Road to Repeal opens with a dedication, to those “who contested the repression of women’s rights to control their fertility over the past 50 years”, followed by the now defunct Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, and then a three-page collage, going from black and white to colour, of banners and protesters, placards and marchers. This quilt-like structure serves Road to Repeal well, documenting in photography and text the struggles for contraception and legal abortion in Ireland.
Call it collage, collaboration or quilt, but the ever-moving, ever-evolving mechanics of activism are often condensed to moments, not movements, and leaders, not the collective. But it is of course the movement and the collective that matters. This is the visual vocabulary Road to Repeal roots itself in, beginning in the 1970s when new women’s organisations were shaking up Irish society.
The photographs – many of them by Derek Speirs – illuminate much more than the already growing women’s movement with which the book begins. One example of this is a remarkable photograph of a Contraception Action Programme caravan providing contraceptives in the shadow of the Ballymun towers in 1979.
What emanates from the huge number of images is the bravery of those who stood up against the misogyny that hemmed women and others in. On the steps of courthouses, on rain-soaked streets, in train stations and ferry ports, outside the Dáil and beyond, women gathered in small and large numbers holding their signs aloft.
Inevitably, Road to Repeal ends up not just documenting a movement, but a society, including the places where people met and organised. Some are gone, such as Gaj’s restaurant on Baggot Street, and some still here, such as Buswells Hotel. The clear and precise accompanying text gives vital context, and newspaper cuttings, leaflets, billboards and various activist publications are also catalogued.
As the century turns with the pages, the faces in photographs become more stoic, more drained perhaps, but lit with a determined and righteous anger that eventually breaks into the relieved jubilation of 2018.
In all, Road to Repeal provides an informative timeline, a vital reminder and a visual education in the waves of activism that kept coming, no matter how those who held power in Irish society attempted to stymie them.