The 8th: How Ireland went through a ‘collective national moment of catharsis’

This tightly told film charts the 2018 referendum campaign to legalise abortion

The 8th
    
Director: Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, Maeve O’Boyle
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Ailbhe Smyth, Andrea Horan, Ivana Bacik, Wendy Grace, Una Mullally, John McGurk
Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins

One could be forgiven for believing enough had already been said and written about the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Back in 2018 we spoke about little else. But the folk behind this moving documentary — released on the third anniversary of the vote — have done an impressive job of proving otherwise.

The famously fierce campaign provides the film with its larger structure. We meet experienced troopers and curious new recruits. We move on to debates in the media and on the streets. We end with the celebrations in Dublin Castle. But The 8th is also invaluable for its treatment of the State’s unhappy engagement (or lack of engagement) with reproductive rights over the past 40 years.

Here is Michael D Higgins in 1983 just about containing his anger when debating Fr Michael Cleary before the vote on the introduction of the amendment. That late cleric returns following the judgment on the X case in 1992 — essentially allowing abortion where the woman's life was at risk — to note that "every girl can say she's been raped".

The death of Savita Halappanavar is confirmed as a fire bell in the night for the imminent campaign for repeal. Terse, lucid contributions from the likes of Ivana Bacik fill in some of the legal and political blanks. It had not before occurred to this writer that the original amendment was partly a response to the Roe v Wade decision in the United States.


Nobody could reasonably argue that The 8th takes no side in the argument. If it has a protagonist it is the veteran feminist campaigner Ailbhe Smyth. Irrepressibly positive, despite debilitating back pains, Smyth hammers her way through meetings, pounds the pavements and offers sensible advice to at least a brace of generations following in her wake. The editors give Kate O'Connell TD (Team Yes) the last word in their clip from her debate with Prof William Binchy (Team No). On the eve of the declaration, we hear the spoken testimonies of women as the sun literally sets on one version of Ireland.

The filmmakers do, however, allow supporters of the Eighth significant time to make their arguments. Wendy Grace, broadcaster on Spirit Radio, talks about wider worries with some articulacy. The ever ubiquitous John McGuirk, then communications director of Save the 8th, is here to explain what his opponents were, in his view, doing wrong. Maria Steen, barrister and conservative campaigner, appears constantly on archival footage. A conversation is definitely going on within in the film.

The documentary is also prepared to interrogate electoral strategies. “Hard cases” concerning rape and foetal abnormalities seemed to play better with undecided voters than conversations about the 12-week limit. We are left in little doubt that tactical thinking was as important to the victory as was unrestrained passion.

There is, nonetheless, plenty of passion on display. How could any examination of such a subject be otherwise? Those historical interludes help The 8th develop into a tightly told epic stretching over a period of unparalleled change in Irish society. One imagines a version an hour or two longer could have been easily assembled from contemporaneous and archival footage, but directors Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O'Boyle have, instead, gone for a pacey edit that, unencumbered by voiceover, will engage Irish audiences and inform those overseas.

Drone footage gives a sense of the nation in flux. Arguments move seamlessly from one contributor to the next. Most viewers will (let's be honest about the natural constituency) emerge ecstatic at what Smyth calls "a huge collective national moment of catharsis".

Absolutely essential.

Video on demand from May 25th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist