A Yamaha 50 isn’t ideal transport when you are in labour

It was the summer of 1981 when my first daughter was born

Jumping on to the back of a Yamaha 50 when you are nine months pregnant and in labour wasn’t the ideal form of transport. It was back in the day, though, when it was either that or be thrown into a home-made creel carried by a horse called Jack. (I exaggerate, just a little.)

Fortunately, the next leg of my journey from my island home to the little harbour near Louisburgh in a small boat was blessed by calm seas and a smiling skipper who was not fazed by the cacophonies of labour pains. Once there was tobacco in his pipe and the wind was coming from a benevolent direction, he was able for any gynaecological surges and swells.

It was the summer of 1981 and three months earlier I had left behind my cosmopolitan life in the big shmoke for an offshore world where the poetry of a peasant past was still palpable. It was all around me in the clamps of hand-cut turf and reeks of hay; the pits of home-grown potatoes and the smell of freshly baked soda bread; in the music of the polkas and half-sets as dawn approached in the hostelry at the harbour. It was there too in the dance of the currach as it skimmed across the waves to pull lobster pots beyond Kinnacorra and Budawanny, under the cliffs at the lighthouse and over at Beetle Head.

Frankly, the natural beauty of my new world was far from my mind as we crossed Clew Bay on the day before my first daughter was born. So too were all those late-night discussions during my university years on women’s liberation, burning our bras, the older “sisters” crossing borders for condoms.

Progressive opinions

As the contractions increased, there was little comfort in being a product of a golden era of such feminist tomes as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. This soon-to-be beached whale would not be feeling the need for a “zipless f**k” – Jong’s term for liberated sex – for the foreseeable future.

Turned out that all those progressive opinions, ignited by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the feminism of his long-time lover Simone de Beauvoir, were little use when pushing a 9lb baby out of my uterus.

Our generation of feminists may have been outspoken activists about contraception and divorce, but we were also inheritors of decades of religious repression. It ensured the fire and brimstone sermons of armies of missioners during the seasonal privations of Lent usually meant that intimate interactions involved fumbling in the dark and shy blushes in lecture halls the following day.

During my time as a student in Maynooth, there had been bitter stand-offs over the dissemination of information about contraception and divorce. Statutory and legal progress certainly didn't herald a cultural change in attitudes. After all, Irish women were still being "Churched" – a purification rite after childbirth – until it was dropped after the Second Vatican Council in 1967.

Imminent ordeal

As I ascended the steps of the little pier at Roonagh to an awaiting ambulance in 1981, I hadn’t a clue about my imminent ordeal. There had been no ante-natal classes offering advice on breathing or relaxing techniques. My only reference guide throughout the previous nine months had been a book called Everywoman: A Gynaecological Guide for Life, by Australian obstetrician, Derek Llewellyn-Jones, first published in 1972.

Ironically, my husband, an islander who had left school at 14, knew more about birth than I did because of his integral connection to the natural world and the seasonal ebb and flow of farming life. Unsurprisingly, he was the hero in the delivery room while I assaulted him with a barrage of choice verbal abuse.

It is worth recalling that just two years later, in 1983, Co Kildare GP Dr Andrew Rynne was fined at Naas District Court for selling 10 condoms over a weekend when pharmacies were closed. He was prosecuted under the Health (Family Planning) Act 1979 which allowed for married couples to be prescribed the pill for bona fide family planning purposes.

Indeed, when I asked a GP to prescribe me the pill in 1983, after I had two babies within two years, he looked at me aghast, and said: “You are a young woman, why would you want the pill?”