The tides of history
There are times when it truly feels like we are living through history. Times when we know that in years to come, these moments, these decisions, these actions will be discussed, analysed, beamed out on screens and on airwaves. Now is such a moment, in April 2020, as Ireland, along with the rest of the world, tackles Covid-19.
The other time when I felt like I was walking in the tides of history was during the Repeal campaign. History is remembered as it is told, and if there is only one narrative then there is only one version of that history. Revisionism, selective memory and collective remembering (and forgetting) means that the richness of a history, of a story can get lost and distorted. For something like Repeal, it is essential that as many stories as possible are told and recorded, that the whole breadth and depth of the campaign is written down. It is our history, our moment, our change, and it is up to us to make sure it is written in a way that will do the campaign justice in 5, 10, 50 years time.
I’ve been thinking for a while about writing at length about my memories of Repeal. Now that I have some time on my hands as we are all on lockdown during March and April 2020, this seems as good a time as any to actually do this. I’ve been dipping in and out of it for months, adding dates and memories and prompts for myself. It is useful to be able to think about something other than Covid 19, to reflect on positive change, to remember the power of the collective as we move through these uncertain, anxious times.
These are my own personal recollections and perspectives. They are in no way intended to be representative of the whole campaign or of the experience of anyone other than myself. Only I can write my own story, and only you can write yours. If you haven’t already, I hope that you do, I hope that as many people as possible write down and share their stories and memories. They are all part of the puzzle. 19,000 people canvassed in 2018, hundreds were involved in HQ and countless others supported in different ways and through different organisations. There can never be a definitive account because it was a collective campaign with no singular perspective or experience. I am fully aware that the perspective I am writing from is that of a white, straight, cis Irish woman who lives in Dublin, and that this is not representative of all of the people involved in the campaign.
This is a personal reflection, not an analysis or critique of campaign strategy or approach. I want to capture the minutiae of what it meant to be involved with this extraordinary campaign in the months leading up to a referendum being called and the months leading up to the vote. I can’t write about anything before February 2017 but I am fully aware of the many strong and mighty shoulders I stepped onto in 2017, of the tireless years of work that preceded me even going near the ARC office. To those exceptional humans; you have my respect, love and gratitude always. I fully recognise this account will not mention all of the amazing groups or people who worked tirelessly on this campaign. Such a thing would not be possible, because it was so huge and that’s what made it so exceptional. It is an attempt to honestly tell just one recollection of one part of what was a long and collective struggle.
There are already several different accounts of the campaign on official record, and it is important that as many of us as possible keep adding to that. The co-directors have told their story of how the campaign was set up and implemented at that level in ‘It’s a Yes!’. Leitrim ARC crowdfunded their book ‘LARCs Larks and other lovely things’ MERJ’s book ‘We’ve come a long way’ was published in 2018, ‘After Repeal’ was published in 2020. Limerick Together for Yurt produced a podcast about their experience, and How the Yes Was Won is aiming to tell a comprehensive history of the struggle for reproductive rights in Ireland. I’m sure there are plenty of other blogs, articles, art, and prose, that I am missing. So if you have the time and the will, write down your story. Write about how your group organised, the challenges you faced, the highs and lows. If someone Googles how the 8th was repealed in 50 years time, I’d hope that they will find rich and varied accounts to tell the story of what happened over 35 years but in particular from 2012 onwards. No one else will, or should, tell your story for you.
My pro-choice journey began in school, through dogmatic statements from teachers, being shown The Silent Scream, and handing over £2 for little gold feet without any real idea what it meant. It began through growing up in an Ireland where the horrors of the Magdalenes and of clerical abuse were beginning to unfold, an Ireland where being pregnant and unmarried was still considered to be a scandal, an Ireland that told me, quite firmly, to remember my role in the world. I may not have been aware of it at the time, but growing up under the shadow of the 8th shrouded my body in shame before I knew what abortion was.
I stood outside the Dáil after Savita died in October 2012, surrounded by silently weeping women, and became aware of a simmering anger underneath the sadness. I marched down O’Connell Street a few days later. I went on my own, and walked beside a woman pushing her baby along in a buggy. A woman brandished a plastic foetus at us and called us baby killers, another held up a crucifix. I went on the March for Choice in 2015 and remember watching the speakers, the stewards, the organisers and thinking ‘how do I do that?’. I was always paralysed by lack of confidence when I thought about getting involved in any sort of activism. This was rooted in fear of being found lacking, of not being radical enough. This was coupled with a lifetime of media narrative about ‘professional protestors’ and the consistently biased and classist framing of movements like the Glen of the Downs, Shell to Sea and anti-water charges. My political awareness was not developed enough in my teens or twenties to analyse what was going on with that framing. While I was always driven by a sense of justice and an interest in global structures of inequality, I had until that point directed that feeling into working in NGOs and viewed activism as something other people did. But as the horror story of Miss Y unfolded and as I did more reflecting on my core values and worldview, I realised that I could not in good conscience sit around and do nothing any more.
I met a few of the founding members of ARC during 2016 and while I was pretty intimidated by their amazingness from the outset, I also realised that they were sound and decent people. The fears I had about being cast out of a meeting for not having whatever fictional credentials I had created in my head vanished. I went to my first ARC open meeting in January 2017. The room in Outhouse was packed, there was a film crew there from TG4. I can’t really remember what the discussion was about, but I remember talking to Sarah, who was the Partnerships and Outreach (P&O) rep after the meeting as I felt that my experience in training and facilitation could be useful for that group. Everyone was smiley and welcoming. I went to my first P&O meeting the next week, and again the next month. To be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t know what all the acronyms meant, I didn’t know who the people were whose names were being thrown around. I mostly sat and listened. I think I made a cringeworthy suggestion about needing to involve men more, which I find pretty hilarious now. But I was determined to figure it out. Once I commit to something, I do it 100% and ARC was one of those things. I was all in.
That spring, I had my heart spectacularly broken. It was pretty bad. Never underestimate the potential fallout of a bad breakup. It’s not ‘just a breakup’. It can be a foundation shaking, head fucking, core splitting, grief ridden experience. At a time when I needed distraction, focus and community, ARC was there. I began to fully realise the healing power of female solidarity, the comfort of being in feminist spaces where you are valued and challenged in equal amounts. These were people I had just met, but they didn’t bat an eyelid at how much of a fucking mess I was at times. The strength and solidarity I found within the ARC community wrapped around me like a comforting blanket while I was getting my shit together. From getting to know other women within ARC, I realised that while we were all bound together by being pro-choice and wanting change, ARC meant something much deeper to each of us in different ways.
One of the first events I went to with ARC was a “train the trainer” workshop organised in May 2017. It was one of the first times I was in a room with people who spoke candidly about their abortion, and it was also the first time I got to really explore how deep seated my own stigma and judgement was around abortion. One of the most incredible things about those first few months in ARC was being given the space to learn, to develop my politics and my feminism. I never felt a pressure to get everything right, and knew that if I fucked up I would be challenged in a way that was constructive rather than destructive. Being allowed that space ultimately meant that ARC radicalised me in many ways.
At that point in 2017, Angela and Caoimhe were co-convenors and Sarah and Deni were P&O reps. I was blown away by how committed everyone was, many of them spending three evenings a week or more in the ARC office. At that point, I think there were maybe about 6 active Dublin-based P&O members -Ber, Niamh (who was called Niall at the time and later transitioned. She has given permission for this to be published in this way), Ciara, Cathie, me and Sarah with Deni based in Sligo. The focus at that time was very much on the regional groups, who were sprouting up all over the country. Some of the groups had existed for a few years and had a strong membership base, others were a few months old with a small but mighty membership, and others were just starting out. Some groups had experienced activists, other groups had members who were totally new to activism, some groups were organising around urban centres, others were in vast rural areas. Finding meaningful ways to support such diverse groups was a significant challenge, and continued to be even more so as the referendum campaign built. Sarah and Deni had done amazing work on a regional toolkit, which was basically a ‘how to start an ARC regional group’ step by step guide. The regional groups were out most weekends running information stalls, collecting petition signatures (these were in the days of the petition to repeal the 8th) and building visibility. This grassroots local work was so vital and became even more so as the referendum got closer. I will forever be in awe of what those groups did, often in small communities where they were targeted with abuse and harassment. I remember getting emails from women who wanted to organise locally but were afraid of repercussions for their children in school or for their own jobs. By the time we got to March 2018, there were more than 20 groups around the country and they became the backbone of the referendum campaign. Challenging the idea that repeal was a liberal Dublin construct was essential to building momentum nationally, and the network of local groups were vital in the Yes campaign being able to mobilise so quickly in every corner of the country.
Everyone in the regional groups and everyone in ARC in Dublin was a volunteer, finding time around busy jobs and lives to join conference calls, go to meetings, pack badges and t-shirts, make media plans, write policy documents, organise stalls and deliver workshops. Of all the things that have stayed with me, the commitment, resolve and grit of everyone I encountered along the way stands out the most. In the midst of personal grief, health ups and downs, families, relationships and the everyday stresses of life, they showed up and were extraordinary, over and over. I became increasingly aware of being part of a huge collective movement that stretched back years, decades, that echoed with the cries of generations of women wronged and wounded and abandoned. I became more and more aware of the shoulders we stood on, the women who had stood up and spoken up, who had worked and organised and sacrificed and built those foundations without which none of us would have been able to take our part at all. It’s one of my favourite things about feminism and about the pro choice movement – the feeling of being part of something so much bigger and wider, the feeling of the collective, the historical links and the links to the future.
The next point that stands out for me during that time was the EGM July 2017 in Wynnes Hotel. It was over 2 days and the thing I remember most is the knot of anxiety that twisted in my stomach during the intense discussions on referendum options. At that point, it was extremely likely that the legislation and possibly the referendum question would be very restrictive. We discussed the possibility of a replacement clause limited to rape, incest and FFA, of repeal followed by legislation limited to the same. In one of the more bizarre coincidences, the Rally for Life was happening outside the hotel, featuring a double decker bus with massive sound system interspersed with American bagpipers, statues of the Virgin Mary and more than one set of rosary beads. That EGM also featured the first of many pints in the Hop House afterwards, and was the beginning of many friendships.
I did my first public event for ARC in September 2017, which involved, amusingly, facilitating a panel as part of a youth festival in Smithfield (I was 37 at the time). It lashed rain. Four people gave up their Saturday afternoon to come and sit in the rain with me and talk about what motivated them to be involved with ARC. The organisers got abuse for having us there. I had moved house the day before, driving all my stuff from East Wall to Rathmines, doing all my unpacking in a day. The house I had been living in had rats and bad memories, so I was happy to shut the door and never look back.
Helpful men and training plans
I helped out a bit with the planning for the March for Choice in 2017 but knew I would be away for the march itself. I went out putting up posters having rolled home from Jigsaw at 5am, with a hangover so bad that I couldn’t go up the ladder for the first hour (thank you Clare for the hangover solidarity and understanding!). While putting up a poster, a man offered us some ‘helpful’ advice on the number of cable ties we were using while he ate his brunch. A few weeks later, another ‘helpful’ man tried to supervise my cable tie snipping by holding the end of the cable tie and looking quizzically at the angle of the fruit shears I was holding. I pointed out that we had already successfully removed several posters without his supervision. Needless to say, these were the first of MANY helpful men I would encounter over the next few months.
Assembling posters for the 2017 March for Choice in the ARC office
I watched the photos and videos of the March from a beach in Thailand, crying uncontrollably with pride and love and, to be honest, with the overwhelming anxiety that I was dealing with at that particular time. Through the cloud of anxiety I watched the speeches and crowds and everyone looking determined and gorgeous in the sunshine, and I thought ‘We are going to do this. How could we not?’
I delivered my first training for ARC in Limerick in October 2017. There were supposed to be two of us doing it, but no one else was available. I was nervous about doing it on my own, nervous I would mess it up and let ARC down. I said something along these lines to Sarah who replied with something like ‘you’ll be great, you’ve got training experience, now get on with it’. I remember being on the road to Limerick at 8am on a Sunday morning and thinking that if people like Sarah had faith in me, then I should get over myself and get on with it. ARC was pretty exceptional at empowering people to step up and this was one small example of that for me. I don’t remember much about the workshop. I remember reversing my car into a bollard while attempting to park. I remember singing out loud on the way home to keep myself alert because I was knackered.
September-December 2017 was a difficult time personally for me as I had pretty crippling anxiety. This peaked when I woke up from a nap one afternoon to angry red welts all over my stomach, arms, legs and feet. I was in the house alone and was convinced I was dying (very rational, I know). After crying down the phone to my Mum, I drove myself to the Swiftcare clinic where a very kind doctor told me this was a stress reaction. This was a strong message from my body that the levels of stress and anxiety I was carrying were unsustainable. I was pushing myself physically and mentallly, filling all my time, running from A to B in an attempt to keep my anxiety at bay. What I was really doing was running myself into the ground. Some steroids sorted out the rash within a week, and I started to listen to my body a bit more. I was still running around and staying busy but I started paying more attention to how I was actually feeling, even if that was not always something I wanted to face.
I became P&O rep in November, when Sarah and Deni became co-convenors. At that stage, we were really focused on training and Niamh took responsibility for coordinating the various training requests that were coming in from groups around the country. We booked dates for canvassing training in Cork, Galway, Sligo and Dublin as a starting point, with plans to deliver training in other areas as requests came in, even though we didn’t have materials at that stage. We had been waiting for materials and training plans to come from other sources, and when it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen we decided that we would go ahead and do it. That was ARC all over; getting shit done.
I was also involved with the fundraising working group that had set up a few months previously, so at that stage I was in the office 2-3 evenings most weeks – others were there pretty much every day. It was around this time that the Joint Oireachtas Committee was considering the recommendations of the Citizens Assembly. We knew a referendum was coming but we did not yet have the details. A unified campaign was being discussed and worked on but was not something I knew a lot about at that stage aside from some references in meetings. Messaging research was ongoing and we were getting updates on the outcomes of the focus groups and research. There was a huge amount going on, and I was only aware of a fraction of it. But I knew at every level in every way that extraordinary, capable, smart and driven women were doing all they could to make sure the once in a generation opportunity to repeal the 8th amendment would not pass us by.
Myself and Niamh co-facilitated a public Conversation about Choice workshop, which was an adapted version of the IPAS Values Clarification training which aimed to give people the opportunity to explore their own internalised stigma and judgements about abortion, in early December. A friend of mine attended who was mostly pro-choice but had some issues she wasn’t sure about. After the workshop she said how important it had been to have the space to have the conversations and consider the issues in a wider context. We used to do an abortion timeline exercise as part of those workshops, and I always found it fascinating to see Ireland’s long and messed-up history with reproductive rights laid out as one.
I organised the Choicemas fundraiser in the Cobblestone that December. This was a great night, culminating in Angela playing I Want to Know What Love Is to a rapturous reception. I think I may also have engaged in what I thought was sexy dancing with a fur stole. The event raised about €1,200. Given the scale of fundraising that happened during Together for Yes, it’s important to remember the slog of fundraising that ARC had done for years to make sure there would be funds available when we got to a referendum, especially through the Workers Beer Company.
By this stage Deni and Sarah Mon, the co-convenors, were spending basically all their time on ARC work. I’ve no idea how they did it. ARC strives to be non-hierarchical but it’s hard to express the amount of work that the co-convenors do. They are inevitably pulled into difficult conversations and situations, they attend most meetings, and at that time they were also engaging in the highly pressurised and difficult negotiations and conversations that pre-dated the formation of Together for Yes (TFY). Sarah N, our heroic treasurer, and the Board were navigating the difficult space of compliance, governance and legality. This was a time when anti-choice campaigners and the mainstream media were dying for us to mess up, dying for any excuse to discredit us, a habit they kept up until May 2018. I can’t remember the detail of steering group meetings at this time, but I do know they often ran until 10pm when we were kicked out of Outhouse, and that there could be up to 15 people online joining from different groups around the country. I remember the feeling of almost manic energy in every meeting, of the overwhelming amount of activity that was happening, and of the ever present feeling that it could all get pulled off track, that so many people were just DYING for an excuse to tear us down.
2018: The year that lasted for 50 years
New Years Eve 2017 I drank most of a bottle of gin on my own and cried for about 2 hours. I woke up the next day and thought ‘right, enough of this shit’. It’s just as well, because ALOT was about to happen. 2018 turned out to be the year that felt like both 5 minutes and 50 years. Three days later about 8 of us met to talk about canvassing training. We mapped out a day long canvassing workshop to cover messaging and canvassing logistics. We started a document for a canvassing guide based on a ‘Ask me Anything about Abortion’ document that Cathie had started a few weeks previously. Over the next 2 weeks or so, we developed the template for the canvassing workshop and finalised and printed the canvasing guide. Working on the guide gave me a chance to get used to the messaging. It was based on the outcomes of the messaging research that the Coalition to Repeal the 8th had commissioned. It did involve a shift for alot of us, but it was clear from the get-go that the messaging was not for convinced pro-choice voters. It was for all the people we needed to vote yes who were not yet engaged or certain about how they might vote. It was for the ‘concerned centre’, or rather people who had not yet taken up a firm position or maybe had not even really thought about it up to this stage. It had to resonate beyond the pro-choice commnity, beyond feminists, in rural and urban settings, across all ages. Some people didn’t like the messaging, some people actively hated it.
Training, momentum and endless meetings
Early in January myself and Niamh went to Kilkenny to deliver a workshop with members of the Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford groups. It was a Conversations about Choice training as the canvassing workshop wasn’t ready yet, but it took a real effort to stop people talking about canvassing! Between January and April 2018, ~10 ARC members delivered ~30 training sessions, mainly on canvassing, around the country. I can’t remember all the locations but some that come to mind are Sligo, Galway, Cork, Donegal, Clonmel, Wicklow, Dublin, Meath, Kilkenny and Waterford. Countless other sessions were delivered by people in regional and local groups who had attended an ARC training, or people who delivered their own training.
One of the things I am most proud of is this training and the canvassing guide.
The first canvassing training was delivered in Dublin on a Saturday at the end of January 2018. We set up an Eventbrite for registration and there was a waiting list within a week. We had just got access to the GMB (which would become Together for Yes HQ) so were able to use one of the big rooms which would hold about 40 people (in which many of us would spend sweaty, airless hours in the months to come) for the workshop.At that point the GMB was pretty bare, and over the next few weeks there were requests for people to bring cutlery, pens, plates, mugs and stationary.
I arrived late to the canvassing training, as I had been in work for the morning. The room was so full that most ARC members were out in the corridor. I sat on the floor and looked at all the faces, most of whom I had never seen before, furiously taking notes. My heart pounded as I realised the power that was behind us. On the steps of the GMB during a break a few people who lived in Fingal got chatting and so Fingal ARC was born. Things moved quickly at that time, safe to say! A few weeks before we didn’t have a workshop or a canvassing guide and now we had a room with over 40 people and a beautiful colorful canvassing guide. Arriving that afternoon to a packed room was one of my favourite moments of the whole campaign. We went and drank a million pints in Toners afterwards, and not for the first time I thought what an incredible group of women I had found.
I delivered canvassing training in Cork, Galway, Wicklow and Dublin during February and March 2018. Given that I had never canvassed before, I felt like a bit of a fraud but was also very aware of the need to get shit done. Louise O’Neill came to the Cork training and I had to work very hard to not fangirl wildly at her. Any doubts I had about my credibility as a trainer didn’t find any oxygen; the momentum had already taken over.
The cover image of the ARC canvassing guide, produced in January 2018
By this stage there was so much going on at every Working Group (WG) in ARC and in every Regional Group (RG) around the country. Once we had access to the GMB from January 2018 I remember some steering group meetings going on for over 3 hours, and I know the Board were there until after midnight on several occasions. There was energy and drive and stress and a fair dose of fear. We had endless conversations around security, around what we would do if we were hacked or infiltrated, on being more careful with our phones. We analysed every decision around finances because we knew that the anti-choice groups and the media were on high alert for us to make a mistake . I deleted my work details from LinkedIn, changed my passwords on everything (and subsequently locked myself out of most things) and have had ever present anxiety since about USB sticks.
In January I applied for unpaid leave in work. There was a flurry of messages in the various ARC whatsapp groups and slightly hysterical discussion about the best chunk of time to take off, with much anxious guessing of referendum dates. Some people took 3 months unpaid leave, some booked annual leave in a block and some in staggered periods. It was a risk to be forward about my intentions in work. I could be open with my manager and a few other people but had to be vague with many others. I was lucky to have a supportive manager but it could have gone the other way, and ultimately being openly pro-choice in work did rear its head during a promotion process a few months later and has continued to do so sporadically ever since. People all over the country were taking gambles and making compromises with their jobs, families, health and relationships because they were putting the campaign first. I know for me, it was about everyone who lived in Ireland who had ever and might ever need an abortion, for whatever reason. I was acutely aware of how hard everyone was working, and I would leverage every bit of privilege, skill, time and energy I had to play my part in the collective effort. I remember my Mam saying to me ‘please don’t lose your job over this’ and thinking that if I was going to lose my job over anything this would be it. I know more than one person did very nearly lose their job during the course of the campaign. It should never be underestimated how seriously people took their commitment.
I arrived home after the P&O meeting one evening in January 2018. I was thinking to myself how I was finally feeling settled in the house. My housemate came out of the sitting room looking shook, and told me the landlord had been around and that he was selling. I had been in the house for 4 months.
Towards Together for Yes
In early February 2018, there was an emergency steering group meeting where Aoife, from the ARC board, presented on the proposal of a joined-up campaign and asked us to vote on whether or not to bring this to ARC members in an EGM. Again, I don’t remember the details of that meeting. I remember being in the meeting room in the GMB for hours, I remember the old familiar knot of anxiety, I remember thinking ‘holy fuck, this is happening, and happening fast’. Each of us there had questions and concerns and personal perspectives, and I do remember there being a certain amount of unease, but we all agreed that it needed to go to the members for discussion and a vote. To be honest I personally didn’t think much about unified campaigns or split campaigns or where my own personal politics sat in any of this. I just thought that we had to do whatever would give us the best chance to win. We already knew what would happen if we didn’t win; people would suffer, people would die. It was for all people in Ireland who had ever been or might ever be impacted by the 8th amendment. It was for all the suffering and misery it had caused. It was to move out of the shadows of the past. It would not be a magic fix, it would not end misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, abortion stigma, classism. But it would be progress. And we could win.
Based on the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee we knew the proposed legislation would not be free, safe, legal but it was better than where we had thought we would be 12 months previously. We had concerns and questions, but all agreed that while the 8th remained, nothing would change, for anyone. The members had to have a chance to consider ARC’s role in the referendum campaign and vote on it. There was very little time – this was all happening in early February 2018. I knew all sorts of machines must have been turning behind the scenes, at furious speed. I fully trusted Gráinne and Sarah, who were set to be co-director and co-executive respectively in the proposed campaign structure, to do what was not only best for ARC but what was best for people in Ireland past and present. They were knowledgeable, experienced, driven, committed and highly capable. We were all making compromises and sacrifices but what those two women did, what they took on, will always be a source of awe and inspiration to me.
ARC had to fight for a chance to have a place at the table. We had an activist base and a fighting fund, but we were still not taken seriously. The book ‘It’s a Yes!’ goes into more detail about how TFY was formed, and the process that was involved, and this is worth a read to understand more about that aspect of the campaign and the perspectives of the three co-directors on this process.
ARC members had an EGM on 8th February 2018 in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce to vote on whether or not to join NWCI and the Coalition in forming what would become Together for Yes. We were asked for our buy in, we were asked to put our weight behind this. It was a question, it was not a given. That’s one of the great things about ARC, it really was the members’ decision. If we had rejected the proposal that day, that would have been the decision. Yes, there was pressure and urgency but that’s because the clock was ticking. If we were in, we were in. The anti-choice campaigners and the media had long relished in saying that the pro-choice side didn’t know what we wanted, that we were disjointed and fractured. We knew how important a unified campaign was, not just because of resources but for public perception. In my head, from that moment we stopped being the audience and the wider public became our audience. People like my Mam and her friends, who wanted to do the right thing but were not sure what that was, who were cut from the cloth of Catholic and conservative Ireland.
I arrived late (again), coming straight off a train from Belfast where I had been visiting a friend. That old knot of anxiety was back, this time about the members’ vote and what would happen if there was a split within ARC. The meeting was clear about the campaign structure, the leadership, the need for hierarchical decisions during the speedy pace of a campaign, the research outcomes and what that meant for messaging. There would be leadership, and therefore there would be leaders. None of us could have known exactly what any of this would involve but we knew it would not be as non-hierarchical or as intersectional as we usually strived to be. It was a single issue campaign in a non-single issue world. Referendums are binary and awful and winning them involves having to operate in that restrictive and binary space. They are not activism as usual (nor should they be). They force compromises because they are so binary and timebound. Our job was to get 50.1% of voting people, and ideally more, to vote yes. That was what this unified campaign would exist for. I question whether any referendum campaign of that size, delivered in a tiny timeframe under immense pressure can have a structure that isn’t single-issue and hierarchical.
The discussion went on all morning and into the early afternoon. Concerns were raised and discussed, but in the end the vote passed unanimously. We all went to the pub and got locked. We were excited, terrified, focused, relieved.
Together for Yes
The Revolutionary Women walking tour of Rathmines, February 2017
I was still living in Rathmines at the time, and had discovered that Countess Markievicz and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington had lived only a few metres from where my house was. It was around the time of the centenary of suffrage for (some) women. I ended up putting together a walking tour about the feminist activists who had lived around Rathmines, and worked with the Actions WG to do a short tour on Constance Markievicz’s 150th birthday. It was a great excuse for me to talk about history and women and to look at some lovely houses, all the things I enjoy.
We had planned a weekend meeting in Athlone of all the regional groups for the start of March. We knew it was important for us all to get together before the campaign really kicked in, and that it was important for this to happen outside Dublin. But the Beast from the East had other ideas. The snow was a small blessing in disguise as it meant a few days where we couldn’t do very much! It also delivered some great Repeal Snowpeople content.
On March 8th, International Women’s Day, the Coalition had planned the Votes for Repeal March. It was a few days after Storm Emma and it was absolutely freezing. We gathered with the ARC banner, bundled up in hats and scarves. This was the ‘soft’ launch of TFY so we were up front with the ARC banner with the other two organisations. We started marching, looked at each other and said ‘eh, it’s very quiet’. There were no megaphones. So we just started yelling. We roared our heads off all the way to the Custom House, and stood on the steps in the freezing cold while the speeches went on (and on…and on). A guy with a sign about murder stood in front of TFMR, many of whom were visibly upset after their member’s speech. A few people tried to block him until Lynn Ruane marched up to him, took his sign and walked off with it.
On the 2018 IWD Votes for Repeal march with Helen and Sarah
The internal TFY launch happened on March 10th in the Teachers Club. Again, I don’t remember much of the detail except alot of nervous energy, people wanting leaflets and a man (helpfully) explaining why canvassing was important. The Rally for Life was on the same day. I went outside for some air at one stage and noticed that Clare was smoking. ‘I didn’t know you smoked’ says I ‘I don’t, but I do today’ she answered. That was the first time I saw the TFY logo. I had heard the name before, possibly as part of a massive Basecamp (ARC’s internal organising platform) thread where various, mostly ridiculous, campaign names were discussed. Initially, I didn’t like the name or the logo. It did grow on me over time as I saw it do what it was designed to do. We went to the Hop House afterwards and got locked, I dragged Ciara to a 50th afterwards where we sway-drunk danced for a while. Despite my drunkenness, I woke up to discover I had taken several photos of Christchurch looking lovely at about 2am. In hindsight, I’m amazed my liver survived 2018 at all.
Together for Yes formally launched on March 23rd in the Pillar Room in the Rotunda hospital. The room was packed, there was a media crush around Simon Harris, everything looked so professional and put together. I took two badges, a Yes and a Tá and got in trouble for taking two; badges were a very limited resource at that stage. Parents for Choice members bounced their babies on their hips, three Grandmas posed with giant Yes letters. I got choked up listening to the speeches. It all felt so hopeful, so surreal and yet so very real. I walked back to work thinking ‘We are going to do this. We have 62 days and we are going to do it’.
I agreed to take on the role of volunteer coordinator some time in early March. This made sense as I had a background in volunteer management, but honestly I would have done anything to be useful. I was working full time until early April, so did TFY work in the evenings and at weekends. I had two full days per week for TFY through unpaid leave from early April into May and then the final two weeks off full time. I started pulling together systems for volunteer recruitment and management, but quickly realised that things could not move at the pace I was used to. Sarah told me that we needed people immediately, so the lovely shiny systems I was diligently putting together had to work much more quickly than they were designed to do. I had never worked in that kind of environment or at that kind of pace before, but it was the easiest job in the world in many ways. I already had a list of ARC members who were ready to go. In the early days, it was ARC members who started to fill the GMB. Linda, Ellen, Emma, Leness, Clare L, Claire B, Dairíona, Ashling ,Eoin, Lute, Ciara, Nem, Niamh, Helen, and many others, and of course Sarah and Gráinne. People came and went around their working hours or else were there full time, all on a voluntary basis. ARC was the foundation that I built the volunteer base on before I even had an online system in place. In the end, 1,000 people signed up online to volunteer. I had to take the form down as I couldn’t keep up with the demand. Mostly we told people to contact their nearest group and get involved with canvassing. The original online form was pretty clunky and didn’t have a drop down for constituency, so myself and Sarah TM had to manually go through the lists, filter people out and then forward their details to local groups. The more refined canvassing tool towards the end of the campaign automatically put people in touch with their nearest group.
We needed lots of volunteers for the online shop, especially during the first few weeks when there was a backlog of black repeal jumpers as well as the initial merch surge to work through. There were 3 shifts per day, and the people who helped out and ran the set up were absolute heroes.
It was really amazing and humbling how many people got in contact saying ‘tell me what I can do to help’. The team leads contacts and connections kicked in very quickly and the building was suddenly full of people. It was like all these skilled, dedicated and amazing people just appeared out of thin air. There were probably 50-60 people in the building each day, especially when the online shop was in full swing. I mostly had no idea who anyone was, people just seemed to appear, get on with it, and reappear again the next day. Ellen was basically there all the time, Deirdre would arrive early, leave in the late afternoon to put her kids to bed, and then come back to the GMB. Gráinne and Sarah were there what felt like 24/7 If there were more hours in the day, those women would have spent them in the GMB.
The GMB with its building wrap
In hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, we underestimated where we needed people most in the early days. We needed far more people to work directly with regional groups as an assigned contact point for example, and long term volunteers could have been better built into some of the team structures. Trying to match the availability and skills of people who wanted to help with what was needed practically was not easy. I’ve gone back and forth as to whether there are better ways to have approached this, but I keep coming back to the pace of everything and how usual planning and organising very quickly goes out the window once the great machine is in motion. A lot of the time, we needed people 3-5 days per week and of course not everyone could commit that kind of time. We also we needed people with quite specific skills who could get on with things with minimal supervision. Things were moving at such a fast pace that it was pretty much impossible to take stock of anything, or even to have a conversation with the team leads about what support they needed. So I mostly just let it all happen, funneled people into canvassing groups, and as the weeks went on put my time and energy into other ways I could be useful. I helped out a bit with the Get Together for Yes tour which visited every county, and the Get out the Vote strategy which focused on ensuring people turned up to vote and that we maintained high levels of visibility in the final 2 weeks.
Right up until the last few weeks, people connected to ARC kept showing up and being amazing, putting their shoulder to the wheel wherever they were needed. People just kept showing up and doing whatever needed to be done, transporting boxes, driving materials and people wherever they needed to get to, covering reception, appearing in videos, taking photos, helping in the shop. People brought us homecooked dinners, sent us donuts and dropped in cookies. It was really quite remarkable what happened in that building on any given day. Most people were spending up to 16 hours per day in a windowless room, skipping meals and stretched to their limits, but somehow there was always an air of energy and positivity.
Self-care and collective care
I set out thinking that we could help people look after themselves during the campaign, and it was something we talked about from the formative days, of how difficult this was going to be for everyone and how we needed to foster self care and collective care. We did put some measures in place like the IFPA helpline for campaigners which we shared with all groups, and the amazing Miriam who offered 15 minute chair massages, or chasing Sarah Mon around with a sandwich. But I realised very quickly that there is no way to support thousands of people with their wellbeing, especially during the intensity and pace of a referendum campaign. The campaign was hard on everyone, but in different ways and for different reasons, and the scope of it all meant that any efforts to make it better could only ever be minimal and quite localised, and not necessarily what someone might have needed at a given time. I did check in regularly with people when I could, but everyone is different in how much or how little they want to talk. I know some of the local groups who I spoke to during GOTV appreciated just being asked how they were. People were exhausted, and feeling the pressure and burden from all angles. I certainly felt a constant pressure as a woman, of how I was seeing myself represented (or misrepresented) as a uterus first and foremost, my life and body and agency being discussed and debated. There was the creeping realisation that this was how my country had always viewed me; as a uterus first, and a person second. The shame and stigma that had hung over me my whole life as a woman in Ireland slowly came into focus. It was a deeply personal campaign in that way.
I think the ARC crew did a good job of supporting each other as best we could; Clare and Sarah sent care packages to the regional groups for example, and we all checked in with each other when we could. But some days I would come back from a day of HQ and canvassing, my head racing with the stories I had heard that day, my heart heavy with the worry and fear of what would happen if we lost, my body aching from all the walking, and the entire spectrum of emotions charging around inside me. I’d pack it all away because I needed to do it again the next day. It was only months afterwards that this caught up with me. I think a version of this was true for anyone involved in the campaign. We all walked away with different wounds and for different reasons, but we were all wounded none the less.
The countdown begins
On Good Friday, aka 55 days to go, we went for pints after the GMB because it was the first Good Friday where pints could be had. A little bit of history, and part of the growing tradition of #pintsforyes. That Sunday I leafleted around Croke Park with the Dublin Central and Dublin North West groups. The Belfast Rape Trial had been unfolding over the previous few weeks, and I had been at a few demonstrations in solidarity with the young woman involved. It was so horrific and the media discourse so misogynistic. I actively tried to not think about how much society hates women. I actively tried not to think about the memories that this all brought up. I sat with friends as we recounted our own experiences where our consent was not sought or respected. I packed all of this away because there was a job to do and if I thought too much about this I’d never leave the house again. That day, while leafleting, two young men walked past me laughing and said loudly ‘I hear Paddy Jackson is in town, you better watch out’. Another man yelled that I should have been aborted; not the first time I’d hear that one. It was freezing cold, and people were mostly disinterested or mildly aggressive. But there was the odd wink or thumbs up or ‘fair play to ye’. Easter Monday was my last canvassing training in my home town. It was a special one because one of my oldest and closest friends came along. Gaye and Gerry Edwards were also at that workshop, people I hugely admire and respect and who I felt entirely ill equipped to train in any way at all! It was a lovely way to round off 3 months of intense training.
With Ber at the Wicklow canvasing training, March 2018
March was challenging as the campaign was still being set up. We didn’t have access to all the materials as yet. People were anxious for posters and badges and materials but we just didn’t have the cashflow to get them, or the systems to distribute them effectively. The No campaign got out of the traps early with their posters, and this did understandably spook people. We knew it was too early for posters, and we knew that we had a plan for rolling out the materials and what needed to happen first for that to be effective It was stressful knowing how stressed everyone around the country was, but equally stressful knowing that we were doing our best and couldn’t make the logistics move any quicker or the finances work any more smoothly. There was a fair bit of tension as the stress and frustration of campaigners all over the country landed on the shoulders of a few women in HQ (not mine) who were all doing their absolute best but who were not magicians.
April 2018 is a total blur. I was still working full time for the first week or so and spending my evenings in the GMB. I went to a wedding in West Cork at the start of April. Myself and my friend Janet, who was involved with the Dublin Central group, were sharing a room and we agreed that we would try not to talk about the campaign. We lasted until just after the hangovers wore off the day after the wedding.
The crowd fund for posters rolled out that week, the same week that Pat Leahy published an article in the Irish Times about how TFY had no leadership, no strategy and were generally a mess. During the first day, we all watched with excitement as the numbers crept up towards our €50k target within the first few hours. Every so often someone would pipe up across the office ‘we’re at €80k now….we just passed €95K….”. This continued as the target was increased and the donations poured in. The messages under the donations were heartbreaking, inspiring, honest and occasionally hilarious. Reading them made me realise with a stark clarity just how many people were affected by the 8th amendment in so many ways, how many people were telling their story for the first time, how much people wanted to be part of this change. They were tough reading but they were the drive to keep going.
Four days later was the launch of Autonomy, a poetry and prose collection edited by Kathy Darcy from Rebels for Choice. I had two pieces published in Autonomy and had agreed to read at the Dublin launch, so I spent most of that day wanting to throw up with nerves. Sinéad Gleeson and Angela Carr were also reading at it, so my imposter syndrome was out of control. My lovely friends showed up with big smiles, hugs and flowers so I got through my reading without vomiting or crying. We went from there to the launch of the first pop up shop at Meltdown Café which Ali was running. The crowd fund was at around €499,980 at that stage so a few of us stood around anxiously and repeatedly refreshing our phones. When it surpassed half a million we cheered and hugged and cried and Niamh bought all the prosecco behind the bar. It broke all kinds of fundraising records. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Pat Leahy.
I woke up the next day with a thumping hangover, packed my stuff into a van and moved house. By that evening, I had unpacked and was on my way to a fundraiser in the Cobblestone, where I think I harangued people from the stage about canvassing. That weekend typified so much of the campaign for me; multiple things happening at once, high emotion, a sense of solidarity and momentum, joy, love, drinking too much, not sleeping, and life things happening in the middle of it all.
There were 41 days to go.
Because of the house move and of the intensity of things in HQ, I didn’t do my first canvas until mid April. I was quite nervous and despite having delivered the training, I still wasn’t convinced I’d be much good at canvassing. Throughout the process of writing the guide and the training, we had thought of every possible question, every difficult situation. I had thought about it to the point of exhaustion but I still didn’t know how it would play out on the doors.
There’s something a bit magical about canvasses, about a group of people showing up for a common cause and I realised that despite all the worry and agonising over the best way to approach difficult questions, that it all just comes together in the end. My first canvas was in Inchicore on a sunny Saturday. The first door we knocked on, a woman came out with a toddler on her hip. She smiled and said ‘oh yes, we’re all voting yes!’. By the end of the canvas I was doing doors on my own, and realised I was quite good at it. I was able to ask open questions, talk to people about their doubts, read when someone needed to be pushed or when someone needed patience, and I was totally fine with walking away from someone who was a clear no.
I generally did about 3 canvasses a week, depending on how much time I had in the evenings. I had a few aggressive doors, a few frustrating doors, a few weird doors, a few upsetting doors, a few wonderful doors. There were some challenging questions, mostly around the 12 week limit, but nothing on the level that I had been anticipating. The most common ‘concern’ I heard was about ‘young ones’ who would supposedly “take advantage” and have multiple abortions. It was condescending and misogynistic. Having existed as a woman in the world, I knew that every day sexism and misogyny existed, but I was taken back over and over during the campaign at how deep seated and pervasive it truly is (I wrote a bit more about this here )There was plenty (really, plenty) of unsolicited ‘advice’ from men, agressive misogny ‘(‘fuck off you slut’), casual misogyny (‘but who will advise the women on what is best for them?) and everything in between. The amazing people around me kept me from losing faith as I realised on whole new levels how much people distrust, dismiss and in some cases actively hate women.
There were enthusiastic yeses,thumbs up, winks and smiles. There was an older man who opened the door and told me they were all voting yes; his adult son appeared behind him and put his arms around his Dad, grinning at me and saying ‘we’re a yes house all the way’. There was a woman who ended up telling me about her miscarriages. There was a woman who told me about her adult son who needed round the clock care and how angry the disability arguments from the No side made her. There was a woman with a newborn over her shoulder who seemed so delighted to be having an adult conversation that she kept me there for about 20 minutes, including telling me about the first time her and her partner had sex after the birth. (Me: Eh….ok…so can I leave you a flyer?’) There was a young woman who told me excitedly that this was her first vote and she ‘couldn’t wait to vote yes’. There were polite Nos and angry nos. There were men of all ages who would tilt their head at me and say ‘I’m not going to vote love, this is nothing to do with me’. There was the time a fellow canvasser started yelling at a woman on her doorstep and then started yelling at me when I tried to get him to stop. There was the time a woman asked me ‘are you going to eat that baby?’ while pointing at the baby being pushed by one of our group. There was an entire laneway in Kilmainham who came out of their houses to clap and cheer. There was the young lad who approached me on a leaflet round at Christchurch with the opener ‘So, say you and I had a baby…’.(Me: ‘I’m going to stop you right there’.)
In the Old Royal Oak pub after a Dublin South Central Canvas in April 2018
There was the guy at Heuston who called me a Nazi and the other guy at Heuston who roared at me about being a disgrace who wanted to ‘legalise paedophiles’. There was the woman who chased us away from her door, screaming that I was a disgrace to my sex. We were called sluts, whores, murderers. An exceptionally angry woman, also at Heuston ( I’m starting to understand why my shoulders still get tense whenever I’m in Heuston) told us ‘you couldn’t even find a good man to have a baby with you’, which to be honest was kind of prophetic. The same woman yelled at one of the guys ‘you couldn’t even have an abortion, unless you were gay’.I intervened on seeing a woman with a toddler being followed by a woman who was literally yelling at her about fire and hell and how she wanted to murder her own child. When the yeller clocked my Yes tshirt (I had stood between her and the other woman who was marooned waiting for the traffic lights to change) she launched into a very elaborate rendition of what was waiting for me in hell and kept pointing at the toddler, asking me why I wanted to kill him. There was a woman who bought us croissants, a lovely old man called Cecil who we saw every morning at Heuston who told us how much he wanted change, how ashamed he was of how Ireland had treated women, a woman who stood at the door with her kids, explaining to them what canvassing was and how important voting is (she didn’t have a vote herself), the guy who opened the door wearing a yes tshirt leading to us both spontaneously cheering (I met him on a canvas a few days later).
Canvassing was brilliant, but it was also exhausting. I found myself having to bite my tongue, to nod and smile and stifle my annoyance, because every door was a potential yes, and my job was to get the person at the door to vote yes. But standing on a doorstep asking for someone to agree that me not dying shouldn’t be the minimum standard takes a toll. Asking someone to acknowledge that I do actually know my own mind and my own body takes a toll. Gritting your teeth and smiling over and over is exhausting. Thousands of women stood on doorsteps and listened to people’s opinions on whether or not they should have been allowed to make a decision that they had already made. Seeing my body, my life, my agency, and the bodies, lives and agency of my friends, debated and discussed and disregarded every day was emotionally exhausting in a way I am still understanding. It was a small insight into what many people experience each and every day of their lives.
I’m glad I got to canvas, because I got to see how the campaign was landing with people. I got to see how the messaging was working, and was reaching the ‘concerned centre’. I got to hear the tallies at the end of a canvas, got to see the amazing work and organising that was going on, got to see the camaraderie, and I got to meet some really sound people. There were people who showed up to every canvas, and people who dropped in and out. There were younger people, older people, people from all over the world, people who were attached to political parties, people who were not. I was not involved with the organising and logistical side of canvassing, so other folk are far better placed to talk about the challenges and successes of local organising.
As I had just moved to the area, I also valued the chance to get to know the locality. I got to explore hidden corners and see some gorgeous houses that I otherwise would not have known existed. I got to chat to people in Ceannt Fort in Kilmainham and the CIE estate in Inchicore, houses I shall covet in the house porn corner of my brain forever more.
For the folk stuck in a windowless room in HQ for 16 hours a day, they never got that kind of interaction or confirmation. Yes they got donuts, but they also got streams of abuse and no chance to engage face to face with the people who they were working so hard to reach. I loved watching the Instagram stories of groups in towns and villages all over the country, groups of 10 people, 20 people, 50 people, all out for the same cause. I know from friends who were canvas leads in their groups how much work is involved. The campaign would not have been what it was without those groups and without everyone who turned up day after day.
I feel very lucky to have been able to see, even on a superficial level, all the different parts of the campaign at work, from the canvassers, to people packing jumpers, compiling instagram stories, writing press releases,bundling leaflets, writing strategies, dealing with politicians, sending out leaflets, analysing data, holding street stalls. Whether in a windowless room or on a windswept rural street, each and every person was doing their absolute best for the result we all wanted.
‘So I tell them to go fuck themselves…’
Two of my favourite canvasing moments happened in Balbriggan. It was my birthday, a week before the vote, and myself and Clare went out to join Fingal Together for Yes for a super canvas. It was a gorgeous sunny day and lots of people were out in their gardens. We stopped to talk to one woman who was pottering in her front garden:
Us: ‘Hi there, have you decided what way you’re going to vote next week?’
Her: ‘I have yeah. Ah god, did you see her dress? Wasn’t it gorgeous?’
Us: ‘Eh…..so are you voting yes next weekend?’
Her: ‘Do you want to come in and see it? You can see it on the telly? She was gorgeous!’
Us’ ‘Sorry…..what dress? Who?’
Her: Meghan! Meghan and Harry!
Us: Who???…….oh right! Eh no thanks. Please vote yes next week (internally screaming I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT HARRY AND FUCKING MEGHAN!! THERE’S A FUCKING REFERENDUM NEXT WEEK!!!!’)…. Enjoy the rest of your day’
Towards the end of the canvas I walked past a door where someone was already chatting to an older lady, well into her 70s. As I walked passed I heard her say’ of course I’m voting yes. Those fuckers up there with their pink balloons, they think they know about me and my life! They think they know what I’ve been through in my life?! Well I go up there and I tell them to go fuck themselves’. That woman is my hero.
Myself and Clare got ice creams and were standing outside the shop chatting when a man, who had been trailing the group earlier roaring at us that we were murderers, appeared beside us. ‘You’re murderers’ he said calmly. We ignored him. ‘Do you not hear me? Do you not know you’re murderers?. We moved away, as he continued to shout down the street about murder.
Canvasing was always interesting, sometimes frustrating, and undoubtedly one of my favourite parts of the campaign.
At the start of a canvas with Dublin South Central, April 2018
Pints, crying and jumper frenzy
On the May bank holiday, I went for pints after a canvas with Damo, who was one of the canvas leads in Dublin South Central, and ended up going to meet Janet and Ber in Smithfield. I hadn’t seen much of Ber as she was so busy with Dublin North West, so there was much chatting and catching up. As happened alot during the campaign, the intention to have 2 pints turned into about 8 hours of drinking. I remember hugging Ber in the beer garden in Delaneys and both of us being like ‘Ahhhh I really needed that hug’. We were often carrying so much physical tension and stress and not having someone to hug was…hard. (I wrote about what it was like to be single during the campaign here). Ber came back from the bar with an auld lad in tow: ‘I’ve just been telling him about my abortion so now he’s voting yes’. Campaigning truly never ended.
As the night wore on, someone offered me their opinion on the posters. Someone else offered me their opinion on the get out the vote plan. Someone else complained about badges. Someone else told me that everyone in HQ was having a grand old time of it and wasn’t doing any real work. In the taxi home I burst into tears at Damo. Every so often I had to open a valve and let out some of the tension and stress, usually by crying, often on a kind friend. It wasn’t anything in particular about that day, or that night, or about any particular thing, it was just that the whole thing was exhausting and everyone has their limits. I was spending alot of time worrying about other people, checking in with other people, trying to support people (which was realistically impossible most of the time), and not having A Person i.e being single, meant that I was carrying alot of that with me without having someone to lean on. I was fucking mortified the next morning though, as I didn’t know Damo that well at that stage. He was very sound about it all. I guess sometimes solidarity looks like letting someone have a cry.
The Repeal jumpers had become something of an icon since their launch in 2016. The relaunch of the black jumpers in March/April 2018 had sold out rapidly and it took a huge volunteer effort to work through all the orders. There are some stories to tell about how some people reacted to a delayed jumper delivery, but that’s not my story to tell. The Temple Bar pop up shop had launched in May, and was selling the colored Repeal jumpers. Clare and Ali had taken on alot of the running of the shop. I arrived that evening to hundreds of people queuing outside. I didn’t actually want a jumper, I was pretty sick of looking at them after helping to move a bajillion boxes during the week but I wanted to be there for support.
It was….alot. People queued for 2 hours and more. A few of us huddled on the stairs watching people buy armfuls of jumpers. Niamh and Gráinne were bringing additional stock from HQ in a taxi. The taxi pulled up, and the only bit of Gráinne that was visible were her arms as she sat under a mound of boxes. People just kept arriving in their droves. It was great but also quite surreal. We went for pints afterwards….probably.
Get Together for Yes and Get out the Vote
During May, the volunteer side of things had dropped off, as in we had most of the people we needed and the giant machine was in full swing. It continued to amaze me how people appeared and got stuck in with whatever needed doing. In the last 2 weeks there must have been up to 100 people in and out of HQ each day. I helped get Get Out The Vote packs ready and I worked as part of a group with Aoife C, Aoife D, Caoimhe, Claire and Aileen to call a number of local groups every day during the GOTV phase. Again, this was a great opportunity to hear about what was going on on the ground for people, especially in rural areas. By this stage everyone was exhausted and feeling the pressure, full of hope but barely daring to hope too much. I could hear it in the voices of everyone I spoke to. I found that the people I was speaking to in the groups were grateful to be asked how they were, to have a chance to vent or offload. I seldom gave advice – everyone knew well what they were at – but did my best to listen, to reassure people, to encourage people. The reward for this was getting messages from these groups on the day of the result as they watched their work pay off and getting to share, just a tiny bit, in their relief and elation.
With an early morning GOTV crew at Heuston Station, May 2018
The Get Together for Yes tour visited every county in Ireland. This took a huge amount of work to put together, and was an impressive logistical feat for the team involved; mainly Laura, Mar, Niamh, Claire,and Michi. It was important to get to as many towns as possible, to recognise that this truly was a national effort. There were of course limits to how much this could achieve in that sense, and I know that at times the folks on the tour were met with frustration and anger. But they were often also met with positivity and gratitude. I joined the tour for a day in Galway. It rained (alot) but there was so much energy and enthusiasm. I talked to alot of tourists, mostly Americans, who told us that they’d be watching the result closely and that they were crossing everything for us. In the afternoon, we went out to meet the Connemara group who had a stall set up by the sea in Spiddal. They were delighted with the 250 Tá badges we had brought – ‘it’s so lovely to have some visitors’ one of them said. Someone from Radió na Gaeltachta showed up and stuck a mic in front of myself and Niamh. Cue hysterical laughter as we both fumbled over our rusty Gaeilge. I headed back to Dublin the next morning while the others went on to Mayo (I think). They were wrecked. They’d been on the road early every morning for over a week, engaging with people round the clock, supporting people and listening to people as best they could, liaising with media and organisers, driving hundreds of kilometers, and doing it all with a smile.
The Claire Byrne shit show happened around the time. This was one of three scheduled TV debates. I’m not going to talk about it in any detail only to say that the presenting and management was terrible. Representatives of the No campaign were given free rein to tear into the Yes representatives, mainly Dr Peter Boylan, without being challenged. Friends who were in the audience were properly shaken, telling us how people hissed, and booed and mocked. It really showed the worst of how some people on the No side behaved and how they truly view women. If you hiss at the mention of a dead woman’s name, you need to take a long hard look at yourself.
The last two weeks
The final two weeks were focused on GOTV and visibility canvasses. I lead the group at Heuston every morning from 7am-10am. There was always a great crew, and we always outnumbered any No campaigners who showed up, by about 5:1. A few mornings I had to send people up to Smithfield because there were too many of us. Back at HQ, lunch and dinner was ordered every day in a bid to keep everyone standing. Everyone was exhausted, the kind of tired where you feel loose in your skin. We were hopeful and focused, but I know I had a constant low level simmering fear. Badges had replaced posters as the focal point. Badges were great in many ways, they enabled people to connect with each other, they built visibility, they gave a sense of momentum. In areas where the No side kept taking posters down, they couldn’t take badges off people. I never tired of seeing a yes badge on someone’s jacket. People took them off me in fistfuls at Heuston and on canvases.
I used to sticker lamposts on my walk home. I was locked in combat with someone who would constantly peel my stickers off one particular traffic light pole. Every day I would stick one on, every day they would peel it off, every day I would stick one back on, and so on. When I walked past it on May 26th, they had left it on.
As we got closer to the vote, we had to limit how much stock we were ordering so badges became a bit of a limited resource. People were MAD for badges at this stage, it was like the colored repeal jumpers on steroids. I still feel a pang of guilt when I find the odd stray badge in a bag or coat pocket, remembering the wheeling and dealing that went on for ‘just 500 more badges’.
The weekend before the vote was my birthday and also my parents 50th wedding anniversary. I deliberated on whether or not to wear a badge to their party. I knew my immediate family were all voting yes but I was conscious of wider family members and neighbors, most of whom were older. But at that stage I figured I had nothing to lose. So on the badge went. Over the course of the day, people squeezed my arm, winked at my badge, told me their own experiences of the 8th, some of which were pretty traumatic.
When I arrived in HQ on Monday morning of voting week, Ciara was packing boxes in the hallway (where she was often to be found). She said ‘happy last week!’ as I came in and I thought ‘holy fuck, it’s the last week. We’re nearly there’. There were daily briefings in HQ, which I often missed, but I was at a few of them during the final week. During one, Gráinne told us that Outhouse had been wrapped with the poster: ‘A person you love might need your yes’. I immediately welled up, thinking of the countless hours people had spent crammed into the tiny ARC office in Outhouse over the previous years, of the meetings and planning and conference calls – and here we were, a few days away from the vote. It was also great to see trans inclusive language in the Outhouse poster, something that was important to all of us in ARC.
In the last few days before the vote I joined Dublin South Central for postcard drops. By this stage, like everyone else, I was half demented with tiredness. On the last day one of the canvas leads tried to send me home because I was so wrecked. I nearly bit his head off: ‘I CANT GO HOME! I NEED TO DO SOMETHING!!’. He relented pretty quickly. In one of the last houses I went to, a woman came out and shoved the postcard back at me ‘G’way ye bold thing, you’re not supposed to be here’ she said, presumably referring to the media moratorium.’That only applies to the media, I am allowed to be here’ I said. ‘I’m voting No anyway’ she said, her voice laced with contempt. I was so fucking tired. ‘That’s fine’ I said ‘Have a nice evening’. By this stage I had walked to the house next door ‘NO ONE LIVES THERE!’ she roared at me. I bit my lip hard and walked away. It was the closest I came to shouting back at someone, because I was so spent. But I didn’t. I got through the whole campaign without losing my rag at anyone (in public, anyway). I found other ways to hold my ground and make my point. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of that woman briefly on the day of the results, with an internal ‘fuck you’ ringing in my head.
Things got pretty intense at various points during that last week. ’The No side were employing aggressive street tactics, and were getting in peoples faces in the city centre .People held their ground, stayed calm and didn’t go down to that level. When I went back to work, several colleagues commented to me how the upbeat and positive nature of the campaign really struck them, how friendly all the campaigners who they met were, and how reassuring they found it. There were a few evenings during that last week where some of us met up for debrief pints to unload after a few hours of maintaining exhausting levels of positivity and calm in the face of increasingly angry tactics from the No side.
GOTV photo call, May 2018 (I’m in the E somewhere)
Polling day aka 24 hours of crying
On May 25th,, I was at Heuston as usual at 7am. We didn’t engage too much with people, just quietly handed out badges and ‘I voted’ stickers. Our regular visitor Cecil came out of the station with his badge, took an “I voted” sticker and made three of us cry. On the walk home from the Luas, a guy stopped me and Katie in what was one of the more memorable exchanges from the whole campaign
Him: Sorry girls can I ask youse something?
Him: I just voted, and I voted yes. Was that the right thing to do?
Us: (looking at our Yes tshirts and the giant Yes bubble we were holding) Er….well, yes we think so. It was the right thing to do
Him: But what does yes mean?
Us: Yes is for change
Him: Change! Yes, good, I want change. Ok. But willl there be a big abortion building?
Him: I want change, but I don’t want there to be a big abortion building just down the road there (gesturing back towards Rialto)
Us: Eh…that won’t happen. It’ll be between a woman and her doctor
Him; Doctors! Yes, good, doctors are good. So there won’t be an abortion building?
Us: No, there won’t. Don’t worry. You did the right thing.
Him: Ok great thanks girls, have a good day!
As we got in the door, I got a message from a guy I had gone on one date with some time before Christmas. He said that our chat had motivated him to get involved with canvassing and that he had been really involved with his local group. He said that he was grateful for the motivation I gave him, and that he was hoping for a better future for Ireland.
Katie came with me to vote. I drove to the polling station, blaring Beyonce and beeping at every group of visibility canvassers I saw along the way. I was shaking head to toe as the officer handed me my ballot. Katie stayed chatting to the officers as I went to the booth. The ballot swam in front of me and my hand was shaking violently. For a split second, I panicked that I would vote the wrong way. Carefully, deliberately I marked the X, the X that represented so much pain, so much hurt, so much work and so much hope. I put my ballot in the box, holding back tears. The officer was all chat, telling us ‘let’s hope it all goes the right way, not saying what that is though, eh?!’ while winking very not subtly at us. I burst into tears all over Katie. The moment felt so huge. I was so hopeful but still so scared. The polling station was busy. Older women smiled at me as I wiped my tears. We went for coffee and breakfast. I cried into my eggs.
En route home on polling day, May 25th 2018
I was back at Heuston for 3 pm. The sun was shining and glorious. A man explained to me and Katie how we were holding our sign wrong. I went to Marianne and Damo’s house in Rialto to link in for one of the South Central visibility canvases along the canal. A group of young lads on bikes tried to steal my sign. A man told me I should kill myself by jumping in the canal. People who were stopped at the traffic lights winked and smiled and said ‘good luck’ out their open windows. There were lots of beeps and thumbs up. I was so very, very tired.
That night we were going to gather in HQ to watch the exit poll and to be together. I hadn’t thought about the exit poll much. I was convinced it would be 52%, and that we would all be mega stressed about the next day, planning for how we would fight for every ballot. A few of us sat on the floor in the hallway, holding hands and crying. There were flowers for the co-directors and campaign manager, who were all amazingly composed. At this stage, I had basically been crying all day. There was beer and pizza and sunburnt tired faces. At 10.01pm, I heard someone gasp to Deirdre ‘it’s a landslide, a landslide’. I thought I was going to pass out. I heard Gráinne say ‘it’s only an exit poll, it needs a health warning’. Someone handed a phone to Mary Lou. Everyone fell silent, holding onto each other, hope and exhaustion and anxiety on everyone’s faces. Mary Lou said that the exit poll gave a ‘margin of victory for the yes side…’. There was a collective intake of breath.’….of 68%’. The room exploded. Everyone was hugging and bawling. Most of us couldn’t get any words out aside from the occasional spluttered ‘we did it’. Eyes met across the room through teary smiles, hands were clasped, tears wiped away. There were people in that room who had been working towards this moment for nearly a decade, and some for far longer. It is a moment I will never forget; I still get emotional thinking about it. Someone read out the second exit poll, that glorious 69%. John Mc Guirk conceded, to much cheering. There were many wonderfully juvenile photos taken with the 69% pie chart on the TV. Someone hooked up some speakers and we spent the rest of the night dancing and hugging and letting ourselves feel some relief. Someone turned the music off at 2am reminding us that there was a count starting in a few hours. I walked home bursting with pride. I wrote more a few days after the result about what that time felt like here.
Tears and hugs after the exit poll results are announced in HQ
Results, crying, relief and dancing
I arrived at the RDS count centre at around 10am.By that stage, it was already clear that we had won. I walked into Simmonscourt and burst into tears. It felt like history, it felt like hope, it felt like change. I made my way towards a huddle of ARC people and met Ber along the way. I’ll never forget her smile in that moment and the relief that was in our shared hug. I went over to the Dublin South Central tally and couldn’t stop myself crying as I watched the yeses pile up.
There was frantic clamorous cheering when the co-directors, Ailbhe, Orla and Gráinne, arrived. There were so many familiar, happy faces, and an overwhelming sense of love, relief and solidarity. We moved over to the Intercontinental i.e the drinking part of the day. The results came in from across the country, each greeted with a cheer. Sarah and Gráinne arrived from Dublin Castle, greeted with rapturous cheering from the ARC table. I sobbed uncontrollably through both of their speeches. Messages had started to arrive from friends around the world, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in years. The impact of this result was reaching far. As we counted down to the final result, I was crying uncontrollably. Sarah’s boyfriend Del put his arm around me and said ‘seriously Mary, I’ve never seen one person cry so much’. He probably wasn’t wrong. The result was announced at 66.4%. There was more crying and hugging and silent teary smiling. A while later someone took what is one of my all time favourite photos. We were all chanting ‘free, safe’ legal’. I was so fucking proud of ARC. I can’t really describe it, but it was pretty much the best moment of my life. We had done it. We had fucking done it, by a two thirds majority.
That night we went to the Odeon for a party that Angela had organised. It was packed full of exhausted, relieved and deliriously happy people. There were banging tunes, ecstatic dancing and more sweaty hugs. Everyone was in love with everyone. It genuinely was the best night of my life and up there with the most joy I have ever felt.
That night, I decided, for some unknown reason, to walk home past the Savita mural – coz you know, there hadn’t been enough emotion involved in the day as it was.I had been watching online as the flowers, candles and messages built up over the previous 24 hours but on seeing it in person, I was floored. My knees went weak. We had done it. We had done it for each other, we had done it for her. We couldn’t right the wrong of Savita’s death, but we had helped shine a light into the future.
I bumped into Sarah, Peter and Helen. There was more crying and hugging. A man was acting the eejit, asking over and over ‘what did she die from’ and when we wouldn’t humour him he announced loudly ‘oh she died of pregnancy complications, did she?. We all rounded on him telling him to shut the fuck up. Helen literally turned him around and saw him on his way. ‘Not today, not fucking today’ I yelled at him and then, on catching the eye of another woman at the mural, both of us yelled ‘actually not ever, not fucking ever!’. It was a very cathartic moment, realising we no longer had to bite our tongues and walk away, that we could finally tell obnoxious insensitive men to get fucked. I wrote a message and added it to the wall amidst the hundreds that were already there. I walked home along the canal, crying to myself, garnering smiles and nods from everyone I walked past.
The Savita mural outside what was then the Bernard Shaw pub
I woke up the next morning having had the best sleep I had had in months. I took myself for breakfast. I read the papers in the cafe and cried quietly all over my avocado toast. The waitress gently patted my shoulder. A group of confused French tourists gave me strange looks. I had a few days before I had to go back to work. Myself and Clare sat in the sun along the canal drinking coffee, then visited the mural where we met more familiar faces. A few of us met for pints. I felt lighter, I genuinely felt 7 foot tall. We were all broken in our own individual ways, but everyone I looked at radiated light, strength and resilience. Someone commented that we had never looked so ridey. Bodily autonomy looked good on us. Cathie had a packet of After Eights in the pub. The relief and pride and happiness was palpable. I don’t know how many celebratory sessions we had, but there was more than one. There were pints outside the Old Royal Oak where they gave us free prosecco and pizza, a swanky party in Medley, where a gross man tried to chat me up by saying ‘yeah I wasn’t really interested in the campaign. But tell me…..are you a professional dancer?’, dinners and chats with friends who all looked like 10 tonnes had been lifted from their shoulders. The sun was shining every day.
About a week after the vote, a group from ARC met to start planning the March for Choice. As we did our regular big ups and qualms, it was a truly surreal experience to hear everyone say ‘so we repealed the 8th, and that was kinda a highlight’. People like Sarah, Linda, Ber, Caoimhe, Clare, Cathie, who were still beyond wrecked, showed up and pulled together the March for Choice within 3 months. They also coordinated WBC volunteers for gigs in June and July. I honestly didn’t understand how Sarah Mon was still standing.
I applied for a promotion a week after returning to work, interviewed for it two weeks after and started the role 6 weeks after.
There is a whole piece to be written about ARC after the referendum, the work that continued, and the challenges of working within an organisation that was greatly depleted in terms of members. But that is for another day.
March for Choice, September 2018
When hope and history rhyme….
I don’t know how to wrap any of this up, how to wrap up talking about the most important thing I have ever been a part of.
The world is a dark place. Politically we are seeing the far right rising and inequality growing. We are seeing reproductive rights being rolled back around the globe. What we did was not perfect but it was a positive change, it was some light in dark times. It was a beacon of hope for reproductive rights activists in Poland, Argentina, the Philippines, Malta and beyond. That is a good thing. It was a casting off of the shadows and shroud of the past, a past full of suffering, oppression and shame for women. It was not perfect, it was not without its problems, but it is fundamentally a good thing that the 8th amendment is no longer in the Irish constitution.
Looking back, it is a blur of anxious knots in my tummy, sore feet, pints, tears, gritted teeth, energy, momentum, love, admiration and collective action. My abiding feeling is of love and of pride, things that live under my skin in a body that is now both lighter and stronger.
The best way I can wrap it up is with this piece I wrote in late 2018 in celebration of the women of ARC and of each and every person who worked to get us to that 66.4%. I see your courage, your determination, your commitment, your passion, your beauty, your strength, your grit, your emotional, physical and mental strain, your sleepless nights, your skipped meals, your relationships strained or broken, your cuddles missed, your resolve, your frustration, your wounds, your joy, your light. I see you, fierce and free, walking in the tides of history.
AN ODE TO ARC
We are the women who get shit done
We are marchers and shouters, demo holders and graphic designers
We are trainers, bucket shakers, merch packers, poster assemblers, placard makers,
We are live tweeters, minute takers, treasurers, banner stitchers, and spreadsheet keepers
We are the women who get shit done
We are the women who would not stay quiet
Who raised our voices over and over
Until 66.4% joined us in a collective roar
We stand on the shoulders of so many others
Who refused to compromise when they were told they were extreme and unreasonable and oh so shrill
Who always kept their eyes on the vision
Repeal the 8th
Free, safe, legal
We are who we are because of the women who met and who rallied and who said the word abortion when no one else thought they should
We are who we are
Because of the women who were the first to wear a repeal badge in their village
Who stood at stalls in the rain with handmade banners and flasks of tea
The women who shared their stories and spoke their truth
We are the women who drove the length and breadth of a county to leave no door unknocked
The kind of women who say ‘I’ll canvas Belmullet on my own if I have to’
2018 arrives and there are AGMs and EGMs, discussions and votes
There are canvas guides, canvas training, there are politicians saying words we NEVER thought they would say.
There are hundreds of unread whatsapp messages.
Then there is some snow, and then there is a date in May.
Annual leave and unpaid leave is booked, the rest of life starts of be put on hold,
And there are 67 days….66 days….plenty of time and no time at all.
Emails and phone calls, press conferences, branding and merch, fundraisers, media plans, countless jumpers, videos, regional launches, advice from the helpful men, pop up shops, crowd funds and holy fuck we just raised half a million euro and Sarah Mon is the most recognisable face in Ireland, boxes of leaflets waiting in the hallway, photo calls, Parents for Yes, Farmers for Yes, Grandparents for Yes, Men for Yes, Midwives for Yes, Dogs for Yes…. meetings, and of course…..POSTERS….. a little blue van that visited every county, stickers, ad mobiles, badges flying out in their thousands, speech bubbles, postcards, count centre passes, and so much more that we did not see and will probably never know.
Pavements pounded and doors knocked, enthusiastic yeses, hard nos, difficult conversations, stories shared, knuckles bruised from old letter boxes, anxious tallies and debates ‘was that a silent yes, or a silent no?’
We turn our backs and we hold our heads high
We find a way to smile
And through gritted teeth we say ‘I can understand your concerns’
Though our hearts beat loudly – it’s my body, my choice
24/7 and sure who needs sleep because on the 25th of May we would know
That we could not have done more
And that we all did our best
Sleep has turned into someone you used to know
Replaced by the bubbling anxiety and the raw unspoken fear
‘What if we lose?’
And we fantasise about what we will do when it’s all over
Cook a meal
Read a book
Get the ride
Go on holidays
Have bodily autonomy
And know that we could not have done more
And that we all did our best
And we hold each other together with coffee and hugs and ‘how are you doing?’ and jellies that burn the surface of your tongue
With doughnuts and pints and bags of crisps for dinner
With solidarity, love, humour and sheer bloody grit
Standing in that booth, shaking all over
Oh fuck it, what if I vote no by mistake?
Take a deep breath and mark that X
Mark it for me, for you, for her, for all of us
Take a deep breath and hope it’s all been enough
And know, that we could not have done more
And that we all did our best.
And to everyone who asks ‘how do you think it’ll go?’
‘Oh it’ll be close, if it goes our way maybe 55%’
And I’m buying my own hype and we’re all buying the hype and the red alert and I think
I’ll pass out when someone says the words exit poll
And I hold onto whoever is beside me surrounded by anxious, tired, hopeful faces
Then the words
Margin of victory for the Yes side ….
And the room explodes
With sobs of relief and pride and joy
Tight embraces and beaming smiles on tear stained faces
Hands covering mouths and voices shaking
We did it, we did it
And it was so close…….we nearly had that sex number….
The results pour in and the yeses pile higher
And the RDS is a sea of tears and hugs and bursting pride and Gráinne and Sarah being absolutely rockstars and I’m fairly sure I have never cried so much and everyone is in love with everyone else
And there’s beer and dancing and exhausted happy faces and a weight has been lifted and the work is not over but fuck me we did it! And 66.4 is officially the best number ever and my body feels lighter and though we are all broken I don’t think we’ve ever been stronger
We are the women this country has always sought to shame and silence
We are the echoes of the Madgdalenes and of Tuam
We are the women whose names you know and whose names you will never know
We are the women who travel
We are the women who bleed
We are the women who will not be quiet
Who will not go away
Who will not apologise
For knowing our worth and knowing our power
We are ARC
We are fighters and survivors
We are mothers and we are lovers
We are strong and we are resilient
We are light and we are fire
We are fierce and we are kind
We are ARC
We are the change makers
We are the history shapers
We are the women
Who get shit done
You can see the video version of the above here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9P_i5TgUiyA