A week on from International Women’s Day, questions of women’s rights are at the forefront of college discussion and DU History’s latest event aimed to place these current debates in a historical context. On Wednesday evening, the society hosted a panel discussion on the topic of the “Contraceptive Train” of 1971, a landmark event in the history of Irish feminism. DU History’s secretary, Aoife O’Callaghan White, chaired the discussion, and was joined by Nell McCafferty, a founder member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement who took part in the original Contraceptive Train protest, and Lynne Parker of Rough Magic Theatre Company, director of the stage musical The Train, a fictional representation of the event.
Contraception was banned in the Republic of Ireland until 1980, and the contraceptive train was an act of protest against this ban. A group of 47 women, all members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, travelled by train to Belfast to purchase contraception, which was legally available in Northern Ireland. On returning to Dublin they declared the items to customs officials at Connolly Station, refusing to surrender them at risk of arrest. The event garnered significant press coverage and was a watershed moment for women’s rights in Ireland, helping to break the taboo against the discussion of contraception.
Nell McCafferty spoke first and began by referencing her Catholic heritage, stating “Catholicism is in my DNA”. She went on, however, to point out what she saw as the hypocrisies of the church, particularly during the 1970s, citing the cases of Bishop Eamon Casey and Father Michael Cleary, both of whom fathered children. With the controversial Bishop Casey’s funeral taking place today in Galway, McCafferty expressed her desire to see respectful demonstration to mark his passing, highlighting what she sees as the ongoing negative influence of the Catholic Church in Irish politics.
Speaking with an inimitable, fiery wit throughout, McCafferty then described her time with the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, and the contraceptive train protest specifically: “We were offering sex. And it was post-Beatles. The women knew that this was going to be good.” The movement was founded in 1970, by a group of women who averaged 25-35 years of age. At the time, due to the lack of available contraception, families averaged 6-10 children and women faced, in the words of one member and later Fine Gael TD Nuala Fennell, “the nightmare of unremitting pregnancy”. The movement made the removal of the ban on contraception one of their key demands, and in May 1971 they took off on their journey to Belfast to protest the ban. McCafferty humorously described how the group had been unaware that while contraception was legal in Northern Ireland, its availability was restricted and without prescriptions the group were forced to buy 1,000 aspirin pills instead, knowing that “this was Ireland in 1971, customs men had never seen a contraceptive pill in their lives”. McCafferty later admitted that “contraception was a piece of cake” compared to what was to come following Pope John Paul’s visit in 1979 and the rising fear of abortion.
Discussion then turned to current affairs and the animated McCafferty contrasted the rhetoric of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s with that of today’s repeal the eighth movement. A very strong supporter of the repeal movement, she was however critical of what she saw as “disrespectful” posters and rhetoric being deployed by some in the campaign, stressing the need for “civilised discourse” and debate.
It was then the turn of Lynne Parker to speak. She described the genesis of The Train, saying the “funny, smart and clever” story was brought to her by Arthur Riordan, who together with Bill Whelan wrote the musical. Parker pointed out that the fact that the musical was written by two men illustrates the important role men have to play in the movement for women’s rights, but also emphasised that “the story came from women” in the shape of Nell McCafferty and her fellow activists.
Through the musical, Parker and her colleagues wanted to kick against the notion of feminism as stern or dour, and joyously celebrate the events of 1971. After an initial run at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin during 2015, The Train was taken through a workshopping process, at which point it was picked up by the Abbey Theatre. With some alterations (the musical now covers a story arc from 1916 to the present day, situating the contraceptive train in a broad context) the musical will now run in the Abbey during April.
Parker was just 10 years old in 1971, but as she learned about the events of the day she became fascinated by the event. For her, the protest, and the early 1970s generally, were “the point that church and state began to separate”, and she described her admiration of the movement for “using their brains, their ingenuity” to challenge the status quo in innovative ways. Placing her work in the context of current debate surrounding women’s rights, she stressed the role that art can play in a movement, feeling that drama can be sometimes be more effective than other forms of discussion in addressing an issue. McCafferty’s interruption of Parker’s contribution was met with laughter as she poked and prodded at the new additions to the musical, particularly when she asked if there would be a number entitled “don’t kill the babies” and began to sing her own made-up musical hit. Parker was also reprimanded for using the phrase “pissing into the wind” by McCafferty, as the 72-year-old shouted “language, please!” despite using rather flowery language herself.
The evening ended with an audience Q&A session, during which Parker fielded questions on ticketing arrangements for The Train, and McCafferty spoke on the availability of free contraception through the National Health Service in Scotland, commenting, as a clear nationalist, “God bless Britain. I bite the hand that feeds me”. Wrapping up, McCafferty described her pride on first seeing the The Train, realising, in her words, “we changed Irish history”. The evening’s conclusion was greeted by warm applause from an audience, who had been referred to by McCafferty as “young pagans” throughout, whose appreciation of two remarkable women was palpable. With this event, DU History have made a valuable contribution to the broader college discussion of women’s rights.