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When Irish women took control of their destiny – and their bodies

By April 30, 2010News

Irish Independent – 1 May 2010

By Medb Ruane

Let's talk about sex. Fifty years ago this month, the Pill became available to western women. Rock and roll! You could copulate without conceiving, if you wanted to.

The Pill became THE symbol of the sexual revolution. Free love, flowers in your hair, long-locked lovers crooning Maharishi tunes while everyone who was anyone got stoned. But was it all so simple? Like love, the course of sexuality rarely runs smooth. Free love (is there such a thing?) didn't save the world.

The Pill spared people the age-old conjunction of sex and pregnancy that hit particularly hard in Ireland, where you couldn't even buy a condom unless you travelled up North pretending to be a budgie breeder off to a show. All you wanted was to buy a few rubbers.

A zeitgeist spliced science with social activism. Women's Liberation was setting the agenda, campaigning for work opportunities, equal status, equal pay, better laws. The thought of the Pill reassured reluctant employers that women wouldn't be dropping out to breed every year.

The prospect of pregnancy after pregnancy is unimaginable now, never mind the economic and physical effects of successive parturitions (as in the Third World). It's history, a past so alien you'd rather forget.

But in living memory, there was once an Ireland where you couldn't access any contraception, never mind the Pill. A disprin between the knees was, I'm told, the only contraceptive.

Apart from the word 'No'.

Key moments in Ireland's sexual history link serendipitously to the Pill's anniversary. Not those depressing, perverted decades of abuse and violation but the passionate, joyous insistence that women's pleasure was wider than falling pregnant, especially when they loved their men. Our bodies, our choices, the Irish Women's Liberation Movement used to shout. They had to shout a lot.

The first moment connects precisely with the Pill in 1960, when a book by a 30-year-old Clare woman living in London was published to wide acclaim, except in Ireland where it was banned — and burned. Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls was about Kate and Baba as they tried to navigate sexuality and love.

"I was made to feel ashamed, made to feel I had done something wrong," she told salon.com.

The next moment happened in May 1971, when the self-same IWLM and friends boarded what became known as the contraceptive train from Dublin to Newry and back again, bearing many condom gifts. It was an incredibly daring act for women brought up in the 1950s and 1960s. They risked being labelled as sluts, whores and alley cats, when some were still virgins and none promiscuous in any sense that today's raunchy culture would recognise.

Mary Kenny of this parish was a leading campaigner who spoke that evening on The Late Late Show to a stunned Ireland. What nerve, what style, what fantastic courage, especially having to face their families when they went home. The late Nuala Fennell, a relatively conservative Catholic, was involved. So were other journalists — Nell McCafferty, the late June Levine and the late Mary Cummins. Mary Robinson worked the legal side.

Oral history tells us how women managed their fertility. In 1963, Ireland allowed the Pill as a 'cycle regulator'. On your bikes, girls. . . middle-class women attended understanding gynaecologists complaining of menstrual irregularity. Others feigned headaches or were left unsatisfied, like their husbands, when he practised withdrawal. Poorer women hadn't a hope. Fear of pregnancy meant many women sweated it until their next period. Would it come? How would they cope? In my mother's generation, some women became frigid by conviction. They were too scared of pregnancy to enjoy. So, I imagine, their husbands felt unloved and maybe even dirty for wanting their women intimately. The women must have had to close off.

It's staggering to think how many rules governed heterosexuality (the other was illegal) when all the time the cruelest acts of rape and assault happened outside the law. No crime of marital rape was on the books, so women with gits for husbands had fewer rights than prostitutes.

The burning of O'Brien's book symbolised Irish society's refusal to acknowledge human sexuality, especially women's. Yet women's fertility was a key factor in isolating them from meaningful jobs and public positions, and thus from economic well-being. A classic lose-lose.

The sheer impossibility of it all provoked campaigners to start the Fertility Guidance Company in 1969, which opened a reproductive health service on Dublin's Merrion Square.

Later named the Irish Family Planning Association, the group's recent report on schools showed widespread confusion about reproductive information. Some 40pc, mostly boys' schools, mostly Catholic, aren't fully implementing the Relationships and Sexuality Education module 17 years after it was set up.

Sexual anarchy didn't happen after the Pill, as conservatives feared. In the West, its impact is chiefly on women's economic profile, with deferred childbearing and smaller family size giving a better general standard of living. Managing fertility in the Third World remains difficult because it's hard to access contraception; many Western-based conservative Christian aid agencies forbid condom use.

Thanks for the train, sisters. You put yourselves on the line for us. But Ireland 2010 won't face up to reproductive rights and health, through education, better availability of the morning-after pill, making laws to acknowledge the X case. Are we cool with our sexuality? Fifty years on, there are battles to be fought.