On May 25th, 2018, Ireland will have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment of its constitution in a referendum. This amendment was adopted in 1983 and it asserted that a fetus had the same rights as the woman who carried it. It’s no surprise that this law came into existance, since Ireland was still pretty synonymous with the Catholic faith when the Amendment was passed and while it allowed for pregnancy termination if the life of the mother was shown to be at risk, it made proving that exception more difficult. It also didn’t allow for the mental health of the mother – only the physical. The Eighth strengthened penalties for seeking an abortion both in Ireland and abroad and it ensured that community groups and organizations could not legally help women who wished to explore those options. It took decades of hard work to rectify the latter circumstances but abortion in Ireland was and is still illegal.
This is not to say that women (and girls) don’t get abortions. Recent statistics estimate that more than 150,000 Irish women have had abortions since the eighties. About a dozen have them every day – either by traveling to the U.K. where abortion is legal, by using the outlawed Plan B pill, or getting an illegal (and sometimes unsafe) abortion in Ireland itself. These women risk a prison sentence of up to fourteen years if they are caught having an abortion on the island, but they do it anyway and that is really the only point that should matter in the upcoming referendum on whether the Eighth should be repealed or not.
On the third day of Ireland’s Easter Rising, a woman got off her bicycle at St. Stephen’s Green and delivered the message she’d been hiding to the rebel leaders inside. Then she took off her skirts, put on a homemade uniform, picked up a rifle and headed to the roof of the building to take her turn as a deadly sniper. In between shots, Margaret Skinnider formed a plan for a bombing mission that would make the area safer for her comrades and fellow rebels.
Attempting to execute that plan nearly killed her when Ms. Skinnider was shot three times on this day in 1916. Her grave wounds earned her the distinction of being the only woman who was so seriously wounded in the rebellion and it cemented her place in Irish history. You cannot have a project that involves women in the Easter Rising without including Margaret’s near death experience so today belongs to her.
There are a lot of strong, inspiring women throughout Irish history and one of my main goals when I started this project was to honor a lot of them. Sometimes that leads to highlighting women who aren’t Irish at all but who had a profound effect on Ireland whether they loved it, hated it, or were forced to endure it. I believe all of those descriptors and emotions applied at one time or another when it came to the indomitable Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam.
Last year on International Women’s Day I was in Derry, exploring the murals that were off the beaten path. I found many honoring the women of the area – including one that was painted in honor of International Women’s day itself. I find that looking through my pictures of them now is just as inspiring as it was then, and I think sharing my favorites on both sides of the puddle is especially powerful on today of all days.
Many musicians and bands have sung traditional Irish rebel songs throughout the years and one of the most powerful females to do so was Kathleen McCready Largey. She was an amazing songstress and a strong voice both inside and outside of Ireland. Her voice even graced New York’s mighty Carnegie Hall once or twice and audiences on both sides of the ocean loved her.
On this day in 1958, Ireland lost a powerful (albeit slanted) voice. Dorothy Macardle was best known for her book “The Irish Republic” which was commissioned by her idol and friend Eamon De Valera. Her blind faith in his political party and leadership is apparent throughout her history book but so are the echoes of a rebel suffragist and her whispers of dissatisfaction when it came to women’s rights. Dorothy Macardle may have been a vocal member of Dev’s faithful flock, but that’s not to say she was entirely happy with all of his policies.
Ireland has always had more than its fair share of feisty women. By 1908 there were already numerous Suffragist groups in Ireland, full of women who wanted equality, the ability to vote, and more freedoms. Many of these groups focused on petitions, publicity, and spreading their message through polite channels and discourse, and they attracted many prominent socialites who used their influence to further the cause. This was not good enough for Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, her husband Francis, and their radical friends. 108 years ago today, they founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a group dedicated to equal rights that used agitation and action to spread their message.