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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Our Choice: Perhaps The Most Talked About Literary Event Of The Year

Galway Pro-Choice in association with Over The Edge 
presents ‘Our Choice’, 
an evening of poetry, fiction and music 
at Róisín Dubh on Wednesday, August 14th starting at 7pm.

The event will be hosted be Aoibheann McCann. The participating writers are Celeste Augé, Ger Burke, June Caldwell, Sarah Clancy, Bernie Crawford, Susan Millar DuMars, Kate Ennals, Elaine Feeney, Lisa Frank & Susan Lindsay. There will be music by Sandra Coffey and a raffle. The purpose of the event is to raise funds for Galway Pro-Choice. There is no formal cover charge but there is a suggested donation of €5 per person.

The above mentioned event takes place tomorrow evening at Róisín Dubh. 

Over The Edge often organises special events during the Summer. Around this time of the year the fact that our programme of events is a little less intense than usual gives us the flexibility to do something a bit different.

In June 2008, we organised, with Galway Amnesty, a launch of the poetry anthology Poems from Guantánamo  The Detainees Speak. There were readings of poems from the book by Rita Ann Higgins, Mary O Malley, Elaine Feeney, Sheikh Khaled (Imam of Galway Mosque), Stephen Murray, visiting South Carolina poet Charlene Spearen & Gary King. You can read more about the event here.

This event was, of its nature, one with a fairly overt political agenda: to draw attention to the gross abuses that have taken place at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Some would see it as an implicit criticism of the Irish Government's policy (ongoing) of allowing the U.S. military to use Shannon Airport as a stop off point for rendition flights. There is no doubt that flights taking prisoners, prisoners who have been charged with nothing and are on their way to be tortured at some uspecified destination have stopped off to refuel at Shannon.

A miniscule minority of those who attend our regular events may have privately taken exception to the fact that Over The Edge hosted this event. There has to be at least one person among our regular audiences who supported the foreign policy of George W. Bush. It would almost be disturbing if there were not. At the time, I wasn't exactly in love with the anti-war movement myself and was attacked online by one of their number whose opinion it was that a poem I had written indicated that I had morphed into a pro-imperialist dog. You can read more about all that here and here.

Having read the articles at the links, you'll perhaps find it surprising that I didn't pen an irate letter to The Galway Independent in protest against the event I was myself facilitating.

Truth is, I saw it as part of Over The Edge's remit to organise occasional literary events which give expression to the political issues - be they global or local - which vex people in the way that some big political and social issues do.

No one objected to our doing this event. Of course many do not see this sort of thing as real politics. They take such events about as seriously as, in times gone by, the Labour Party leadership would take another passionate speech by Michael D. Higgins about right wing death squads in El Salvador. These are things that happen in the place my mother used to call "out foreign". The issue of abortion is rather different. Organising a literary event around this issue is seen as in some sense dangerous whereas the Guantánamo poetry anthology event was oh so safe.

It was inevitable that Over The Edge would organise something to highlight this issue the Summer after Savita Hallapanavar's death at University Hospital Galway, which is so close to our home that you can see it from our kitchen window.

I have myself published a number of related poems over the past few months. You can read The Euphemisms here, Alternative Proposals here and Irish Government Minister Unveils Monument To Victims of Pro-Life Amendment here. Susan also has a related story, Full-Sized Life, which is published here.

But we wanted to do something more, something to bring the Galway literary community together around this issue. And it's been a great success. We have had overwhelming support and there has been more interest in the Our Choice event than in any other single event we've organised in Over The Edge's ten year history.

I freely admit that I am far more personally supportive of the Pro-Choice cause than I ever was of the various anti-war campaigns. 

The first person who ever said to me that the 1983 anti-abortion amendment was a terrible idea, was my Mom, Mary Higgins. She had had chemotherapy for Hodgkins Disease a few years earlier. She said that it could be a danger to a women's life in that sort of situation. She wasn't a political person at all, really. But she got that one right. 

During the run up to that referendum we discussed the issue of abortion in religion class in The Bish. The teacher was a Mr. Hickey. I put my hand up and asked him: what about cases of rape or incest? A total silence fell over the room. Mr Hickey acted as if the question had never been asked and just moved on. Today, I'm a bit proud of the not yet 16 year old who asked that question. He didn't know much. But he asked the right question that day. 

This is a picture of me early the following year. I was chairing a Labour Youth public meeting on the issue of South Africa. With me in the picture are (standing) Nimrod Sejake, a then South African exile who, during his very interesting and most inspiring life, once shared a jail cell with Nelson Mandela

The man sitting immediately to my right is Emmett Farrell. Emmett was actively involved in establishing the first Family Planning Clinic in Galway City. You can read all about that in this wonderfully titled essay by Dr. John Cunningham of NUI Galway, Spreading VD All Over Connacht, which you can download here

Here is a quote from John Cunningham's essay which gives a flavour of what went on at the time:

Frustrated by the lack of progress, three members of the GFPA [Galway Family Planning Association] identified with the libertarian left of the Labour Party took an initiative. UCG lecturers Pete Smith and Evelyn Stevens and engineering student Emmett Farrell decided to establish a stopgap postal service modelled on one operated by Family Planning Services (FPS) in Dublin, using Stevens's and Farrell's Ardilaun Road address. In April 1977 advertisements were placed in any local papers that would accept them offering condoms in exchange for 'donations'.

Responding to the claim that hundreds of letters had been received with 'absolutely no negative response', one Michael Heneghan urged Ardilaun Road residents to take action:

'There has already been a letter from the Pope, .. what does FPS need so that they'll get the word, a picket outside their house? But it is curious about Ardilaun Road, why aren't they protesting? It would be interesting to see their reaction if an itinerant family moved into no. 77.'

If Ardilaun Road residents did not respond to the taunts, certain others did. Emmett Farrell recalls being distracted from his studies by [Deirdre] Manifold's public rosary group, which convened in his front garden. And there was other pressure. The parents of one publicly identified member of the group, in a village distant from the Galway diocese, were visited by a priest, advised that their son 'was spreading VD all over Connacht' and reminded of their duty to persuade him to change his ways'."

Such fun. And these issues still have an ability to vex people in a way that, say, political prisoners in Chile having their fingernails pulled out never did. 

As I say, though, we have had a hugely positive response to this event. Below are messages of support from Rita Ann Higgins and Clare Daly T.D.

The front of the card on which Rita Ann sent her message of support. 

MESSAGE OF SUPPORT FROM CLARE DALY T.D.
I am delighted to send a message of support to the Galway Pro-Choice literary fundraiser, organised in association with Over The Edge, which is being held at Róisín Dubh, Dominick Street , Galway this Wednesday, August 14th, from 7pm.

Women telling their own stories has, throughout history, often been an important catalyst for change. A good short-story, or novel, or poem has the power to change minds by making people realise that, in their deepest selves, they know that things as they are are tolerable no more.

It’s brave of Susan and Kevin to put their heads above the parapet politically by organising this event under the official banner of Over The Edge, despite the pressures which taking such a stand could bring down on them.

I salute the ten women writers who will take to the stage to support this best possible of causes; it is fitting that they should do so in the City in which Savita Hallapanavar lived and so unnecessarily died. If I could be there on the night, I absolutely would.