When the history of Ireland in the decade of 2010-2020 is written, one picture will surely dominate: the photograph of thousands cheering outside Dublin Castle as the results of the abortion referendum were announced. Some participants were, literally, dancing in the streets. The picture has already illustrated the front cover of David McWilliams’ recent history Renaissance Nation.
For Irish citizens who hoped to uphold the Eighth Amendment, respecting the life of the unborn as well as the life of the mother, it was a dismaying and upsetting picture.
Some Catholics – including, for example, the late Peter Sutherland – voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment because they believed this was a question for legislation in parliament, not for the Constitution. But a reason for dancing in the streets? Hardly.
When Louis XVI of France was guillotined in the Place de la Concorde in Paris in 1793, an enormous crowd filled the public space, wildly cheering as the blade fell on the king’s neck. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle wrote that, afterwards, 1,000 different people would remember it in 1,000 different ways, and as the years passed, there would be many varied reflections and consequences.
And so, perhaps, with the Dublin Castle celebrations in May 2018. Forty years hence, the participants will remember it in many different ways, and in the light of their subsequent experiences.
Some sincerely thought the Eighth was a bad constitutional arrangement”
There will be women who become pregnant, and like the feminist Naomi Wolf, are emotionally hit by seeing an ultrasound picture of the unborn: Wolf felt an unbidden, but overwhelming, sudden instinct to protect that small human. There will be women who never become pregnant, despite four cycles of IVF, and ask angrily about their ‘right’ to reproductive choice. There will be women who have abortions and take it as routine and then later feel devastated.
There will be women who, 40 years on, are deeply disappointed when their own offspring exercise their ‘right to choose’ childlessness. I know such cases.
No doubt different participants had different motives: some sincerely thought the Eighth was a bad constitutional arrangement and believed it contributed to Savita Halappanavar’s death.
Some were politically motivated to change the values of Irish society. Some were rebelling against their forebears, and some just went along with their pals.
But how it is seen now is not how it will be seen through the lens of history, for the simple reason that nothing ever is, including the death of a French king.
Slow, steady circle of life
Last week I mentioned the late Limerick-born actor Richard Harris, noting that he had been married to ‘Elizabeth Mostyn-Owen’. But I got my Welsh surnames mixed up: Elizabeth’s birth surname was Rees-Williams, being the daughter of Welsh peer Lord Ogmore.
There’s a sequel to this story. Elizabeth, a fragile beauty, is now married to Jonathan Aitken, who I’ve known since the 1960s. Jonathan, who did time in prison on a perjury rap, is now an ordained Church of England minister, specialising in prison chaplaincy.
By chance, he was born in Dublin and spent time as a young child at the Cappagh Hospital with a serious case of TB. He was nursed by a Catholic nun who he always remembers with great affection, Sr Mary Finbar: she believed in his recovery, even when his parents weren’t too sure. Full circle, small world!
There was no bad intent behind my tweet
Sometimes we can offend without intending to. Recently, after the broadcaster Marian Finucane died suddenly– having returned from a wedding in India – I expressed my admiration for her professionalism, on Twitter, and then wondered what caused her death. I had in mind the hazards of long-haul flights, which can prompt deep vein thrombosis.
But I got a shoal of complaints, some harshly phrased, telling me I was insensitive, intrusive, a meddling “curtain-twitcher” – rudely over-inquisitive – and even a racist (for mentioning India), which was absurd.
However, I did examine my conscience afterwards, asking myself if I was being insensitive to Marian’s family or friends? Was I a little too influenced by old newspaper obituary habits, where the cause of death was often mentioned in the first paragraph?
We will all die of something, and it’s not a cause for shame. I certainly didn’t intend to offend, yet it was made clear to me that, in the eyes of some people, I had done. What is considered polite and mannerly certainly alters.