The kindness of strangers who helped Irish women abandoned by the State

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: ANTHEA McTEIRNANreviews Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: the “abortion trail” and the making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000by Anne Rossiter IASC publications pp 237, €8

IT IS to this island’s shame that it continues to abandon half its population to a reliance on the kindness of strangers.

This year, almost 5,000 women from the Republic and 1,500 women from Northern Ireland will be forced to travel to England to have an abortion. They will do so in trepidation, in fear, often in debt and in secrecy.

Since abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967, it is calculated that more than 150,000 Irish women have had terminations there.

These women are our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, cousins. They are us.

They were forced to be strong and ingenious to escape two very different States with one very common purpose – to deny them the right to choose.

On their challenging journeys, if they were lucky, some of these women may have encountered the generosity, thoughtfulness and solidarity of a remarkable bunch of people.

Anne Rossiter, a long-standing campaigner on women’s issues, a native of Bruree, Co Limerick, who has lived in London for a quarter of a century, is one of them.

Her scholarly, yet accessible account of the workings of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) and the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign, is a valuable piece of work.

Peppered with first-person accounts, it gives voice to the women who held out a hand to those forced to leave their homeland to travel to a strange city to have an abortion.

The abortion taboo remains paralysingly strong for Irish women, but this is not a book full of anonymous stories of anonymous women who have had terminations. It is, rather, an account of the times and modus operandi of the informal support and information networks that came to the aid of those women who needed them.

In the 1980s, being Irish in London was no cakewalk. Those campaigning for reproductive rights in Ireland were caught between a rock and a hard place. With anti-Irish racism tangible, highlighting issues that could be used to have a negative impact on the Irish community in Britain was problematic. Also, the hold of the Catholic Church on many Irish community organisations in Britain silenced discussion on reproductive justice. A double whammy, so to speak.

In Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, Rossiter has woven a tapestry of social and political history that is often marginalised, frequently disregarded, but indisputably precious.

The book is a treasure trove of information that will take many who lived through the height of the Greater London Council years in 1980s London down memory lane.

And yet this is a book mindful of the very recent past and the future too. In the North of Ireland, following the defeat in January of her private members bill seeking to extend Britains 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, MP Diane Abbott has filed an Early Day Motion calling for the British government to “provide funding for women in Northern Ireland to access abortion services in Britain”.

In the Republic, three women are taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that their human rights were breached because they had to travel to have an abortion. If successful, both moves will trigger radical legal change.

The trouble with history is that it is usually just that – his story. Anne Rossiter has preserved an important chapter in the history of Irish women. For that, and for meeting those scared women at the airport, for carrying their bags, for taking them home, for feeding them, listening to them, helping them to find their way in an unfamiliar city, she is owed an enormous debt of gratitude. Thank goodness for kind strangers.


Anthea McTeirnan is an Irish Timesjournalist and a member of the board of the Irish Family Planning Association