Kirsty Blake Knox: Result was moment of catharsis as much as celebration

Yes campaigners at Dublin Castle hold signs calling for change in Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty

Kirsty Blake Knox

The pro-life contingent in Dublin Castle on Saturday morning was conspicuous by its absence.

Or, at least, by its much-reduced presence.

Two women arrived early in the afternoon and shouted something about “baby murderers”.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” one of the ladies said to a group who had gathered around Health Minister Simon Harris.

“Imagine if you had been aborted,” she continued. “And you call yourselves Catholic?”

The crowd looked at each other stupefied. “No, actually,” a man in his 20s told them. “We don’t.”

The confidence to shrug off the threat of Catholic shame – never mind the prospect of eternal condemnation – reflected the scale of the seismic social shift in Ireland, and the attitudes of our future generation of voters, the under 25s. While the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment has been fought for decades, the push from younger voters gave it a new found momentum, and energy.

An astonishing figure of almost 88pc of young people voted in favour of repeal, with 200,000 joining the register in the past three years. Perhaps that explains why people including Solidarity TD Paul Murphy referred to the result as a ‘youthquake’. First coined by iconic ‘Vogue’ fashion editor Diana Vreeland in 1956, ‘youthquake’ became the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017.

It is defined as “cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. The number of first-time and young voters in Dublin Castle was immediately apparent. Fresh faced and dressed in black, purple and blue repeal sweatshirts, they joked about their ‘thirst’ for Simon Harris.

Sixth-year student Emma Jones (18), from Holy Faith secondary school in Dublin, was a first-time voter.

“I think everything about this referendum has been ground-breaking,” she said.

“The turnout, the number of people registering for the first time, seeing the difference you can make.

“I think, for people my age, it shows how important it is to speak out and voice your opinion.”

She was joined by friend Daniel Bisset (16), who was covered in brightly coloured badges. While it will be another two years before Daniel can vote, seeing the impact the under-25s had on constitutional history has invigorated him.

“I am running on about three hours’ sleep. I couldn’t vote, but I wanted to be here today to show that I support women and body autonomy.”

This demographic group is better educated and more liberated now than it was 35 years ago.

Back then, merely talking about abortion came with fear. Information about it was scarce – whispered conversations, hushed answers, and stories swept aside.

For law graduate Rebecca Lalor (23), from Co Westmeath, reading about past traumas encouraged her to vote Yes.

“When you study the X Case, and you learn the facts, you want to be on the right side of constitutional history.

“There are so many stories that have not been told and will never be told. Women who took their stories to the grave. We’re here today for them.”

No screens had been erected in Dublin Castle for the result. Politicians were keen the outcome wouldn’t result in scenes of jubilation; the Taoiseach had stressed Fine Gael had no celebratory plans in place.

The final announcement would be made on a faint PA system. Regardless of that, thousands had still gathered in Dublin Castle.

‘Repeal royalty’ such as Ailbhe Smyth and Tara Flynn were met with huge cheers.

Voices for Choice choir sang ‘Don’t Stop Repealin’ to the tune of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, Prosecco was poured into paper cups, and a lady went around handing out After Eight mints.

Some commentators had expressed discomfort in groups celebrating the result. They believed celebrating a win was ultimately celebrating abortion. But for Andrea Horan, founder of repeal-focused women’s platform The HunReal Issues, this was simply untrue.

“This referendum has never been just about abortion. It’s been about how we treat, respect and value Irish women,” she said.

Meghan Holyland (23), shared this sentiment: “I’m so happy that my generation – who will raise the next generation – have ensured they will be taken care of.

“Repeal means another woman will not have to go through what Savita Halappanavar did – that in itself is reason to celebrate.”

Saturday was as much catharsis as celebration.

After the marriage referendum, the mood had been pure and unadulterated elation – parties, balloons, and street-side knees-ups.

Things were different this time. Liberation is always grounds for celebration, but here the subject matter was caught up with memories of traumatic journeys, lost lives, and years of stigmatised shame. As a result, the crowd went through a gamut of emotions during the day – moments of sheer happiness mixed with heartache.

After hours of waiting, we heard of the 1,429,981 Yes votes.

Then a low chant began to build. Initially, it was hard to figure out what was being said. But as the volume started to rise, it became clear. “They’re saying ‘Savita’, they’re saying her name,” one woman gasped.

Some applauded, some locked in deep embrace, and others wept to think of what had been and, thankfully, what will never be again.