By Jonathon Van Maren
For a history buff, just driving through the Irish countryside is a surreal experience. There are falling-down ruins everywhere—old stone outbuildings, solitary slumping castle walls, and ancient houses with oak trees rising victoriously from within, roofed with nothing but sky. We pulled over to the side of the road when we spotted a roofless grey monolith at the far end of a field, and discovered that it was a centuries-old abbey—the foundation was purportedly laid by the King of Munster in 1182. The bishop’s quarters next to it was a shamble of crumbling stone walls, creeping ivy, and bushes. History lives here.
People are defensive of the past here, too. Along the roadways to the Tolkienesque Cliffs of Moher, signs demanded that people “Save our Heritage!” and “Save Our Stone Walls!” apparently in response to some proposal that the roads be widened slightly. And other signs advocated for Ireland’s future, begging voters to spare generations yet to come from the forceps and the suction aspirator. Many churches had large signs asking, “Vote NO to Abortion on Demand!” Scarcely a single roadway lacked pro-life signs, which probably outnumbered the signs asking for the repeal of the 8th Amendment by at least four to one. It was clear which side those in power favor, however: Signs with slogans such as “Sometimes a private manner needs public support” featured the logos of the Green Party, the Sinn Fein, and other political parties.
We joined the Vote No Roadshow in Ashbourne in County Meath, where pro-life activists with the Save the 8th Campaign were fanned out across the town handing out leaflets with titles such as “Have You Got a Question About Abortion?” and “The Abortion Referendum: The more you know about it, the more you’ll vote NO!” and “Take a closer look at the abortion referendum.” Others waved enormous red or blue flags as traffic drove by with the slogan “Vote NO to Abortion!” Honks and thrust-out fists with thumbs up emerged from supportive cars, greeted by cheers from the pro-lifers. A flatbed truck with a billboard featuring a shocked looking baby and the slogan, “I had NO idea…They want to legalize abortion up to six months. Vote NO!” drove past, music blaring from a speaker (the first song that was playing as it drove past was All You Need Is Love.) Later on in the day, my friend Eoghan, an Irish doctor I’d met a few years back at a pro-life conference, joined the day’s tour for the last leg. People were in Ireland from all over the world to assist in the campaign, and the Irish were thrilled to have them. “Thanks so much for coming to help save our country!” we heard from more than one of the red-shirted volunteers.
The Vote No Road Show moved from town to town in an enormous red bus with the slogan “Save Lives, Note NO to Abortion” across the side and the website save8.ie on the back. The thing that always strikes me about the pro-life movement is that people are so cheery and kind, even though they are fighting one of the ugliest of evils. I chatted with one muscular tattooed fellow named Andy, who had apparently broken his back late last year and couldn’t go back to work—he’d been spending every day on the streets handing out leaflets and convincing people to vote against repeal. “Even if I could work, I’d quit to do this,” he said with a laugh. “This is the real work.” Another young woman I ended up holding a banner with told me that she was using her university break to canvass for Save the 8th. She was from Northern Ireland, and frustrated that people there couldn’t vote in the referendum even though it would impact them enormously—the conservative Protestants there, she said, could probably swing the referendum in our favour.
The responses differed from town to town—we headed from Ashbourne to Trim, and from there to Navan and then on to Cavan. Many people stopped to thank us for being there, while many others took the leaflets and began to read. The constituency of “undecideds,” Eoghan told us, was enormous this time around, and so getting information into the hands of voters was essential. We handed out hundreds of leaflets, and some people stopped to argue or engage or just ask questions. Some people glared or marched past stiff-lipped, but surprisingly, nobody was rude or profane. In Canada, reactions would have been far more vitriolic. Then again, many of the pro-life signs strapped to lampposts right across the country would most likely be illegal back in Canada. Once a nation kills its own children, it has to kill truth, too. Only coverups can soothe consciences.
Reporters showed up, too. Siobhan, one of the organizers, told me that the “foreign press” had been following the pro-life efforts nonstop—someone from the Daily Telegraph had stopped by already in the morning. One journalist from the Wall Street Journal asked to take a group photo of the caravanners in front of the bus, and smiled rather thinly when everyone began chanting Save the Eighth! Save the Eighth! with great enthusiasm. I wonder what she thought of the packed bus full of young people and the families that joined from stop to stop—one mother even had a beautiful little two-week-old baby strapped to her chest (my daughter Charlotte, who is nine months old, found the presence of a human smaller than herself extremely fascinating.)
At about 7 PM, we finally boarded the bus again in Cavan and headed to a large centre filled with bedrooms and bunkbeds for the night. An unfortunate few fell asleep on the bus, much to the delight of others who took closeup photos of gaping mouths and flaring nostrils, and gleefully sent them on to the Vote No Roadshow Whatsapp group. Supper was late, and bedtime will be early. Tomorrow, we hit the road again.