On Friday, May 25th, just as the polls were about to close across the country, I was sitting in a pub in Donnybrook with campaigners and friends experiencing full-blown Eighth referendum fatigue. Gripped by a sudden urge to be alone, I left, got on my bike and cycled home along the Grand Canal. The seismicIpsos MRBI Irish Times exit poll results had not yet come through, but I already sensed I was cycling towards a new Ireland.
It wasn’t just blind optimism. For weeks I’d been asking Yes campaigners to tell me their canvassing tales. The stories I heard were overwhelmingly positive and not just in Dublin.
Walking the streets of the capital, it was obvious that people with Yes badges and Repeal jumpers far outnumbered those wearing No merchandise. It might seem like a superficial measure, but as referendum day approached campaigners reported many more car beeps for Yes than beeps for No.
And I kept having these conversations with taxi drivers which made me hopeful. They’d begin, innocuously enough, with chats about referendum posters before I veered into a casual disclosure about my own abortion.
There were no awkward silences when I told the driver I had “travelled to England”. Most of them responded with stories about their sisters, their wives and their friends who’d had terminations. It gave me a quiet confidence that the new Ireland, longed for by so many of us, might already be here.
‘For the nerves’
As I cycled home I thought about earlier that day, how, after voting, I had gone to get my nails done in Saoirse Ronan's favourite nail art emporium Tropical Popical on South William Street. For a couple of years now the salon has doubled as a stylish Repeal the Eighth HQ. The unofficial staff uniform was T-shirts with Maser's repeal mural design, and on the day of the vote they were offering whiskey in coffee to customers "for the nerves".
While getting my nails done – I got REPEALED painted on them – I expressed my only slight reservation: when I’d gone to vote at a few minutes past seven that morning my Yes necklace had broken, so I couldn’t wear it to the polling station. The woman getting her nails done beside me suggested it had broken because I didn’t need it anymore.
She was right. My phone rang as I cycled along the canal that night. It was my colleague Kitty Holland, who had shared her own abortion experiencesjust as her mother, journalist Mary Holland, had done decades before during that grim and lonely period when no other women felt able."It's a landslide for Yes," Kitty told me.
I stood by the canal alone in the darkness for half an hour, crying loudly, snotty tears of relief. I thought back to September 2015, when my own abortion story had been published in this newspaper. I remembered how scared I'd been waking up that morning and how, as it turned out, I needn't have been. The overwhelming response from friends, family, strangers and readers to my article was empathy and kindness. Some 3½ years ago the new Ireland was already showing its compassionate face.
Buried by silence
I remembered telling my story on radio to Marian Finucane that morning, and her reading out a moving message from an older woman who’d had a termination decades before. She had never told anyone. It made me think about the more than 170,000 abortion stories of women and girls around the country, stories that for so long were cloaked in shame and buried by silence.
I cried on the canal for myself and the indignity of being exiled from my country for much-needed healthcare.
I cried for my two daughters, relieved they would never have to campaign on this issue.
We should always remember that this referendum was never only about abortion
My tears were for Savita Halappanavar, whose death had galvanised me and so many others. For my mother Ann, who had survived an illegal abortion in early 1960s London.
I cried for Mary and Kitty Holland, for Tara Flynn, Gaye Edwards, Janet Ní Shuilleabháin, Lucy Watmough, Louise White and Saoirse Long and for every woman who shared – but should never have had to – their most intimate, painful and private stories.
I cried because the Yes arrived like a long overdue apology for the way women and girls had been treated in this country, from mother and baby homes to the death of Ann Lovettand her baby, from Miss X to Miss P.
The Yes landslide, which was confirmed at a tearful, relief-filled, and – yes - joyous gathering in Dublin Castle the next day, meant our country accepted us.
We should always remember that this referendum was never only about abortion. It was Ireland agreeing that our bodies were our own business. It was Ireland confirming that women were fully equal citizens. It was Ireland setting us women and girls free.
Feminist activist Mona Eltahawy says the most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it matters. Because it does. The RTÉ exit poll confirmed that women's personal stories had the biggest impact of all on those who voted Yes. Speaking out about our abortions meant we no longer existed merely as abstract statistics. We had names and faces. And lived experiences. Suddenly we mattered.
The Eighth Amendment made Ireland a cold place for women, and, in contrast, the landslide Yes vote was the equivalent of the biggest, warmest hug. After last weekend I walked taller and prouder around my city.
Because it was always about so much more than abortion. With the landslide for Yes I finally felt I belonged.