At this exact time seven years ago, an NHS doctor was employing her laser-like focus, skilled hands, and years of training to stop me bleeding to death in a delivery room. I had a baby but I hadn’t met her properly yet. But in this piece, begun exactly seven years after Grace was announced, I’m not talking about the horrors of her birth day (though if you’re in the mood for a little light reading then you can find that story here).
Today, on the 17th of March, I’m talking about St. Patrick.
We visited Crosshaven today – parked on what feels like the very edge of the country at Fort Camden and walked down the hill into the village. The wind was so strong that each gust had a solid density to it. It swept across the bay, ripping through the trees that squat and cower against the brow of the hill. Lacy frills fluttered on the crests of the waves. From our great height, the water seemed to shiver and writhe like something living.
Down in the village, we passed a boatyard. Yacht after yacht after yacht rested on timber stands. The spines of countless masts stood rigid against the sky, the boats’ bare bones bleached and prehistoric in the spare spring light. All around us, machinery whirred and clicked and clattered in the wind. The boats were stationary, out of water, but their conversation with the wind brought a feeling of tension, of potential.
I thought about St. Patrick. Think of a teenaged boy, sixteen or so. Think of him being taken by strange, wild men, taken from his home, taken to the sea. I thought of the boat they would have used to steal him away, hand-shaped and hand-stitched and huddled low on the sea, and of the unbearable constant noise. The closeness of the bodies of strangers, the newness of the smells and shapes. The slap of the waves and the creak of the hides as they navigated the beat and pulse of the tides. There was no whipcrack of a sail filling, just the pull and lean of men sitting shoulder to shoulder as they rowed, bringing the boy away from home to the filmy edges of the Irish coastline.
This was an island, and he was marooned.
As children, we were told that Patrick stayed in Ireland for six years, minding sheep and finding faith. He was among new people, people who made offerings and muttered entreaties to the trees and the water. People who saw their gods all around them, people for whom the divine could be seen and touched and held. Women had some power, then – they could hold and keep property, they could walk away from an unsatisfactory marriage, they could reign, they could make laws.
Patrick rewrote the old laws, and brought Rome to Ireland. He took the dark language of the poets and the warriors and the lawmakers, and brought it in line with Christian teachings. He took the words and oaths of a people whose very existence was shackled to the seasons, to the weather, to the living land around them, and he wrote them down in a form that suited the new church, that worked with the teachings of his recent God.
Women in Ireland have never been allowed much space by the church that grew out of Patrick’s legacy. We were given some very clearly delineated roles – wives, caregivers, mothers. There were some places specially created for us – run by women, for women. These places were places of shame, of unimaginable cruelty, of crime and disgrace, shored up by secrets and piles of bones.
Today, we’re not bound to the small gods of the everyday. But in so many ways, we’re still bound to the yoke of the Catholic church. We still leave offerings at the feet of our saints. We pay to have our lost things found for us. We put statues outside for good weather at a wedding.
I was told at school that St Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland. I imagine him standing on one of our green-ridged cliffs and looking down on a beach black with the coiled and writhing bodies of every serpent in the land. I see him smiling, feeling the fizz and crackle of magic in his fingertips as he raises his hand and points to the sea. Out!
When my waters broke on the 15th of March seven years ago, my English midwife joked that the baby would hold on until St. Patrick’s Day. The festival didn’t feature very prominently in my life – as far as I knew, my baby (and any future babies of mine) would be born and brought up in England. She did hold on for two more days, and now we are living in Ireland and my girl shares her birthday with a national holiday. Today, seven years after my choices in labour were treated with respect by a team of life-saving NHS medics, I think about the way in which pregnant women in Ireland are restricted. Women here today are denied equal protection in law. Our right to consent to medical procedures can be overridden. We can be threatened with court orders to determine procedure for our pregnancies and labour. Savita Halappanavar, who danced in green at a St Patrick’s Day party, died in an Irish hospital after a delay in receiving appropriate medical treatment for a miscarriage.
Today, seven years after I had my much-wanted baby, at least ten of my countrywomen will have to travel to the UK to procure a safe, legal termination of pregnancy. This is happening here, today and every day.
My daughter, and her sisters, are growing up with this shadow looming over them.
This is an island, and they are marooned.