‘In tears’: Irish in Australia celebrate after long-distance abortion campaign

Emigrants gather in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Cairns as referendum results announced

‘I spent most of the last 24 hours in tears watching the incredible work women and many men in Ireland have done to bring about change.’ Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

‘I spent most of the last 24 hours in tears watching the incredible work women and many men in Ireland have done to bring about change.’ Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

 

Grace Walsh desperately wanted to be home in Dublin and surrounded by friends to watch the results of the Irish referendum on abortion rights to roll in. But she couldn’t afford it and, having lived outside of Ireland for more than 18 months, she also wasn’t eligible to vote.

So she did what she could to support the repeal movement from her home near Launceston, Tasmania, where she has been living on a regional skilled migration visa. She raised money to help expats living in Australia fly home to vote, and organised a gathering at her home on Saturday night to watch coverage of the results, staying up past 4am on Sunday until the landslide was confirmed.

“As a 37-year-old woman it’s impossible not to have been affected by the laws during my lifetime, through very close friends being affected and the fear and frustration we as women have felt throughout our lives,” she said on Sunday morning.

“It was such a mix of emotions as I realised Ireland had voted to repeal. There was so much joy for it passing but sadness for the pain and trauma already endured, for just the countless incidents of suffering of women over the years. This hasn’t been an easy battle.”

The deputy leader of the Tasmanian opposition, Michelle O’Byrne, attended Walsh’s gathering, and was behind the successful amendment that led to abortion being removed as a criminal offence in that state when her party was in government. O’Byrne gave a speech, saying the repeal referendum was a reminder that in Australia abortion reform has a long way to go, with women still struggling to get easy access to abortion in Tasmania. In Queensland and New South Wales, abortion is still a crime for women and doctors unless a woman’s mental or physical health is in danger.

“I spent most of the last 24 hours in tears watching the incredible work women and many men in Ireland have done to bring about change,” O’Byrne said on Sunday. “But the proof will be in the legislation and the way it is enacted, because what have seen in Tasmania is sometimes legislation isn’t enough and you need to get it right to make abortion truly accessible and to stop women from having to travel for it.”

On Friday, the Irish electorate voted 66.4 per cent in favour of abolishing the Eighth Amendment, which gave equal legal status to the life of a foetus and the woman carrying it in the Irish Constitution. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has promised to introduce legal terminations by the end of 2018. Walsh said it was essential to keep raising money to support Irish women to travel for abortions until then.

Numerous other events were held throughout Australia, organised and attended by Irish emigrants who could not afford to fly home to vote, or who were no longer eligible to vote. They gathered at McGinty’s bar in Cairns, Queensland, at the Last Jar bar in Melbourne, and at the Windsor in South Perth.

Louise Nealon from Co Sligo, has been in Sydney for the past 15 years, and she and her friend Shauna Stanley organised a repeal event at Baby Bear Bar in Darlinghurst, which was attended by about 50 people.

“As an emigrant I have lost my right to vote, which you lose if you have spent 18 months out of Ireland and if you don’t plan on returning within the following 18 months,” she said. “Now and during the marriage equality campaign in Ireland I was feeling very helpless and frustrated, and so for both campaigns friends and I organised fundraising initiatives and social media campaigns to ask people at home to vote on our behalf.”

She said Baby Bear Bar management and staff “were incredibly supportive,” and let attendees watch the results on the television until 2 am. “It was a beautiful night of solidarity and gratitude and people really appreciated having a place to come together and, as it turns out, celebrate together,” Nealon said. “If it had been a different result it would have been even more important to be together I think.”

People began cheering as the tallies were updated throughout the night, she said.

“I am bursting with pride today,” said Nealon. “I am so proud to be part of such a progressive country, which in such a short space of time has thrown away its traditions (in order to)give all of its citizens their human rights and places its trust now in individuals to make the choices that are right for them.

“I am so proud of all the brave women and men who stood up to tell their stories, of all the canvassers who worked their hearts out to spread the message, of all the people who started with a no and listened to why it should be a yes, of all the people who travelled home to vote from all the corners of the world and to the emigrants from around the world who helped in any way they could.”

Nealon and Walsh said the next focus for Irish expats needed to be on a campaign allowing emigrants to vote from overseas.

Anna Dempsey is from Dublin and was one of the many Irish who watched the vote on television. She has lived in Sydney since 2011 and said Savita Halappanavar has been at the front of her mind throughout the campaign.

“I also thought of all my friends, in particular the new mums and mums-to-be, my own family, my incredibly strong mum, sister, grandmother and aunties who endured some of Ireland’s most oppressive years ... and I cried,” Dempsey said.

“I wish I was there. You don’t anticipate being homesick at times like this but there’s a huge sting that reminds you that you’re so far away. Repeal brings with it a huge sigh of relief, a letting go of the tension, sadness and anger and an inhale of hope, love and compassion.”

- Guardian Service

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