Too many women suffered before Ireland embraced the spirit of 1968

Too many women suffered before Ireland embraced the spirit of 1968
Police fire tear gas in Paris during the 1968 student demonstrations in France. Picture: Getty Images

“If I have one regret,” my friend Patricia said, “it’s that I lived in Paris in the summer of 1968, and it all went over my head.” We were talking about the ‘good old days’ (people of our age do that). In 1968, she had just done her Leaving Cert in a Catholic Irish school and was an au pair with a French family that had been vetted by her parents. No wonder history passed her by that year.

Of all the years to have been alive, and to have missed out on the experience, 1968 might be the hardest. It’s often described as the year that changed the world. Paris was in tumult. It was a summer of student riots that sparked off generations of change. Before Paris 1968, many of the great issues of liberation that have dominated Irish politics for the last 20 years were unthinkable.

The student revolution of that year was sparked by a decision of one of the universities not to allow male and female students to live in the same complexes, lest they sleep with each other. It grew into a national protest about workers’ rights, as well as student rights.

It opened up debates about sexual freedoms and identities. The revolution didn’t last much longer than the summer, but it dominated the front news pages of the world.

But if France had its students, America had Vietnam, and all that meant for the late 1960s. In 1968 alone, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. How different would history have been if 1968 ‘hadn’t happened’ in America? The debate about race was massively reignited that year by a black power salute at the Olympic Games.

There’s an old expression: If you can remember the ’60s, you probably weren’t there. A more accurate version of that expression might be: If you can remember the ’60s, you were probably brought up in Ireland.

We were the innocent bystanders of other people’s history.

Yes, I know, there were a lot of meetings and discussions and argumentation in UCD — the gentle revolution, they called it — but that era of student-led change passed the vast majority of us by. Students in Cork, of which I was one, drank pints and stayed up late. That was our revolution.

When tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, to end the real gentle revolution — the Prague Spring, led by Alexander Dubcek — it was another act of brutality and oppression that should have shaken us out of our torpor. It was not until later that year, in October, when the RUC viciously baton-charged a civil rights march in Derry, that the era of change finally began to come home for some of us.

But one of the major effects of that cataclysmic change was to turn Northern Ireland into a different country. As civil rights protests gradually gave way to a much darker conflict, we turned away. The border on the island of Ireland grew harder and harder, shaped by violence into something that made many, if not most, of the people on the island unwilling to cross it. Whatever revolution was happening in Ireland then, Ireland didn’t want to know.

And so it remained, for years to come. Until women changed everything. I worked for the government led by Garret FitzGerald from 1982 to 1987. That government (against its will) held the referendum that put the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution.

That government failed, despite its best efforts, to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. That government, after an enormous battle, just barely managed to pass a law that enabled adults (adults!) to buy condoms.

That was how we wanted Ireland to be, for years and years after 1968. We wanted history to pass us by. Well into the 1980s, we wanted Ireland to be unchanged by history.

It was women, and only women, who changed all that. Sometimes in what they did, and in the stands they took. Sometimes in what we did to them.

A few months after two-thirds of us voted for the Eighth Amendment, with all it said about the inferior rights of women, a 15-year-old girl called Ann Lovett gave birth to her baby son beside a grotto to the Virgin Mary. She, and her son, died. A couple of months later, while FitzGerald’s government was still preoccupied with its leader’s constitutional crusade, Joanne Hayes was charged with a murder she couldn’t have committed. She was alleged to have given birth to twins, although she hadn’t, and to have had sex with two different men in conceiving them, although she hadn’t.

When the spurious murder charge against her was dropped, a tribunal of inquiry was established into the behaviour of the police. They turned the tribunal into a further witch-hunt of Joanne Hayes.

At the end of that decade, Lavinia Kerwick was raped. She stood as an anonymous victim in front of the court that gave her attacker a suspended sentence, and only changed the law by abandoning her privacy in the interests of other women.

And later still, Brigid McCole died. She died because she had been given contaminated blood by the State, which then intimidated and threatened her to the moment of her death. The State wanted her to be quiet and go away.

She refused. Despite a ravaging illness, she never gave in. Lavinia Kerwick never gave in. Louise O’Keeffe never gave in. Louise was raped at the age of nine by her school principal and had to fight against a threatening and intimidating state to secure justice, not just for her, but for hundreds of other people who had been abused.

Some of these cases are still going on. There are other women I could write about whose battles aren’t over. The women of Tuam and Bessbrorough and of other mothers-and-baby homes, the Magdalene women — not all have yet been vindicated in the way they should be.

There are still mothers — of children with disabilities, for example — fighting painful private battles. And we can see all too clearly, from the CervicalCheck scandal, that we are still capable of getting it shamefully wrong.

Here’s the thing. The world might have changed forever in the 1960s. But it took Ireland much longer. For all sorts of reasons, we wanted to stand by.

Or maybe we wanted to preserve the values the rest of the world abandoned, even though so many people were oppressed in the name of those values.

It was women who wouldn’t let us be comfortable in our prejudices. Maybe they didn’t get to go to Paris in 1968, but the courage and determination of women, in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and onwards, dragged us into taking part. They changed Ireland forever. We might have been reluctant, but we’re the better for it.

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