When Corry de Jongh moved to Ireland more than four decades ago she was young, adventurous and ready for a new challenge. Having lived in the Dominican Republic and worked with Chilean refugees in the Netherlands, the Dutch clinical psychologist moved to Dublin after falling in love with an Irish man. However, life on this small island as a woman in the mid-1970s was a harsh wake-up call.
“I didn’t grow up as a Catholic, I came from a very liberal Lutheran family. I didn’t even know there was no divorce in Ireland, I hadn’t done my homework. I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for.
“I’d come from Amsterdam where it was all about ‘make love, not war’. I was politically very left wing so it was tough in the beginning. I felt very Dutch.
“Despite my growing love for Ireland, I began to feel unsettled about more fundamental aspects of life here. In our family we were taught to take responsibility for ourselves and to respect other people’s choices. I was stubbornly attached to these personal values and I struggled with the strange laws limiting our choices – to avail freely of contraceptives, to end an unhappy marriage, to marry a gay partner or to get an early abortion for an unwanted pregnancy.”
Forty-six years on, de Jongh, who is a mother, a grandmother and still a practising psychotherapist, says she has a “great life” in Ireland and believes the country has become “far more inclusive and compassionate”. However, reaching this point has been a long journey.
After spending nearly a decade in Dublin working with the Irish Wheelchair Association, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) and the HSE, de Jongh, her Irish husband and young daughter moved to New York for a few years where she undertook postgraduate studies in family therapy and worked as a therapist in the Bronx. De Jongh gave birth to her second daughter in the United States while she and her husband settled into an exciting life in New York.
"It was a wonderful time because it felt like freedom again. I loved the dynamism of New York and felt really at home. We loved our life there and got offered work. But then both my parents got very ill and there was no way we could stay, we had to go back to Europe."
The school was very supportive and she delivered her baby 10 days after sitting her Leaving Cert. She went to college and got a really good job after graduation
The family returned to Ireland in early 1985, arriving into a country with soaring unemployment and few opportunities. De Jongh also worried about where her daughters should go to school. “I would have loved to send them to a non-denominational school but they went to a Protestant primary and Catholic secondary which actually turned out very well. I think they got enough of our sense of values at home, we tried to create that sense of equality.”
De Jongh regularly brought her daughters on trips to the Netherlands but appreciated that they were also deeply connected to Ireland. When her older daughter became pregnant in her final year of school, de Jongh sought out a counsellor who would speak openly about the options available.
"It was really difficult at that time to find someone who was willing to have an honest conversation about choice but I found a wonderful woman through the IFPA. My daughter chose herself to go ahead and have the baby and we supported her and we now have a beautiful granddaughter who is finishing her masters. If it had gone the other way we would have supported her as well and brought her to England or Holland. But it was her choice.
“The school was very supportive and she delivered her baby 10 days after sitting her Leaving Cert. She went to college and got a really good job after graduation.”
More than two decades later, and after working with many other girls and young women who became pregnant unexpectedly, de Jongh says the results of the 2018 abortion referendum brought her real happiness. “I was familiar with the dilemmas women went through and I really felt for them. The women who came forward and told their stories were incredibly brave.”
My curiosity about life, people and politics continues. I want to study more and I'm still working. I want to contribute to Irish society as long as I can. I want to see my grandchildren grow up and I remain positive
Along with the support for same-sex marriage in 2015, de Jongh believes the next logical step in making Ireland a more “compassionate” country which respects choice is to legislate for assisted dying. While she always supported the practice, she recently became more vocal in this support after the mother of her Dutch partner (she is divorced from her Irish husband) chose to end her life with the assistance of her GP.
“I liked and admired her as a strong, intelligent, caring and graceful woman who, at the age of 99, was suffering unbearably from a multitude of illnesses. Without any hope of recovery, she chose to die in full control of her body and mind. The idea of dignity was really important to her and she died surrounded by her family in her own bed in her own home.”
In the Netherlands, where assisted dying has been legal since 2002, people speak more openly about death, says de Jongh. “For me it’s about learning to talk about dying and allowing that small group of people who want to end it in that way the choice. We don’t have to do it, it’s just the option. I think that would be a sign of a more inclusive, tolerant Ireland.”
De Jongh acknowledges that many people do not agree with this stance and is keen to point out she respects their point of view. However, she’d like to see more conversations about the topic.
De Jongh recently started seriously thinking about her own mortality, after suffering a brief health scare in January. “Before then I kind of felt like I could live forever. I’m a bit less arrogant about life now.
“I know that I want to die in this country that I love. I aspire to live well into my 90s but you never know when the party is coming to an end. It is my hope that I will have the same control and choice available here in Ireland.”
For now, however, she has plenty of plans for travel and work once the worst of the pandemic has passed. “My curiosity about life, people and politics continues. I want to study more and I’m still working. I want to contribute to Irish society as long as I can. I want to see my grandchildren grow up and I remain positive. I have energy and hopefully that will last a long time.”