Sunday 25 March 2018

In bed with my lover, so I missed the 'Pill Train'

The 'Pill Train' was a pivotal moment in the history of Irish feminism, and one that Rosita Sweetman missed . . .

Rosita Sweetman, pictured in 1976, was there to welcome them
Rosita Sweetman, pictured in 1976, was there to welcome them Newsdesk Newsdesk

This time last week I was round at Nell McCafferty's house screaming so loud flames were coming out of my hair. How could you steal my idea and then totally exclude me from it? I HATE you! I will never talk to you ever again! etc. etc.

O yes, trouble in Sisterland.

Feminist incandescence was precipitated by Rough Magic's new musical 'The Contraceptive Train', which you will all by now know is based on the Irish Women's Liberation movement genius bit of agit prop in May 1971 sending a bunch of us travelling to Belfast by train to buy 'The Pill', then legally banned in Southern Ireland but available in Belfast, and return home defying the Customs officers in Connolly Station to arrest us; my idea was to round up the remaining sisters, attend the first night of the Rough Magic production together, and offer a group interview to interested bods in the media.

Nell, who I am chatting to in the sunshine in Ranelagh on a Sunday afternoon, thinks it's a winner of a plan. For one thing, it's an excuse for our dwindling band of founding sisters to meet up (always fun), for another, it's a chance to discuss some of the next stages in the long struggle for women's rights - equal pay, the repeal of the 8th, an end to crippling costs of childcare for working parents.


I walk home thinking how proud I am to have been part of one of the most effective social justice movements in Ireland. Viva la Revolucion!

Three days pass and next thing Nell is telling me she has selected five of the sisters to go have cosy chats with Miriam O'Callaghan for her Sunday radio show and to attend first night (thanks to free tickets from the Project). I am not included.

Talk about feeling betrayed!

Crimson in the face with hurt (and fury) I stalk Ranelagh. Scream at Nell. Sob into my gluten-free cookie. Nell cannot understand. What am I on about? I hadn't even been on the train. I'd been the Scarlet Sister, who'd stayed in bed with her lover on the historic morning in question.

For feck sake! I was 23 years old that morning. It was my birthday and I was madly in love with the Sean Connery lookalike in my bed who, ironically, because he was English, had contraceptives with him. Ha! And Sister Nell, I was there (with a guilty conscience) at Connolly Station to cheer the sisters home as they came down the concourse behind the banner made on Mairin Johnston's kitchen table the night before, heart now bursting with excitement, and a frisson of fear (we were, very publicly, breaking the law).

The sisters braved the excruciatingly embarrassed- looking Customs men, waved tubes of spermicidal jelly and threw birth control pills hither and yon as we bellowed LET THEM THROUGH, LET THEM THROUGH! Actually, the pills were only aspirin, the mighty tablet itself having been refused as no-one had thought to bring a prescription; it was Nell's (brilliant) idea to buy aspirin instead since no one in Customs, or Connolly, would know the difference.

It wasn't all fun and games though. Mairin Johnston, the first to declare her forbidden contraband, was terrified of being sent to jail - she was pregnant, had one of her children with her, and another at home. Marie McMahon was terrified her mother would see her on the news. We were all Scarlet Women. Regularly denounced from the pulpit and the parish pump for advocating such vile ideas as women having control over how many babies they would bring into the world.


Still, in an Irish solution to an Irish problem, all of the women were allowed through, there were hugs and cheers and tears on the other side of the barrier - and we all went quietly home, not entirely aware that we had helped the genie out of the bottle for once and for all, and that legal contraception was on its way.

Unrepentant, Nell said if I was smarting it was my own fault. I had written myself out of history. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound! Still, when I hear the sisters on RTE radio last Sunday my heart melts. What amazing women we were. We are! From Mairin Johnston (brought up on the same street as James Connolly), to Marie McMahon, the first female printer in Ireland, to Mairin de Burca - who with customary acuity pointed out our biggest failing in the women's movement was not to tackle the (male) world of work - to Mary Maher, who organised the gig but missed it due to the imminent arrival of her baby, to Nell, who bizarrely sang a hymn to the Virgin Mary but who I hope has forgiven me for screaming so loud that flames came out of my hair; who I hope I have forgiven for telling me I was not relevant.

Not 'relevant'! Moi?!

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