"I think being a woman is a bit like being Irish. Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second best all the same." Iris Murdoch caught this butterfly of a conundrum gently in her hand.
What Murdoch did not say is that being both Irish and a woman is an even more thankless task. Women in Ireland find that their enemy can become their friend quicker than they can say “return to Gatwick, please”.
It is ironic that this State, born of a desire to “break the connection with England”, is happy to hand its women citizens over to its old foe at the drop of a pregnancy-testing stick.
I have lived in the Republic of Ireland for more than 26 years and I still can’t believe what a brilliant opportunity that has been, giving my children a more uncomplicated, less mixed-up sense of Irish identity than I had.
Growing up in Birmingham in a sea of Irish voices, I thought Ireland was a green nirvana with ice-cream and home-made rhubarb jam. On visits to relatives, there were donkeys in boggy fields – Leitrim really is lovely – and my uncle John would milk the cows straight into a metal bucket. We cut turf. We burned turf. We lived the cliché.
The Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 blasted the whole community I loved into the shadows, where they would whisper away their Irish accents. Years passed before Birmingham got its St Patrick’s Day march back. After everything that had happened, no one seemed to have the stomach for it.
Life went on, as it has a habit of doing in a city whose motto is “Forward”, and I would meet my friends from school at lunch time and we would go to the Brook sexual health clinic to stock up on condoms and the pill. We had fun. None of us got pregnant.
Meanwhile, my love affair with Ireland did not extend to me appreciating what women there had to go through when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. We sent money to the students of Trinity College Dublin from my college, the London School of Economics. It was a post-colonial gesture, but I was too busy fighting my own battles to take in what it meant to be young, poor and incarcerated in a country where you could not decide to have an abortion.
“Women in Ireland can’t what?,” women in England would marvel.
I arrived in Dublin in 1989
And then it hit me. I arrived in Dublin in 1989, got a place in college, and proceeded to get pregnant. What I was not prepared for was being treated like a second-class citizen by a maternity system underpinned by a Constitutional bottom line that removed all choice from all women.
Public maternity care turned out to be a challenge, as it was for many of the other women on my Dublin ward. It was under-resourced, not at all woman-centred and the only question anyone would ever ask me was if I wanted sugar in my tea. I was never asked how I might like to give birth.
On our public ward, we were all young, some of us were alone, some of us were trying to deal with addiction issues. Most of us went to the smoking room for fags after feeds. Smoking rooms were the only facility we seemed to have in the public maternity service then.
Meanwhile, my cousins and sister in Britain would regale me with tales of strange, alien places called birthing centres. These centres were free, located in the heart of local communities. If they chose to, they could bring their own music and incense as they laboured. I felt a bit jealous.
Having talked to women, who have given birth more recently in Ireland, a lot has changed, but not changed utterly – and it should have. Some of the cups now have flowers on them, but nursing staff are still under pressure, under supported and under-funded by an Irish State which purports to love women who have children so much.
Second-class treatment is the norm for second-class citizens.
The Irish State has Constitutional aspirations to treat all its citizens equally. Many of those citizens are waiting for it to come good on its promise.
Lately things seem to be changing
As a woman living in Ireland, but acutely aware of my British heritage, I have been dogged with conflict about raising my head above the reproductive parapet. I still think it is inhumane, awful and unconscionable that the Irish State should stop women having an abortion here if they choose to do so.
British Department of Health statistics show that between 1980 and 2015, at least 165,438 women and girls from Ireland had an abortion in Britain. In 2014, 3,735 Irish residents travelled to England or Wales for abortions.
And this is an underestimate. Not all women give their Irish addresses, other people access the abortion pill online – they take it from in Cavan and in Kerry. So while some women really do go away you know, others, who can’t, are having abortions in Ireland.
As I see it, not allowing women to choose what to do with their own bodies is ridiculous and out of step with the world.
At the first March for Choice on November 16th, 1992, baby number one was strapped into his buggy eating a packet of Snax. Grainne Healy, who would go on to lead Marriage Equality to victory in the 2015 referendum, would speak from the platform to an eclectic group looking for choice in all aspects of their lives, including reproductive justice and marriage equality.
A couple of decades later, Irishmen and Irishwomen were the first to show the world by popular vote that they wanted marriage for everybody who chose it. It was a key-to-the-door moment. Ireland was no longer a turgidly restricted Catholic backwater for the British to look down their noses at. Ireland was a nation that could hold its head up high. On marriage equality anyway.
Irish women are also refusing to go as quietly as the State would like, making noise on social media, as #TwoWomenTravel did recently, when they tweeted the journey to get an abortion in England.
Britain itself seems conflicted on the issue.
Many liberal Brits feel discomfort at the way the Irish Constitution treats its female citizens. Others don’t appear to care all that much. After all, the British state is happy to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive or try on clothes in a shop.
And some English people have no wish to exacerbate the ravages of Britain’s colonial pillage. Better to stay quiet. They think there will be no peace processed by steaming in and telling the Irish State that the British are definitely not amused by having to mop up the mess they believe it leaves behind.
In 1909, Countess Constance Markievicz had given a lecture to the Students’ National Literary Society in Dublin, under the title “Women, Ideals and the Nation”.
She told them: “Lately things seem to be changing . . . so now again a strong tide of liberty seems to be coming towards us, swelling and growing and carrying before it all the outposts that hold women enslaved and bearing them triumphantly into the life of the nation to which they belong.”
That was more than a century ago, but it has never seemed more prescient.
The final words go to Maud Gonne, the English-born Irish revolutionary, suffragette and actress who had a turbulent relationship with the poet William Butler Yeats. For who better than Gonne to embody the tumultuous relationship between Ireland and England?
“The English may batter us to pieces, but they will never succeed in breaking our spirit,” she said.
Ironically, it does not look like the English did break the spirit of Irishwomen; Ireland continues to do that all by itself.