Women pushing buggies, glam young gals, a man walking his dog, lads heading into the pub to watch the rugby, an elderly gent in a peaked cap who said resolutely, ‘it should be left up to women.’
The people who stopped at the Galway East for Choice stall in Athenry on a blustery Saturday afternoon came from all walks of life – a terrible cliché but it is true. Galway East is regarded as a conservative constituency. As a consequence, the three of us running the stall were unsure what to expect. What we had not anticipated, what I will never forget in the months ahead, were the moments when a lump burned my throat.
A middle-aged man, his face heavy with emotion, approached us. ‘I believe in this,’ he said, proffering a donation, ‘I believe in ye.’
‘It’s your body, like,’ a woman with a scatter of children said, incredulous, as if it should be obvious. She went on: ‘Have you seen In Her Shoes?* Those stories would break your heart.’
Throughout the afternoon we sold t-shirts, badges and stickers. We had chats, answered questions, listened, gave out sweets. Our unease was replaced by something like elation.
Rural communities are often unfairly characterized as inward-looking, parochial, with windows that are ever-squinting. I know because I come from one, live in one. But Ireland has changed in the last ten years. The transformation is far from complete, but it is enough to get many people thinking in ways they have never been encouraged to before. They want to talk. They have questions – and stories. So many feelings, too. It is the work of the Citizens’ Assembly all over again except now it is in the streets.
If you are reading this in a rural community thinking, ‘but if I say I’m voting ‘yes’, what will people think?’ I hear you. God, do I hear you. ‘What will people think?’ has hung like a spectre over swathes of the Irish population for generations, with horrendous outcomes for women. Back when most people had very little, respectability, as determined by Catholicism, was precious; the one thing you could lord over the neighbours. But a new type of respectability is emerging in Ireland. ‘Enough judgement,’ said one woman at the stall, encapsulating it perfectly.
Sometimes, depending on the circles that you move in, the stifling effects of Catholicism and comely maidens can seem like ancient history. For many people however, they remain all too real. It isn’t surprising. While that era may feel long past, in reality the last Magdalene Laundry only closed in 1996 and as the Irish Examiner recently revealed, babies in Mother and Child ‘homes’ were still being buried in unmarked graves as late as 1990.
Even today in most of our schools, Catholicism is presented as an element; as evident and inevitable as fire or water, rather than the ideology that it is. Its power, while diluted, is still a repressive force in many people’s lives. Voting ‘yes’ in May will be another step on the road to building a real republic where church and state are truly separate to the benefit of all citizens.
The emergence of regional groups over the past few years, all working together for a ‘yes’ vote, has been inspiring – and vital. They are helping people find their voices. I see their bravery, their willingness to make themselves visible, doing the work that many politicians avoid. If you can can support them, please do. If you feel unsure, remember the words of Emily Dickinson, ‘If your Nerve, deny you/ Go above your Nerve’. The stakes are too high not to.
Above all, know that the fleeting discomfort of dealing with closed-minds and hard hearts, even face-to-face, pales in comparison to what Irish women have endured, and continue to endure. Standing at that stall, having those chats, waiting for the hassle that never materialised, I realised rural Ireland is ready to vote ‘yes’. To make sure it happens, it is time for us to go to work.
To find get involved with a group in your locality and to learn more about voting ‘yes’, click here.
*The creator of the In Her Shoes social media campaign is a member of Galway East for Choice – we are very proud of her.
Image: first edition cover of Edna O’Brien’s debut novel The Country Girls, banned in Ireland in 1960 for its depiction of sexuality.