Irish Feminists Still Fighting Church’s Political Influence


When I walked into Dr. Katherine O’Donnell’s Dublin flat, the first thing I saw was a weighty-looking tome resting in the middle of her dining table: Impure Thoughts: Sexuality, Catholicism and Literature in Twentieth-Century Ireland. It’s exactly the kind of book you’d expect to find in the home of a women’s studies professor, and it was a fitting third party to our conversation that afternoon. I’d come to talk to O’Donnell about her country’s women’s movement, and in any discussion of Irish feminism the Church looms large.

The Church also figured prominently in the death of Savita Halappanavar last year, which sparked outrage and focused the world’s attention on women’s rights in Ireland. Halappanavar was admitted to a Galway hospital on October 21st, miscarrying at 17 weeks. She was repeatedly denied the abortion that might have saved her, being told she couldn’t have the procedure because Ireland is a “Catholic country.” The international outcry following her death forced the Irish government to at least appear to reassess its abortion restrictions: In May it announced a bill that seemed to clarify when doctors can perform abortions to save a woman’s life. Lawmakers probably hoped this small concession would deflect political scrutiny, but by then it was too late. The global feminist community had already begun to question what exactly was going on in Ireland.

O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, said that the relationship between the Church and Irish feminists has long been a complicating factor in the movement’s ability to enact its agenda. She says the two camps have been fighting over public policy since the 1970s.

“What you see in our Second Wave feminists is a focus against the Church, and the Church’s control of women’s bodies and minds,” she said. “That meant specifically targeting reproductive justice issues. … [But] the unmarried mother was the main social problem, the battleground in the culture war. Feminists were arguing for support so that women could keep their children. And we won.”

Irish feminists in the ‘70s won a lot of those early battles, with an unlikely assist from the government. Even as the women’s movement urged Ireland forward toward gender equity, Irish politicians worked to modernize its policies in order to join the European Union. Modernization often meant disentangling the government from the long arm of the Church’s influence. As proved the case with Church-run “Mother and Baby Homes” that separated unwed mothers from their children, when feminist goals coincided with the government’s agenda the Church was outmatched. O’Donnell said the speed with which the Irish Second Wave accomplished its early objectives is partly due to the fact that Irish progressives were looking for someone to lead them into the next century, and feminists fit the bill:

Feminism pointed the way for how you could think through what a good society would look like outside the discourse of the Catholic Church.

Since the 1980s, and with Ireland a long-standing E.U. member, the influence of Irish feminists has waned. Today they face recruitment and PR challenges similar to what we see in the U.S.; the message young Irish women are getting is that feminism is “over” and its battles have been won. But in a country where abortion is illegal and it takes a minimum of five years to get divorced, there are clearly still obstacles to overcome. Reaching younger women and men with the feminist message has become the focus for several activist groups around the country. The largest of these, the Irish Feminist Network (IFN), is a national organization that acts as a hub for groups doing equality work, with an emphasis on engaging young people. Coordinator Emma Regan said that prior to IFN’s founding in 2010, there were no feminist organizations addressing the needs of Ireland’s younger activists:

When the IFN was set up, there were already a number of feminist organizations in Ireland, however it was felt that they mostly catered for older women. Since that time, many feminist groups of which younger women are active members have sprung up. … We feel there is still a need for this because young women in Ireland are facing some unique challenges. For example, unemployment is extremely high among young women.

While young feminists are facing a different economic landscape than their predecessors did, the IFN’s list of political priorities is similar to that described by O’Donnell: increased political representation, economic equality and, of course, reproductive rights. Abortion access, feminism’s cornerstone policy achievement in the U.S., has yet to be addressed directly by Irish activists. O’Donnell said the lack of leadership on the issue is partly attributable to the cultural influence of Catholicism. She explained that although upwards of 6,000 Irish women travel to the U.K. annually to obtain abortions, there’s such a powerful social stigma attached to the procedure that no one is willing to champion the cause publicly:

Abortion is still a battleground and nobody’s really taking up the battle. Nobody’s really pushing, nobody wants to do that fight. It’s the level of social taboo; hardly any women ever admit to having terminated their pregnancies.

Abortion law is one of the few policy areas in which the E.U. hasn’t pushed Ireland to align itself with the rest of Europe. In the absence of external pressure to reform, the government has so far continued to take its cues from the Church. It will take concerted effort by Irish feminists, perhaps in collaboration with activists in other E.U. nations, to challenge the Church’s authority in this and other political issues fundamental to Irish women’s equality.

UPDATE: Katherine O’Donnell requested a clarification about her statements about the reproductive rights movement in Ireland, and wanted specifically to correct the perception that she believed that there is not an active pro-choice movement in Ireland. Her statements referred to the fact that there was not a critical mass of women who had had abortions who were willing to say publicly that it was the right choice for them. She said:

It’s a huge demand to make of women: to be public about a personal, private decision. As it is now, that decision is made a shameful secret as there is such stigma placed on Irish women who terminate pregnancies.

O’Donnell referred readers to Choice Ireland, Abortion Rights Campaign and Make It Safe and Legal for information on Irish pro-choice activism.

Photo of Irish protestor holding a photo of Savita Halappanavar courtesy of AJstream via Creative Commons 2.0.