Charming Margaret

gorse in Mayo
Gorse just starting to blossom in Mayo earlier this month

I was this close to losing my faith in the people here in recent weeks.

If anyone doesn’t know about this: This Friday, Ireland voted on whether or not to remove an amendmend to our constitution which puts a blanket ban on abortions. No other country I know of has a blanket ban written into their constitution, for the simple reason that it doesn’t belong there. Constitutions are for black-and-white stuff like human dignity being inviolable. Abortion is far too complex a subject.

The problem is that those in Ireland who campaigned for a “No” (to removing the amendmend), brought the issue down to personal beliefs about abortion. Their posters spread outright lies – such as “1 in 5 babies in the UK are aborted”, when in actual fact it’s about 8 in 1000 (1 in 5 would be 200…) – and proclaimed that repealing the amendment was “too extreme”, often explicitly stating that repealing meant to allow abortions anytime, anywhere, right up to birth.

None of that’s true, of course. I happen to believe a woman’s body is her own and she should be the one to decide, but the thing is, all these details will have to be discussed when they bring in proper legislation about abortions; the referendum was only about making such legislation possible by removing the blanket ban. It was about preventing horrible deaths and hardships (google “Savita Halappanavar” or “Michelle Harte”) due to women being denied life-saving treatments, 14-year-old rape victims forced to carry out their pregnancies, and other atrocities.

The No-side was very well funded, among other things by American pro-life groups, and there were sickening incidents like a TV debate in which people actually laughed at tragic deaths due to the 8th amendmend, and towns like my beloved Ballinrobe plastered with No posters (I counted 19 No to 2 Yes posters there the other day). It seemed we were inundated by people who would place a foetus’s life above that of the mother, who cynically told women to keep travelling to the UK for abortions, and who attacked and harrassed Yes-campaigners.

That’s not the Ireland I love. Before I continue, please let me clarify what I mean by “love”: I mean the country as in, literally, the land, and the beautiful, big-hearted, witty and wry-humoured people here. I’ve never loved the political construct of a country as a state and believe that patriotism is vile (in my opinion, things like a functioning democracy and its institutions should be appreciated and upheld and forever improved, but in a rational, intellectual way. There’s no place for personal pride or emotions there; I find they always have a nasty aftertaste of fascism).

Then came voting day and it turned out that the vast majority of people – two thirds, in fact – are in favour of removing the admendmend. My relief and joy was mirrored by my wonderful friends, there was an atmosphere of giddy, tearful gratitude in the air as the voting counts trickled in yesterday. What had seemed like a majority belief turned out to be just a very loud minority – and I now believe, it’s an even smaller minority than one third of the population, because many foreigners like myself didn’t have a vote, and even those who voted No were often simply uninformed.

I was sitting in my favourite cafe at lunch, tears in my eyes as I saw the first results, when a woman sat down at my table (the place was crowded), introduced herself as Margaret, and in the inimitable way of people in this country, started chatting to me. She said she hadn’t voted but would have voted No, because she believes “babies shouldn’t be aborted.”

I took a deep breath.

Here I was, overflowing with love and gratitude, and now this. We started discussing the matter and it turned out, she had no idea of the actual issue at hand. She hadn’t even heard about Savita, who died of sepsis because of a drawn-out miscarriage. The miscarriage was inevitable, but because it took so long, infection set in. “But they should have just taken the foetus out of her!” exclaimed Margaret. “Exactly,” I said. “But they couldn’t, because the amendmend forbid it.”

Lough Cullen
Lough Cullen

We kept talking and then parted as friends, and I felt another wave of love as I realised that many who voted No must have been just as uninformed. It’s hard to fathom in 2018, but many people in rural Ireland still don’t have internet. All their information came from those vile, lying No campaigners. That’s why we need to keep having the conversations, the way we’ve all done in the past few months, especially those legends, the Yes canvassers. The actual haters are a tiny minority, and face it, there’s a few assholes in every place and every group of people. The No campaign has tried to divide the people; we need to flip them the finger and extend the love and compassion we have for pregnant women, to the Margarets of this country.

My faith in humanity is restored.

I went on to do archery in Massbrook and felt like I’d slipped into mythological Ireland. Dappled sunlight through the trees, birds singing, mild air, soft moss. Afterwards, I drove back home and went on to a birthday BBQ at a friend’s house, with more joyful, relieved people, great food and good music. It was a charmed day, every place and every person steeped in magic.

These past few weeks, I had seriously considered leaving the country. It felt hostile. At the same time, I’m so rooted in this place, interwoven with the very fabric of the land, the bones of the earth mother, that the mere thought of leaving is unsettling. I still might do it one day, I’m never saying never, but now I don’t feel like I “have to” any longer because I realise that it’s still, in fact, the place and the people I love.

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