VAN Columnist Treasa O’Brien: Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A


imeldaHave you seen the women in red? They turn up at Irish events in London and make a spectacle of themselves. They shout about choice for Irish women in the middle of the street. They annoy priests, they have bad taste in clothes and their politics are out of fashion. They first appeared in early 2014, and go by the name Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. Imelda breaks the silence; she speaks the unspeakable and is not ashamed.

Imelda’s first outing was on International Women’s Day on 8 March when she arrived unannounced at the Camden Irish Centre to address a conference called Dissonant Voices: Faith and the Irish Diaspora, led by a group of Catholic clerics who see themselves as “radical”, and “politically and socially engaged”.

Dressed in red and pulling suitcases, Imelda interrupted the afternoon panel, demanding that this ‘radical and socially engaged Irish church’ listen to the actual needs of Irish women and cease lobbying politicians to restrict women’s reproductive rights and power over their own bodies. One surprised young man shouted, “They’re not your bodies”. Two women applauded in support of Imelda. 

At the London St Patrick’s Day Parade, Imelda wove her way through the parade asking folk if they knew the way to the abortion clinic and informing them about her lack of rights. People proved to be sympathetic, showing that the opinion of Irish people on the ground is not the same as those in power. Imelda decided to take the long way round to Trafalgar Square but somehow ended up crossing the front of the parade and, being a cheeky lass, she took the opportunity to lead the parade into the square, banging her red suitcases on the ground and shouting her catchphrase: “We are speaking of IMELDA: Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion. Choice for Women. Choice for Ireland.” As broadsheet.ie later reported: “They’re not majorettes.” 

What did Imelda do next? Not one to sit on her laurels, she looked towards the state visit of Michael D Higgins to London in April. She is, of course, proud of Michael D, in particular his pro-choice stance. However, the rhetoric of ‘our shared history’ was beginning to make her queasy when she thought of it in relation to our shared present, ie the 12 women a day from the North and the Republic that come to England to seek a safe abortion. This time she waved a red cloth that symbolised the Irish Sea, while singing the Enya classic Sail Away. Imelda is a bit of a crow but got her message across. Michael D gave her a big wave as he left the Irish embassy on 8 April, which she took as a sign of solidarity. On 10 April, she performed again outside the Royal Albert Hall before the Ceiluradh concert. 

Imelda has found that public reaction to her has been largely positive, with people saying they agree with what Imelda wants: of course women should have the right to decide whether they want to carry a pregnancy through or not. Of course they should have safe and legal access to abortion in Ireland without having to travel or be criminalised. Sure, hasn’t that right already been fought and won by so many women all over the world? 

After a UK high court ruling in May barred women in Northern Ireland from accessing abortions through the NHS, Imelda was angry. She found out that the UK Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, holds an advice surgery in a Farnham supermarket on Fridays. She bought a bag of apples and hopped on the train from London. She gave them to Jeremy Hunt, taking a bite of each apple and giving him advice on how to change legislation so that women from Northern Ireland can access safe and legal abortions in the UK and not be criminalised nor discriminated against by being forced to travel and pay for what is a free and accessible service to any person in the UK. Imelda wants to upset the patriarchal applecart. 

Imelda has been back and forth between Ireland and London too many times. She remembers the 80s when the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) would receive calls from Irish women in need, saying the name ‘Imelda’ as a codeword to get advice and support. If they traveled to London, a woman in a red skirt might meet them at the airport or train station, accompany them to the clinic and give them shelter. Imelda remembers the shame of even saying the word abortion and how many women did not give their real names at the clinics. Once back in Ireland, neither state nor society was going to give any follow-up support – remember that this was the time of the Magdalene laundries. 

“That was then”, you say, “things are much better now with abortion airlines and the ‘right’ to travel”. But actually, the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, while allowing for abortion in exceptional circumstances, doesn’t provide for a woman to make her own choice on her own reproduction. And, despite being hailed as a milestone of progress when it came in, the Bill also introduced a 14-year prison sentence for anyone seeking or giving an abortion, outside the highly restrictive set of conditions outlined in the 2013 act. 

My body my choice? My arse.

Treasa O’Brien
Director / Writer: www.vimeo.com/treasaobrien

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. is a direct action feminist performance group founded in early 2014 that seeks to challenge the ongoing problem of Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion. Watch her videos on youtube and join the conversation on facebook: Speaking of Imelda