Entertainment Books

Sunday 19 January 2020

In the Shadow of the Eighth: Potent voice of Repeal sets the record straight

Non-fiction: In the Shadow of the Eighth

Peter Boylan

Penguin Ireland, €17.99

A protest at the time of the 'Repeal the Eighth' campaign
A protest at the time of the 'Repeal the Eighth' campaign
'In the Shadow of the Eighth' by Peter Boylan
Savita Halappanavar
Peter Boylan

Hilary A White

When the Savita Halappanavar story broke in 2012, I was tutoring a retired Japanese woman studying English in Dublin. She asked me to explain who the smiling Indian lady on the newspaper splash was. When I told her, she frowned and asked me to repeat it as she thought she had misheard me. I did as she asked and a horrified expression broke out on her face. Shaking her head in dismay, all she could say was, "crazy, crazy country".

It was a moment I took to the polling booth in May 2018, and I suspect many who voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment carried with them similar memories. Incidents when the dysfunctionality and inhumanity of that piece of writing in our constitution seemed to ring clearer than at any other time.

While there was perhaps a sense of history-making about the two-thirds majority voting Yes, a year and a half on we might be guilty of forgetting the huge amount of work that preceded it, in terms of campaigning and earlier than that, when experts in the medical field stuck their necks out in a very different Ireland and went against the flow.

Peter Boylan was at the very centre of the triumph, and this autobiography does wear that fact on its dust jacket. But ultimately it feels less about Boylan himself than the changing nature of abortion law in Ireland. This is almost a historical manual for the uninitiated, those like my Japanese friend who want to look at the extent of the country's craziness before it came of age.

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But In the Shadow of the Eighth serves a purpose for those of us here in Ireland as well. We were all there, sure, and we all remember more or less how the whole thing played out, but beneath those memories are a spectrum of characters, motives, primetime TV debates, citizen assembly hearings, mudslinging, on-air ambushes, shrill declamations and bare-faced lies.

Such an emotional topic, one so tied up in thorny matters of birthright, women's sexuality and church fascism, was always going to get dirty, and by God it did. Ireland did the right thing because ultimately humanity, empathy and science won out (as you wish they would far more often in this troubled world of ours) but it was hard-fought.

Boylan, a mild and level-headed individual but a potent weapon for the Yes campaign for those very reasons, was in the firing line of some particularly venomous opprobrium, to the point that as the final debates were airing, he decided to step away from centre stage for a short spell. Not a political animal, per se, despite a career that took in being Master of the National Maternity Hospital and sitting on various boards and committees, Boylan was barked at especially loudly by ignoramuses in search of a soft shoulder to shout down. It didn't matter to them that Boylan was foremost an expert with decades of front-line experience and thousands of babies delivered to his name. He doesn't use this book to lick wounds or have the last laugh, knowing both would be distasteful, but he does set the record straight on moments when the No campaign questioned his knowledge.

After breezing through an opening section about his background, schooling and sporting life (in thrall to the oval ball), he sets down his experience and credentials as a journeyman obstetrician in London and the US, and the mind-broadening effect this had on his medical worldview by the time he returned to his homeland's "de facto theocracy". The bulk of the book is then handed over to forensic analysis of the alphabet soup of sorry cases (X, Y, P) that cemented the fact that the Eighth Amendment was unworkable in a nation that wished to properly care for its womenfolk. Similarly, he brings us right through the disorderly relocation ambitions of the National Maternity Hospital and the absurd sway of canon law in that land dispute (resulting in his dramatic resignation after 44 years involvement in the institution).

Some of it is harrowing to read. You can't help but recoil as he revisits the Savita case, here recreated with the cold detail of a crime scene, which for many is exactly what it resembled. The 2017 Citizens' Assembly verdict, the Oireachtas Committee report that followed, and the rowing-in behind the movement by a political establishment whom he gives due credit to, are the trail that leads to redemption in May 2018. Boylan does not slather the occasion in euphoria, and after a celebratory drink near Dublin Castle, we're straight into a subsequent chapter entitled, 'And now, the practicalities'.

While he avoids making himself the story, he is depicting this incredible passage of Irish history from the horse's mouth. That definitive quality and Boylan's hyperbole-free voice are what make this a dignified monument to those who suffered to bring us here.

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