Last Friday evening, the eve of the fifth March for Choice, feminist and LGBT activist Ailbhe Smyth gave a speech at Liberty Hall. She talked about a tipping point that occurred during the summer, when the movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment took on a new momentum.
It’s hard to pinpoint when things actually change. We can attempt to triangulate with hindsight, but there is no algorithm for change. We say it’s in the air because it’s so hard to grasp. It is a coming together of moments and minds, from which a movement springs. But sometimes, the abstract becomes very real, the feeling of something happening is manifested. On Saturday, at the March for Choice organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign, the tipping point took to the streets.
“That was a long bus trip, wasn’t it?” A woman was talking to her friend in Centra on Parnell Street while ordering a sandwich at the deli counter. Men and women got up early and travelled from all parts of the country to join the estimated 30,000 who marched in the drizzle.
Two women, Cathy Power and Maeve Foreman, tweeted an image of themselves with the caption, “We fought the 8th amendment then and we’re still fighting for reproductive rights.” The image showed two photos next to each other; one of them standing in front of the Ambassador Cinema in 1983, and one of them back in the same place, in the same pose, wearing similar clothes, in 2016.
On O’Connell Street, near the Gresham Hotel, a middle-aged man with an American accent and a guitar on his back shouted at the crowd, “You’re opening a Pandora’s box!” He yelled and screamed about Satan. Most people paid no heed and kept walking. A young woman turned as she marched and said, “You’re being drowned out by progress, bye!”
Worshipping false gods
At the junction of Talbot Street, a man praying with a microphone spoke of worshipping false gods. Nearby, shoppers applauded the marchers. It was raining, and there was a city-wide bus strike, and tens of thousands still made it to Parnell Square and walked all the way to Merrion Square, past Charles Stewart Parnell and Jim Larkin and Daniel O’Connell and the Rosie Hackett Bridge and Oscar Wilde.
“Hey hey, mister mister!” a woman with a megaphone chanted, and the response was hollered by men and women alike: “Get your laws off my sister!” Crossing the Liffey, a flare billowed pinkish smoke through the damp air. “Get your rosaries off our ovaries!” people chanted. The crowd kept coming past the Custom House, and friends caught up with the latest goings-on in each others’ lives, and the Dart went by on the bridge at Westland Row and people waved and cheered.
“What do we want?” “Repeal the Eighth!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” A guy held a placard in the shape of a Pokémon ball. A woman held a banner with a uterus in the shape of a Transformer robot. Placards declared: “Girls just wanna have fun . . . damental rights” and “Trust us”. Another chant went up: “Not the Church, not the State, women must decide their fate.”
In cities around the world, people gathered in solidarity. Vancouver, Portland, Paris, Seattle, New York, Barcelona, Kathmandu, Berlin, Glasgow, London, Brussels, The Hague, Wellington, Montreal, San Francisco, Moscow, Toronto. In many of these places, demonstrators held signs that simply stated: “Abortion is illegal in Ireland”, informing foreign countries of what’s going on here. In London, women pulled rolling suitcases behind them, a visual representation of the women who travel every day from Ireland to access abortion in England.
The crowd was diverse in Dublin, but the largest demographic was young people. This generation is not going to take what they have inherited in the Constitution. People craned their necks to look back at the crowd. Everyone remarked on how many people were there. When we got to Merrion Square, myself and some friends stood up on the steps, watching the stage in the distance and waiting for the speeches to start. The entire side of the square was packed, the handmade placards a little soggy in the rain by now, but nevertheless standing tall. I wondered why the speeches were taking so long to start until I realised that the crowd was so big, the speakers were already talking. We just couldn’t hear them over the noise of such a huge crowd.
This is choice
There were anarchists and Labour politicians, mothers pushing buggies and union representatives, migrant rights activists and students, groups of gay men, pensioners, entire families, people with dogs and flags and homemade banners, socialists and doctors and musicians, lesbians and footballers and actors and Googlers, dads, councillors, atheists and Catholics, Spanish women and Polish women and American women and women living in Direct Provision, people who paid their water charges and people who protested them, transgender folks and teachers, people attending their first protest and people attending their last, people on the dole and lawyers, vets and fashion designers and stay-at-home mums and dads, actors and academics, people in wheelchairs and people in high heels, Fine Gaelers and journalists, people who flew home from London and drummers and accountants and filmmakers and yoga teachers and shop keepers. Everyone.
This is what consensus looks like. This is not a homogenous group of people bound together by a single ideology. These are the grey areas and the differing opinions. But these people trust women. This is choice. This is Ireland.