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It’s amazing how life loops about. I left Ireland for Australia in 1985 largely because of the censorship I experienced at the national broadcaster (RTE) where I had produced a top-rating breakfast radio show, Morning Call. It was 1983 and we were having a constitutional referendum on abortion. Not on whether to make it legal or not but on whether to make it more illegal than it already was. This was an Ireland where the Catholic Church ruled the roost, controlling health and education institutions, and even, as I was to find, exerting influence over the media. The debate on ‘The Amendment’ split the country like nothing since the Civil War that had followed the founding of the state in 1921.

 

Morning Call ended with a one-hour interview format lifted straight from the BBC’s Desert island Discs: a guest would select favourite pieces of music and weave them into their life story. This particular week, presenter Marian Finucane was to interview Anne Connolly, founder of a progressive women’s health clinic, The WellWoman Centre. The following week, for balance, the guest was to be Mína Bean Uí Chribín, from the Society to Protect the Unborn Child. Both interviews had been approved at a management production meeting. It was understood that neither would canvass The Amendment directly – editorial constraints meant that matters of such public controversy would only be dealt with in news and current affairs contexts – but both women would be of more than passing interest due to the timing.

 

The interview with Anne Connolly went off without incident. I saw my boss at the coffee bar directly afterwards and she had no issues with it. But hours later, she summarily told me I was being suspended as producer of the show, due to a lack of editorial judgement. Complaints had been made about the choice of guest. ‘But you approved her’, I stammered, in shock. She looked at me, almost pityingly. ‘No I didn’t’, she replied. I had no evidence with which to refute this barefaced lie. And thus I was thrown under a bus, exiled to a late night music show. With my career prospects seriously under a cloud, when the chance came to migrate to Australia in 1985, I jumped at it.

 

Then, in 2012, a young Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, died of septicaemia at Galway Hospital after being denied an abortion. She was 17 weeks pregnant and in early miscarriage, but doctors refused to terminate while there was a foetal heartbeat. I fulminated against this awful tragedy on Facebook.

 

I was then a journalism academic, teaching feature writing and broadcasting. One promising student, Brianna Parkins, submitted an unusual profile feature, about a Vietnamese gangland ‘moll’ in Western Sydney. I told her I’d like to submit it for an award, but that she needed to clean up the grammar and punctuation as I had detailed. She sent it back to me, but with the corrections incomplete. I returned it, with a request to finish the job. Brianna’s next email had a self-pitying tone. She said she had to work late in a hospitality job and had no spare time. I must have been a bit overworked myself because I shot back, tersely: ‘I worked forty hours a week in a restaurant to put myself though a science degree. It’s a matter of professional self-respect, to have correct copy. Up to you.’ Brianna duly made the corrections. The piece did not in the end win an award (due more to mis-matched criteria than any lack of merit), but it fomented a bond between us. When she graduated, she gave me a box of chocolates and a card, which thanked me for all I’d taught her – especially the good ‘kick up the arse’.

 

Next time I heard of Brea, it was in the unlikely guise of representing Sydney in an archaic pageant called The Rose of Tralee, which featured the daughters of the Irish diaspora competing in a televised popularity contest in Tralee, County Kerry. Even though it was vigorously touted as Not a Beauty Contest, I was amazed to see a feisty feminist such as Brea in such a milieu. It made sense later: the winners were flown to Ireland and she wanted to spend time with her immigrant grandparents back in their native Dublin.

 

It was now 2016. Since the death of Savita, there had been sporadic attempts to launch a repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the  Constitution, the one passed in 1983 that effectively made abortion impossible to obtain.  One Monday night in August, the country tuned in live for the Rose of Tralee contest, an entertainment extravaganza not unlike the Eurovision Song Contest. Brea came on stage to be interviewed, wearing her Sydney sash. Contestants usually presented as wholesome types, interested in Irish dancing and keen to end world poverty. When the compere asked Brea what she’d like to see happening, she didn’t miss a beat  – she’d like women in Ireland to have more control over their bodies and a repeal of the Eighth Amendment.  With commendable aplomb, the compere segued into his next comment: ‘I hear you like samba’. But the audience had already started to applaud.

 

In  Australia, I saw the kerfuffle unfold on Twitter – people revelling  in Brea, or reviling her, as she detailed in a pungent article for the Irish Times. I posted about this firebrand graduate of mine on Facebook. Eleanor McDowall, a British radio producer and FB friend, noticed it. I posted again when a campaign was launched to Repeal the 8th, and when a referendum on the matter was announced. In the run-up, Brea took leave from her job in Sydney to return to Ireland and support the repeal campaign. ‘I want to finish what I started’, she commented.

On 26 May 2018, Ireland voted by a 2:1 majority to make abortion legal.

Prato gals

Bonding  at Prato Radio Conference, Italy, July 2018. Evi Karathanasopoulou, Eleanor McDowall, Siobhan McHugh and an Italian audio producer.

In July that year, I met Eleanor McDowall for the first time, at a radio studies conference in Prato, near Florence. Over a wonderful dinner in the piazza by Prato’s magnificent cathedral, I bonded with her and other female audio creatives, and told them the long looping story of Ireland’s abortion laws and the links between me and Brea that spanned 35 years since that first referendum.

 

The next day, Eleanor approached me about making a documentary about the whole saga. I emailed Brea, who was in straight away. A month later, I picked up El off the train from Sydney and led her to my office, where Brea met us. Her Thank You card was still on my shelf.

El records Brea

Eleanor McDowall records Brianna Parkins as she prepares to address Journalism students

The 28-minute documentary El made for BBC Radio 4 features the voices of four women: me, Brea, Anne Connolly and a fourth, anonymous, woman, who is setting off to the UK to have an abortion. Called A Sense of Quietness, it is spare and beautiful, and has won huge acclaim: the Prix Europa, an Amnesty UK Media award, a Third Coast Audio Award.

 

In a perfect cyclical ending, Brea Parkins has now moved to Dublin, to live and work as a journalist in the city I left for Sydney all those years ago, when I described myself as ‘a refugee from the Catholic Church in Ireland’. Following horrendous child abuse scandals, the Catholic Church has lost the respect and authority it once commanded in Ireland. Ireland is now multicultural, led by a gay man of Indian descent, an unthinkable concept in my day. To complicate things further, Ireland passed marriage equality laws ahead of supposedly liberal and secular Australia – which is now led by a conservative evangelical Christian. We live in, er, interesting times.

 

Siobhan and El Austi

Eleanor McDowall and Siobhan after a day of field recording for A Sense of Quietness

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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