A century later, his homeland has undergone a social and cultural upheaval. The place they once called “Catholic Ireland” has shaken off its past.
Contraception, divorce and same-sex relations were all still illegal in 1980. By the mid-nineties, they had legalised contraception and voted for divorce.
They had to wait another 20 years for a referendum on same-sex marriage. People described that result – 62% for and 38% against – as “a watershed”.
Others dared to suggest that a vote on abortion would define this new Ireland. But no one predicted a landslide result on the most emotive of social issues.
For 35 years some had campaigned for the repeal of the constitutional ban. During that time 170,000 women travelled from Ireland to access an abortion.
Feminists had been inspired by the election of Ireland’s first female president. But successive governments continued to side-step the most divisive issue.
28 October 2012 was the day they realised they could avoid it no longer. Savita Halappanavar, a dentist from India, died in a Galway hospital.
The 31-year-old, who was miscarrying, had been refused an abortion. An inquest heard one nurse had told her: “This is a Catholic country.”
Five years later, the government plans to legislate for access to abortion.
It is an incredible result for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Having changed his mind on abortion, he persuaded his cabinet to follow.
The campaign was heated, even hostile at times, the depth of feeling clear. Hundreds of young people flew home to Ireland to make their vote count.
The sheer number of “no” posters suggested the result would be close. But voters turned out in unprecedented number to turn the tide once more.
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For many, it was not about the argument made by one side or the other. They cast their ballot in secret on the basis of painful personal experience. Their ‘x’ has indeed provided a defining moment in this nation’s history.
The results of the exit polls sent shock waves across the country. And brought to mind a quote from that first female president, Mary Robinson: “The women of Ireland have gone from rocking the cradle to rocking the system.”