Tuesday 20 August 2019

The day we drove the condom train straight through de Valera's Ireland

Mary Kenny writes that the contraceptive revolution of the Sixties changed women's lives in a more fundamental way than the franchise.

I MAKE a brief appearance in a reference book of 20th-century quotations about Irish people, compiled by the Irish Times journalist Conor O'Clery. The quotation is nothing that I said or wrote, but rather a fanciful quotation about me and my part in the great condom train of May 1971. Mr O'Clery, quoting June Levine , has a lurid description of me blowing up condoms at Dublin's Connolly Station. I never blew up a condom in my life, but Mr O'Clery did not think to check out the fable.

And fable it is. But there we are: history books are written, and go on the record, which have more to do with perception than truth, like poor Marie Antoinette never actually saying, "Let them eat cake".

Historical events do need to be revisited, with the perception of time, and even revised. Some Irish nationalist historians are wary of the concept of "revisionism" since they are fearful that this may dishonour events such as the 1916 Rising. This is not necessarily so. Revising historical events is a natural process whereby time's perspective and new knowledge are added to the picture.

The contraception revolution which occurred during the Sixties was a drama on a lesser scale than great wars or political events: but it had a profound impact on people's lives. Arguably, it changed women's lives more than the vote, and it has altered family structure, health, social policy, manners and morals. It almost completely dissolved previous traditions about the value of virginity. Today's candour in speech about casual "bonking" is down to the contraceptive revolution: before widespread contraception, anything touching sexual intercourse was protected by the greatest possible decorum.

When Faber and Faber, the London publishers, were deliberating over John McGahern's first novel, The Dark, in the early Sixties, they had a four-hour board meeting at the highest level to discuss whether the word "fuck" could be allowed to appear. The decision to permit it was just about squeezed through, only on the grounds that Mr McGahern was a serious writer and would not use the word purely for sensationalism.

Contraception which changed sex "from procreation to recreation" (Hugh Hefner's aphorism) touched every element of society. It made possible scientific developments such as IVF, genetic engineering, cloning and much else.

Our post-World War II generation grew up in an Ireland where birth control artefacts were forbidden by laws enacted in 1929 and 1935. This meant, basically, the condom, spermicides, and the female diaphragm. The pill, yet to be invented in 1935, did not come under the prohibition. In 1969, I was one of the founder members of a feminist group called the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, which very quickly became controversial. One of our demands was to annul the anti-contraceptive prohibitions, and we devised the excellent stunt of taking a train to Belfast, in May 1971, purchasing condoms and spermicides over the counter, and returning with them to Connolly Station. We would challenge the customs officers, who @@STYL cf,plabx manned the barriers at Connolly, to arrest us for bringing home the contraband.

All went to plan. The customs men were mortified and quickly conceded they could not arrest all of us, and let us through, waving the banned items. Some people did indeed use the French letters as balloons, but I was not among them.

Later that Saturday evening, a few of us appeared on the Late Late Show, and I was indeed the one who held up the condoms for all to see. Even as I did so I was aware of mixed feelings. I did sincerely think the law was daft. I did sincerely believe it was absurd that women, and their husbands, couldn't make decisions about their conjugal lives without interference from the State. But I also felt something like shame thinking of my mother watching this exhibition.

She did not disparage the cause she regarded the pill itself as "a wonderful idea" but she deplored the notoriety and publicity. "Why can't you be a bit cuter, like Mary Robinson?" she said. "She keeps her dignity. You have to go out and make an eejit of yourself." It was true that Mary Robinson, although supportive of the condom train, had felt it beneath her dignity to join it. She would take the legal route of changing Irish law through the European courts, which was highly effective. But the street drama of the condom train probably had more imaginative impact.

I haven't changed my mind about the archaic nature of the prohibition on birth control that existed in the Republic. By 1971, it was well time to throw it out. But I now see how the Irish state came to have these laws. Similarly, I see the Catholic Church's position in a longer perspective. In opposing "artificial" contraception, the Vatican was necessarily defending the natural law upheld since the dawn of Christianity that sexuality is linked to "the transmission of life". Moreover, other Christian churches, and Judaism, too, had held the same principle until relatively recently: Canterbury only gave its full endorsement to contraception in 1958. We railed against what we termed de Valera's Ireland the state that was built up from 1932, and previous to that, from the Twenties. It was prudish. It was "authoritarian". Some of the "corporatism" in the 1937 Constitution sailed close enough to fascist ideas so prevalent at the time.

But before she died in 1999, my friend Mary Cummins became fascinated with the Irish state of the Twenties and Thirties. She was a fierce feminist, and yet she came to admire what had been accomplished. "When you read the history of those years, you can just see them constructing a country brick-by-brick. Building a new society from scratch. In poverty and powerlessness," she said. I was influenced by her vision, so close to death. Ireland had been a small, poor, powerless and significantly under-populated country in the Twenties and Thirties. It takes a lot to build a new state and sometimes that means a certain narrow focus on survival and cultural coherence.

In 1929, birth control had been considered scandalous the colloquial term was "race suicide" and Ireland was not alone in enacting anti-contraceptive (and censorship) laws. It was seen as part of the preservation of our values, which were rural values in which "a child every year to you" was a popular blessing.

Our generation, in the Sixties, wanted to overthrow everything about Dev's Ireland. But then we hadn't lived through the painstaking building of a nation.

Laws do become archaic, and sometimes have to be revised: Margaret Thatcher was right to reform trade union law in Britain, when the unions had become corrupt tyrants rather than champions of the dispossessed. But in their own time, the power of the trade unions had also been necessary.

The condom train was an episode in social history which reflected changes which were happening already in Dev's Ireland. I look back on it with some bemusement. But I see it now as part of a much larger pattern, which we are weaving continuously, and continuously reassessing, just as history compels.

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