It has been a very interesting week in Irish women’s long-running quest for bodily autonomy. First we had the brave duo, Two Women Travel, using Twitter to document their journey to the UK to avail of abortion services there. The international news media paid attention but coverage in Ireland was patchy. Next we had Brianna Parkins, a contestant in the Rose of Tralee, who, when discussing women’s rights, expressed her desire for a referendum on the 8th Amendment.
Parkins’ statement was met with applause from the crowd. The seventh circle of hell did not open, nor did the Dome spontaneously combust. Two Women Travel was the focus of much sympathy and solidarity in Ireland and right around the world. Critics have been quick to argue that there is, apparently, a time and a place for such ‘political’ conversations. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t on one of the country’s most viewed television shows or on social media. They maintain that using such platforms for ‘outbursts’ and ‘stunts’ is sensationalist and trivializing. Faced with the question of what the right time and place might be for such a long overdue discussion, the sound of a can being booted down the road is so deafening it would split an eardrum.
Activism has always meant being creative and opportunistic enough to capture the attention required to win hearts and minds. And, note to successive Irish governments, there is surely nothing more trivializing of an issue (and its lived experiences) than ignoring it. How interesting it is that an event like the Rose of Tralee which professes to be a celebration of Irish womanhood should be seen as the last place on the island to discuss, never mind mention, that which harms women. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much the talking about the difficult realities of women’s lives as having to listen to them, to acknowledge them, to act.
What did take a battering in the past few days, and has been under attack for some time, is a uniquely Irish myth of femininity which is one part Lovely Girl, one part Irish Mammy and three parts Virgin Mary. ‘A lovely mammy named Mary,’ if you will. The kind of chimerical comely maiden so beloved of de Valera and his ilk. A cailín álainn with a twinkle in her eye and rosary beads in her handbag, who doesn’t backchat to her husband or (God forbid) the priest, bears suffering like a stoic and births nine children before her fortieth birthday.
As the scars on Irish landscapes and psyches show, silence never saved the comely maiden who became a fallen woman. It never won her a single right. Instead it exiled her to Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, on early morning flights to Britain. It condemned, and still condemns, generations of Irish women to live in its shadow, its cold fingers clamped over their mouths.
There is never a ‘right’ or pleasant time to talk about that which has been rendered unsayable for so long. Such conversations are necessarily emotive, frustrating, heartbreaking and uncomfortable. But the mark of maturity, of a society, of a person, is to face what must be done. In the words of the poet Audre Lorde who wrote so movingly, so precisely about ‘the tyrannies of silence’, ‘My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.’
For Irish women, it’s time to live the truth of our lives out loud.