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Marianne Wilson

Meeting Ireland’s new wave of pro-choice rebel music

Artists across the island are making fierce, poignant tracks about repealing the eighth amendment and railing against the country’s social system

Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.

The issue of Irish women’s right to bodily autonomy, nearing the abortion referendum, has burst from the realms of online forums and scrawls in nightclub bathrooms to something much more centre stage – it’s a watershed moment for a nation that deals in nods and winks, in unseen suffering and unspoken tragedy.

Music is a critical vehicle in speaking truth to power and ending stigma. Historically, the Irish sang rebel songs during the long and bloody rebellions against British rule in public houses across the nation. Dolores O’Riordan’s rebel yell against the Troubles conflict was heard around the world on “Zombie”, and Sinead O’Connor tore into the Catholic church live on SNL. Today a new breed of largely female musicians have taken to their instruments to fight against those who wish to colonise women’s bodies.

Alien She is a three-piece experimental punk band comprising of Katie O’Neil, Aoife Mairéad Nic Dhonncha, and Darragh McCabe. Their own political activism informs most of their musical output, most provocatively on the visceral track “Death Sentence”. It was written as a response to the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion in Galway and subsequently died from complications relating to a miscarriage in 2012.

“When we read the news that Savita had died, we were devastated. This could have been any of us. Our country sent a clear message: you don’t matter. Your life is disposable,” explains lead singer Katie.

Ireland’s cosy relationship with the Catholic Church, as the major stakeholder in our social and cultural systems, has a major part to play in the upcoming referendum, as Katie explains how Irish people have to unlearn certain behaviours taught to them in school.

“Growing up in a Catholic country and having gone to church-run schools, we were brainwashed into thinking that the church and state are more important than our bodily autonomy. As a young woman, I had very confused views on the issue,” Katie says. “For a reader from outside Ireland, you must understand for most of us, we were or are raised to believe abortion is the utmost evil sin a woman can commit. We are shown very disturbing propaganda images that are falsified to make it look like you can see a baby’s limb and eyes and head and blood. We are told horrendous stories of women giving birth in fields, women dying in toilet stalls, hangers, pills, shame, death, hell, damnation. It’s a very frightening topic for anyone raised in a conservative traditional Catholic family and schooling system.”

Aoife who plays the bass guitar in Alien She, explains how the struggle is not only moral and solely based in Ireland, but also financial and susceptible to foreign influence.

“The anti-choice side have a lot of financial support from US lobby groups who want Ireland to stay as an example of a Catholic country, an idyllic picture far from the truth and with little care for the harsh reality of Irish women,” she asserts.

“Whatever the outcome of this referendum, I’m sure it will only be the beginning of changing Ireland’s restrictive and outdated laws that do not have the welfare of women in their best interests” – Karen Cowley, Wyvern Lingo

Michelle Doyle, bassist in feminist punx band Sissy describes living in a country where abortion is punishable with 14 years jail time as ‘a slow boring walking nightmare’. Michelle, along with her bandmates Leigh Artur and Eoin Fullam re-released their song “Sail and Rail”, accompanied by Radie Peat on tin whistle late in 2017. The track is a punk take on “Orinoco Folow (Sail Away)” by the lauded musician Enya; cultural icon and behemoth of Irish mysticism. It’s written using phrases used by the anti-choice side after the death of Savita Halappanavar, and cleverly employs the term ‘sail and rail’ as an analogy for how Irish people travel abroad to access abortion. The song is both humorous and lacertaing, and shows fierce solidarity with the cause.

Stick your dick in me so I can go on holidays, two obstetricians and a GP,  won’t tell me I’m not going on holidays,” the song spits. The visual captures Irish protests on abortion access, the refugee crisis, and the Magdalene Laundries (institutions run by the church for ‘wayward’ women with brutal regimes and a history of abuse).

Michelle had first hand experience of life on the anti-choice side as a teenager, enlisted to help her father canvas during the 2002 referendum, which sought to exclude the risk of suicide as grounds for an abortion.

“I come from a pro-life family and was forced to accompany my dad when he was putting up pro-life posters around our county,” Michelle explains. “When I was 16 and sexually active my parents went absolutely ballistic as I had gone out and put myself on the pill. It's so different these days, but you can't really blame people who themselves are the product of conservative Catholic upbringings.”

Her experience in a strict all girls catholic school mirrors that of many Irish teenangers growing up governed by the trenchant moralising of the church, and those now challenging the stringent laws on women’s rights creatively.

“When I was in third or fourth year a number of girls in my class were pregnant,” she adds. “My all girls school was deeply pro life, but at the same time turned its back on them and told them not to wear the uniform because it brought shame on the school. I felt like this school had deeply failed its students in that there had been no sex education and then threw people under the bus. My classmates all told me I was a slut for being on the pill. I think all of this really opened my eyes to the utter hypocrisy that surrounds education and sex, and ultimately the right to choose. It seemed so desperately unfair that people were condemned into pregnancies they didn't want.”

Bray based three-piece Wyvern Lingo are an alternative R&B girl group on the cusp of international acclaim: Karen Cowley, Saoirse Duane, and Caoimhe Barry. Their single “Out Of My Hands” is a melodic masterpiece of leftfield harmonies, speaking to an Irish society that’s devoid of compassion for the vulnerable.

Vocalist and bassist Karen Cowley recalls how a negative interaction with a man at a protest for housing in Dublin inspired her to pen the song, out of her frustration with what she saw as prejudice disguised as apathy.

“Over the last two years, I’ve been involved in some work regarding the refugee crisis at home and abroad, and unfortunately this man's tone echoed a lot of comments I've read from people trying to downplay crises or shirk social responsibility for them,” Karen says. “Oftentimes, I think people use condescension and apathy to disguise prejudices, be it sexism, racism, classism… the verse that refers to the repeal movement touches on the misunderstanding that feminism is somehow 'greedy' or 'unnecessary nowadays'.”

She wouldn’t give it a break, crying equality, the eighth and the state, she’s never happy,” Karen sings lightly, from the perspective of the people ignorant to Ireland’s major crises. The emotive video flashes with clips from the refugee crisis, the march against homelessness footage and a pro-choice demonstration in Dublin. It’s poignant now, days before the referendum, as the number of undecided voters wavers.

“Whatever the outcome of this referendum, I’m sure it will only be the beginning of changing Ireland’s restrictive and outdated laws that do not have the welfare of women in their best interests,” Karen affirms. Across the campaign, music, art, and writing has been vital for pushing the pro-choice message. “People are finally starting to talk to each other about abortion and that needs to continue.”