- 15 Jun 18
Irish society has changed immeasurably over the past 40 years, with a more mature discussion around sex, bodily autonomy and rights for women and minorities. To celebrate the repealing of the 8th Amendment, we look at 10 moments that paved the way for this victory.
1980: Condoms For Sale
It may seem extraordinary that the absolute ban on the sale of condoms in Ireland only ended in 1980. The ban, of course, reflected the pervasive influence of the Catholic church and its repressive attitude to sex. The legislation to loosen the ban – giving effect to the decision in the McGee case – was fashioned by Charles Haughey, who grudgingly pushed through the Health (Family Planning) Bill (1978). There followed two years of wrangling over who would sell rubbers. Contraception was made available only for (ahem) “family planning or for adequate medical reasons” and could only be dispensed by a pharmacist. The Bill, to quote Haughey’s now famous line, was “an Irish solution to an Irish problem.”
Writing for Hot Press at the time, Bill Graham noted just how pathetic all of this was. In an article headlined ‘Condomnation Of The Act’, he called it “inadequate and slyly bureaucratic.” He also accused the Catholic Church of resorting to “manipulation” in order to maintain its iron grip on the Irish population. There were piecemeal amendments to the Bill throughout the ’80s, before a campaign run by the Virgin Megastore and supported by Hot Press finally resulted in condoms being available for sale in shops and bars all over Ireland.
1983: The 8th Amendment
At the beginning of the 1980s, the self-styled ‘Pro-Life’ campaign joined forces with SPUC – the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children – to get in the faces of as many politicians as possible, agitating for a constitutional amendment which would guarantee the ‘right to life’ of the foetus. In an atmosphere of political turmoil, they successfully played Garret FitzGerald of Fine Gael and Charlie Haughey of Fianna Fáil off against one another.
At the same time as this was happening, a 1983 column in Hot Press titled “The Importance Of Voting No”, was written by none other than Michael D. Higgins from the anti-amendment campaign trail. He reported being shouted down at civilised anti-amendment debates by a bizarre influx of American anti-choicers (sounds familiar). Higgins finished by appealing for voters “not to give a victory to the reactionaries… Hold on to what little progress we’ve made by shifting out in your thousands and voting No.” We didn’t get the right result on the day. But the man in question is now President of Ireland and the amendment which he fought against has just been repealed. You might say we’ve come full circle.
1987: Tackling The Big Disease With A Little Name
AIDS was out there. People were dying. The condition was disgustingly – and incorrectly – dismissed by the establishment as the ‘Gay Plague’. It was also used as a way of instilling fear, and promoting the reactionary idea that this was the end of ‘casual sex’. The stigma and misinformation surrounding what was depicted purely as a sexually transmitted disease was itself a source of danger. So while the establishment dodged and fumbled, Hot Press acted.
While others turned a blind eye to one of the worst epidemics in the world, Hot Press saw an urgent need to provide essential, life-saving information. The bullet points on our cover (pictured below) were telling: “Information and Advice”; “Exploding The Myths”; and the most telling question of all, “Where Is The Government Campaign?”. But we went much further than that. “Don’t Die of Hysteria” the main cover headline read. And inside we carried an upbeat, explicit, sex positive guide to the wide variety of sexual pleasures that could be indulged and enjoyed by carefree heterosexual and homosexual couples alike, without risk of becoming HIV positive. With an illustration by David Rooney of a non-gender specific couple embracing on a bed, it remains one of Hot Press’ most iconic covers.
1992: The First Letter in An Appalling Alphabet Soup of Injustice
In 1992, in what was one of our most extraordinary covers ever, Hot Press ran with the main headline “14, Irish, Raped, Pregnant, and a Prisoner” (pictured below). If it was provocative, it was only because the situation demanded it. The X Case was one of the darkest moments in Irish legal history. A mother wanted to get an abortion for her 14-year-old daughter overseas. But she also wanted not to lose the evidence of rape – or of who the responsible man might be. When she reported the crime, all hell broke loose. Mother and daughter found themselves caught in an appalling legal web, dragged through the courts and forbidden by the law – and specifically by the 8th Amendment – from leaving the country to seek an abortion. Ultimately, X miscarried. But the implications were clear. If a person knew in advance that a young Irish woman planned to travel abroad for a termination, she could be incarcerated and held captive by the State. And there were people lurking who would do it. The case led to the first breakthrough in the battle against the 8th Amendment, with the subsequent introduction of the 13th and 14th Amendments, which allowed women to travel overseas for abortion; and permitted information on abortion in foreign countries to be distributed in Ireland. Writing about it at the time, Hot Press editor Niall Stokes commented: “Maybe someday, when we finally grow up as a nation and stop hypocritically exporting our social problems, we will then acknowledge that it is, in the end, a woman’s right to choose.” Of course other disgraceful cases would follow, a bizarre alphabet of Irish injustice. But as ever – in the Y case, the C case and the D case – it was women who suffered.
1992: Exposing the Vile Extremes of Youth Defence
In 1992, as the campaign on the Right to Travel and the Right to Information began, Hot Press’ Mick McCaughan went undercover with Youth Defence. One of the mainstays of this group was Niamh Uí Bhriain (nee Nic Mathúna), who later emerged as a leading ‘No’ campaigner in the Repeal referendum.
“With its pickets on the homes of politicians, well-publicised confrontations with pro-choice demonstrations and extensive use in public of provocative imagery,” the article begins, “Youth Defence is the most controversial and extreme anti-abortion group in Ireland. But what is the organistation really like – at work, rest and play? How does it function? And who are the key personalities? Mick McCaughan has been involved in Youth Defence from the very beginning, keeping his real identity as an investigative journalist hidden from those around him. Now, with the abortion referendum almost upon us, he blows his cover and emerges to tell the true story of life inside Youth Defence.” It was a cracking, scary piece and after its publication, an attempt was made to smash the windscreen of Hot Press editor Niall Stokes’ car. McCaughan’s work was ultimately vital in exposing the unscrupulous tactics of the anti-choice side in Ireland, and their dangerous links to fascism and extremism. These referendums were won. If it had been otherwise, the jackboots would have been donned in earnest. The full, original article is well worth a read at hotpress.com.
1993: Bootboy Column Starts
Sex is free. It’s legal. And it is, perhaps, life’s greatest pleasure. Hot Press has never beaten around the bush when it comes to talking about sex. Why should we? Through the 1980s we had carried classified ads pages that had broken new ground in their explicitness: gay or straight, our view was that you were far better to know if someone was into BDSM, spanking or whatever else the ads might have proclaimed. With that as background, come the 1990s, it made sense that we would publish Bootboy: Ireland’s first openly gay column, written by Dermod Moore. Sub-titled “The Adventures of a Man Loving Man”, this was ground-breaking stuff - open, honest and fantastically revealing about gay life. Dermod wrote what felt like intense diary entries on what it meant to be homosexual in Ireland and beyond. His first article, published in April 1993, typified a style which was frank about subjects that others skirted around – he mused on the intermingling of sex, disease and death, all while waiting for a check-up in the reception of a G.U.M. clinic in St James’.
1993: Homosexuality Is Decriminalised
The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform was founded in the 1970s to fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and its founding members included future Presidents of Ireland Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson. Curiously, female gay sex was never illegal: you might put that down as a kind if inverse sexist discrimination. No matter. This was an issue that affected men in a more visceral way, though of course as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, idea of one woman giving cunnilingus to another was also deeply appalling. Irish homosexuals had begun to fight for recognition, with the tribe gathering in places like the Hirschfield Centre in Dublin. David Norris was to the fore taking a case to the Irish courts first and then on to Europe. A ruling was made in 1988 that Irish laws prohibiting male homosexual activities were in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. But still, with the bishops and the clergy whispering in their ears, our dreadful politicians dragged their heels. In 1990, however, against all the odds, Mary Robinson was elected as President. In January 1993, Labour entered Government in a coalition with Fianna Fáil. The legalisation of homosexuality was a Labour priority and it came to pass in June 1993. In a touching open letter to President Mary Robinson, Hot Press columnist Bootboy thanked her for being “sincere in her beliefs that equality should be a fundamental principle of law reform.”
2004: Let’s Talk About Sex – Even More
“Goodbye Catholic guilt, hello lipstick lesbianism.” So wrote Anne Sexton in the first ever Hot Press Sex Column, all the way back in 2004. Having entered a competition to find someone who could write about sex in an interesting, challenging and upfront way, Anne proved herself to be more than a step above the rest. The Hot Press sex column, titled Sexed Up, was destined to provide a platform for discussions about sex and sexuality that were marvellously uninhibited, and very revealing. Irish people – and Irish women in particular – responded by making it one of the most read sections of the magazine. It connected with a growing, wider recognition of the sex lives of women, via TV dramas like Sex In The City and Orange Is The New Black, the emergence of female erotic literature and porn made by women for women. Contraception, live-in lovers, sex toys: all of these were now par for the course. So why the hell shouldn’t someone be writing about it? Weighing up the benefits of a threesome. The do’s and do not’s of various sexual apparatuses. Handy tips for you and your lovers. The underlying message was: women are free to do what they choose in life, in love and in sex. No big deal? It took a long time for the world to accept it.
2015: Gay Marriage Referendum
The Civil Partnerships Bill (2009) had been seen as enough by the political bigwigs. But gay activists saw that it wasn’t. If Ireland was committed to equality, then gays had to have the right to marry too. The battle was hard fought. The same crusty old reactionaries – including Catholics right up to the Pope – opposed the idea that two women or two men could get married. “I mean, how can you call that a family?” they screeched. The campaign was an inspiring one. On the run-in Hot Press carried two separate covers: one featured two women kissing; the other two blokes. Irish people – young Irish people in particular – returned from abroad in numbers to state their preferences. On May 22, 2015, Irish people voted resoundingly in favour of gay marriage. It was momentous not just because Ireland was the first country to vote for gay marriage in a referendum, but also because it put to bed Ireland’s long, dark history of religious interference in the bedroom. It was a hell of a statement: fuck whoever you like. As long as it is between consenting adults, it is fine.
In Dublin Castle, Panti Bliss cheered alongside Gerry Adams as the numbers for Yes went through the roof. On the day of the results, Hot Press wrote: “This is truly an historic moment, which sees Ireland embrace the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity completely and unequivocally for the first time. And it is another important milestone in the split between State and Church: a statement that the tenets of no religion will have precedence over the rights of all citizens.” There was, however, more to be done…
2018: The Repeal Movement And The Long March To Freedom
It should not require a deeply tragic, defining movement for a country to collectively wake up fully and finally to injustice. In terms of repealing the 8th Amendment, however, a moment of that desperately sad kind came on October 28 2012, when Savita Halappanavar – a 31-year old dentist from India – died as a result of sepsis in University Hospital Galway. Savita was 20 weeks pregnant at the time and knew that something had gone horribly wrong. She and her husband Praveen asked for an abortion. Because of the 8th Amendment, however, the hospital staff obfuscated and delayed. It couldn’t be done, Savita was told, because “this is a Catholic country.” Two days later she died. It was another criminally shameful moment in Irish history.
It was a watershed moment. All of the steady building work that had been done gathering support for equality and for women’s rights provided a solid foundation. But with the death of Savita, the cruel nature of the ancien regime was seen in its true light. Spearheaded by the likes of the Abortion Rights Campaign, Amnesty International and a huge umbrella of pro-choice organisations, a grass roots movement gathered momentum. Women like Tara Flynn and Róisín Ingle stepped forward bravely to share their stories. Hot Press published its first Repeal issue (pictured here) in September 2016, with Jess Kavanagh of Barq on the cover. Back then, we were still witnessing indecision and prevarication from the government and a fierce backlash from anti-choice groups was already happening. (not to mention the sinister manipulation of social media advertising that was taking place on sites such as Facebook). In a game-changing moment, early in 2017 the Citizens’ Assembly decided that the Amendment should be repealed and recommended the availability of abortion without restriction as to reason up to 12 weeks. The All Party Oireachtas Committee agreed. The campaign that ensued was not as clean and respectful as has been said, but no matter. On May 25, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Repeal the 8th and give women back their bodily autonomy. The next day, Ireland felt like a new country…