Guts x Fight Back!

Roisin Agnew | Editor's Foreword

What could’ve been an intellectual understanding of what it is to be a second class citizen, has become an experienced and highly visible reality for the women of Ireland.

Since 1983 160,000 Irish women have had to travel to England to have an abortion. Ten women travel everyday because of an amendment written into the Irish constitution that makes it illegal to have an abortion in Ireland. Some of our readers outside Ireland may not even be aware of this.

With every attempt to crush women, equate their lives to those of the “unborn”, Irish women have adapted, resisted, and persisted. We’ve learnt to fight back.

Here at Guts we wanted to come back from our sabbatical to dedicate an entire issue to the bravery and fierceness of the Irish women who are fighting back on all issues that affect women’s lives – abortion rights, poverty, racism, gender pay gap, homophobia, social conservatism, and lack of visibility. We wanted to show solidarity with the strike action taking place across Ireland on March 8th 2016 that calls for a referendum on the 8th amendment.

This issue hopes to be a beautiful visual and written print tribute to the awe-inspiring resistance made by Irish women through their protest, their writing, their organising, their art, their testimonies. We thank you. R


The Illustrators

Fight Back has been a delicious departure from our usual format of dedicating an entire issue to one artist’s work. It has allowed us to acknowledge the sheer no-flies-on-me skill and imagination of Irish female illustrators. Utterly different stylistically from each other, each illustrator interpreted our theme and stories uniquely whilst somehow managing to create a cohesive and powerful ensemble piece. In all we had six illustrators work on this issue - some were not new to Guts, some were friends, some we admired from afar, and some found us through a cold call and an illustration submission. Our thanks to Laura Callaghan, Aoife Dooley, Fuchsia Macaree, Jayde Perkin, Paula McGloin, and Cesca Saunders. And slow lick of the upper lip to Lauren Kavanagh’s design chops that pulled this all together.

Anger is an energy they say. If it were, in the truest sense, it would be really useful. We could run out smartphones off it, drive into town for free on pure ire, and speed through 5am power walks, even when it’s dark, anger shooting out our eyes and lighting up the road.

In reality, it is less manageable. It burns and shocks, like a cable, loosed and spitting like a snake. It eats away at us til we are crumbs. It robs us of our rest and saturates til we can wring ourselves out no longer.

Anger, we know, is fear dressed up. It is powerlessness, looking to take action and, it hopes, control. At this moment, in this world, not a one of us is immune. We are scared and filled with rage at injustice over which we feel we have no say. We daily raise our voices, post our terror, place our bodies on the streets.

But it is not enough. Two reasons. One: right now, the powers that be are doing their best to shut us out. Which leads to Two: our voices diminish with wear, our raised fists tire, it is too much.

It is now, at this moment, that art becomes vital.

For respite: we need beauty to lift us when the world is ugly. We need challenging pieces to stimulate those parts of us grown inert from effort.

As a motivator: inspiration comes in many ways. A TV show can spark an idea. A great story can help us to momentarily suspend our pain or revisit it in deep, healing catharsis.

As a unifier: Art can be shared. It’s a flag we wave above our heads. An expression not just of what we think, but who we are. We can all talk about it. Banners at marches, street art, sculpture, plays, songs show we’re not alone. There’s strength in numbers. You are not alone.

To entertain: we need a laugh. Christ, do we. Laughter breaks down complex ideas, dismantles fears, makes them more manageable. Helps us to cope. Or just gives us a break.

Much of my work has been borne out of rage. It comes out funny, but don’t let that fool you. I get to purge something gnawing at me and the authenticity gives the piece a punch it wouldn’t have had, had it just been an academic exercise. Take Racist B&B for instance. That was about my family. I can’t express how powerless I felt when my husband got racist abuse in a place where I feel safest. I mean it, I can’t express it. I mean, it might be possible through a kind of interpretive dance involving a lot of glass-smashing with a baseball bat, but otherwise, it is too much. I’m overwhelmed even now. “How dare they?”, doesn’t cut it. “Why don’t we have hate crime legislation in this country, to back up people when they say they don’t know if a verbal threat will escalate?” Much too academic, dry, and cold.

Instead of punching walls (and definitely not people - even racist people - only Nazis, actual Nazis who advocate for genocide are fair game for that) I made a sketch. It is a metaphor with punchlines. I took the rage and not only put it in the work, but made it the work itself. The expression might be of something dark, it doesn’t need to be dark itself. I’ve made similar work when friends have been bullied – personally or more generally – by organisations with deep pockets. I found a way to contribute to the Marriage Equality campaign by getting mad and then getting friends together to make videos.

I wrote two books, ostensibly about anger itself: one about overcoming rage as Irish women regularly have to do, the other about the ways in which we, as a nation, collectively express it. Both books were about frustration in their way. But they are at a remove. I am outside, commenting. Although the anger must be real and close to home, I do find it harder to make angry art about myself. For me, it is that bit too personal, in a way that offers little perspective. It can seem clear, but in actuality be blurred.

 I love to write. I love to act. I can revisit certain suffering to fuel the work, but I am too close to my own story to give it the extra spin that makes it art. I can retell it. I can recast it and twist it to fictitious analysis (with a good dose of insight and very thorough, lived, research) but it is more a kind of documentary narrative. Perhaps I don’t allow myself the anger I feel on behalf of others. Perhaps I don’t see my problems as as artistically valuable as theirs.

It is interesting that so many artists have recently said they’ve found their work stunted by world events. They cannot write or make. They do not feel able to sing or move. Even the best and most prolific practitioners of expression feel too overcome to work. The anger has boiled over. Instead of fuelling something, it is paralysing. But that will pass. When you can’t work, I must, and vice versa. The show must go on.

And I forgot: the artistic is political; the political is personal. Of course. We know this. It’s become a kind of catchphrase. Yet it is no longer a slogan that can be said to be abstract or glib. Now that we see how personal, how real all of this is, it’s a little more 3D. It touches us. Goes beneath our skin. As global and local forces try to discourage protest or ignore it, our voices will come out in different ways. Out of spite if nothing else. To show we can’t be beaten now we are together. Now, as at so many other critical points in history, art will not simply reflect the times, it will shape them. The show must go on. The show will go on. We will.

 

The first few days of spring have surprised us already. Over the weekend my city was lit up a little more with high skies, and things start to feel possible again. Recently someone told me his rule is to never make big life decisions in January when reliable feelings are in hibernation. Sound advice, though I would extend it to February too. Here we are now with the prospect of Dublin dragging itself out of the dark winter days to remind us of why we defend our decision to live here to others and ourselves. Yes, the early-year slump is a killer but think of those magic, light-filled days ahead.

Yesterday I felt like climbing under the duvet and never coming out again. Two bits of post landed at once and knocked me flat. One told me I’d made a stupid mistake on a funding application that I’d had high hopes for; the other was a curveball relating to my mother’s house, which we’re in the process of emptying after her death a few months ago. Both felt crap, but together they were overwhelming.

The past 16 months for me have been – what? Indescribable. I’ve never worked so hard. I’ve never been so public. I’ve never had people ask me my opinion so often. I’ve never talked so much about my inner moral compass.  #WakingTheFeminists took all of us by surprise. I reacted by putting my head down and charging on as hard as I could in the push for equality for women in Irish theatre. I’m a pretty private person, but I sucked it all up and said yes to every opportunity to speak publicly that came my way. I realised we’d be the flavour of the month only for so long, so I used all my skills and energies during the year to see how far we could go with the campaign. It was terrifying, exhilarating, satisfying. And exhausting.

And then in September my mother died unexpectedly. My sister and brother and I quickly put together a funeral that was all about her and the extraordinary life she had created for herself – as an artist and as a single mother. I used my new-found public speaking skills to get through a short speech without breaking down. The word most used to describe her during the day was “fierce”. She was not, in any way, the archetypal ‘Irish Mammy’. People who were at the service and didn’t know her told me they came away with a new energy and desire to live life more fully, which is about the best tribute I can imagine.

Three days after the funeral my family and I met to take part in the March For Choice. There was a fierce, quiet strength in the drizzle as we moved down the quays in the crowd. I wasn’t entirely there I realise now – my mind wasn’t anywhere. I felt flattened by a week that had changed my personal laws of physics. We knew she’d have been on the march with us if she could – she brought me to my first pro-choice march as a young child. As we began to clear her house of a lifetime of collected things, we found a rusty turquoise badge from 1983 saying, “I’m Against The Amendment”.

There is so much to listen to at the moment in the world – so many opinions, counter opinions, lies and half truths. I addictively scan my social media while simultaneously wanting to cut myself off from the world entirely. I feel like I get into bigger personal slumps since my smartphone has been part of my life. But I also feel more supported and connected with my peers than ever. Still, I’m wary of adding to a general online wash of outrage, because I can find it so overwhelming myself. But at the root of it all, the voice at the core of me that’s being daily swamped by verbiage, is still insistently saying REALLY? Are we STILL talking about this shit? How come the pursuit of women’s equal rights isn’t the personal crusade of every intelligent human in the world? I remind myself to stay tuned to that voice.

I remember my mother once said to me, “I never did anything I didn’t want to do”. What an extraordinary thing to be able to say.  Throughout my childhood I had the privilege, through her, of knowing people who quietly took their own path. Not always rallying loudly against a system, but embodying a quiet, dignified resistance in the way they chose to live their own lives. These were not the kind of people I saw on Glenroe on a Sunday night, but they were just as much a part of Irish society for me. It takes strength to not fall into step with everyone around you – get a real job, splash out on a wedding, buy that house, have those kids, settle down. I appreciate the people around me who resist the norm and don’t do these things; it takes energy and courage to live an unexpected life.

Spring is definitely on its way. We’ve tidied up her garden, ready for the new growth. Ready to sell the house. I saw the first few heads of daffodils there last weekend, pushed up through the black soil. I’m readier, steadier today. This quiet fight in me is getting back up out of the duvet, trying to stay true to the things that matter to me. A quiet resistance is enough for now, a persistence in trying to shape my world by doing things the way I see fit, not just the expected way. I’ll keep it close to my heart and hold onto it forever.


 

Dream sequence. A version of me, over a month of feeling nauseous at the smell of coffee, an early morning spent waiting among many other women in a room between two hallways that look onto a parking lot, the day’s deadlines all missed. A very sunny day, rays beating the linoleum into little segments of hot air, then cool air. Every time a door opens on the hallway all the women stand up. Then sit down again as someone is ushered forward, picking up their conversations where they left off or asking about the bathroom in subdued voices.

There’s a lot of back and forth down the two hallways. One compact, vaguely handsome tanned guy is bringing fresh linen into the ICU and the soiled linen out of the ICU, seemingly on a loop. I vaguely wonder what human seepage is in the patients’ dirty linen. The guy is wearing headphones and banging the cage-like trolley around very loudly.

Another person goes in, the last person must have come out and left without my noticing it. One of the women who’s there with her daughter in her early twenties comes back with two coffees. “Is the canteen ok?”, someone asks. The coffee is ok, yeah, but they’d taken pastries off the counters already in preparation for lunch.

The woman sits opposite me next to her daughter. She has had a fresh blow-dry and carries a Louis Vuitton bag. She has an instantly likeable face, everything slightly over-pronounced - the nose, the ears, the mouth. She and her daughter talk, seemingly about a friend’s new dog that the daughter shows her mother on her phone. They’re bored and slightly freaked by the hospital.

Next to me there’s a garbage lady. I know she’s a garbage lady because she’s wearing a uniform with the brand of the waste management company emblazoned on the front, back, and sleeve. She’s got a mop of curly hair and is listening to throbbing house music as she waits and chews gum. Opposite her there’s a couple in their mid forties with two children aged maybe six and ten. The husband looks petrified. On the other side of the room, in the hallway, sit a teenage couple, both in Doc Martens and ripped jeans. They’re holding hands and taking everything in.

Someone begins to talk about the parking lot in the hospital and the ways they’ve found to cheat the system by parking in a sports centre across the road.

When I finally get into the room we’ve all been waiting outside, I’m sat in front of the large, brusque woman in scrubs I’d seen going back and forth earlier. She asks me a couple of routine questions without making eye contact with me, KYs my belly, and puts the ultrasound device onto my flesh. It feels cool and soothing. “Look at your hip bones. Visible when you lie down. What I wouldn’t give to see my hip bones again,” the doctor sighs. “Haven’t seen them since…” The room has two more doors leading into other rooms and there’s a steady stream of female nurses and doctors coming in and out, taking to corners to gesticulate furiously and sigh under their breath about some hospital matter. “Who do you think you’re fooling, you were never able to see your hip bones like that you liar,” a nurse at a nearby computer interjects, turning around and winking at me. I laugh.

It’s been left too late so I’ll have to come back. “But isn’t it great that we can do this now after all that!”, the brusque doctor says, very upbeat now. “Huh? That we can be here for all of you now,” she says. “Put some weight on before I see you next week, don’t make me feel fat,” she puts her arm around me, more to corral me than out of affection, and leads me to the door.

The woman with the blow-dry and her daughter are outside eagerly waiting their turn, but the door is shut and no one is let in for the moment. They smile at me and the mother asks if everything went ok. We’ve been in the same waiting room together all morning. I say that I’ll be coming back next week. “Take care,” the woman says with a little bow of the head, and I walk out into the sunshine of the parking lot.

I like fantasising about an Ireland where this is a young woman’s experience of having an abortion.

I like thinking of the Irish idiosyncrasies, the Dublin characters, the sense of humour, the natural friendliness applied to something like that normal procedure. The fantasy is satisfyingly transgressive as well as plausible.  

I’m tired of seeing renditions and portrayals of that journey to the UK. Not only because the injustice at the centre of it sickens and angers me, but also because, for all their good pro-choice intentions, those interpretations seem to make something normal seem like a trauma that is only exacerbated by the Irish government's criminal stance. In some cases the procedure is deeply distressing. It’s probably always a bit scary. But to have the sole narrative be one that depicts abortion as a terrifying calamity (grey skies, bleak London streets, fluorescent lights) contributes to its mystification and the ignorance surrounding it.

The Irish video artist Jesse Jones was talking to me about how she believes that Irish women are experiencing a modern day witch trial. The New England witches were women who typically had knowledge of medicine and other subjects not generally understood by everyone. I don’t like how easy it is to draw a comparison to modern Ireland. The Salem Witch Trials are often referred to as one of history’s greatest episodes of “mass hysteria”. Again, I don’t like how easy it is to draw a comparison. Jesse talked about a hope for a more radical resistance and protest, one that built on the support for the Repeal movement as well as Irish feminist politics. We should be asking for more, she said.

The Repeal movement is a large family whose strength lies in that it has accommodated all despite their differences. Its role is to be diplomatic and measured. But it doesn’t mean that there can’t be an element of the movement that asks for more, that stays angry, that doesn’t settle.

Scanning my options on Whichcandidate.ie (a website that compared candidates’ answers on topics and issues) ahead of the General Election last year, I was shocked at how almost none of the candidates’ views reflected what I thought was a given pro-choice position. All the candidates from major parties that were pro-choice had said they were in favour of abortion “When the mother’s life is at risk, and in certain other cases such as rape or fatal foetal abnormality.” None, for instance, had picked, “Abortion should be freely available up to a certain number of weeks in a pregnancy,” as it has been in Italy, France, and Germany since the 1970s! Talk to anyone who understands these things and they will tell you that “fatal foetal abnormality is the way to get this over the line.” But we don’t simply want this over the line. We want this to undo the dishonour and shame Ireland has been living in.

I don’t want to campaign, march, protest, and fight for a cautious and politically prudent change to Irish laws that will still fall short of rectifying the enormous harm the Irish state has done to its women.  I want abortion services that meet the standards that the rest of the world has accepted for over forty years. I want us to make more radical demands and for our politicians to reflect those demands. Otherwise we will have sold ourselves short.

I want my dream sequence to become reality.

 

Twenty-eight years ago, in 1989 I was taken to court by a group called SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child). I was President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union, and SPUC had threatened me and the other three Trinity officers with prison because we were fulfilling union policy by providing information on abortion to women with crisis pregnancies. The courts had ruled that it was illegal for anyone in Ireland to give out the names, addresses and phone numbers of abortion clinics in England – because of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Pregnancy counselling services had been closed down, and the only places publicly providing abortion information for desperate women all over Ireland were a small number of students’ unions.

Clever legal argument by our senior counsel, Mary Robinson, kept us out of prison at the time. But ever since then, the Eighth Amendment has continued to cast a blight over my generation of women, too young to have voted in 1983, but whose daughters are now growing up under its chill.

By equating the lives of ‘the mother’ and ‘the unborn’, this Amendment portrays women merely as vessels. It has not prevented one crisis pregnancy. But it has compounded the crisis of many pregnancies, particularly when the journey to seek abortion abroad is particularly difficult: for young women, women in poverty, asylum seekers. And, above all, it has endangered women’s lives by having a chilling effect on obstetrics in Ireland, making doctors afraid to intervene to save a pregnant woman’s life until she is close to death.

Calls for repeal have become increasingly strong in recent years, particularly since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, and the prolonging of life support for a pregnant young woman, against her family’s wishes, in a midlands hospital in December 2014. But the Amendment remains in place.

Because of the Amendment, the long-awaited legislation passed in 2013 to implement the X case and allow for abortion on grounds of physical risk to life, or risk of suicide, could provide for abortion only where a woman’s life was at risk. As members of the Oireachtas, we could not legislate for any other ground. Because of the Eighth Amendment, we could not legislate to allow abortion in cases of rape, nor where a pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman’s health; nor even in cases where a baby is incapable of being born alive.

The legislation we passed that year has so far led to the carrying out of 52 terminations of pregnancy in Ireland to save women’s lives – vitally important for those women and their families, but clearly not meeting the real reproductive health needs of many other women. We know that thousands of Irish women continue to travel to England to terminate their pregnancies every year. In 2015 alone, 3,451 did so – 63 every week, nine every day. Since 1983, more than 160,000 women have made this journey.

For all these reasons, the Amendment must be repealed. And the repeal movement is growing. In recent months we have seen the brilliant, highly visible, Repeal tops being worn everywhere. We have seen more and more groups forming to call for repeal, and joining the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. We have seen the powerful video, Chains, made last year for Amnesty by Graham and Helen Linehan, based on their experience of fatal foetal abnormality.

For all these reasons, repeal of the Amendment has been Labour Party policy for many years. In 2014, Labour Women established a commission, chaired by former Senator Dr Mary Henry, to put forward a practical strategy to achieve repeal. We consulted with independent doctors and lawyers, including Dr. Peter Boylan and psychiatrist Professor Veronica O’Keeffe. In November 2015, we published the Bill that Labour would introduce if the referendum for repeal was passed. This legislation, the Repeal the Eighth Amendment Bill 2015, represents a significant step forward: no other major political party has nailed its colours to the mast on the issue of abortion in this way.

Its publication is very important, because we know from the divorce referendums of 1986 and 1995, and from the 2015 marriage equality referendum campaign that, for a referendum to be passed, its effects must be clearly spelled out in advance – people need to know what they are voting for. If we want to see the entire Eighth Amendment repealed, and for abortion to be regulated through compassionate and sensitive legislation, in line with other European countries, we need to show voters what that legislation would look like.

The framework legislation we have prepared represents this model. It would allow abortion on four medically certified grounds: risk to life; risk to health; rape; and fatal foetal abnormality. It would repeal existing laws that criminalise women and their doctors; and it would provide protection for those offering and accessing legal abortion services. This is sensible and moderate legislation, relatively conservative by European standards. Indeed, many of us might prefer to see a more radical abortion law in place, but we recognise that the Bill we have prepared more closely reflects the current views of Irish people on abortion, as measured in successive opinion polls.

Labour is the party of social change: we have long taken liberal stances on social issues such as contraception and divorce. In line with this tradition, it was Labour that pushed for the successful referendum on divorce in 1995; the recent gender quota legislation was Labour policy; and it was Labour that brought about the holding of the marriage equality referendum under the last government. In all these cases we achieved change. But change cannot be achieved without a clear and practical strategy.

Our strategy was to declare our position by publishing a Bill, so voters would know where we stand on the issue of abortion. We also made this position clear in our Labour submission to the Citizens’ Assembly last year. We are hopeful that the Assembly, currently ongoing, will deliver a clear recommendation that the government should call a referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment for later this year. We will continue to campaign alongside other progressive voices and movements in Ireland for that to happen.

There is now a groundswell of public support for a referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Let’s achieve repeal and end the chill – for the sake of our daughters and their generation.

I know plenty about what we're fighting against. But what are we fighting for? The inequality in Irish society right now doesn't just have its roots in the ineptitude and corruption of the banking sector, cavalier Fianna Fáil governments, the property bubble and subsequent housing market collapse, the global financial crash and the very specific Irish economic devastation, and guaranteeing banks over citizens. Its roots are also in the 2011 general election, when many Irish people voted Anything But Fianna Fáil, propelling Fine Gael and Labour into power. The legacy of that election and subsequent government is seen in the devastation of the Labour Party and a Fine Gael minority government that is both bungling and stagnant. But  what we’re also dealing with are the consequences of Fine Gael’s political ideologies, where everything that isn’t nailed down is sold off, where a certain economic class is given plenty of treats while poorer individuals suffer, and where the ruling party seems to experience a far different version of society than the rest of us living in it.

It serves the status quo well for people to disconnect from national and local politics, and it’s hard not to. You read and watch the news and look at who’s in charge and wonder why they can’t get their shit together, why so few of these people come across as smart, competent, engaging, honest, why can’t you relate to them. You wonder where the ideas are.

Who is going into politics? The sons and daughters of politicians? The political anoraks who care about the process, not the vocation? Those who obsess over the partisan callings of the youth wings of existing political parties until they are subsumed into the party machine, graduating through local politics until those machines deem them worthy to compete in national elections? Does that speak of vision, of ideals, or of ideas? No. It merely repeats a process that is as broken as it is uninspiring.

In some ways, the result of this jaded, elitist process is political power leaking from the party system. The power starts to emerge from the bottom up, and is not granted by the top down. The power comes to the streets. It emerges from a small group of activists who saw marriage equality as an achievable goal. It emerges from transgender rights activists lobbying for a Gender Recognition Act. It emerges from water charges becoming something to fight as both a utility bill and a symbol of how the cost of austerity was constantly being lumped on to citizens. It emerges from Home Sweet Home taking over a NAMA building to contest the injustice of homelessness. It emerges from organisations such as Equate challenging the religiosity of our education system.

Ultimately, many of these battles end up being subsumed into the political machine because they cannot be ignored.  Protest, organising, campaigning and lobbying tend to have an impact when they go overground. It shouldn’t be the job of individuals and small groups to highlight and in many cases do the work that our politicians should be doing. Maybe we need to be the politicians too.

It is unrealistic to ask individuals and small groups of people to change everything at once. But specific goals can be achieved by highly motivated and dedicated people. In the absence of political leadership, what becomes so obvious is that change will continue be made in Ireland by those who care about their communities. Ireland is at an advantage because it is a small country. Change can be affected more quickly. Once upon a time, the idea of quotas for female candidates in elections in Ireland was a fringe concern. Now look at the success of quotas in the 2016 election, and how that resulted in more women than ever before becoming TDs, a 40% increase within one election cycle. We can lead and change and be radical in ways that countries with much larger populations and much bigger problems and much more fragmented societies cannot.

But none of this matters unless there is structural change. If we do not change how our political system looks, acts, thinks and functions, then we will forever be expecting individuals and small groups outside of this system to battle the status quo. If we change the status quo itself, then the status quo will become change itself. It’s frustrating to not have something to vote for. It’s frustrating that at a time when there is so much appetite for political alternatives - and you only have to look at the success of independent politicians to see that - that no new parties have successfully come to the fore, besides the small Social Democrats. It’s frustrating that a much broader group of left and centre-left politicians, and prospective politicians, are seemingly unable to come together and provide a genuine alternative for voters. It’s frustrating that the Labour Party bore the brunt of the ire of voters in 2016, but that’s what happens to smaller parties in coalition governments, and it’s also what happens when a party’s leadership looks just like the rest of the other parties’ leaderships for so long. It’s frustrating that even in the aftermath of the marriage referendum, a once in a generation moment, that a political movement could not capitalise on the energy and desire for change that vote signified. But maybe it can.

If you think you have good ideas and want to serve your community, run in the local elections. They are in 2019. Fight the pervasive conservatism embedded in Irish politics. Fight that lack of imagination with ideas. Fight partisan concerns with unity. Do the Jo Cox stress test - is there more that unites us than divides us? If so, fight to work together.  Fight political parties who care more about economy than society. Fight the fallacy about how a multi-faceted housing crisis can be solved by the market when it can be solved by the State taking responsibility for providing its people with homes. Fight the spin and obfuscation. Fight the idea that politics is complicated or just for dudes in suits.

Here is something to vote for: equality, a political movement that comes together with equality as the baseline for every policy. Equality in the healthcare system, in housing, in education, in job creation, in economics, in human rights. If every piece of policy, every decision, every proposal asked questions of equality first, how much more sense would that make? If we put equality first, then we begin to see what the priorities are in a society.

Equality is a great clarifier. From homeless families to children languishing on hospital waiting lists, escalating rents to school admission policies with religious biases, abortion rights to billion-euro companies paying hardly any tax, the gender pay gap to student fees - run an equality test across these issues and the solutions become obvious. Equality first.

 

Cream lace gloves delicately covered my hands, strategically hiding my cut and completely blackened nail in my first communion photo. A very apt cover-up looking back now.  In the run up to that day a wrath had been unleashed inside me,  questioning anything pink, cute, and ‘holy’. The frustration that began then was a frustration that would rear its head in later life and that I wouldn’t be able to brush aside - it was the culmination of many put-downs, casual sexist slurs, and stark realisations that had become overwhelming. All not unique to me, but universal to women.

 The mouth that day - washed with bubble gum flavoured toothpaste and coated with my mother's Burt’s Bee’s lip balm - was the mouth receiving holy communion wafer without any real say. It’s the same mouth, that unbeknownst to me, in later life would be bolted open in disgust as I came to know about the forgotten women of Ireland's Magdalene laundries. A mouth like many, that would go on to be subtly silenced in many facets of my life. But at that age, as a young girls, how are we to know? Ideals around sanctity, sin, and sex are all wrapped up in communion money and ivory dresses.

There is a saccharine quality to the voices of parents speaking to their own small children. Often so high-pitched it would give insult if it were used in normal adult conversation. That sickly-sweet tone I feel is all too familiar to ‘lovely girls’. When used on me as a youngster I had a fierce aversion to it. That jolting effect of being called ‘a lovely girl’ usually resulted with me looking at my dad, looking back at the compliment giver, wincing, grinding my milk teeth and saying, “But, eh… I’m a boy.”  Forever conflicted about my own femininity, that tightrope was walked on - am I laddish girl, a girlish tomboy? That universal feeling, felt by many, of speaking out of turn, questioning, not settling. I was a ‘continuous challenge’ in school, as often remarks such as “You should act more ladylike,” were met with, “What the fuck does that actually mean?” It’s a perplexing minefield as a teenager feeling exiled for being a girl, wanting to be treated less like a girl.

Religious rights of passage such as holy first communion, weigh extremely heavy on my mind when trying to make rhyme or reason of the insufferable discomfort I feel for young girls today navigating the confusing world of sex and sexuality. I often think of young girls accompanying their parents to buy a communion dress, blissfully unaware of  the oppressive malevolence and frankly sinister hold that the same institution would later have on their bodies. Or the mangled practice around sex education that would enshrine them into a cyclical cycle of information deceits and punishing shaming repercussions.

“Try and look back, look back, and be with your younger self. What does she look like?” No greater cathartic exercise than churning up conflicting childhood feelings that have yet to be resolved. And yet it serves a purpose. Women who assert their womanhood , who use their voice, who most importantly want to own their bodies are cast aside as outliers. Made to feel that the kick back and step up is asking out of turn.

Accepting and relaxing into my womanhood has brought with it an acute awareness that my childhood discomfort, humiliation and disdain towards the ideals placed on me weren’t in any way unfounded. It’s relative but in essence, I was not free, I still am not, none of us are.  We are bound together in our separateness. The intertwined range of prejudices that permeate Irish culture, culminate into the fight we are now faced with. It’s not new, it’s ongoing.  The lash-outs against the pre-prescribed notions of who I was to be or what I seem to be have taught me what I truly wanted for my younger self, and not only convinced me of what I want for my daughters, but for women.


 

I wait outside Elliot’s cabin from around eight until eleven in the morning, when he gets up. He lives on the beach, so I gather seashells and hunks of stray coral until he emerges. He has long hair, and is writing a novel. I hand him a seashell. “A gift for me? Marvellous,” he says, and takes it. I think I am going to marry him.

Him or Ashley, who I’m pretty convinced is the wizard’s daughter. Or Sebastian – I’ve caught him smoking joints by the river too many times to not find him intriguing. He doesn’t like seashells so much. Ashley likes emeralds, when I give them to her she says, “This is delicious,” and eats them.

I tell this to a girlfriend over lunch and she laughs. She thinks this is gas, and that’s ok, I suppose it is. I wasn’t looking for a laugh. I was trying to explain why Stardew Valley had taken over my recreational hours, why it was so gripping to me. But look, explaining to anybody how I feel about video-games has always been hard – role-playing games or adventure are one thing, but there’s a cultural understanding around Super Mario that people have a fluency with. The farming simulators are harder to defend. Quiet pixelated landscapes. Rhythmic planting of crops, the watering. Fictional, nameless villages populated by algorithm-based people, like Elliot, my husband to be, or Ashley whose taste for gemstones is most likely a glitch but I take for canonical proof of her witchcraft.

Look, I don’t present as nerd. I learned not to. As a small child, video-games were a weird luxury, but frankly, my favourite thing. I only had a handful of Mario games for my Super Nintendo System, at seventy pounds a cartridge they were each a treasure, a portal to a faraway adventure that had to be exhausted before a new one could be asked for, let alone received. In my housing estate, I traded with the boys. Before puberty made weird monsters of all of us, it was easy for me to fall in league with them. Trading cheat codes from the inside of magazines, cartridges for one night and one night only because they were expensive and precious and I’d say between all of us we must have only had a shoebox full of them. There were almost thirty children around my age in the estate. We were outdoorsy, most of us, in a suburban War-Of-The-Buttons kind of way. When I wasn’t outside I was playing video games. So were the boys. The girls I had a harder time with – they felt easier to give up on. I was the only girl in the estate into video games and if video games taught me everything I needed to know about being brave, they also taught me everything I needed to know about misogyny and the weird, dark power of being the One Girl in any situation.

Time passed. Cartridges became discs. Boys became hungrier, angrier. My hair stayed short but my legs got long, my body a formless, breastless barrel, none of my clothes ever fitting right. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, Myst, The Legend of Zelda, Harvest Moon. I was in a convent school and had an almost impossible time with other girls, fearful and alienated all the time. I reckoned that if I could teach myself how to do eyeliner right and grow my hair long then I’d blend in with them, even if none of them wanted to talk to me about this island I’d just discovered on the Hylian Sea, or the fact that I’d just gotten a free CD with Nintendo Official Magazine that had an actual orchestra playing the music from Super Smash Brothers Melee. (Spoiler: it took me fifteen years from then to get the eyeliner right. I still listen to that album almost every day.)

If it had been as simple as handing them seashells I would have done it. Any of them, estate or school, boy or girl. I would have combed every beach, I would have dug through the dunes looking for shining emeralds and fed them to my schoolmates with my hands. I play video games for the same reason I read; in order to feel less alone. To feel connected to something bigger, and to escape, at once. As a teenager I had friends, a social life, jobs. I was by all accounts average, unexceptional, a bit weird at a push. It feels trite and shameful to say that I have not ever really fit in anywhere - and harder still to say that I have always tried.

When I was 18 I thought that working in a video game shop amongst volumes and volumes of games, would click me in and give me a sense of belonging and I was terribly, terribly wrong. A small annex in a seventies shopping mall in the airport-adjacent suburbs of Dublin, beside a florists and a Dunne’s Stores. A fifteen minute walk from my house. A rotating staff of five, including me.

I was told immediately upon hiring that I was brought in to “Deal with the Mams” who came in. I was ok with this. I would take it in exchange for being a girl who worked in a video game shop. I would take it for the access I believed it would give me: both to a library of games and to what I imagined would be a group of people like me.

Kings of Leon’s murky ugly albums day in, day out. No chance of my Smash Brothers Orchestra. There were 8 hour shifts when the male staff would deliberately ignore me, a trifecta of acne and testosterone, or perform aggrandized acts of masculinity to make me uncomfortable. One described in detail having sex with his teenage girlfriend and her fear of the condom breaking mid-act, impersonating her voice, her screams, her pleas for him to check that the condom was still on, while I stood across the counter from the cohort, staring into the shop, praying for a Mam to come in. Any Mam would do. Mams liked me.  

A sweet teenage boy, a bit younger than me, with blonde hair would visit me regularly throughout the first year. He’d sometimes come in with his Mam. The lads in the shop thought this was very funny. State of him, state of you. We mostly talked about Pokémon. He gave me a small bird-type Pokémon charm he won from a gashapon machine and I wore it on my namebadge. He died in his mother’s arms from a respiratory attack one summer day. My manager, who by then was well on the side of the Call Of Duty club, told me and left me alone in the shop to mourn while he went to get a smoothie telling me not to get too upset. I think he was crying too. This was not a moment we could or would bond over, this soft kid leaving this earth without any warning, in some cruel strike of chaos. I still have the charm, worn down by too many sets of keys. I never saw his Mam after that.

Every fresh Mam I dealt with, largely, was buying a Nintendo DS. It was 2007. A handheld that came in silver, white, or pink.  The matching game I always recommended was Animal Crossing: a gender neutral game with a pacifist backbone about moving into a small town. You guessed it - a farming simulator. I had a gentle spiel I had about non-violent gaming that worked on mothers, it wasn’t retail jargon. Trust that I genuinely believe that non-violent games are a rare and gorgeous commodity and perfect for children who are learning about other worlds for the first time.

The manager, the King of Leon himself, snapped at me one day, mid impassioned gender neutral selling pitch.

“Not everyone is going to like poxy Animal Crossing, Sarah, Christ!”

Stormed into the back room, leaving me scarlet with the Mam.

“What’s his problem?” she goes.

My eyes baggy with tears I say, “I’m not sure,” but I meant, “Me. I am the problem.”

A young woman from another store in the chain becomes assistant manager with us. I am the first person she tells that she’s pregnant after she does the test in the staff bathroom. She does not like me but I am the only person around to tell that early in the morning. When the lads come in, she resumes ignoring me. At Christmas, when she is run down with work hours, I take her list and some cash and do her shopping for her in the city one Saturday. An errand.  In Stardew Valley if you do errands for people they are nicer to you. That’s how the algorithm works. That’s not how life works. I know this all sounds terribly obvious. My courage faltered. I couldn’t see it then, but maybe what was so off putting to the staff of the small shop was my intense desire to belong. A glitch.

Eventually, in the second year, a new manager who has higher empathy levels than the rest of the staff takes me out on a lunch break and tells me I need to leave. He doesn’t fire me. He tells me he could see how miserable I was and how much of the tension I was absorbing and that it was bad for me – I’d my whole life ahead of me. Stories about the lads refusing to work with me had escalated to the HQ. I could stay if I wanted, but he told me he saw how unhappy I was. I cried openly over a cup of tea in the open-plan food court. Save, or continue – the two options that arrive on screen when you’ve fucked it all up so badly you can’t go forward.

I left the shop, but I didn’t stop playing games. Sometimes it’s not about winning, conquering, treasure. Sometimes it’s about farming the land and making friends. Sometimes it’s not about the direct path to the end, more about what you dig up out of the mines or fish out of the sea along the way. The emeralds you eat.

On my second date with my husband we played a courtroom-drama simulator and stayed up all night talking. My real life husband, that is, not Elliot in the cabin. We still play video-games almost every day, after dinner, rather than watching TV. I tell this to an interviewer during a recording and she is confused, laughing, though I am not trying to be funny. I’m rarely trying to be funny. She says she’s glad we found each other. So am I, I say.