Speaking at a pro-choice meeting in Maynooth

Poster for Maynooth meeting

Last night I gave a talk as part of a panel on pro-choice struggles in Ireland in NUI Maynooth.  The venue was a good measure of the huge changes around that issue over the last 20 years, it would have been impossible to imagine a pro-choice meeting in what is the catholic priest training college back in the 1980's never mind one without even an anti-choice picket in sight. Later on someone told me that the Sociology building itself had once been used to house nuns.

What is also interesting is the extent to which we have lost sight of that Ireland.  When I commented after the meeting to one of the organisers about the strangeness of doing the talk in Maynooth she misintepretated my remark as a general one on not expecting to find any radicalism in what is a smallish college (6,000 students) outside Dublin. 

The actual title of the meeting was ''Changing Irish Society: The Irish feminist movement and the fight for safe and legal abortion services'   part of a sequence of meetings by the Sociology Society.  I was originally going along to record the meeting but ended up filling in at short notice for one of the speakers who couldn't make it.  I have the recording but I'm waiting for permission from one of the audience before I put it online as it includes her personal experiences of an unwanted pregnancy - I'll have it on indymedia either with or without that segment by the middle of next week. (Audio now online)

The history of Maynooth is pretty interesting as its foundation in 1795 was a very important part of the process by which the British state brought the Catholic Church hierarchy on board.  Shortly afterwards, during the rebellion of 1798 Maynooth issued a statement that "We, the undersigned, his Majesty's most loyal subjects, the Roman Catholics of Ireland, think it necessary at this moment publicly to declare our firm attachment to his Majesty's royal person"

This was signed by the President of the Royal College of Maynooth and 2000 of the Professors and students, 4 lords and 72 baronets. One of the Wexford rebels, Myles Byrne, wrote afterwards that "priests saved the infamous English government in Ireland from destruction."

O'Donovan Rossa in his recollections of the Fenian movement refers to "The oath these priests swore at the College of Maynooth" in 1863 that "swore them to be "loyal and true to the Queen" and to make known to her all combinations and conspiracies that may be hatching against her rule in the realm of Ireland" and in reply to which he published (in The Irish People) a poem which ended

 With fearless Captain Billy O’
I joined the Fenian band,
And I swore one day to strike a blow
To free my native laud.

Back in that sinking isle again,
Where landlords suck our blood,
Where friends are scattered, starved and slain,
I'm told I'm cursed by God.
If I can swear my lifelong days
To fight from pole to pole,
For any power, however base,
With safety to my soul,

It cannot he by God's decree
I'm cursed, denounced and banned
Because I swear one day to free
My trampled native land.

One of the things I like about doing this blog is the frequency with which I'll discover stuff while checking some fact.  I just discovered a scan of the memoirs of the Fenian leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa in this case while looking for the Maynooth denunciation of the Fenians.  I'm working on an article on the Fenians and the Land League so this is a pretty useful discovery!  Returning to the meeting ..

I didn't do a count but I guess there were about 25 people in all.  I was very interested in the contribution from Mary Murphy who was involved in the Women's Information Network.  WIN were a clandestine organisation of women that provided abortion information to women in Ireland in the period from 1988/9 to Novemeber 2002 when this act was essentially illegal.  The operated via a telephone helpline (6794700 - I still remember the number two decades later!) which was advertised through stickers on the back of toilet doors and a variety of similar methods.  On yet another diversion googling the number turns up song lyrics about abortion from what sounds like a fundraising album for the Birmingham 6

I was involved in the Dublin Abortion Information Campaign in this period.  We were a small group that publicly distributed the number, mostly through leafleting at the GPO, in order to invite prosecution with the intention of building the pro-choice movement around the subsequent court cases. Every issue of Workers Solidarity also carried the number in those years. Unfortunately the anti-Choice brigade and the state were smart enough to recognise that ignoring us was much more effective then prosecuting us although it did mean we had the organisation and on the ground activity by the time of the X-case.  There were some women involved in DAIG who were also involved in WIN but the situation at that time meant that although we did fundraisers etc we didn't really ask how they functioned so it was very interesting getting an insight into this.
DAIC protest at the Dail


DAIC protest at Dail (Irish parliament building) around 1990 with the 'illegal' WIN abortion information number, I was probably the photographer

Anyway when I get the audio online you'll be able to listen to her contribution, my hsitory of the struggles in the years that followed and then Sinead of Choice Ireland  talking about the last couple of years.  Something we all commented on was the lack of documentation and images in particular from the 80's and early 90's.  Even apart from the illegal nature of much of the activity the reality was also that photography back in pre-digital recession ridden 1980's Dublin was expensive.  Today I probably take 50 or more pictures on any pro-Choice demo with a digital camera, back then two of us took a handful of pictures on a shared camera, less that two dozen of which survive covering a period of a dozen years.

I was chatting with Sinead this morning about perhaps starting to use the Choice Ireland page to document those missing years through searching out (and scanning) material, interviewing participants etc.  WIN for instance did publish a book in 1992 or 1993 and copies of this are still in existence.  In the meantime the most complete history I'm aware of is the one published in Red & Black Revolution as How free can you be if you can’t even control your own body? written by Alan, a  WSM participant in the pro-choice struggles from the early 1980's.


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