Nell. That was all we needed to call her. The surname invariably appeared on top of her articles also, but it was superfluous. She was Nell. Few in this “modern” Ireland of ours, have attained such an iconography. She stands alongside Gaybo, Charlie and a handful of others, for whom one name suffices for instant recognition.
And the utterance of that name, on the streets and roadways of Ireland, was swaddled soon in smiles of fondness. Nell was deeply loved – adored by the women whose case she made better than anyone had ever made it, admired even by the men she sometimes upbraided, sometimes excoriated, sometimes drove crazy, but very often forced to laugh out loud at her humour and chutzpah, or at the absurdities she had pointed out in themselves.
Nell: on the Late Late Show, in the pages of The Irish Press and In Dublin magazine, she was the gruff truth-teller with the twinkle in her eye. In her pronouncements, judgments and demands, there was passion but no visible animus – unlike the dramatis personae of the present time, when those who command the public square to demand no less than that Ireland turn itself inside out, seem to exhibit little other than pure hatred. She gave the impression of great bravery, though one always suspected that, as with all those who exhibit great courage, Nell was not devoid of fears, but simply had acquired the capacity to rise above them.
I was her editor briefly, in the In Dublin of the late-1980s, and had the great privilege that came with the certainty that every column she delivered would be clear and gripping of word, taut with equal measures of passion and irony, and delivered like a song fit to be sung by Beniamino Gigli. I was also, from time to time, her hapless adversary, the one opposite her on some radio or TV panel. And then I was the one needing to dig deep in search of courage, for she was formidable and merciless and, above all, head-wreckingly funny. Once, on a TV panel, I sat beside her and “enjoyed” an opportunity to observe her modus operandi. I had a maroon manila folder in front of me, with notes relating to one of the issues we were to discuss. “What’s in your folder, young John?’ she whispered to me as the red light came on. I blushed the colour of my folder and mumbled something about statistics. Shortly afterwards, she went public with the folder issue. John Bowman asked her something and she replied: ‘I wonder what’s in John’s folder?’ She never got to answering the question.
But then, no matter how hard or heavy it got, I could be certain that, as I walked out the studio door, Nell would catch up with me and ask after my daughter Róisín, or say something gratuitously generous about something I had written. And that was praise indeed. Few people would anticipate that Nell and I might be on friendly terms, but we have been for years – not close friends, by any means, but able to trust one another with pretty big stuff. In my times of travail, it was Nell who wrote me the sweetest, kindest notes, with a little truth in there too. Nell is tough, but also soft-centred.
Nell loved Ireland, with a palpable passion. She also understood Ireland, at a level that few others did or do, from Lough Foyle to Ballydehob, from Ringsend to Belmullet. In the highways and byways, perfect strangers walk up to her – I’ve seen it many times – say “Howya Nell” and begin to talk as though to a sister or a mother. As part of the Irish counterculture of the 1970s and beyond, she was unparalleled in her capacity to summon up the spirit of the Irish nation and its people. To be honest, most of the time, she was the Irish counterculture.
To the best of my knowledge, Nell never wrote fiction of any kind, though she may have some gold in her bottom drawer. Her published work took the form of essay, polemic, memoir and profile. She was an editor’s dream: you would lie awake at night for thinking about what she might come up with. Her “In the Eyes of the Law” series for the Irish Times, in which she simply sat in courtrooms and wrote down what came to her as she listened and watched, remains one of the great testaments of its time. Setting aside the outside world’s loss that it never quite got to hear of her, one can incontrovertibly say that Nell belongs in the pantheon of modern literature, an undiscovered Hemingway or a Mailer, comparisons she would appreciate even if stretched to a mention of her feminine machismo.
Nell. It strikes me that we may some time back have slipped into a tone something like an obituary, but luckily that would be way too premature. For Nell is still with us – very much, as it turns out.
Nell is not writing regularly nowadays, which is our loss at least as much as it is hers. But a week or so ago, she hit the headlines after something of a long silence, speaking at a Women in Media conference in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, and making clear that she had lost none of her capacity for surprise.
She spoke about abortion, of which she said she has been a ‘reluctant’ supporter.
She said: “I’ve been trying to make up my mind on abortion. Is it the killing of a human being? Is it the end of potential life?”
Then, being a woman who belongs to a generation that felt entitled to think out loud, she said: “But it’s not that I’m unable – I am unwilling to face some of the facts about abortion.”
This, by the way, is a measure of what we have lost with all the gotcha stuff and twitty literalism that places every half sentence on trial and does not stop until you can hear the vertebrae snap. This was the way public conversations used to happen: someone would say something they weren’t quite sure of, and someone else would take it further or pull it back, until something of a dry path of common ground was reached.
She went on to say that she now believes pro-life advocates are right when they say that to allow terminations at the 12-weeks stage of pregnancy would mean the dismembering of babies in the womb. Back in 1983, she said, she had called this argument “nonsense” – when pro-amendment advocates showed videos and said exactly that. A month ago, in a powerful article for The Irish Times, the paper she graced as a young woman, she spoke of the impossibility now of having even a conversation about these matters. She recalled a conversation back home in Derry in 1983 with her mother, who had become upset by pro-life propaganda saying that abortion was, without qualification, the killing of an unborn child.
She had moved to clear the matter up: “No,” I explained, “in the early stages of pregnancy, what is in the womb is a collection of cells that would not be visible under a microscope. That collection of cells could in no way be described as a baby,” I said confidently, and dismissively. (I was 39 years old.)”
Nell described her mother rising to her and saying, “Come you out here to the scullery with me.” Nell followed out to the window looking on to the back yard. Her mother pointed to a spot on the floor. “Do you see that oilcloth under my feet?” she asked. “Are you telling me that the day I miscarried onto a newspaper on that exact spot, that I miscarried a bunch of cells? That was no bunch of cells, Nell. That was my baby, four months old.”
Nell took up the story: When the doctor arrived, he told her that it was the most perfect specimen of a miscarried baby that he had ever seen, and asked her permission to send it for preservation to a medical laboratory in Edinburgh. I asked what the specimen looked like and my mother replied, pointing to a framed Lowry picture, that it was like ‘one of those stick people in that painting up on the wall.’
Recently, Nell wrote in that Irish Times article, and also told her audience in Ballybunion, she had Googled what pregnancy looks like at 12 weeks. The babies, she said, “suck their wee thumbs and they have toenails, fingernails and arms and legs.”
She said that in an abortion “they scrape the contents of the womb. The pro-lifers are right. Out come the wee arms and legs, and I thought: ‘Oh God, is this what I am advocating?’”
When she was young, she said, abortion was “beyond our consciousness”, but here we are now, “100 years after slaughters like the Somme and places like that, offering abortion on request.”
She then doubled back to speak about what she called “the nightmare of unremitting pregnancy” and, when asked a direct question, said she would be voting on May 25th to repeal Article 40.3.3.
“I believe that abortion is necessary and to have it as freely, legally and widely as possible.”
Ireland, she said, “is a cruel country in which to be pregnant. I am forced to advocate abortion. Even though I know it’s necessary, it is grim and I am sick of it, 100 years after we ended the mass slaughter of World War.”
You might say that, once again, Nell McCafferty has spoken as the voice of her country’s zeitgeist. But if she has, it is to do several contradictory and mutually incompatible things.
What she said was unbelievable frank, seemingly devoid of guile or obvious calculation, perhaps the expression of a deep confusion within herself. There is no law against that, and if it is so, then it is the same confusion that evidently right now grips also perhaps half of the country, addled as we are with incessant propaganda and disinformation. That it should haunt the public sentences of the most iconic feminist intellectual Ireland has seen should give pause for thought to lesser thinkers, feelers and articulators.
Be that as it may, it remains a grave confusion. It is not coherent to equate the slaughter of unborn children with the bloodshed of the Somme and then go on to say that this modern bloodshed is “necessary”. It is disorienting and bewildering to have someone describe what she clearly accepts is the killing of an innocent human being and then to learn that she has gone on to say that she will vote on May 25th to ensure that this practice becomes a guaranteed and protected element of Irish law, replacing the fundamental right-to-life with a fundamental right-to-kill. How can homicide be “necessary”? How can the slaughter of innocents be unavoidable? Nell says she is “sick” of it – of the killing, yes, but also one presumes of the double-talk and dissembling and equivocation and avoidance. And she’s not alone there. So let’s all of us try to get well. I have never before known Nell to leave an argument or a sentence unfinished, and now is not the time for her to begin.
When I read what Nell said in Ballybunion, I was exhilarated and hopeful, then sorrowful and frustrated. For here was a woman who all her life had striven to be completely truthful in public, still doing it, trying to reconcile the beliefs which had formed her as a young woman and as a feminist activist later on, and what she has come to understand as she walks down the avenue of her autumn years. But what she said, though emotionally decipherable, made no sense at all. It was like the utterance of a person in the very throes of changing her mind, spoken at the precise moment when two mutually irreconcilable views were jockeying for supremacy in the womb of her mind. What came out, if this is the case, was not one position but two – albeit one fresh and raw and vibrant with a new awareness, the other the reiteration of a series of grievances that are not of the same order or moral weight.
In her reference to the slaughter of the Somme, Nell hinted at her sense of a necessary complexity arising, perhaps, from a wider sense of culpability: who, when all is accounted for, truly contributes to sending children to their deaths? Is it not a responsibility falling on all the members of a society to make it a place where bearing a new life will always be a joyous thing? A fair question. But we need first of all to agree that the slaughter is wrong, and then, each of us, Nell included, need to decide what our individual contributions might be to stopping it.
I wrote to Nell after the Ballybunion story broke to say that what she said first about abortion and the baby’s fingers and the bloodshed of the Somme struck me as the deepest, truest part of her public reflection, and that it spoke many times more loudly and clearly than what she said immediately afterwards to seemingly contradict herself and send those who thought they were following into deeper bewilderment.
Nell has not yet replied, but that’s fine, that’s the way we have often been, because we tended, as I said, to write to one another at moments of extremity rather than to engage in small talk. Moreover, that email of mine might have been written to half of Ireland as readily as to its great feminist icon. And what it says, between the lines, is something like this: I see you now, Nell, your hour come round at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born into the truth that you already know, because otherwise you would not be saying these things at all, would not be wavering and vacillating and seeking affirmation from the public square of the country you have graced for half a century with your rough words of truth, this time in search of affirmation or clarity. It said something like: surely some revelation is at hand, Nell, because it’s time to get real, as we all need to do before it’s too late; to face the full truth, not just a part of it; break free of the half-truths and disordered thinking that have led us to this present appalling moment, when we stand possibly poised to become the first people in the world to vote for the annihilation of a section of itself, and not a once-off annihilation, but one that would continue into the unimaginable mists of the future, slaughtering our children’s children and their children in turn for the next twenty centuries of stony sleep. Anarchy loosed upon the world. Is this what we want? Because that’s what we’ll get.
The confusion that Nell articulates so truthfully and powerfully is not a random or accidental phenomenon. It is the product, of a culture in which evasion of the truth has for a long time been a standard reflex in many matters, but especially matters of the most intimate kind. There are many conversations we need to have, but, as Nell has intimated, nowadays we are even less capable than ever of having them.
How, then, did we get to this? How could it happen that we ended up having “debates” about something so obvious, so unthinkable, as whether or not it’s okay to kill babies, making the idea debatable only by the device of rendering the baby invisible, inaudible and without defence, hidden away behind banks of clichés and tropes and mantras: “right to choose”, but no mention of what is to be chosen; “abortion care”; ‘reproductive rights”… I have long felt – and have written more than once – that the biggest obstacle in the line-of-sight between the average interested person and the unborn baby is not a physical impediment but the ostensibly harmless concept of the birth-date. If our culture did not make such a fuss of birthdays, but instead traced the origin of each person back to the true beginning – the calculated moment of conception – there could be no tolerance of abortion. We would issue papers to each human person from the day of their first ultrasound, backdating their existence to the approximate date of conception, and that would be the end of it. No room for manoeuvre or obfuscation; no room for confused thinking.
The so-called “abortion debate” provides a classic example of what, thanks to the illiberal liberalism that now dominates us, our political culture has come to: a constant wash of propaganda enabling a process characterised by official mendacity and rigged procedures, all designed to normalise the unthinkable thing that Nell described so vividly in Ballybunion. We did it by attacking thought – by, as Nell herself intimated, destroying our own capacity for conversation.
That wash of propaganda has worked off the elevation of an unspecified “choice” – which begins with the woman claiming it, but now, in these coming days and weeks of May 2018, shifts to the person who may be standing in the way of her supposed freedom, and that might be you. Increasingly, people do not want to be that person – to be interrogated as to the reasons why they might deny this woman the right to this freedom, and be unable to answer, because the answers though irrefutable when spoken silently under your breath, have been beyond the reach of public reasoning for a long time. The result is that people retreat into themselves, away from the debate, emerging in public to sheepily repeat mantras given to them by others or the media, deciding the issue not by their own lights but according to some ill-defined ethic of “tolerance”.
This is deeper than a privatization of beliefs: it’s the anaesthetisation of belief, to be quickly followed by the atrophication of belief. I don’t think it’s exactly that people know abortion is morally wrong and support it anyway as that many people think that judging others is even more wrong than another person having an abortion, and their having an abortion has nothing to do with me anyway, at least if I can avert my gaze from the reality of it. Therefore I do not oppose or question their choice. The only “sin”, by this logic, is judgment bearing down on others. One is judged only if one judges, and therefore only sins if one repudiates sin, or talks of killing or murder. These conditions, together with her own history of activism with and on behalf of other women, may go a long way to explaining the befuddled message Nell put out in Ballybunion. Going back on a lifetime’s certainties is not a matter for a single afternoon.
The other technique, to go along with the occlusion of the baby, is the constant insinuation that objecting to “abortion care” is purely a reflex of religious crackpots. This too hits its mark. As a result, many of those who will vote Repeal will have no stake in the issue but will do so to avoid “imposing their Catholic ideas”. The logic is essentially this: abortion exists already; even if I/we stop this or that particular abortion happening in Ireland, it will happen in the UK; so nothing is gained by objecting or seeking to deny freedom. Even if I am troubled by the concept of sin, there is no sin here for me. In fact, I exercise tolerance, which according to the Pope is something like a grace. If so many people are okay with this, how can I say it is wrong? Therefore I will not say it. Therefore it is not wrong. In fact, it may even be a good because at least I am not being judgemental. This is the morass we’ve arrived at, and which Nell captured with such confused clarity in Ballybunion.
The essential nature of the profound dysfunction abroad in our nation right now is that people’s heads are full of thoughts that have no roots there – they were transplanted there and have not been rejected. They are not adequate to the formulation of a full rationalization or defence of the beliefs they imply to exist deeper down, but they serve to convince those who hold to them and those who hear them that they are real thoughts, the expression of the humanity of an autonomous human person.
But what is being attempted here – by the Government and other advocates of child-slaughter – is an edifice of illogic painted up to seem coherent, built with apparent solidity but actually utilizing a chaotic and deceptive use of load-bearing which, in our deeply corrupted culture of thought and discussion passes muster as order.
Listening to the arguments, it is often difficult to tell where the greater part of the weight is being placed, such is the deceptiveness of the techniques of weight-distribution and use of cultural constructs mixed in with legal-sounding principles that are really perversions of the true law. A similar process occurred in Roe v. Wade, the historic case which led to the legalisation of abortion in the United States, when the law concerning homicide was simply ducked around and bypassed and an edifice of pseudo-logic built on the right to privacy. Here in Ireland in 2018, a culturally normalised sense of a “service” called “abortion care” (already available, we are reminded, in a nearby country with more forward-looking ideas etc) is being used to bear a considerable part of the load of pseudo-logic, as also is an illusion of extending to women rights that they are currently being deprived of (health, bodily autonomy etc.) and likewise to doctors who are allegedly denied some necessary legal clarity to enable them to ‘protect and care for mothers”. Added to that is the buttress of a false opposition between the child and the mother in as much as this opposition is convenient to create a pretext for disabling the rights of the child to be protected at all.
There is very little else in the structure being proposed apart from these elements, but the impression is being given that the procedure of simply asking the people whether or not they wish to retain Article 40.3.3 will serve to reconcile and justify all such incongruencies, when really the whole thing is an exercise in occluding them. The question is dishonest on its face, precisely because it is a bloodless question, It has no mess or gore. It is cleansed of truth and horror, and instead has the appearance of being a merely technical question about redressing an imbalance. The construction of this pseudo-debate conceals that it has placed no weight on the matter of how the law against murder is to be elided, how the architects of the proposed obscenity are to get around the fact that capital punishment, even for the most serious crimes, has been forbidden by our Constitution for nearly two decades, or how the natural, inalienable and imprescriptible rights of the child are to be dismantled without even an honest and forthright attempt at a redrawing of these rights or the outlining of a constitutional or legal basis of any kind for their elimination. In other words, what is happening is not that the laws of Ireland are being changed to facilitate abortion; what is happening is that the issue of changing the laws is in effect being made to seem other than what it is.
Numerous sleights-of-hand have been perpetrated in order to make the structure appear coherent, legal, constitutional and, as Nell says ”necessary”, when in fact all that has occurred is a series of quite disconnected manoeuvres, creating the impression of pursuing a logical path from the current dispensation to some new and equally legal and legitimate understanding. Children will die but this will be written up as “compassion for women”.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. The result of all this is an utterly confused and disoriented population, which seems –from the political an ideological viewpoints of those pushing the abortion agenda – the optimal state-of-affairs. Timidity and incoherence combine to – as Nell has described – prevent us from talking our way into these questions.
And of course, if these questions were properly addressed, it is quite obvious that nothing like this structure could be built at all. In such a better country, we would listen to Nell pronouncements in Ballybunion and not become swivel-headed with indecision. We would hear what she said and hear too what her heart was saying louder than anything else she said: that the killing of innocents is wrong, wrong, wrong, and that continuing our longtime sleepwalk of unreason will very soon bring us to a turning that that, once taken, leads all the way back to Auschwitz.
And in the end that is the only choice any of us will face on May 25th: Auschwitz or Bethlehem. Death or life. You decide.