In 2018, my then-boyfriend and I decided to go to Ireland. We’d been dating only a few months when we started planning it, and booking an international trip seemed like a gesture of massive commitment. Three years later, we would make an actual gesture of massive commitment and get married.
The reason we chose Ireland as our destination was, to my recollection, because I had learned to play a smattering of Irish tunes on my fiddle. We shared an intense aesthetic attraction to the sound: a mix of joy and sorrow, tunes you could dance to and cry to. My mother has shared with me that she used to be similarly enamored with Irish music and chalks that up to its similarities to Eastern European Jewish music, which is our actual cultural heritage. Perhaps that’s why Irish fiddle tunes resonate so deeply in my soul. Perhaps it’s because it was the soundtrack to my falling in love. Or perhaps it’s because, as a spiritually inclined friend once informed me, I used to be an Irish nun in a past life.
Regardless of the reason, the music was enough to make us plan a 10-day trip and roadtrip around the south of Ireland (on the wrong side of the road!) and discover the beauty that is the Emerald Isle. It was April, a rainy season, and we were greeted by views that looked like this:
Those rolling green hills! Plus, there were the friendly sheep on the side of the road. Centuries-old monastery ruins. Stone circles that date back before Stonehenge. Bountiful meals of seafood. A tiny pub we stumbled into that had a single old man inside of it, drinking and speaking with too strong of an Irish accent for us to understand. It’s little wonder the folk tales out of Ireland are all about leprechauns and hidden gold. Our road trip was just as magical.
So it was a bit of a jolt to see, tacked onto a pole on the side of the road, a sign featuring a picture of a fetus. “VOTE NO,” that sign implored. The next one talked about a woman’s right to choose: “VOTE YES.” The magic deflated like a day-old balloon. I have yet to read a fairy tale about the debate over reproductive rights.
As a reporter, I’ve covered the abortion debate in Tennessee. In 2014, voters chose to amend the state constitution and, in doing so, allowed lawmakers to enact more stringent abortion restrictions. So I was fascinated to read that Irish voters had passed an even more decisive amendment to their national constitution in 1983 — a total abortion ban. The Eighth Amendment had been in place for 35 years at that point, and now a ballot measure was attempting to repeal it. The vote was not just a referendum on abortion, a Guardian article pointed out, but a referendum on the power and influence of the Catholic Church.
Fascinating, I thought. Then I put my phone away to pay attention to the scenery and the music. A month later, I came across a headline saying that the Repeal campaign had succeeded. Abortion was now legal in Ireland, for the first time ever.
Over the next few years, I kept coming back to the Irish politics. I started to read up more on the history of Ireland, which is much more tortured than its fields of green would suggest. I admit I did this partly as an escape, as politics in the U.S. became more difficult. It was a reminder that my own country wasn’t the only one grappling with the legacy of shameful pasts. But then I wondered: What if I could actually learn something useful by diving into another country’s history? Sometimes it’s easier to reflect on your own issues with a little distance.
Now, I’m returning to Ireland with my partner, this time for three months as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar, in order to research the media coverage of the “Repeal” campaign. I hope to take back lessons for American journalists as we enter a period of intense debate around abortion rights. I’m looking forward to immersing myself again in the beautiful landscapes and music, but this time I’ll be getting into the gritty stuff, too. After all, humanity is capable of both inflicting pain and perfecting the jig. We can hold these two truths at the same time — one in each hand.