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illustration Fiona McDonnell

Performing repeal: how comedians are tackling Ireland’s abortion vote

Handmaid’s Tale bonnets, parody pageants, and biting stand-up have defined the creative push for reproductive rights

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.

Comedy might seem like an odd medium to tackle the subject of abortion in Ireland on the cusp of a generation-defining referendum. Yet, the campaign for repeal of the Eighth Amendment has been a catalyst for Irish comedians to make audiences laugh – and cry – while they hold Ireland’s historic treatment of women and abortion stigma up to the light. A number of Irish comedians have used their craft to spark upfront conversations about abortion and boost pro-repeal campaigning. Their comedy is part of a new wave of Irish art, poetry, and performance with a distinctly activist streak.

Kildare-born comedian and writer Aisling Bea has, alongside other acts like Jarlath Regan, supported the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment by appearing in a comedy fundraiser organised by pro-choice group London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, while also contributing the satirical essay ‘What is a Woman?’ to the Repeal the 8th anthology edited by Irish journalist Una Mullally. Most recently, Bea, alongside fellow comedian Sharon Horgan, led an ‘Irish Comedians Abroad: Be Our Yes’ video, which also featured Ed Byrne, Katherine Ryan, Jimmy Carr, Chris O’Dowd, Roisin Conaty, and Dawn O’Porter. It it, Bea and Horgan don Handmaid’s Tale-style bonnets, and refer to themselves as the ‘Judases’ who left Ireland and are no longer eligible to vote, but who call for a ‘yes’.

“When you vote you get that same mad buzz as you do with confession but without the added shame,” Bea asserts. “Please let Waterford Crystal and Tayto be Ireland’s biggest export, not women.”

Alison Spittle, the comedian and writer behind RTE’s Nowhere Fast, started organising comedy fundraisers for the Abortion Rights Campaign four years ago. Alison says that seeing a Youth Defence advert (an anti-choice group) outside the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre motivated her to use comedy to support pro-choice fundraising. In 2016, she wrote a sketch for This Is Ireland which satirised crisis pregnancy centres, following newspaper reports that a number of the centres had misinformed pregnant women about their options to prevent them accessing abortion. “There was a complaint (to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) about the sketch but it wasn’t upheld,” she tells Dazed. “The online backlash to the sketch was so strong that I had to change my name on Facebook.” This experience inspired some of the material in Alison’s most recent show. Alison adds that “it can be so hard to do satire on TV in Ireland”, a country that can be sensitive about its misgivings and failtures, and she finds that “the great thing about performing live is that you can see the audience reactions and sort of cajole them into laughing”.

A one-woman show called Not A Funny Word, written and performed by Tara Flynn, premiered last year in the Abbey Theatre, and it is currently touring Ireland in the run up to the referendum. The show recounts Tara’s moving and funny story of her own journey from Ireland to access a termination in the Netherlands in 2006, accompanied by songs. In an interview with the show’s co-producer THISISPOPBABY, Tara observed that because most of her career has been in comedy “I’ve tried to make (Not A Funny Word) as funny as possible. For me, laughter is healing and it helps me to deal with things that happened and a lot of the hypocrisy or the silence that’s happened since.”

Reproductive rights activists have also used humour to amplify the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The direct action feminist performance group Speaking Of Imelda use audacious and funny performance art to provoke pro-choice discourse in public spaces, working in solidarity with activists calling for repeal of the Eighth. Speaking of Imelda (I.M.E.L.D.A. refers to ‘Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion’) was set up in 2013 by an intergenerational group of Irish women based in London. In their work, the group invert tropes of femininity to challenge patriarchal conventions, calling for change.

In 2015, Speaking of Imelda staged a ‘Rogue Rose of Tralee Pageant’, where contestants were not judged by whether they were ‘lovely and fair” (the values of the actual Rose of Tralee pageant), but by the reproductive rights they enjoy in their home countries. The group have recently staged a Referendum Road Trip around Ireland, where they interviewed local activists and citizens in a ‘mobile chat show’ and performed with comic Breda Larkin. The tour has allowed Speaking of Imelda to highlight not just the harms of the Eighth Amendment but also the legacy of mother and baby homes, while performing the act of ‘cleaning up the country’ on the streets of Cork and at the Ballinspittle grotto. An Imelda (this is how members of the group refer to themselves) told me that their guerrilla activism tactics are inspired by the direct action performance groups Pussy Riot and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. A spokeswoman for Speaking of Imelda relates: “when we started 5 years ago, we were accused of acting in bad taste”, although she notes that the mood has since shifted due to a groundswell in creative and diverse grassroots activism across Ireland.

The repeal campaign has prompted a particularly millennial brand of humour, where memes are used to highlight the harms of the Eighth Amendment and the weaknesses of the case to keep it in the constitution. On the (hugely popular) Ireland Simpsons Fans page, members can post memes on topical issues using images from The Simpsons. For the past year, the page has seen dozens of memes on the topic of repealing the Eighth Amendment every week. The memes have become so popular that admins of the Ireland Simpsons Fans page designed and sold merchandise featuring pro-repeal Simpsons memes, directing all profits from the merchandise to the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment (now part of Together For Yes). There’s a t-shirt with ‘cool Lisa’ from the Summer of 4 Ft. 2 episode, her jumper emblazoned with the ‘REPEAL’ project logo.

The topic of abortion undoubtedly remains stigmatised in Ireland, but it is becoming less so thanks to a cultural shift led by performers, activists and citizens. With any luck, their bravery and willingness to analyse Ireland’s past and present through a darkly funny lens will help deliver a majority in favour of repeal on May 25.