Wherever. Whatever. Have a nice day.

Monday, 18 March 2019

The North is Next (as featured in The Gown @ QUB)

'The North is Next' as it appears in print
(Source: my own)
“The North is Next” read the sign held aloft by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald as the landslide victory of Ireland’s Repeal the 8th referendum was announced at Dublin Castle earlier this year. Though for some, there was the underlying feeling that not all Irish women had reason to celebrate. Whilst the Republic’s constitutional ban on abortion would now be lifted, the six north-eastern counties of Ulster remain faced with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. In the last few years, the Republic has been a leading light across the world for becoming the first country to legalise same sex-marriage by popular vote and also electing an openly gay Taoiseach. A once devoutly Catholic state has become a liberal and progressive society, dwarfing its conservative and backward northern counterpart. The four small words that make up that alliterative slogan – “The North is Next” – are at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights on an all-Ireland scale.

Following a tireless campaign against a bitterly fought counter-movement from anti-choicers, the Republic voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution by 66.4% on 25th May. The Repeal movement sparked conversation around what was once a taboo topic, which had forced over 170,000 women to leave Ireland to access healthcare services elsewhere, usually in Britain. Merchandise such as jumpers with the ‘REPEAL’ logo and ‘Tá’ badges adorned activists in large cities and rural villages alike, on both sides of the border. Emigrants returned home in their thousands to vote and Northern Irish activists, the majority of whom could not vote in the referendum, worked diligently alongside their southern sisters to educate and campaign for reform. People bravely came forward to tell their stories and share their experiences for the first time, spurred on by the tragic loss of Savita Halappanavar who died after being denied an abortion at a Galway hospital. Activists sent out a strong message: this could never be allowed to happen again. This resounding call for change has echoed in Northern Ireland where abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances, including incest, foetal abnormality and rape.

The current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is governed by the archaic Offences Against the Person Act which pre-dates the invention of the lightbulb. The province remains the only part of the UK where abortion remains illegal, as the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended. Pregnant people from the North can access free abortions on the NHS in Britain but not at home, leaving many unable to travel and faced with crisis pregnancies. The situation has been deemed incompatible with international human rights laws by the UN and does not reflect the opinions of the NI population, with 72% in favour of reform. Despite demands for change from Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, Prime Minister Theresa May insists that it is a devolved issue for the Stormont assembly so as not to alienate the staunchly anti-abortion DUP MPs propping up her Conservative government in Westminster. However, with DUP’s abuse of the petition of concern and the political impasse at Stormont reaching record lengths, change from a devolved government is unlikely any time soon.

Anyone active on social media will surely have seen the #TheNorthIsNext and #NowForNI hashtags, created by grassroots campaigners such as those who helped to secure a victory for abortion rights in the south. All-island activist groups like Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland and Alliance for Choice have led rallies in Belfast and Dublin and are championing the fight to secure adequate healthcare for Northern citizens. For Megan Gethin, member of Amnesty International at QUB, the fight for Irish abortion rights is only half over: “In terms of women’s healthcare, there is a lot to be done. I am optimistic about abortion reform in NI. At the moment, Brexit has taken full hold of our media news coverage and abortion decriminalisation is at the back of the agenda for many politicians in Westminster. Many English people are taken aback at the fact Northern Ireland does not have free, safe and legal abortion like the other parts of the UK. Public opinion shows we are ready for change. At this stage, it is politicians holding us back.”

The Repeal campaigner and Sligo native furthers this opinion, highlighting the solidarity of NI activists: “Repeal in the south mobilised a lot of activists who had never partaken in human rights issues before. I do think that the support from Northern Irish activists contributed greatly to the strength and power of Repeal and the ability to mobilise voters and activists along the border, especially in smaller towns. It is this cross-border co-operation with a combined interest at heart that pervaded throughout Repeal. The goal of abortion reform showcased the ability of people to come together in order to see real change. I do hope that the same mobilisation will be seen in the ‘The North Is Next’ movement. Many will be willing to put the same energy they invested into Repeal into abortion decriminalisation in the North.”

One thing remains clear: we will not be left behind.

A shorter edited version is available in the print version of The Gown student newspaper at QUB, where Megan Gethin's words are credited to QUB Amnesty International President Hannah Orr in error.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Dreams (as featured in Sunstroke magazine)

Edited by Brindy Francis

The first dream I can remember having was a nightmare. I was confronted with a massively oversized skeletal spider, nearly half the size of my five year-old self, crawling slowly towards me in my bed. It was made entirely of bluish jagged bones and was eerily contorted as it crept along the duvet sheets. I woke up bolt upright in bed to my parents trying to quieten my screams. From then on, any bad dream I had was called a ‘jaggy spider’, and the term has stuck with me to this day. Whilst my life so far has been peppered with countless colourful and vivid dreams, with jaggy spiders few and far between, that specific one has made the most significant impression on me. I used to believe lots of strange things could prevent having a jaggy spider, like not eating cheese or Wagon Wheel biscuits before bed.  Much like I don’t know if there’s any truth in my remedies for bad dreams, scientists don’t know for certain why we dream either.
There is a lot of pseudoscience involved in trying to explain what happens in our brains when we’re asleep. There is Sigmund Freud’s old cliché about dreaming as “the royal road to the unconscious”, and plenty of generally held beliefs, from fortune telling to mentally processing the previous day’s events.  Many people feel that dreams are a reflection of our everyday emotions and anxieties, or simply just a ‘cinema of the mind’, there to entertain us when we switch off for eight hours. Oneirology, or the scientific study of dreams, is a topic of much research and a field teaming with internal debate. From as early as second century Greece, historical dream interpreters like Artemidorus have written volumes on the ancient knowledge of the Greeks, Assyrians and Egyptians.
Dreams are so difficult to study largely because we can’t ascertain exactly where consciousness ends and unconsciousness begins. In simpler terms, we unconsciously do things while we are conscious without requiring much focus on awareness, such as moving our legs to walk. Similarly, we can be lost in thought walking down a busy street, unaware of the noise and traffic, until something like a car horn alerts us to it. Even when we are much more obviously unconscious when we sleep, our brains are extremely active. The reticular formation, a structure located in the brain stem, helps to ‘activate’ other parts of the brain and allow responses to messages from the senses, even when we are sleeping. Sleep is divided into five distinct stages, REM being the most important of these in terms of reporting dreams. Taking its name from the characteristic eye movements which take place during this stage, the longest period of REM sleep occurs in the last third of the night and is when most dreaming takes place.
Sleepy kitty
In the 1980s, pioneering DNA scientist Francis Crick proposed that dreams are the brain’s way of sorting through information and making new connections between random events and ideas. If true, this process may explain why Paul McCartney claims the song ‘Yesterday’ came to him fully formed in a dream. A less prophetic hypothesis is that dreams are the meaningless product of random brain activity. Psychiatrist James Hobson believes that the evolutionary parts of the brain responsible for basic functions (such as breathing and heartbeat) produce surges in activity that result in random action in the brain. The more modern part tries to make a meaningful story out of these sensations, instead creating bizarre combinations of the mundane and the fantastic.
So can these theories really explain why we dream about our teeth falling out, or overhearing a conversation with our favourite band, or discovering the location of a lost item or repeatedly watching our mother getting eaten by a dinosaur? Perhaps not entirely. For those who subscribe to more traditional interpretations, symbolism plays a key role in dream imagery. Symbolism is much older than human knowledge of the subconscious and many symbols are common to different cultures across the world. Recurring dreams of being naked in public, falling or turning up to an exam unprepared are frequently experienced. Throughout history, these images which frequently appear have been interpreted through the lens of religion and morality (for example, the Christian dove) or gypsy folklore which tends to go by contrary, for instance, dreams of lavishness are usually translated as an omen of wastefulness and poverty. In this case, my jaggy spider was a symbol of shrewdness and perseverance which foretells money. This may seem like a strange interpretation to bestow upon a young child but, as certain symbols may be deeply personal to the dreamer, their meaning can change (therefore recognising this as a manifestation of my childhood arachnophobia suddenly makes a lot more sense).
Symbolism and metaphor are innate in our speech, as we say things like, “Her life was an uphill struggle”. This harks back to early humans who perceived objects and their meaning through their consciousness rather than through words, which some way explains why subconscious thought is often expressed in the disguised form of symbols. Famous oneirocritics Freud and Jung emphasised the hidden meaning of these symbols – the ‘latent content’, as opposed to the ‘manifest content’ – with a strong focus on the sexual drive behind such dreams.
With such uncharted and intricate inner workings helping to create the vast tapestry of dreamland, it may be useful to keep a notebook and your bedside cabinet to record any interesting dreams you have before your mind is clouded by thoughts of the day ahead. They may all indeed be unrelated events fused erratically together by your bored and mischievous mind in the early hours. Or you may predict a major event before it actually happens. You could pen a hit song or even fight off a jaggy spider. Or you may not remember anything at all. At the end of the day, it’s all in a night’s work.

Check out Sunstroke and the Issue 2 Purple Haze launch on 27th July here.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Space Playlist (as featured in Issue 2 of BABYmouth Zine)

Many great songwriters write best about what they know. Some, on the other hand, abandon the familiar and look to the stars for musical inspiration. The mystical chaos of the great beyond has influenced many a composition over the decades, from the classical suites of pre-WW1 to the Space Age of the sixties, and the cosmic alt-rock of more recent years. Encompassing jazz to electronic sounds, musicians have found a muse in the planets, aliens and stars of our universe. From obvious classics to lesser known gems about historical events, conspiracy theories and the outright fantastic, here is a mere handful of the galaxy’s best tracks inspired by things out of this world.

BABYmouth zine, space-themed Issue 2, edited by Phoebe Plant

1  Hallo Spaceboy // David Bowie featuring Pet Shop Boys
No space-themed playlist would be complete without David Bowie, and lots of him. In fact, he almost warrants an entire space-themed playlist himself. His breakthrough hit ‘Space Oddity’, released at the height of the Space Race, created the enduring character of astronaut Major Tom, and he went on to pen galactic anthem ‘Life on Mars’ only a few years after. Bowie’s most iconic persona Ziggy Stardust sparked rumours that he was a Martian himself. Space travel had such a profound effect on the Starman’s discography that he released tracks ‘Loving the Alien’, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft’ and ‘Dancing Out in Space’ right up until just before his death, and even played The Man Who Fell to Earth. However, an often overlooked expression of Bowie’s love of all things extraterrestrial is 1996 track ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, a deliciously weird alt-dance-meets-industrial collaboration with Pet Shop Boys.
  Satellite of Love // Lou Reed
Firmly making his mark on this compilation, this Bowie-produced number went on to become a staple for the ex-Velvet Underground frontman. It tells the tale of a man who watches a satellite launch on TV as he is consumed by the hurt and jealousy caused by his cheating girlfriend…
3  Spaceman // The Killers
Whilst the Babylon Zoo song of the same title may spring to mind first, this chronicle of alien abduction from the Las Vegas rockers details one man’s enlightenment from extraterrestrial knowledge and his struggle for the mass media to believe his claims. It’s also super danceable.       
Venus // Shocking Blue
Most famously covered by Bananarama in the eighties, the banjo-driven original from Dutch band Shocking Blue evokes the Greek goddess Venus – the namesake of the planet of love – in her human form.  A true forgotten gem.
5   E.T. // Katy Perry featuring Kanye West
In this poppy love song, romantic obsession takes the form of desire for alien abduction, cosmic kisses and love in different dimensions. Coupled with its futuristic video, elements of human emotion and the supernatural collide in this 2010 hit (and that’s only Kanye’s verse).
6   Supermassive Black Hole // Muse
This riff-heavy banger, like its namesake, packs the power of millions of suns (albeit into three and a half minutes). Having also penned the likes of ‘Starlight’ and ‘Neutron Star Collision’, the song reflects frontman Matt Bellamy’s fascination with outer space, so much so that he’s even stated that he’d love for Muse to perform there one day.
7   Fly Me to the Moon // Frank Sinatra
Although not written by Sinatra himself, his version of this jazz standard is the best loved. His rendition became the first music heard on the moon, played by Apollo 11 astronauts on a portable cassette player. As it turns out, spring on Jupiter is always stormy and on Mars, it lasts about seven months and involves the thawing of solid carbon dioxide at the seasonal polar caps. Not as poetic as the song would have us believe.
8   Intergalactic // Beastie Boys
Intergalactic, planetary, planetary, intergalactic; another dimension, another dimension,” a robotic voice repeats over the track’s beat. ‘Intergalactic’ is the hip-hop trio’s biggest UK hit to date and pays homage to the strange creatures who may share our galaxy.
9   Neptune, the Mystic // Gustav Holst (Richard Hickox: London Symphony Orchestra)
As the seventh and final movement in British composer Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, it differs slightly from those of the solar system’s other inhabitants (which are also definitely worth listening to). It is played on an organ with beautiful harp and string melodies, accompanied by a choir. Scored to reflect the mysterious and otherworldly quality of the planet Neptune, Holst paid great attention to the astrological qualities attached to this gas giant.
1   Space Age Love Song // A Flock of Seagulls
This synth-infused eighties classic got its name for no reason other than lead guitarist Paul Reynolds “thought it sounded like a space age love song”. I’ll not argue with that.
1   Out of Space // The Prodigy
The spliced electronic beats and reggae samples of this early Prodigy release promise to “take your brain to another dimension”. If the unearthly theme doesn’t, then the amount of drugs involved in the making of this track certainly will.
1   Clair de Lune // Debussy (The APM Orchestra)
Coming from the French word for ‘moonlight’, the most famous movement from Debussy’s 1905 Suite bergamasque is a stunning ode to our closest celestial body. This hypnotic piano piece calls to mind the beauty and serenity of the lunar landscape and has featured in films as diverse as Oceans Eleven and Twilight.
1   Girl from Mars // Ash
Unruly Northern Irish pop punk tune about a long lost love from the Red Planet, which has also been used as the hold music on NASA’s phone lines. Need I say anymore?
1   Rocket Man // Elton John
Another classic ballad, this time inspired by songwriter Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a far-away aeroplane. It details the mixed emotions of a Mars-bound astronaut leaving his family on Earth to do his work in outer space, with obvious echoes of Bowie’s Major Tom.
1   Supernova // Mr. Hudson featuring Kanye West
Kanye’s second appearance on this playlist is with English artist Mr. Hudson on this high-charting electro-pop number from 2009. Named after an exploding star, ‘Supernova’ is all about taking off from “a world where we don’t belong”.
1   Walking on the Moon // The Police
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” proclaimed Neil Armstrong in 1969. “Giant steps are what you take / Walking on the moon,” sang Sting ten years later in this summery love song about “being relieved of gravity”.
1   Black Hole Sun // Soundgarden
Subverting the happiness traditionally associated with the sun and replacing it with a dense black hole at the centre of our solar system, Soundgarden’s best known track is synonymous with the grunge genre and creates an eerily surreal dreamscape.
1   Satellite // Lena Meyer-Landrut
German songstress Lena won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010 with this track, a tale of lovesickness compared to an orbiting satellite falling out into the night. Sure, we’ve all been there.
1   Astronomic Club // Air
Released in 2012 as a part of the soundtrack to 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la lune by Georges Méliès, French electronic duo Air created this galactic epic to soundtrack a trip to the moon in one of cinema’s first sci-fi movies. ‘Astronomic Club’ is an eccentric combination of instruments and sounds over an atmospheric beat.
2   Spacer // Sheila and B. Devotion
This Chic-produced disco jam laments a star-chasing ladies’ man whose love lasts beyond space and time as protector of the galaxy. With over six minutes of funky grooves, this French-African-American group have firmly earned their place on this playlist.
2   Black Star // Radiohead
Some of us like to blame astrological mayhem for the things that go wrong in our lives, but we could just make like these seminal nineties alt-rockers and blame it on “the black star… the falling sky… the satellite that beams me home.”
2   The Planets Bend Between Us // Snow Patrol
Although not much of a commercial success, this heartfelt song from Snow Patrol is pure poetry and examines human longing through the lens of “a hundred million suns and stars”. Taken from the same album, the space-themed ‘If There’s a Rocket Tie Me to It’ is also worth checking out.
2   Sleeping Satellite // Tasmin Archer
With one of the most underrated melodies in the history of pop music, Tasmin Archer sets to music “man’s greatest adventure”, visiting the Earth’s moon in the Apollo missions. Simply gorgeous.
2   Subway to Venus // Red Hot Chili Peppers
Let the early Chili Peppers take you a cosmic ride with this riotously tongue-in-cheek rap rock number, complete with heavy funk influences and great trumpet. Space is king, or so they sing.
2   Alien // Japan
Despite their very un-Google-friendly name, Japan remain one of the most criminally underappreciated bands of the post-punk era. Marrying distorted basslines and synths with David Sylvian’s distinctive vocals, this track is what I imagine extraterrestrials would dance to if they had discos.
2   Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me) // Train
This track really doesn’t need much of an introduction. As an ode to his late mother, Train frontman Patrick Monahan claims the song came to him in a dream as he felt his mother back in the atmosphere, swimming through the planets, dancing along the light of day, falling from a shooting star, tracing through the constellations and exploring the Milky Way. As moving as it is anthemic.
2   Moondance // Van Morrison
A real old-school bluesy number, Van Morrison serenades the listener with metaphors about “the stars up above in your eyes”. He croons about a marvellous night for romance and dancing in the moonlight, a phenomenon which has inspired everyone from Thin Lizzy to Toploader.
2   Contact // Daft Punk
An indescribable closer to the duo’s Random Access Memories. The track samples actual NASA recordings from astronauts over layers of orchestral riffs and synths. The minutes of distortion at the end were said to have blown the speakers in the studio when it was recorded. This climactic track feels like a literal blast off and is amazingly futuristic, if slightly foreboding.

Honorary mentions: Marquee Moon // Television, Pink Moon // Nick Drake, I Believe in Travellin’ Light // Belle & Sebastian, Planet Earth // Duran Duran, Another Girl, Another Planet // The Only Ones, Starships // Nicki Minaj, Cosmic Girl and Space Cowboy // Jamiroquai, Across the Universe // The Beatles, Aliens Exist // blink-182, The Whole of the Moon // The Waterboys, Pluto // Björk, Telstar // The Tornados, The Dark Side of the Moon // Pink Floyd, Don’t Stop Me Now // Queen, On Mercury // Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Final Countdown // Europe, Saturn 5 // Inspiral Carpets.

Grab yourself a print copy of BABYmouth here.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Beats and Bombs: The Story of Belfast Rap (as featured in The Gown @ QUB)

Rat Out Records' event at The Sunflower
(Source: my own)

Belfast is famous for many things – ships, conflict, Van Morrison – but not quite hip-hop. Unlike the other Irish cities which have spawned the likes of Dublin duo Versatile or Limerick’s The Rubberbandits, the subculture hasn’t gained the same notoriety and recognition in the North. As a genre created by African Americans in 1970s New York, it may be fairly easy to see why the Irish brand of rap hasn’t exactly had the same level of success.
Despite this, Northern Ireland is by no means lacking in musical talent; the region has produced big names like The Undertones, Snow Patrol and Two Door Cinema Club. Even on a more grassroots level, the local indie rock and folk scenes in Belfast and Derry are booming. While it may seem that we prefer our music with a catchy chorus and three chords, Belfast’s underground rap scene is alive and kicking if you’re prepared to look for it. A simple Soundcloud or Bandcamp search will return – among a mountain of parodies – a number of local MCs freestyling and experimenting with different beats and samples to create a take on the genre which is utterly unique. Belfast hip-hop is rough around the edges, much like the city itself.
Rap has often been used as a tool to explore and rebel against the social, economic and political situations that marginalised people find themselves in and, given its turbulent history, artists and musicians of Belfast have plenty to be angry about. Arguably the city’s most famous hip-hop export, Jun Tzu (AKA Jonathan Hamilton), released his debut album The Troubles in 2014, a cutting narrative on the years of sectarian division which still haunts the city, characterised by “a blend of traditional Irish folk music, deeply personal poetry and hard-hitting hip hop.” As the son of a loyalist prisoner, Hamilton does not shy away from the explicit horrors of growing up in a city so plagued with violence and instability. He does so with trademark cynical humour, most notably on ‘Born in Belfast’ and self-reflective ode ‘Wee Johnny’. Likewise, Belfast rapper Sketch Nine’s 2011 EP The Expenses of Living Free deals with the dichotomy of life in the city, torn between love for the place where you grew up and the bitter bigotry so engrained in life there.
Other artists of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict generation wish to distance themselves from the province’s troubled past. Local rapper Jack Bashful wants his music to be detached from the norm and a form of escapism: “If I talk about how bad life is in here or how all the politicians are corrupt, I wouldn’t be doing that. That sort of thing does not appeal to me, it’s been done so many times before and I don’t think I would offer anything different.” He instead opts for more traditional hip-hop, but with a modern twist. Fellow performer Juma, an African-Irish artist, is less focused on the past and prefers to take inspiration from all walks of life. He is optimistic about an emerging international following, as he believes that combining both of his cultures allows his sound to be more versatile.
The main hurdle for many local listeners is hearing such a global and commercialised style delivered in a local accent, something many NI acts are all too aware of. The British grime genre has exploded in recent years, with artists sporting strong regional accents and incorporating local slang, yet many people find that the Belfast version doesn’t make for easy listening. “Due to the fact that I rap in my own Northern Irish accent, I do think that my sound is unique given that there is yet to be a breakout artist from here,” Bashful explains, “The response to it [my music] was almost overwhelming… having people tell me what I was doing was actually listenable was a fantastic compliment.” West Belfast duo KNEECAP have taken the local flavour a step further, creating hip-hop as Gaeilge. Exploding from underground to mainstream news, the pair’s colourful Irish language rap saw their track ‘C.E.A.R.T.A’ banned by RTÉ for its lyrical content, despite their desire to “break stereotypes”.
Although the subculture was explored through the lens of cross-community relations in Chris Eva’s 2014 documentary Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys, Northern Irish hip-hop remains largely uncharted territory. “We are an ever-growing scene,” Juma claims, “Although there are some absolute titans who’ve been holding the torch for some time, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it [the scene] is still fairly adolescent in many respects.”
At Rat Out Records Irish Hip-Hop showcase on 16th February, a small line-up of local acts packed out The Sunflower bar, Jack Bashful and Juma among them. Fuelled with fiery intensity and a fair few pints, the scene painted a promising picture for NI rap. Jack Bashful is hopeful: “The most important thing for me is simply just being able to listen to material for longer than thirty seconds. Every time I had come across a new aspiring rapper, I found myself cringing and turning it off before it was even half over. If I can get to the point where people can listen to my music the whole way through, it’s half the battle. That may not seem very ambitious, but with an accent like mine, it’s not easy!”

A shorter edited version is available in the print version of The Gown student newspaper at QUB.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Review: Live by Design // Ivy Nations

Drawing inspiration from the likes of Radiohead, Foals and Depeche Mode, Dublin four-piece Ivy Nations have unleashed their brand of shoegaze-inspired indie rock with the launch of their latest single ‘Live By Design’. Only their third release, the band have worked with producer Phil Magee (Kodaline, The Script) and received international airplay as far away as Australia. Despite having already struck a winning formula, ‘Live By Design’ sees the quartet venture into gloomier territory, riding a dark wave of moody indie.
Ivy Nations are a tight outfit who create a big sound, complete with soaring riffs, controlled yet powerful vocals and seismic basslines that would give The Cure a run for their money. ‘Live By Design’ gradually picks up tempo just as the listener is getting comfortable, breaking into the towering chorus “to escape the thoughts of someone else”.  The visual accompaniment to the track is an eerie, dystopian video courtesy of Blacktooth Films, in which one human attempts to break the “design” we live by.

Catch the lads live on their upcoming Irish dates this summer, including three hometown gigs as well as Barn Dance Festival in Wicklow, Sea Sessions in Donegal and Indiependence in Cork.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Women Not Witches: Abortion in Ireland (featured in Femini magazine)

In Celtic mythology, the spirit of Ireland is commonly portrayed as a woman. Bygone nationalist symbols such as Róisín Dubh, Kathleen Ni Houlihan and the old woman of ‘Mise Éire’ personify the romantic view of the island embodied in the feminine ideal of Mother. Bríd, a Gaelic pagan goddess associated with fertility, later Christianised as St. Brigid of Kildare, is now one of Ireland’s patron saints. As a hallmark of Irish society, this concept of Mother Ireland, a gendered land to be fought for and possessed, requires male intervention to vindicate her sovereign rights. She is something of a supernatural being and incarnation of Ireland’s womanhood, a sacrificial heroine of the family.

The ideal of Mother or virgin, further fuelled by the dominance of the church over the centuries, subdued women into becoming patriarchal stereotypes.
Centuries ago, Irish women who, among other allegations of heresy, did not fulfil this archetypal ideal, were often accused of witchcraft. Last recorded in Ireland in 1711, these women faced many ordeals, often trial by water. To determine if she was a woman or a witch, the suspect was tied to a chair or run under a boat; if she survived the drowning, she was a witch – if not, was a woman. The traditional belief in the synthesis of wife and mother as one indistinguishable entity is ruptured by any Irishwoman not fulfilling the submissive, motherly role historically expected of her. It has been so entrenched in the Irish subconscious that even today men control the political role of fighting for women’s rights on their behalf.
 “We are not witches but if the church and state insists / Then let us be the descendants of all the witches they could not drown,” declares Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem ‘We Face This Land’, an emotive accompaniment to Ireland’s pro-choice Repeal the Eighth campaign. When culturally Ireland is identified as a woman, namely Mother, bodily autonomy is still not a given right for her women even in the twenty-first century.
Voted into the Republic’s constitution by referendum as late as 1983, the anti-abortion Eighth Amendment equates the life of a pregnant woman* with that of an embryo or foetus, acknowledging “the right to life of the unborn …  with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother…”. Abortion is banned except where a woman’s life is in immediate danger, excluding cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormality where a pregnancy would have to be carried to full term. Thus, a pregnant woman’s life and health are distinct in a way that is completely unfeasible. This process criminalises girls, women and medical professionals who procure illegal abortions. Despite this, an Amnesty International poll shows 80% support for repealing the Eighth in the Republic.
Similarly in Northern Ireland, abortion access is forbidden under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, making Ireland one of the most difficult places in the world to obtain a safe and legal abortion. This draconian policy has frequently been criticised by the European Convention on Human Rights, and been declared incompatible with the Human Rights Act of 1998. The Abortion Act of 1967, which provides termination of an unwanted pregnancy to women in the rest of the UK, has not been extended to Northern Ireland, thus making distressed women risk up to fourteen years imprisonment. Only in cases where the mother’s life is threatened or continuing the pregnancy would pose serious long-term physical or mental problems, may the pregnancy be terminated at a private clinic. Despite consistent pressure on devolved political powers in the North to implement changes (with 69% popular support), effective action is yet to be taken.
For a nation represented by the image of a woman in its 1937 Constitution, the cultural notion of a woman’s duty as a mother has made traditional values part of public policy. The very same document that once banned contraceptives still places so-called ‘protective’ restrictions on Irishwomen like me today. As a result, pregnant people in Ireland have two options: travel abroad to access an abortion or be forced to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy.
It’s shocking and saddening to think that eleven women leave Ireland each day to procure an abortion elsewhere, usually in England, Scotland or Wales. That makes 4,000 each people each year, and over 163,000 since 1980. This not only shames women but discriminates against those who cannot afford to travel to terminate a crisis pregnancy. What is a healthcare issue for our sisters across the sea is a frightening, stigmatised and often lonely journey to a distant hotel room and clinic - a procedure that should be available to us at home. Those in more desperate situations find themselves illegally ordering abortion pills online, resorting to dangerous ‘backstreet’ abortions or faced with the reality of having to give birth. The outcome of restrictive laws is not fewer abortions – simply later ones. In a majority Catholic country which has seen a gradual decline in religious conservatism in the last few decades (for example, Ireland’s historic marriage equality referendum last year), the crucifix is still not far from the stethoscope when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.
Whilst abortion is a deeply personal decision and should not be plagued by religious and political dogma or guilt, some struggle to see it as merely a welfare issue. No woman decides to terminate a pregnancy easily, and equating an embryo with the life of the mother is simply incorrect from a scientific point of view; 92% of abortions happen before fourteen weeks, and the rest are exceptional circumstances. Being personally opposed to abortion is not a problem, but projecting your own morals onto other people is not fair, helpful or compassionate. The time needed to determine if a foetus qualifies as abnormal, or to complete the legal process involving rape is simply too long. How about young women like me who could not cope emotionally or financially with an unwanted pregnancy, never mind jeopardising my education? Or Irish mothers on both sides of the border who already have children and would be unable to look after another? With the Dáil composed of 78% men and Stormont having one of the worst gender imbalances in Western Europe, none of these politicians will ever be pregnant or understand what it would feel like to cry helplessly over a positive test. I hope it’s a decision I never have to make, but having the choice to do so is important.
Until Ireland modernises its outdated abortion laws (as old as 155 years in the North), women like Savita Halappanavar will continue to die as she did in 2012, refused an abortion at a Galway hospital. Women like Sarah Ewart will continue to be refused an abortion even for a foetus with no chance of survival outside the womb. Women of all ages will continue to be harassed in the already stressful situation of having to visit a Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland. Ireland’s single mothers, apparently still sinful witches in the eyes of her leaders, won’t stop having to hide taboo secrets. I can protest through joining the Feminist and Pro-Choice societies at my university in Belfast, and hope that one day my government will recognise my rights as a human being.

Why does a country personified as a woman in need like Kathleen Ni Houlihan, and which venerates women like St. Brigid, perpetrate such misogyny? Unlike in other countries, why are men making anatomical decisions for us? It’s time Mother Ireland took better care of her daughters, and trusted the singular Mother to have control over her own body. We Irishwomen are making our voices heard: let no more women be sacrificed, at home or across the water, for abortion reform that is long overdue and called for by public opinion. “A body is a body - not a house. Not a city. Not a vessel, not a country / The laws of the church have no place on your flesh,” concludes Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem, “Witches or women - these are our bodies which shall not be given up.” 

Monday, 25 July 2016

One Month On: 21 Things Interrailing Taught Me

 1.  Every stereotype about Amsterdam is true (even the train tickets cost 4.20)

Sweaty and hauling my rucksack all the way from Centraal Station to Museumkwartier, it struck me that Amsterdam was just how I had imagined it; a labyrinth of canals and bridges decorated with colourful flowers and endless bicycles, quaint Dutch buildings, tourists and hipsters alike dodging the trams and, of course, an omnipresent smell of weed from the famous ‘coffee shops’ to live up to the cliché. In short: the place stinks of weed and everyone has bike they’re not afraid to run you over with.

  2.  Google Maps is your best friend (most of the time)

Whether it’s navigating the endless canals of the Dutch capital or street after street of bars in Berlin, there’s no better (or annoyingly necessary) way to use up all your monthly data allowance. You’d literally be lost without it – that is, until it sends you on a wild goose chase and you end up asking for a taxi to the place you’re already standing outside. Twelve minute walk, really, Google?

 3.  Mind your arse on the iAmsterdam sign

If you’re in any way blessed with junk in the trunk, the letter ‘a’ is deceptively small. We learnt this the hard way.

 4.  Don't wear shorts to a -9°C degree ice bar

Well this is pretty self-explanatory, I mean if you need to wear thick gloves to be able to hold your glass of Heineken, what did we really expect? Though when the temperature’s in the high twenties outside and the bar is freezing cold and pirate-themed, excuse us for having nothing appropriate in our rucksacks.

 5.  Style may have to be sacrificed for the weather

See also number 4. As a fashion-conscious person and first time backpacker, this one particularly stings. It’s pushing thirty degrees but also lashing out of the heavens, so sometimes shorts, a baseball cap, a rain mac and an overpriced Van Gogh umbrella from the gift shop just make sense. Did someone say tourists?

 6.  McDonalds is a grim place to spend the night

Polaroids of Dortmund's latest victims

After missing an overnight train to the Czech Republic by less than a minute, the floor of a Dortmund McDonalds is the last place you want to be when you’re smelly, exhausted and pissed off.  Throw in some creepy leery men, an angry homeless man being escorted out by the police for throwing food, and a weird couple doing laps of the place on rollerblades, and you’ve got one of the strangest and worst nights of my life. So ready to throw myself onto the tracks by 6am.

 7.  Germany likes to charge you to pee and it’s not cool

Remember Janice the bully from Bridge to Terabithia who charged the younger kids to use the bathroom? The chant “free to pee!” comes to mind here. A whole euro and closed after 11pm, Scheiße!

 8.  If you find an unreserved carriage on a busy train, there’s probably a reason

Turns out sweat is also a handy adhesive for travel passes

Leaving Dresden and finally in the right country, an empty unreserved carriage on an absolutely bunged train to Prague seemed liked a godsend after the previous night. Six girls in a small carriage in 32°C heat with a broken air conditioner soon proved otherwise.

 9.  Everyone will smell awful and want to brawl each other at some point

Attack of the spray cream

Lugging rucksacks in hot weather (and then rain) with melting makeup, fighting over a tiny little hostel shower, smelly shoes lined up along the window sill, washing your hair twice in ten days and having no access to a washing machine really makes you wonder how we took any decent selfies at all. Combined with never not being together, despite being close pals, some tension and compromise is inevitable. Especially when I’m the kind of person who makes Monica Geller seem laid-back.

 10.  People will chant ‘Will Grigg’s on fire’ anywhere

Imagine some football chants to accompany this view...

More often than not, the people singing weren’t even Northern Ireland fans. In Amsterdam’s bars? Check. In broken English on the train? Check. From the top of the Astronomical Clock Tower in Prague? Surely not! Yep… Czech (hahaha). Sure what else would you want to hear whilst taking in panoramas of the City of a Hundred Spires? A bittersweet taste of home.

 11.  Most cities have a sex/torture museum full of weird things you can’t un-see

"So what did you do on holiday?"

All the weird shit you can imagine probably does exist and has done for hundreds of years. Think you can’t pierce it? Oh, I bet you can. Lots of bizarre contraptions from brothels, vibrators through the ages and all the gimp masks you could ask for. You just have to wonder about the guys that visit these places alone…

 12.  Don’t accept any strange pills old ladies offer you

I don't have a photo of the pills, but this is as close as we're gonna get

Whilst Germany’s pensioners might have your best interests at heart, offering mysterious pills to unsuspecting teen girls with a bad cough claiming that they’re ‘herbal’ is a little suspicious. Especially on a train late at night. And when you were sitting at the opposite end of the carriage.

 13.  Ultravox ‘Vienna’ jokes get old quickly

This is my personal favourite dad joke. But when you’ve heard it umpteen times over the phone and through text, it really quickly means nothing to me.

 14.  The zoo is way funnier in German

Flusspferd (hippo), Schnabeltier (platypus), Eichhörnchen (squirrel), Eisbär (polar bear) and the mighty Säbelschnäbler (that’s a Pied avocet bird in English, obviously). Whilst we’re talking about funny words, Hauptbahnhof, meaning central station, will become familiar to Interrailers as it sounds hilarious announced over the loudspeakers.

 15.  Splitting the bill between six people when you don’t speak the language makes you very annoying

When you have no languages in common, there’s only so much a phrasebook can help you with. Waiters aren’t huge fans of fifty euro notes either.

 16.  Santa is American and spends his summer on a mobility scooter in Austria

Before Santa approached

Who else would you expect to run into at a streetside café late in the Viennese evening? Only Father Christmas himself, clad in a Hawaiian shirt and sporting a thick American accent. Sure he may flatter you by telling you your home country is his favourite place to deliver presents, but, whatever you do, don’t buy the ‘sexy shots’ he’ll try to sell you for €2. Especially when he assumes you’re a group of school girls. Yikes.

 17.  The item you need will always be at the bottom of your rucksack

If you’re lucky enough to still have all your belongings at this stage, the lovely new Zara shirt you’d been saving will most likely show signs of having lived at the bottom of your rucksack, wrinklier than your granny after a long bath. And that can of deodorant you need a quick spray of? Passport you need to show? Probably neighbours with that shirt a few litres deep.

 18.  Lots of countries = lots of potential baes

Variety is the spice of life, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that Tindering abroad offers a wealth of new honeys. Also shout out: hot waiter who served me minestrone soup in Amsterdam and angelic Martin Gore lookalike on the Berlin U-bahn. Oh, and Drake’s Iranian-Viennese doppelgänger.

 19.  Make sure you’re at the right address before texting shit to your Airbnb host

Airbnb is the cheapest way to hire out really cool apartments and the hosts are usually super accommodating; that is, given you’re at the correct address. Philipp, sorry for the bombardment of awkward angry texts and I’m extremely happy we never got to meet xoxo

 20.  I’m lucky to live in such a beautiful continent

Despite the trials and tribulations of being an in-denial primadonna going backpacking for the first time, there’s absolutely no denying that we’re #blessed to live in a continent as stunning and diverse as Europe. From the admittedly small selection of cities we squeezed into ten days, the hedonistic charm of Amsterdam, the endless spires of Prague, the imperial glory of Vienna or the marriage of history and urban modernity in Berlin made for some unforgettable visits. Even at that, we barely scratched the surface of all the cities had to offer in our limited timeframe. Plus, we can always go back because that’s what middle class white kids do. Even if England voted for Brexit.

 21.  Sometimes the best advice can be found on a wall outside a Berlin hospital

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a brick wall can do the same.

You can check out more snaps of my adventures on my Flickr photostream xx