Relief for the women of Ireland as change is achieved through real stories

This piece was originally published in a shorter Dutch version on www.oneworld.nl. Photo credit Melissa Mannion, Galway.

The voices of Irish women set out a vision of a hopeful future for all

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After the abortion referendum in Ireland, Irish writer Alice Burke takes stock. “After years of confusion and insufficient medical care for women, Irish voters have changed the course of the narrative: It’s time for self-determination, with room for free, safe and legal abortion.”

Growing up in Ireland we had an expression: “Getting the boat to England.” It was our euphemism for an abortion, heading across the waves to a country where it was allowed. We all knew women who got the boat to England, so common was the need to head off and seek reproductive healthcare elsewhere. Heading over to England was a byword for not being looked after in Ireland, for knowing that you would be shamed for a teenage pregnancy, a pregnancy outside of marriage, or for seeking an abortion for any reason at all.

Just over one week ago, a woman in Ireland who took abortion pills was a criminal who could face 14 years in prison. A woman in Ireland who became sick and needed chemotherapy during her pregnancy was unable to procure an abortion and receive treatment, even if her own life was at risk. A woman in Ireland whose world shook beneath her when she found out that a much-wanted baby had birth defects and would not survive long outside the womb could not choose a peaceful death for her child, but instead had to endure the rest of her pregnancy and deliver a child certain to die.

On Friday May 25th, the world changed for the women of Ireland, and the ground shook not in sorrow, but in assured relief that no longer would women need to travel to foreign jurisdictions to access life-saving healthcare.

On that day, voters said yes to repealing the 8thamendment to the Irish constitution that effectively made the life of a foetus equal to the life of the mother, prohibiting healthcare professionals from effectively caring for women’s reproductive health across the spectrum.

During the run-up to the referendum to Repeal the 8thamendment, a Facebook pagewas set up to allow women to anonymously submit their stories of how they were treated in Ireland when they needed an abortion. Thousands of women came forward.

“…The 8th has impacted on me, and I bear the physical and emotional scars of that impact. The 8th affects every single pregnancy in this country and is a toxic element in our maternity care,” said one.

“I can’t imagine having had to carry that pregnancy. I can’t imagine bringing an unwanted ‘life’ into this world; a ‘life’ that was conceived in a violent, hateful, non-consensual way. That is not what I would want for a mother or a child. Yet, this is what happens in my home. Ireland”, said another.

The stories ran for weeks, endless tales of loss, tragedy, oppression but also freedom and hope. Women opened up to each other and – in many cases – themselves and their own families for the first time. Close friends of mine took part, sharing stories of having to travel abroad for terminations in cases where they knew their much-loved babies would not survive being born, pouring their hearts out to complete strangers online. We watched in awe of the strength of these women, and make no mistake, the campaign was won by fierce truth and great courage of these women. Cloaks of shame became swords of honour, and every lost child was remembered with love in the midst of it all.

The Yes campaign became a space of sharing and support for women, where years of silence due to societal pressure and often religious conservatism had erased stories like this.

Watching from afar as an Irish emigrant, it was phenomenal to see my country grow and stretch itself in this way. In 2015, I watched from afar as Ireland voted Yes to same-sex marriage, with 62% of voters approving the changes to the constitution. This time, I watched as over 66% of voters said Yes to reproductive healthcare and access to abortion for women, and felt immense pride at what Ireland has become in such a short space of time.

Savita

Ask almost any Irish woman who Savita Halappanavar was, and she’ll talk to you about a case that brought this issue to the fore for many of those Yes voters. Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist, living in Galway on Ireland’s west coast who lost her life as a result of confusion relating to the 8thamendment.

Savita was 17-weeks into an otherwise healthy pregnancy when she began to miscarry, and was exposed to sepsis. The law in force at the time stated that the act of abortion where there was no immediate physiological threat to the woman’s life was a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. By the time Savita’s sepsis had become life threatening, it was too late to help her. A midwife in the hospital attempted to explain the situation to Savita’s husband by saying Ireland was “a catholic country”. Savita’s daughter was stillborn, and Savita died, another name on the list of women lost to the cruelty of the 8thamendment.

But the death of Savita would prove to be a turning point for the entire pro-choice movement in Ireland. No longer were people polarised by the Catholic Church or social norms, people now saw the 8thamendment for what it was: a confusing, badly enacted piece of legislation that was leading to barbaric conditions for pregnant women.

During the run-up to the referendum, many on the pro-life side tried to paint an Ireland of rural vs urban, of catholic vs atheist, but at the end of the day there was only one side that mattered; the side of compassion. Only one constituency in the whole island voted against repealing the amendment. The need for equality of reproductive care and access to safe abortion united all age groups, all genders and all backgrounds.

With legislation currently being drawn up and expected to be in place by the end of the year, it won’t be too long before Irish women can go into a pregnancy with confidence that if the worst happens, they do not have to get on a ferry or a plane to stay safe. It’s estimated that approximately 170,000 Irish women travelled abroad to procure an abortion between 1980 and 2016, with over 1500 of those women receiving abortions in the Netherlands.

It is also estimated that those figures are much lower due to under-reporting, and also do not account for women taking black market abortion pills.

Several days after the referendum, on a well-known Irish radio programme, Jane, a clinical midwife specialist in foetal medicine in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital spoke about what the result meant for the medical community in Ireland. She expressed reserved relief that safe guidelines could now be developed for patients and professionals, and talked about her worry during the years when having to send patients off into the streets knowing they would need to go elsewhere to seek a safe abortion whilst grieving for a wanted pregnancy.

The host of the show asked her how many times in her professional career had she been faced with a couple or a woman who said “I just don’t understand why you can’t take care of me here”. It was the only time in the interview that her sharply professional voice showed her true emotions. “Too many times to imagine; every day, of every week. It is heartbreaking. I think this legislation now will mean that we care for our patients in our country.”

That is the hope of every Irish person who voted yes, that we can now take care of pregnant women in a safe and responsible way, and that those same parameters for reproductive care are extended to our sisters in Northern Ireland before long.

 

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We bury our dead

I’ve been working on some side projects of late based around migrants to Europe, and how utterly like us they are. Our losses are their losses when it comes to family, love and life in general. What will eventually become a collection starts today with this piece.

You sit on your couch
Cushions plumped, back supported
A cool breeze comes in from the open window
Your dinner was unremarkable but your belly is full
Tomorrow your alarm will ping you from sleep
Your day will start again and you count the days to your next paycheck

When your mother died, she died in a hospital bed
Her eyes were closed, her mouth easy
She breathed her last with the help of a small drip pulsing small amounts of unbelievable comfort through her body
Your heart broke, but she knew no pain
She was warm, she was clean, and she was in a tight circle of care

When her mother died, she was alone on a road
One gunshot followed another, footsteps ricocheted off crumbling walls
Her mother’s last breaths were gasps, no medicine to temper the gulps
The sun chased them all as they tried to say goodbye

When you buried your mother, you buried her in your family’s plot
She lies with John, with Mary, with Tom
The last soil closed over her and you shared a drink to remember her life

She did not bury her mother.
Her body lay on a road between the school and the marketplace, a pathway for trucks and tanks
She does not know where her mother lies now. She cannot ever visit her again in life.

When your mother died you grieved. When her mother died she ran.
She knew if she did not that her life would be gone soon after her mother’s. She ran to the only help on offer, a gnashing offer of care that was made risky by her skin. Your loss is only welcomed here if it is the same colour as ours and speaks the same language.

You think of your mother a hundred times a day. She thinks of hers the same. You think of how you spent hours together shopping and planning family dinners. She remembers her mother’s recipes for lamb and bread, and the clothes she stole from her wardrobe.

You lost your mother despite wishing that love would keep her here, but you lost her with great dignity. She lost hers knowing that the world had given up on her mother ever having dignity.

You turn on to your right side to switch out the light and sleep. Your mother’s face is present before you.

She keeps her eyes open, unable to let go of the fear of what might be next for her.

Both of your mothers wanted the same for their daughters. They watched you crawl, fall, tumble and grow. They saw your precious energy surge into beautiful life. You saw theirs extinguished.

The love is the same, the worlds are different.

We bury our dead in the way our world allows us to.

The valley of the squinting windows

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Seeing as it’s Christmas and I haven’t shared many stories on here about life in The Hague, I thought I’d let you in on a gross little tale that’s been going on in my life since I moved in May.

Much like Luka, I live on the second floor, and directly across from me, in a near identical block of flats, lives a man who, almost nightly, watches what one might refer to as nudie flicks on his extremely large television.

He doesn’t close his Venetian blinds, he doesn’t appear to indulge in any manual vigorousness, he just sits down and watches terrible people riding for hours. And hours. And more hours. I have made complex and laborious stews and eaten them and taken a a nap and when I’m washing my plate he is still just arsing around watching Sasha and Josh bate the sexy heads off each other in a police station. (He is very into police-themed stuff.)

He’s upped the ante since the nights got darker, so now I can’t so much as make a cup of tea after 7pm without seeing a HD fanny a few yards away.

Sometimes he sits at his desk near his window and browses stuff on his computer while the panoramic intercourse takes place in the background. Ordering a few bits off Amazon while Shirley does reverse cowgirl over his shoulder. He must just like the sound of it. Just sitting by the wintery seaside, in a soundscape of moans and seagulls. My very odd neighbour.

 

The things I did not expect

DSC_0140I expected to cry.

A lot.

All the time, in fact.

I expected crying and sleepless nights and I’d read so many things about people thinking they saw their dead parent on a street or in a café or down the back of Tesco, like a low-brow Don’t Look Now.

I expected sadness and weeping and missing and oh-so-many tears right from the get-go, but what I did not expect was the shock of waking up one morning in a new world that I had never visited before. Going to bed one night, and waking in a room freshly painted in a colour you don’t like on a street you’ve never been on in a country you’ve never heard of and your phone battery’s gone and you can’t find your bag and when you look in the mirror it’s not your face. That’s what my father’s death was to me.

In November, I visited Washington. I’d always wanted to go there. I was weak with excitement before the trip, and my regular fear of flying poked its head above the parapet but no more so than usual. I was ready, and extremely excited about heading to political mecca the week after the presidential elections. The first 3 days were spent in wall-to-wall meetings with barely a minute to breathe; I drank coffee, ate Thanksgiving lunches that stopped all my clothes from fitting within 48 hours, and I slept a precise 7 hours a night, exhausted from new faces and buzzed chats but with not a minute to spare for rest.

On day 4, I headed off across DC for a few days of solo adventuring and museum visits, and in the aftermath of the noise and bustle of the previous days, in an entirely new city, and on the cusp of it being 11 months since I had seen my Dad, something went awry in my brain.

The morning started as mornings generally do in a new place; a brief and perfunctory breakfast at a European-themed pastry place, an hour spent trying to figure out which method of public transport I could waste more time on, and then I arrived at Arlington Cemetery, the first stop on my tour.

My knowledge of Arlington stemmed largely from news reports and the X-Files. As I walked through the visitor centre, past the guards and welcome staff, I spotted the train that would take me around the grounds, each one of those 624 acres. After a short wait where a few other visitors hopped aboard, we moved off. I felt like a successful adult woman on a very lovely business trip having a little break to visit someplace I’d always wanted to see. I felt happy. I did not feel as if a bowling ball of granite sadness was about to smash me in the face. It was.

The day was warm and the sky was sharp and blue. The train pulled itself up the inclines of Arlington. At the first descent, a shot rang out and as I looked down over the lip of the hill, the family of a soldier stood around a graveside. A boy returned from war, a boy come home. The tears rolled down my face. They wouldn’t stop for hours.

More than 400,000 people lie in Arlington. After I’d gotten off the tiny toy train due to uncontrollable, mortifying sobs, I walked past what felt like most of those people. Through the Nurses Section, up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, over to the Challenger Memorial and on to the mast of the USS Maine. My tears had calmed but were relentless. By this point it had turned into the kind of crying that makes no sound; I didn’t shake or wail, I didn’t sink to the ground or do any of the things I’d seen on TV that looked like they would be par for the course when the death of your Dad finally caught up with you in a foreign country whilst entirely on your own.

The tears continued to run as I made my way out of the cemetery towards the Women’s Memorial. I asked a young security guy how long it would take me to walk to the Lincoln Memorial from where we were; “oof, about three hours I guess”, he said. Young Americans may have the world at their feet, but they haven’t used those feet very much, as the walk turned out to be a swift 20 minutes across the Potomac. I cried as I tried to listen to Wilson Philips to drown out the sadness. I cried as I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. By the time I’d made my way up the Mall, and into the Air and Space Museum, I’d tuckered myself out, and was ready to lie on the ground and sleep. Joan Didion in her memoir on grief following the death of her husband focuses for pages on the derangement of grief and the physical symptoms: “Somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from 20 minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and intense subjective distress.”

I’d walked 26 kilometres that day, wandering in and out of museums, traversing Washington in my keening state. On that final stretch, as the sun dropped behind Capitol Hill, my sciatic nerve in my right leg burned through my skin, my right foot numb. I felt no recognition of myself. My life had changed and my brain had finally caught up. The learning would now begin.

Earlier on in my grief, maybe after 4 months or so, I was planning to head out on a Sunday evening with pals for a birthday celebration, and I looked through a stack of one-size-fits-all birthday cards that I keep in a cupboard in the hall. They’re handy for strangers and more recent friends, the kind you make later in life. As I rifled through, trying to decide between a demure garden scene or a watercolour teddy bear, I found stuck in between them all the last birthday card signed to me by Dad. The oversized capital D of his signature. The slight scrawl and messiness. I slunk from squat to splayed legs, bawling into my cards, hysterical with sobs and bellowing air like a stranded whale.

I was thrilled. I had done it. I was grieving. This was it, right? This was the sadness, the unmentionable depth of loss that I was supposed to be feeling. After three long hours of weeping on a wooden floor, I rose triumphant. I had fucking grieved. I was on my way out of this mess, and soon my life would be back to the way it was before. I was sure I would feel normal again.

In the days leading up to his death, the thing that stands out more than anything is banality. The banality of sitting in a hospital room for 10 hours a day. We never stayed the whole night. I think we felt that if we did, it would’ve been admitting to ourselves that these may be our last hours with him and that was why we were clinging to every one. Instead, we paced ourselves: If we stayed there a lot, but not entirely, then there was less panic, less of a sense of an ending.

He was only really sick for three weeks. The word cancer was only present in one of those. In that final week, when the diagnosis began to form, we faced the full run of TV medical show moments: the questions about resuscitation, the meeting in a doctor’s office when they tell you there’s nothing else that they can do. I cried, but not ridiculously so. In my head, I was prostrate on the ground, smashing my fists against the doctor’s ankles, but in real life it was all quite sedate, I think.

After that meeting, I went to lunch with my Mother. She insisted on keeping ourselves fed as my sister was arriving from London that evening, now that the news had taken a turn for the worst. We sat in a nearby restaurant, and I remember thinking that I was so proud of my body for keeping me going through this. My mind was splintered and paralysed with anxiety, I had no concept of linear time, my abdomen was concrete, and my digestive system had stalled like an old clock.

I remember ordering soup, and when it arrived with bread I felt thankful that some carbohydrates might stop me from completely disintegrating into a heap of iron filings. My saliva had disappeared, and each mouthful of bread had to be downed with a spoonful of soup and a swig of water to force it down into my belly. The ability to live through that moment and that day and that week still baffles me. How did we not die? How did the absolute bizareness of the loss of such a person not just kill us all stone dead with him? I still struggle with it. A moment of forgetting what way is up or down, what my place is now without him, or how frame him in a discussion while holding on to my own sense of myself.

It’s been almost 18 months now. Some days, I feel a more vague sense of missing, like I have misplaced an earring or a brooch. Other days, it feels like I’m waiting on a visit from him, like he is about to arrive and I can’t quite fathom what’s taking him so long. On the worst days, it is like losing a sense. A diminishing of sight, a dulling of hearing, an inability to distinguish by touch. That’s what my father’s death is to me.

But there was no fear in him, and because of this, there is not really any fear in us either. Around the time of the diagnosis, a young doctor came to his bed to tell him that they’d need to pass Dad on to another team. The atmosphere was tense, I didn’t know how Dad would react to this. It wasn’t distressing to him, thanks to the careful delivery of the doctor, but it was a shift in an unknown direction, and there was a distinct awareness that things were becoming more serious. Dad’s reaction to the clearly upset young doctor was to thank him for being so kind as to tell him, and then instruct him to go out and have a pint as he’d had a tough day. Kindness and consideration even in the midst of the tempest. Resilience. Love. Care. That’s what my father’s death was to me, and it is in the company of those things that I grieve, thanks to him.

What my Ma thinks of Muslims

I had the loveliest conversation with my Mam yesterday; a 74-year-old devout Catholic and conservative. We started talking about Trump and the Muslim Ban and she was just horrified about the whole thing. She made the most lovely observation, that it must be so hard to stick to your faith as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab or a burqa in the West when those things make you stand out in a crowd, and that they must be very strong and proud women to keep going with it. She’d been swimming during the week, and there were two Muslim women in the pool who were covered head to toe, and the only negative thing for Mum was that they mightn’t enjoy the sauna as it would get too warm for them and she was really worried that they weren’t getting the full benefit of it.
If my Ma’s only concern about Muslims is that they’re not getting the best of their leisure club memberships, I think that the U.S. government can get their shit together and stop thinking that every Muslim is a terrorist. This is a woman who still has stories about her parents living through WWI and was born in the thick of WWII, and then witnessed the Troubles on her doorstep. She’s familiar with a terrorist threat when she sees it, it’s a pity so many of those in power aren’t, even when it comes from within their own quarters.

About those refugees and what they’re doing to you.

This could be a diatribe. It could be a long, passionate piece on how I believe in the rights of all people to free movement and the ability to seek employment and shelter wherever they choose. But it doesn’t need to be. The truth is far more simple than that.
I am an immigrant. I am an Irish woman who has lived in Belgium, Cambodia, and who now resides in the Netherlands. I have been an employee of multinational companies and have worked all over the world. It has been my right and privilege to do so.

When I lived in Dublin, I spent a lot of time in the company of asylum seekers and refugees as part of a community choir that I sang with. I will never, ever forget the day I met a woman who told me the story of a friend of hers and how her life fell apart along with the lives of hundreds of thousands of others during and after the Rwandan genocide. The woman in question was pregnant with her second child when the atrocities were occurring, and left her son and husband at home when she had to go to hospital to give birth to her daughter. There were complications with the birth, and while she was in there, her husband and son were murdered. She was alone with a newborn child, bereft at the loss of her family, and completely in shock and despair. She spent some time being moved around, until she and her child were finally settled in Ireland. At this point, her grief and distress were crippling. She couldn’t speak to new people, couldn’t face social situations, and was totally disconnected from her child. When she walked down the, street, however, as a black, African woman, she was met with judgement that she was in Ireland for the money, that everyone knew that the Africans were coming over because they got grants from the government and that they were engineering it so that they could give birth on Irish soil so that they could reap the benefits of a lax Western social system.

To come home from hospital and a difficult birth and find your family slaughtered. To be rescued from that in the dead of night and delivered to an unfamiliar safety. To try to keep up the battle every day to look after your child while you silently grieve for the son and husband who were taken from you by men wielding machetes and guns. That woman did not want money.

For all of the complaints of refugees taking jobs and causing disorder, I just want to ask one thing, and I mean it with utmost sincerity: When has a refugee or asylum seeker caused direct harm to you? No stories from the media, no examples you’ve seen on Facebook pages; when has it happened to you? When have you lost a job to a refugee? When has one outbid you on a house? When has one threatened you in the street? When have they had a direct negative impact on your life?

My friends who were and are refugees are not saints. They are flawed, regular humans who have had to live life the hard way and often end up better because of it. They feel compassion because of their struggles, they have ambition and a sense of purpose because of new chances they are given, they feel depressed, and sad, and bored, and struggle with the new culture they are in like any of us would if we were placed in a new country with massive restrictions on our behaviour.

These are human stories, and we have to keep telling them.

Bottoms up

It’s been a long time since I wore a bikini. They’re not the most practical of ensembles on a beach (too much sand, and it’s impolite to readjust one’s wedgie in front of a viewing audience) and so I usually stick to a solid one-piece, better for diving and lazing and all manner of things you’d usually do on a sunny shore. But this year, I’m heading to the scorching hot, white-and-blue terraced steppes of the Greek islands, and decided I wanted to go all out. I eat right, I pay my taxes, I ain’t never shot a man in Reno, so I’m pretty sure I get to wear a bikini in climates where it’s so hot you can’t tell where your face ends and the sun begins, even if I’m not of Taylor Swiftian proportions.

If you’re not a woman over size 10 (or about a 38 or for the Europeans), it can be hard to understand the constant see-saw of thoughts that are set in motion when you begin to contemplate showing flesh in public. I’m not an unconfident person; I can attend a party solo, have commandeered the odd set of decks in order to do an interpretive dance to Fleetwood Mac, and I don’t have any huge hang-ups about my arse, but I still can’t shake that niggling feeling of not being sample size when it comes to outdoor outings. Today, to take advantage of sale season, I started looking for some bits of string to cover up the essentials on holiday and found the following pictures:

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This is not a post about skinny shaming. It is not a post slagging off women who have prominent hip bones or thigh gaps or six-packs. All women are beautiful, unless they’re total arseholes, in which case they’re not that beautiful, but on a plainly aesthetic level all women are equal. What made me feel so unsettled was that when I saw a woman who was “normal” after all the hundreds of airbrushed, thigh-gapped women, I felt a shock and it made me feel so awful to think that somehow in that brief period of searching for something and finding only objectified perfection, I had lost a sense of diversity and reality in the presentation of the female body. When I saw these bodies, that represent most bodies and most definitely fall into the representation of my body, I felt, well, a little unnerved. Should they be showing that? What will people think if I go on a beach looking like that? Shouldn’t they – and I – cover up a bit more?

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I’m a 5′ 10″, size 14, and the sight of a woman in the same realm as me made me immediately feel like I should wrap a sarong around me and duck under the nearest sun lounger. What a crock of shit our concept of fashion campaigns is. This post is only about basic photography, it doesn’t even cover the much murkier depths of higher level advertising, where extreme thinness and unreality are the norm, but I just felt I had to post something for my pals and others who might feel the same way.

We have wobbly bits, several wobbly bits, despite exercise and healthy eating and all the things we’re “supposed” to do, and I’m fully reclaiming all those wobbly bits now. I’m sticking a little flag in them, I’m the Neil Armstrong of my very own Lunar landscape and I’m going to appreciate how fucking flawless those women look in their Curve or Plus-size or whatever other euphemistically named bikinis they’re wearing, and feel fucking thrilled that I have a body that can take me to a beach, that can dive me under the water and bring me back to the surface and roll around in warm sand like the Little fucking Mermaid when she gets her legs, although that wasn’t entirely a picnic for poor Ariel either, let’s be fair.

I hate that it made me second-guess myself, but I love that I went ahead and bought 4 of the things anyway. Thighs: Prepare yourselves. Ass: Your day is nigh. Stomach: Your tour of duty approaches. We’re off to see the world, and a grand old time we’ll have too.