Editor’s Note: Una Mullally is a journalist, author and screenwriter from Dublin. She is a columnist with the Irish Times and contributes to the Guardian. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
This week, 47 years ago, a group of Irish feminists boarded what became known as the Contraceptive Train – a train to and from Belfast so they could buy condoms, take them back to Dublin and goad the police to arrest them.
The protest against the illegality of contraceptives was a landmark moment in Irish society, a perspective that could not be unseen and a point of view that shifted public discourse.
The women’s movement in Ireland has fought many battles: from the glorious stunt of that train journey to the divorce referendum in 1995.
But 2018 presents the greatest challenge yet: will the Irish people remove the eighth amendment from the constitution – a ban on abortion introduced in 1983 – by referendum on May 25?
If the past is a different country for most nations, in Ireland, it’s a different continent. The social change that has occurred here since the 1990s – when the scale of the sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church began to be revealed – is profound.
Marriage equality was legalized by popular vote in 2015, and Ireland has some of the most progressive legislation on transgender rights in the world. Yet legal abortion has been the third rail of Irish politics for so long.
The international perception of Ireland also at times languishes in the past.
Generalizations of a conservative, Catholic, Atlantic outpost, are not without merit, when considering the country’s reluctance to provide the type of reproductive health care that many other nations don’t even bother debating anymore.
Yet there is also a frustration in Ireland about the tweeness that colors global assumptions about the country.
As the international media descends this week on Dublin – a cosmopolitan city home to the European headquarters of so many tech companies – that perception rears its head again.
How can a country legalize gay marriage but not abortion? How can Irish people say the Catholic Church has lost its moral authority and power while Irish women still can’t access basic health care?
The answer lies in a complex legacy of control and oppression of women that is as off-putting to many Irish women as it is to their global sisters.
In the aftermath of the marriage referendum, the country seized a progressive energy, and a newly politicized generation began to challenge something that 35 years of activism failed to dismantle.
Across the country, the mobilization of canvassers and grassroots activists advocating for a Yes vote has been phenomenal.
They have been contending with a No campaign that holds on to that old Ireland, one where Catholic dogma is viewed as a positive force and our status as a place where women cannot access abortion is praised as special.
The practicalities of illegal abortion are stark. On average, nine women travel from Ireland every day to Britain in order to have an abortion.
An estimated three women a day take abortion pills, bought illegally online, without medical supervision. But the shame and stigma that surrounded such a culture has been broken.
Over the past few years, women have spoken out about their own experiences of traveling for abortions. Couples have talked about having to travel to England after diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormalities, couriering the remains of their babies home. Such cruelty has shattered the silence this theocratic law depends on.
The vote will be tight. But the resolve to remove the eighth amendment is strong.
In the face of a No campaign that has been emotive to the point of hysterical – graphic posters shock tourists in the capital – the Yes campaign has taken on a steely resilience.
With just days to go, a profound change may be about to happen. But more profound will be what that change is actually reflecting: a modern country that seeks to remove shackles that have bound it – and its women – for far too long.