I arrived in Ireland with one thing in mind: perfecting my Irish accent. Okay two things: taking a break from American politics. 2017 was an exhausting year for my mental health and I needed to escape.
So, I picked the little lush island off the coast of Europe, packed up my clothes, hopped on a plane, and settled in. The first few weeks I noticed the perpetually wet cobblestone streets, the smell of freshly brewed Guinness, and the steadily increasing number of black “Repeal” sweatshirts around Dublin.
The sweatshirts were overly simple to an outsider. At first, I thought it was a band, or some sort of college club.
I decided to ask the barista at my favorite coffee shop and she told me it was the Repeal Campaign- the Campaign to give Irish women access to abortion without question. I googled the Repeal Campaign (and Together for Yes, Abortion Rights Campaign, etc.) and was shocked at how limited Irish women’s rights were to abortion.
In the 1983, the Irish voted to add an 8th Amendment to the Constitution which made pregnant women share equal rights with their unborn fetus; this Amendment made Ireland one of the most restrictive countries in Europe when it came to abortion laws. Even in extreme cases it was illegal, and women had to travel far away to get their medical procedure or risk an unsafe procedure at home.
Irish women had been living with this fear and danger for thirty-five years! The vote to repeal this referendum would take place on May 25th, 2018 (two days after my scheduled departure). So I did what any person would do: quickly ordered a sweatshirt and changed my flight so that I could be in Ireland for the vote.
Historically Conservative, Passionately Changing
Ireland has a deeply complicated history with Irish women. In my Irish History class, we researched the women’s limited role in society and the economy; most women had limited rights and women of a higher economic class lived under the fear of being kidnapped and raped (where they would most often be forced to marry their attacker).
In my Children’s Literature class, we discussed the novel A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd, which was based on real events of women with unwanted pregnancies from the 1980s.
But in the last few decades, Ireland has changed from a conservative social culture to a noticeably progressive culture. Ireland was the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote (68% voted yes!).
I have never felt safer than I did in Ireland. I could walk home at night and not worry about catcallers, or men following me home. One night I walked by a particularly drunk man being yelled at by an Irish girl walking home; she had no fear that he would try to hurt her. As a woman, I felt completely at peace and at home living in this major metropolitan city.
I understand that this is a divisive issue, and I cannot say that I know all of the nuances of this particular debate or even of women’s history in Ireland, but the facts and results were astonishing. I was told over and over by my American peers to not get my hopes up on the vote. Every street lamp in Dublin was covered with posters from both sides of the referendum; every street corner had volunteers handing out information and signing people up to vote.
Murals and charity events popped up all over town to support the referendum. #HomeToVote was a movement for Irish people all over the world to come home because you could not vote absentee. Those who couldn’t return home offered to pay for the planes, trains, and ferries of other Irish expats. Every day the community and campaign grew until it was finally May 25th.
The Votes Are In
On the day of the vote I had to distract myself, so I put on my “Yes” pin and hopped on a bus to the Cliffs of Moher with a friend. On the beautiful ride back through the Irish countryside, I anxiously refreshed Instagram, Twitter, and the Irish Independent. Until finally, the votes were in. Ireland had voted in a landslide to repeal the 8th amendment and give Irish women access to abortion. Full stop. No more trips to the UK or France, no more proof that the mother’s life was in danger, no more. I was over the moon.
When our bus pulled back into Dublin a few hours later, the city was calm and all of the “No” signs had been taken down. The most beautiful sunset faded into the River Liffey, but there were no loud celebrations or protests. For such an intense campaign, the end was shockingly simple.
It took me a long time to understand this reaction, but after five months in Ireland I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Irish will always raise a glass and celebrate when the time is right, but this victory was about fixing a mistake made many years ago.
This victory was long overdue- thirty-five years to be exact. Ireland was exhausted from the battle- thousands of Irish people traveled home just to vote in this referendum. The fighting was over for the Republic of Ireland and they gracefully accepted the outcome without the need for parades or protests.
When we went out for a celebratory pint, our bartender told me, in his beautiful Irish brogue: “Today is a good day for Ireland. I hope you can bring some of this change home to our American sisters.”
Together With My Irish Sisters
Living in Ireland during this historic referendum changed me. I left with a new sense of hope, pride, and energy to fight for my rights and beliefs (plus a pretty good Irish accent). I had never before lived in a city where I wasn’t afraid just because I was a woman; I had never been a part of a political movement that worked.
It was tremendously rewarding to watch a nation listen and respond to the women who live there. The referendum opened up conversations with friends and family that I never thought I would have, and watching Irish women fight for their voice gave me the confidence to assert my own voice.
I thought I needed a break from politics, but really, I needed to surround myself with a campaign that mattered to me and somehow not being able to actually cast a ballot made me more passionate for those that could. When I put on my Repeal sweatshirt I know I have a whole island of Irish people cheering on their American sisters in the fight for our rights.