullally describes as “not polemic nor a debate. What it does try to capture is the art, literature, design, personal experience, poetry and journalistic writing that have developed out of or been inspired by the movement for reproductive rights, particularly centring around the campaign to remove the Eighth Amendment . . .”
It is impossible to cover every item in Mullally’s fine collection but I wouldn’t be without the cool, measured philosophy of Anne Enright or Ailbhe Smith. From a historical and sociological perspective, Ailbhe Smith is particularly fascinating on the sea-change in Irish society since the early 1980s when “the arguments tended to be quite theological . . . highly legalistic, and medical . . . almost a technical discourse. You could be one or other of these experts: a lawyer, a medic, not many of us are theologians . . . You were very rarely just standing there as a woman and saying: look, I’m not a theologian, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a medic, I am a woman who has had an abortion and wants that to be legal and accessible and safe and free, or alternatively, that’s a right I want to have, or I’m past childbearing age but it’s something that I believe impinges on my personhood as woman, the fact that you deny me the right to control my own body.”
Caitlin Moran struck the only discordant note deeming an abortion at 12 weeks “incalculably more moral than . . . an unwanted child . . . the ones who make estates feel feral, streets dangerous, relationships violent”. The judgemental cruelty jars in the midst of so much thoughtfulness.
Kathy D’Arcy’s Autonomy is an equally fine and surprising collection of voices: academics, journalists, playwrights, poets, fiction writers, as well as representatives of the LGBT+, Traveller and migrant communities. Spurred on by the memory of her grandmother Alice who was the mother of 16, D’Arcy states “The issue of reproductive rights is so personal for me. If the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution is repealed, I will be the first woman ever in my family to really be able to make the decision not to be pregnant.”
Disabled women who have chosen to give birth have given persuasive testimonies of disrespectful treatment
Ursula Barry’s What do we mean by bodily autonomy? And what does bodily autonomy mean for women in particular? is clear and enlightening and tough, “Disabled women who have chosen to give birth have given persuasive testimonies of disrespectful treatment to which they have been subjected . . .” Trish Connolly, unable to join a march because of her disability, points out, “I could be pregnant, like many disabled women in Ireland (who, according to the SAVI Report are at a greater risk of rape, sexual abuse and violence) are left struggling to live on payments that hardly cover food for a week let alone anywhere up to €1,000 for travelling to the UK to access reproductive healthcare.”
Autonomy’s poetry ranges from more overtly political poems like Sarah Clancy’s rousing rebel cry, Women This State Hates Us, to the eerie uncanny poems of Eleanor Hooker and Elaine Feeney. I won’t forget the powerful subtlety of Clíona Saidléar’s miraculous story Undone, or historian Sandra McEvoy’s riveting essay, Women Helping Women on the history of “local handywomen” with its heartening “glimpse of networks of support and empathy”. Claire Hennessey’s dark burning dystopia is an effective metaphor for powerlessness in any world.
While the clock runs down to yet another referendum, maybe not every Irish woman or man is in awe of the Repeal campaigners or sees the bravery of their stand against a patriarchal state. But if they opened these books, they could learn surprising things about their fellow Irish women. They might nod and laugh at Aisling Bea’s hilarious What Is A Women? or think for a moment on the speech which Autonomy’s Eileen Flynn delivered for Traveller Women at the 2017 ARC March for Choice, quoting her mother who “used to have a saying, ‘nobody knows the shoe is cutting her, only the person who’s wearing it . . .’”
- Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her books include Petrol and Now We Can Talk Openly About Men due from Carcanet in May 2018. ‘Autonomy’, Edited by Kathy D’Arcy, New Binary Press, 299pp, €20
- ‘Repeal the 8th’, Edited by Una Mullally, Unbound, 202pp, £9.99