A sticky-floored “late-night venue” in Co Mayo would once have seemed like an unlikely place for intense conversations about reproductive rights.
But now, even at 2am, people seem happy to lay their cards on the table on the topic, thanks to the impending referendum.
I suddenly feel very sorry for the boy standing in front of me. He seems lovely. Nice haircut. Offers to buy me a drink. Not wearing boot-cut jeans. Has the makings of take-home-to-meet-the parents material.
He has told me:
“I’m voting no, but what would you do to change my mind?”
I draw a big breath. Pitying this poor bloke who is about to cop a good 20 minute serve of statistics and studies instead of a shift.
He doesn't know anything about me except that I have an unfortunate taste for Jägerbomb and I know most of the words to Wagon Wheel.
His vote would count as much as mine – if I had one – but I would be dealing with the outcome. It’s not anyone’s fault. Only one of us owns a uterus.
So I ask a question instead.
“If I came home with you and I got pregnant, would you make me have a baby that I didn’t want?”
“So what happens?”
“I don’t know.”
‘I don’t know’
His answer is the reason I came back to Ireland after my Women’s Rights party piece at the Rose of Tralee festival in August 2016.
It’s the “I don’t know” dilemma. The murky middle between “I don’t like abortion” and “It’s wrong to force women to have babies when they don’t want to or can’t”. That gap looks like making abortion illegal, but not making it illegal to travel for one. The problem is offshored. Someone else’s issue. We shrug and turn away.
We leave it to mainly women to deal with. Quietly. Not causing a fuss. In my experience, Irish women are exceptionally good at just “getting up and getting on with” whatever life hits them with. This is a sad use of that gift.
Some of the best getting-up-and-getting-on-with-it-ers I know are Rose of Tralee entrants. Yes, Roses have abortions too. A tiara doesn’t make you immune to a crisis pregnancy.
Since I called for a referendum in a tent in a Kerry car park, women have told me their abortion stories. Some I’ve known for years, some I’ve never met. The Roses who have had terminations come from all over. From Postcard Irish counties to conservative US states. Some had their abortions before becoming Roses; some after; one during. Some have gone on to have children when they were ready to. Some wanted to say something when I did, and apologised that they didn’t. They felt they couldn’t talk about it at the time, still can’t, maybe never will publicly. They are right to be cautious.
I can tell you the consequences of talking about the issue of abortion at the Rose of Tralee were hard and fast. At one end of the spectrum it was being called ugly, and at the other it involved graphic details of how I would be raped. I don’t want to think about what the consequences would have been for talking about actually having one.
My mother and my grandmother carried the scared tradition of “getting up and getting on with it” to Australia. Because I was raised by these benevolent dictators, I grew up thinking that to be an Irish woman is to be tough. To be able to put up with a lot. When I was in my peak “teenage s**thead” stage I clashed with my parents, particularly my mum.
The Australian girls were allowed to sleep over at parties and to have boys stay in their rooms. Most Irish girls I knew were not – and some still aren’t, at the age of 30. It wasn’t because my mum wanted to ruin my life and didn’t want me to have any fun, which was the rationale of my 16 year old self. She was protecting me. She knew being an unmarried pregnant teenage girl was not a thing you wanted to be. Particularly for Irish women, who remember laundries and boats and judgmental towns.
So it is also for her that I have come back to the places I was warned to stay away from: to finish what people weren’t happy about me starting. For my grandmother, who didn’t have sex education or contraception; for my great-grandmother who raised 15 children in a tenement. For the Roses who are too afraid to talk. For my friends and family who are here. For myself, when I return to live here. For daughters I might have in the future. The stories of women suffering trump all the red-faced men debating on TV, cherry-picked facts and tit-for-tat Twitter arguments.
We have asked Irish women to deal with the “I don’t know”. They have been getting up and getting on with it” for too long. They deserve apologies. The best way to say sorry is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Brianna Parkins was the Sydney Rose of Tralee in 2016 and is a journalist in Australia who has taken leave of absence to campaign for Yes in the referendum