Feminism in Ireland and around the world and the position of countries relative to women’s rights presents a broad canvas of differences. The origin of how women have come to define themselves is as rich as the variation of those differences. Even before language, girls are given messages in the silence about who they are to be and what is expected of them. My Irish Catholic origins in Lynn, Massachusetts with grandmothers, aunts and cousins, was where I had come from. I could be no further removed from those anchors of my origin than to move to Berkeley , California in 1970, never to return to the East Coast. Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970 were in the midst of great changes, revolution really in what would later be called the 2nd wave of feminism. How that showed up for me was in new choices available to me, and significant changes among my peers and myself in determining our roles as mothers and as women. There was a fresh exploration of what was available around me, and in trial and error as a guide to the newly opened terrain. For a very long time, I did not look back. As I did throughout the later years, it was always a curiosity to me that I lacked much interest in the roots of my origin, along with vague dislike of memories of emotions I couldn’t interpret.
My seeming lack of curiosity in Ireland, Irish music and stories given this trip to Ireland among my 40 member family reunion offered an opportunity to know not only our history, but have experience of the country of our grandparents. I was open to a greater understanding of the culture I had to have absorbed on some level. I was aware of the struggles that motivated my grandfather, in 1906 at age 13, to take the treacherous trip to join his sister, already working in the slaughterhouses in Chicago. He then moved on to Lynn, Massachusetts where he would meet and marry my grandmother in 1919, who emigrated in 1912.
The trip to Ireland might give me the connection to my first experiences, spoken and unspoken, recalling my first six years of life. For instance, what was it in my DNA, my psyche and my understandings, that informed me, and caused me to look in directions I chose, take the measures I’ve taken, and make the decisions that I’ve made? What information could I gain about our default assumptions based on unselected attitudes and concepts before we’re verbal or creating concepts about our experience that drives us in our understanding of who we are, and as women? Who are the women in Ireland today and what os the measure of women’s rights today? Could I even imagine my grandmother’s experience of Ireland, and what remains of the conditions and life she led compared to life today for women?
My grandmother left as many million did during the period of the famine from the farm lands. The famine is a well known driver of the destiny of the two million Irish who either died or emigrated to the US, Britain and Europe and Australia beginning around 1848. The life in the countryside with the Celtic Chieftains was marked by the land wars amongst the families in power. The Norman Invasion and English overlords with Henry ViII declaring himself king of Ireland in the 1600’s set up the constant struggle for Home Rule over the course of the years preceding my grandparents emigrating. The Irish were an underclass to the British rule. and Ireland itself was considered to be an English plantation. The country survived immense tragedy under this rule. The path of Thomas Cromwell slaughter of thousands of the Irish citizens rebelling against his cruel rule, and the Catholic church coming into power defined the path of the Irish civilization. Even before the plague, these were the struggles endured by those living in Ireland in the 16th-18th Century. Those first adults I met as a child under five had all come through these experiences, and as I recall wept whenever they spoke of Ireland. Coming to understand their history by visiting the areas where these events took place had the affect of my understanding their expressions experienced as a young child. What it could be described at now as I look at it is the great wall of grief expressed at every family gathering that my family brought with them from Ireland to Lynn, Massachusetts.
But an intention I had going to Ireland was to have particular knowledge of what governed women’s lives now, where things are in terms of women’s rights today. What is ability of women to determine their own destiny? With that, the value for me was to reconcile my own experience with what I observed and felt around me in being in Ireland.
From Shannon Airport, the vast, sprawling carpet of hills and vales of green with rows of trees clearly created boundaries separating property was all that I could see for miles and miles. Rolling hills, with a few purple mountains in the distance with a 360 degree view most often available, was stunning. Cows and sheep peppered the green hills. There were 31 of the family fresh off the plane, with all but two of us visiting Ireland for the first time. The executive bus came with a driver, Michael, who moved us steadfastly through narrow winding streets with no margin for error, we had no certainty about our destination, and throughout he gave his own understanding of the country. Michael spoke to us as we moved through the countryside and identified distinctions of the small and larger townships we passed on our way to Blackwater Castle. We would enter small townships barreling along at a good clip, the cluster of houses and pubs bound together in a row in clumps. Bright flags and colorful flowers at each location, we moved directly through each town: Limerick, Adare, Killarney, Castletown Roche on our way through Mallow to Blackwater. “Guys, this is Ireland. We’ve had some hard times but we stand together.” With that, he put on the Irish music, robust and merry but yet the sad tones and words came through. “We’ve had a hard time, but we’re coming back from 2008.” He described the ownership of properties by absentee landlords who left for Europe with the profits from their tenant farms, leaving behind bankruptcy in Ireland. That sounded pretty familiar given the recent recession crisis in the US, with many banks taking their profits and leaving bankruptcy for many. “But a new day is coming to Ireland, guys” Michael told us. “We’ve discovered that energy is what there is to sell in the new world. We have land, a great deal of land untapped for use, and now there are windmills on the vistas, and doors open for investors to take on this new opportunity.”
We would discover over the week the decades and centuries of hard times, devastations and tragedies that fill the history of Ireland. From the Celtic Chiefs through the Viking and Norman Invasions and the great struggle over two centuries to own their own land, the English control of the Island prevailed. Chieftains Hugh O’Neil and Hugh O’Donnell surrendered to Queen Elizabeth I, with Ireland essentially serving as an English plantation. Their struggles sometimes ended up with the women being offered as gifts or peace offerings. But there were also women who stood in places of power. Among others was Lady Roche of Blackwater Castle, the place our family was staying. We were told the story by our hosts, the current owners of the castle, who made it available for events, weddings and family reunions like ours. Lady Roche herself, led the defense, when the castle came under attack by Oliver Cromwell’s army, while her husband, Lord Roche was away. She fought valiantly, but was defeated and later hanged for her trouble.
Relative to women and their position in early medieval Irish society, we would learn of the Brehon law which favored women, allowed divorce and allowed women to own property and land. The Norman invasion would revert the power of land ownership to men only by 1169, but would be brought back in the 13th century. Given it was the 19th Amendment in 1920’s when women could first own property in the US, the contrast to Ireland with women having property ownership is remarkable. Prior to the 13th century, land ownership was often done in trusts from father to daughter. She would have to give ownership to the husband if she married. Once the Catholic church was established, the patriarchal rule over women was established. The power of the Church remains today, and limits the power of women.
My two grandmothers, Catherine Flynn and Sarah Fleming, both took the journey across the Atlantic, and were among those who survived the trip that cost many their lives in 1919. The two women met on the boat and became friends. Later, they both worked for the Hitchcock House, one of the major wealthy homes of Boston, for a number of years, as housemaids. This work afforded them more independence and privilege than they ever enjoyed in Ireland. When we visited Cork, the township from which the Titanic pulled away for its last sailing, we saw the 3rd class quarters and saw the harsh conditions my grandparents and 90% of those on the boat endured. It was a miracle that they survived. The work and the life my grandmothers found was in contrast to the reception the Irish men received with “Irish need not apply” signs in employer’s windows and doors.
I looked for their faces-what my grandparents might have looked like- as we visited shops, castles, musical performances and retail establishments in Cork and Kinsale, Blarney and Kilkenny. What I saw in the faces around me was resilience and independence in how the women presented themselves. I saw an extra stride in their step, their chins raised high, and in their tone cheery and bright. The women convey a sense of their being in charge of their place in the communities in which they live. Pretty people, very kind and willing to extend themselves with visitors. Actually both the men and women exude enthusiasm, conveying an optimism they share about Ireland, the coming prosperity they see as possible, and life ahead. Yet they live within the constraints of the sexual conditions from which women have not freed themselves, nor does there seem to be much demand in the area of sexuality, from the feminists in Ireland.
The feminists of Ireland are represented by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalitions, Wikipedia tells us, and have effectively sought measures of equal political, economic and social rights for women. This is referred to as the Second Wave of Feminism in Ireland 1960-1980 which progressed to the Third Wave of Feminism through the 2000’s described as an “extension of the earlier feminist movements’ perceived failures” according to Wikipedia.
The matter of choosing to be sexual before marriage, the use of birth control, or the decision to become pregnant without marriage, today holds a stigma and a social cost. It is reported that women can divorce in Ireland since 1995, but it takes five years, and is socially condemned. Birth control is available under constraints that limit it’s access to unmarried women. It is reported that 6000 women quietly journey to England to terminate unwanted pregnancies. While many women die from home remedies. The stigma of pregnancy and being unmarried is still condemning to women. For the women who do choose go to London clinics to terminate unwanted pregnancies, they choose to keep their decision private and personal because of the enormous social costs in the overwhelming catholic population.
Currently the Irish Feminist Network is “still fighting the church’s political Influence.” (MS. Blog Camille Hayes June 6, 2013.) While in the 70’s, feminists like Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, June Levine and Nuala O’Faolain worked towards towards gender equity did have an impact and the Mother & Baby Homes which forced unwed mothers to separate from their babies was halted due to their efforts. Today the IFN is addressing the needs of “younger women.” They are seeking equal representation, economic equality and reproductive rights for women. Abortion is still, even for the 6000 annually who go to London for abortions, a personal and quietly carried out act that women do not want to make public, so the catholic church is still in the powerful position of excluding the conversation because of the stigma attached to abortion.
The exception is the alarm and demand for change around the iron clad power of the catholic church and women’s rights surfaced in October 2012. That is when Savita Halappanavar, in her 17th week of pregnancy, experienced an incomplete miscarriage. Yet the doctors would not assist with a cesarian section to withdraw the expired fetus. The world’s attention was on the Galway Hospital, as doctors allowed Savita to slowly die, rather than perform the life saving surgery that the Church would not approve. The social outrage of the feminists and people of Ireland demanded and won the small concession of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in 2013. This bill allows doctors to intervene if the mother’s health is at risk, or there is risk of suicide. As this story was told to me, I didn’t want to say that in the US today, there are over 1000 state proposals to reduce women’s rights. It just seemed too brutal to mention, given the consciousness being aroused by women in Ireland to deal with the locked down rights of women to own any part of their sexual rights, and the hope they see in the achievement of Roe VS Wade in 1973.
But it is certainly a heads up for feminists and human beings everywhere to know that only a year ago, a bill in Ireland gave legal grounds for abortion when the life of the mother is at stake.
We’re on the bus again with Michael and a merry Irish tune on the speakers, as we pass through the picturesque streets of Killarney. There are shops of amazingly beautiful wool, coming from places like the famous Blarney Mills, that we will visit later. A group of young boys walk through the streets of Cork; robust, confident and animated. Trailing behind them, a group of girls in typical teen age attire: jeans and black tee shirts, talking to each other. Then we are Inside the pub for a pint, and are warmly welcomed. Visiting women are encouraged, to only go in groups through the streets and to the pubs, if not accompanied by a man, for their own “comfort and ease.” Accordingly every pub, cafe or restaurant there are clusters of pretty ladies together, and a few men. Good times are the sense of the atmosphere. Flowers outside the door and throughout the streets in every township has it feel like a stage set. They give such a sense of celebration, everything grows so well with the ongoing light rains that barely dampens the streets but clearly keeps the blooms continuous everywhere we go. And everywhere the grass is so very green.
What can I claim from this only surface experience of Ireland that can be felt if not fully perceived, known if not understood. I can see my own resilience and never fully consumed aversion to being contained, regimented or controlled, to a fault, really. My instinctive resistance is sometimes realized by an impetuous trust to step outside what is acceptable, to what has not been claimed, trusting my instincts and gut. Costly, expensive sometimes, but holding firm and moving on, and not looking back or looking for direction from unknown sources.
Not expecting a hand up is implicit in my choices. Making my own path is what I’ve always done. And taking leave. I have always been the “leaver.” It was a relief to come across the expression the of the Irish goodbye. Similar to the Irish blessing May you be gone before the Devil knows you’ve left. Funny what we know without knowing how we know what we know. I’ve always felt refreshed on the paths I have found. I look for the state of wonder from which to find my ground. Gained my standing, found my voice and honored the call. To hurt for those not seen, speak for those excluded. And to send into the space of community of beings, my vote, my feet, my care. It makes more sense to me; I make more sense to me having found my feminism in Ireland.
What we “know” happens, begins long before we select our experience and have language to define it. We move in directions that we can’t define from a wisdom that is not ours alone. So it is that without “knowing” it, my alienation from “Ireland” had ground that I have experienced, discovered in this trip to Ireland. It is a terrible beauty, with a people who feel never defeated and always are looking for a better life. That better life for women is beginning to be inserted in the conversation, below the surface, and spoken of and criticized by a large segment of the women as well as the men. The distance we have come in 50 years is more apparent in the attitudes of both men and women, and liberation for both is at stake, in my consideration.
I bite my tongue and don’t want to share with the few women who have talked to me about the limits of choices available to them in how they live their lives. I don’t want to say that where I live in the United States, the Supreme Court has reduced the boundaries around women who make the choice to terminate their pregnancies. And women encounter similar personal attacks on their right to choose. That employers can now deny health benefits from their company to grant birth control pills, is a process we are undergoing that I also don’t want to mention. I am embarrassed to tell them that is where we are as a country. I am ever more alarmed and hope that women and men are paying attention. I hope we don’t want to go back but only forward in the march toward women’s rights, civil rights and human rights. Rights which come from the stand that there is a better world, a better life for all with dignity and respect for choices made by people. Choices made out of integrity, choosing alternatives available to women/human beings in how they live wish to their lives.