At 25, I’m in the uniquely fortunate position of having a living great-grandmother. Mary is 90 years old and has lived through the formative years of post-civil war Ireland, the aftermath of one world war and the devastation brought about by its successor.
What Mary has also lived through, and knows only too well, is the stranglehold of Catholic Ireland at the peak of its manipulative, domineering power.
In 1947, she became pregnant. As a single young woman in De Valera’s Ireland, her choices were stark – face the risk of indefinite slavery in a cruel Magdalene Laundry or, as many were forced to do at the time, lie about your circumstances. She chose the latter, and so, for the first 16 years of my grandmother’s life, her mother was presented as her sister. The façade carried on out of necessity, but people knew. And to people – neighbours, colleagues – they were the shame family. The Church made sure of that.
A couple of years after discovering the truth, my grandmother found herself married. Her husband was a little too fond of a pint. A little too fond of expressing himself with his fists. A little too fond of disappearing for weeks on end and leaving her, along with two young children, to cope alone. She sought counselling. Lo and behold, the Church was on hand to offer its unique take on support. Don’t disrespect your husband, Veronica. Leaving him is a sin. Neglect your vows and you’re neglecting Jesus. Perseverance is your only option.
By the time my mother was growing up, her primary role models were two women who’d been beaten – literally and figuratively – by an abusive church, an indifferent state, a society that denounced them as lesser beings. When I was born, in January 1991, my birth certificate sought only the father’s occupation. It regarded my mother as an irrelevant being. The constitution of Ireland, meanwhile, still explicitly declared homosexuality a crime. The rape, beating and psychological torture of children by parish priests throughout the country was ongoing and yet to be fully revealed.
These stories paint an uncomfortable picture, to me, of the legacy of a Draconian state masquerading as a Republic for the past century. I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a slowly evolving Ireland but I refuse to acknowledge it as inherently Republic when, as of 2016, this religious stranglehold is still omnipresent. Upwards of 95% of our schools are under church influence. Baptise your child in the name of a cult or you’re not getting an education! And if you’re lucky enough to be let you in, you’d better develop an appetite for sadistic iconography. You’d better develop an appetite for shame-based sex education.
You’d better develop an appetite for the body of Christ forced down your throat at regular intervals in case you dare forget to whom your servitude applies.
On Saturday, over 25 thousand people across every imaginable demographic came out in Dublin to march for the right to bodily autonomy. They came out demand an end to a legislative legacy that deems 50% of our citizens as second-class and exports 4,000 women a year across the sea. They came out to reject the continued narrative of shame that exists around abortion. They came out to drag us into the 21st century.
The desperation in the tone of voice of the Catholic Church and its coalition of martyrs is obvious. It reached farcical levels during last year’s marriage equality campaign and continues today in the debate around the 8th amendment. A video published over the weekend makes direct comparisons between women accessing abortion and Hitler. The arguments coming from the Sherlocks, the “Pro-Life” Campaign, IONA and Youth Defence are increasingly erratic. But of course they are. These are institutions who have been afforded a lifetime of silent obedience. In that context, how frightening it must be to see public opinion turn away from you so sharply, so profoundly. How frightening it must be that people have found the courage to share their lived experiences and refuse to be shamed.
I wonder how different life could have been for the women in my family, back to my great-grandmother, had Ireland been a true Republic from the outset. How much more joyous their lives could have been in the absence of a daily diet of drip-fed Catholic guilt. It makes me even more determined that ours will be the last generation to endure its aftertaste. Having devastated the Vatican with our decisive vote towards equal love, we can stun them into silence with Repeal in the next 12 months. We’ve loosened the stranglehold already. Now we can obliterate it, and in doing so, leave a legacy for future generations of all genders and none that says “you are unequivocally equal. Your body is yours alone. Your desires are yours alone. You are free.”