Wednesday 28 September 2016

The condom train is our story, including its misguided folly

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

A musical about the notorious contraceptive train which ran from Belfast to Dublin in 1971 and is to open next week in Dublin
A musical about the notorious contraceptive train which ran from Belfast to Dublin in 1971 and is to open next week in Dublin

It's something of an irony that at a time when repealing the 8th Amendment on abortion is the current feminist campaign (and women are being urged by campaigners to celebrate their abortions with a hashtag 'ShoutYour Abortion') the issue which has returned in entertainment form is the condom.

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Yes, a musical entitled 'The Train' has for its theme that notorious contraceptive train which ran from Belfast to Dublin in 1971 and is to open next week in Dublin.

I participated in that original stunt, but I have declined any further connection with the performance in question and chosen not to appear on any radio or television programme associated with it.

I do not endorse Rough Magic's enterprise in turning this episode into a musical, because, for me, it is not the way to explain the historical context of birth control in Ireland - and elsewhere.

I also feel that an experience which belongs to my life has been stolen. It is for me to tell my story, at least while I am alive, not others.

I have recounted my version of this event both in a serious historical journal ('History Ireland') and in a memoir ('Something of Myself'). At one point, I was receiving two requests a month from PhD and MA students for interviews about the condom train. As indeed were other participants, like Nell McCafferty, Máirín Johnston, Marie McMahon and the late June Levine (June got so fed up with the whole thing that she turned down every media request in the end). So I knew there was much interest in what happened and therefore it needed to be put on the record.

And also much needed to be clarified, including the facts about the background. These are that in common with several other countries, including, most notably, France, Ireland (or more precisely, Éire) enacted legislation against "birth control artefacts" in 1935. France's Suppression of Contraception Act went back to 1920 and was not abrogated until 1967 - and even then, it took seven years for the bill to pass. Several American states also had anti-birth control measures, most notably the strongly Lutheran Minnesota.

In the 1930s, birth control was sometimes referred to as "race suicide", as it was predicted that European fertility would fall so low that the peoples of the Middle East and Asia would come to dominate. As it has turned out, fertility in Germany, Italy and Spain is flatlining today.

Éire's measures against birth control were in the spirit of the age and, of course, strengthened and underlined by the Catholic Church. Irish fertility wasn't low, but depopulation in rural Ireland was a deep-seated fear and depopulation always adds to concerns about fertility.

So the historical issue was a socially complex mixture. But by the late 1960s, and following in the steps of the Pill revolution (the Pill was never banned, since it was a pharmaceutical, not an "artefact") contraception became a more specifically feminist campaign.

The 1935 law was, by 1970, archaic, and needed repealing. And thus a group of us in the Irish Women's Liberation Movement decided to go to Belfast - then, as now, within the United Kingdom - purchase condoms and spermicides, and bring them back across the Border and declare them at Connolly Station (to the mortifying embarrassment of the customs officers).

As a political stunt, it captured the imagination of many, shocked some, drew approval from others and amused a fair few. It made the point that the law needed changing. Many couples did indeed struggle with bearing too many children too quickly, a point which Pope Francis himself has recently admitted.

And so the process of abrogating the 1935 law began. More prudently, Mary Robinson - who had wisely chosen not to participate in the train event - took the legal route and argued via the European Court that individuals were entitled to a private life in the matter of family planning. Thus everything changed.

But quite honestly, things would have changed anyway. The development of communications and indeed the arrival of AIDS in the 1980s played their part.

Do I regret the condom train? I would say I learned a useful lesson - which is that a stunt draws sensational attention to an issue, but the slower, diligent process of the changing the law is the better course. Mary Robinson's way was, in the end, more effective, as well as somewhat more dignified.

There is always social and political change and often, as I say, such changes are often accompanied by a certain irony.

Abortion - which contraception was actually designed to prevent, including by Marie Stopes herself - is now the campaign issue. Yet paradoxically, so is the problem of fertility.

In vitro fertilisation is big business (as are embryo transfer and egg donation) because there is such a demand for assisted conception.

We are told that 2,000 Irish women have purchased sperm off the internet - Danish sperm being liberally available - in a desperate attempt to get pregnant, rather than preventing pregnancy.

The old moralists might allow themselves a sardonic smile and conclude that God is not mocked.

@MaryKenny4

Irish Independent

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