Two years on, I have not yet begun to process the life altering experience that was the referendum campaign. Moving back to Ireland the previous September after several years abroad I was aware I wanted to become involved in the campaign to Repeal the 8th. I had no idea the extent to which it would take my every waking minute and ounce of energy.
I joined ARC and volunteered with the media team. When it looked like a referendum may be called I went to a pilot canvassing training and met a few people from my constituency, Fingal. We looked forward to joining whatever campaign started up there and helping where we could. I had never campaigned or canvassed before and was looking forward to all of the guidance and direction I would receive in these matters when ‘they’ started the campaign in my area. It quickly became apparent ‘they’ did not exist. I could never have imagined the responsibilities and roles I ended up taking, nor the strange situations I would find myself in- leading canvasses, speaking to politicians, recruiting volunteers, leading a canvassing training in my parents’ house, hounding Fingal County Council trying to retrieve posters that had been removed in error. All of this learned on the go, with not a second to think about how ludicrous it all was. Often, after addressing a crowd of canvassers and sending them on their route for the evening, a volunteer would ask me how long I had been involved in ‘politics’. The answer came as a surprise to many of them.
Having long cared about reproductive rights issues, attended marches and written the odd email, I felt I had some idea what meant to be an activist. I had never thought about the structures that existed and the relentless planning to make marches happen, the hours of editing that goes into writing a leaflet, or the reading and rereading of byelaws around where you could put a stall. I had wonderful moments on the doors – genuinely convincing someone of their need to vote Yes, having the stereotypes I held squashed again and again, hearing a personal story. I also made lifelong friends and shared many moments of tearful laughter and joy.
Nevertheless, my abiding memories are of two things – endless bureaucracy and exhaustion. Mornings were often spent canvassing train stations before hopping on the train to teach my class of eight year olds. After work would be a mix of phoning around to find out where the high vis jackets were, did we have enough leaflets, had anyone bought clipboard, trying to keep up with the messages in dozens of Whatsapp groups. I would print out a map of the area to be canvassed and try to make sense of the best route. We would knock on doors until it got dark and then I would go home to update social media, communicate with other leaders about how the canvasses had gone all over the constituency, answer emails, update spreadsheets, have a fitful night’s sleep and then do it all again.
We were totally driven towards achieving our goal at the expense of all else in our lives. We spoke often of the weariness we felt needing to repress our justly felt anger at how the women of Ireland had been treated. At doors we smiled and thanked those who said they were going to vote yes despite their worries about it ‘opening the floodgates’ of women’s irresponsible behaviour. We nodded in understanding when someone spoke of their worries about abortion being used as ‘contraception’ or how they felt the trip to England gave people a bit of extra time to make a rational decision. We smiled and spoke gently.
The week of May 25th I remember with great fondness. The sun was shining and momentum was building. We held signs and received beeps of support from buses, taxis, builders’ vans, cars of young families. A woman in Malahide approached me to tell me about her two daughters’ harrowing experiences with fatal fetal abnormality and their different experiences having to end their pregnancies living in England and Ireland. People brought us bottles of water and cakes. My primary school principal waved and smiled out the window. I voted with my close friend in our old school and my hand quivered as I put the ballot paper in the box.
I can’t describe the feeling at watching boxes being opened at the count centre and counting yes vote after yes vote after yes vote. We had done it . Being part of this campaign was a huge honour – to be a part of such a gigantic collective effort , to work with some of the most dedicated and empathetic people I have ever met, to watch history being changed before our eyes. The struggle is far from over. However we can be proud of what we achieved through our hours of hard physical and emotional labour. It was a Yes.