Monday, 13 August 2012

Making a Holy Show of Myself

Making a Holy Show of Myself
At My Age doing a stand-up routine on abortion (or lack of it) in Ireland
Ann Rossiter

“What do you do when you’re hitting seventy and still want to do something political about one of Ireland’s Original Sins – the sin of denying Irish women their reproductive rights?  You feel that when you’ve almost reached the biblical three score years and ten mark you’ve probably exhausted all your options.  After all, you’ve done:
  • the demonstrating, the marching, the picketing;
  • the signing of endless petitions, attending the committees, commissions and conferences;
  • the contributing of articles, essays, and letters to newspapers;
  • the publishing of a book and a survey;
  • the giving of talks, lectures and media interviews;
  • the setting up of  women’s groups and joining abortion support groups;
  • the heckling of politicians and people in high places,

- the lot; but there’s little or nothing to show for it.  Either you give up the ghost, or figure it’s time for one more try, like taking to the boards and trying your hand at a bit of comedy.” And so begins my routine on abortion in Ireland focusing on the silence and the subterfuge surrounding the issue.

My stand-up routine, Making a Holy Show of Myself: an Abortion Monologue, began about eighteen months ago when I got weary of doing talks on the abysmal state of women’s reproductive rights in Ireland.  These talks followed from the publication in  2009 of my oral history account of Irish immigrant women’s support for abortion-seekers coming to London entitled, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora.  Earlier in 2001 I had also done a round of talks on the findings of a survey, The Other Irish Journey, on women from Northern Ireland attending British abortion clinics which I co-authored for Marie Stopes International (MSI).  The survey had been launched at both Stormont, the legislative assembly in Belfast, and the House of Lords in London.

More pertinent than any amount of research and writing in building my background knowledge for the show was the back-street abortion I had in London in the early 1960’s.  Those were the days before the 1967 Abortion Act made the procedure legal, took it out of the back streets and the dingy basements, and away from the dangerous contraptions that wrecked my innards and those of so many others. Even more pertinent have been my close encounters with the trials and tribulations of abortion seekers from Ireland during the twenty years I was a member of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group, and more recently, with its successor, the Abortion Support Network, both based in London where I live.

In throwing my hat into the ring with a bit of comedy I’m only too aware that the subject of abortion is hardly a barrel of laughs. However, I’m acutely conscious of the supreme irony implicit in the contradictions of the Irish situation. On the one hand, we’ve had searing debates in the public arena leading to referenda and constitutional amendments which have rocked Southern Irish society, and revealed fissures described as the second partitioning of the island.  On the other hand, a steadfast silence has been maintained on both sides of the border about what happens on the ground each year where, at the very least if official and unofficial figures are taken into account, five thousand women from the South and fifteen hundred from the North make the sad journey across ‘the water’. This they do ‘on the quiet’, ‘on the run’, so to speak, thereby helping Ireland maintain its good opinion of itself as an abortion-free zone. 

Contradictions like these have elsewhere been the subject of great satirical literature, such as the appalling metaphysics of South American dictatorships made flesh in the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.  Unhappily, no Irish creative writer has so far captured Ireland’s own catch-22.  Being no novelist or playwright myself, my piece of satirical comedy is my answer to trying to get under the white-washed surface of denial, especially since we’ve not had an Irish soap willing to ‘out’ or help normalise the subject like East Enders and Corrie in Britain, or indeed, a film like Ken Loach’s, Up the Junction, which brought the grimness of back-street abortion to the attention of the British public way back in 1965.

So far, I’ve performed Making a Holy Show of Myself  before mostly select, sympathetic audiences, like pro-choice groups, women’s studies students, Labour Youth in Dublin, and at the recent Hanna’s House conference in Belfast.  However, the show has also been aired during 2010 at the London-Irish Book Fair, at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Trash Culture Review in Cork before less ‘safe’ spectators.  Responses have been interesting.  One area of contention is where I identify  ‘the Irish Mammy’ as one of the gatekeepers of Irish morality and enforcers of silence (‘what’ll the neighbours/your granny/the school/the workmates, etc. say?’), something abortion seekers have often pointed out to me. It certainly was a point of contention at my recent Cork gig when six women of ages ranging from mid-30s to mid-60s took offence and walked out.  Less contentious, but a bit yukky nonetheless, has been the comment: ‘Oh, but you are brave’ (no, I’m not, I’m always terrified during a gig), but seem non-plussed when I urge, (especially younger) women, to ‘have a go’ themselves!

Joking apart, I’m not planning to throw in the towel just yet.  As long as the spirit moves me and I’m still standing (dodgy knees notwithstanding) I plan to run with Making a Holy Show of Myself yet awhile.  As some woman somewhere once said: ‘Have gun, will travel’.

Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, the ‘abortion trail’ and the making of a London-Irish underground, 1980-2000 (2009) can be obtained at:
The survey, The Other Irish Journey (2001), is published by MSI International.
Information on Making a Holy Show of Myself: an Abortion Monologue available on my website: or email: