Who We Are
Speaking of IMELDA is a collective comprised largely, although not exclusively, of Irish women living in London. The group was initiated by women who had emigrated from Ireland since 2000 with the aim of challenging the legislative restrictions on abortion across the island of Ireland.
Speaking of IMELDA was initiated in 2013 by Treasa O’Brien and Helena Walsh, two Irish women living in London. At the time Treasa was making a film on resistance in Irish culture following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2010 called Eat Your Children. Helena, a practicing live artist, was undertaking her doctoral research on the political validity of live art performance in challenging cultural constructs of femininity in an Irish context. To kick-start the group, in collaboration with Ann Rossiter they established a public meeting in London to open up debate on abortion restrictions in Ireland on Thursday 5th December 2013. This meeting featured a presentation by Rossiter, author of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The making of a London-Irish underground, 1980 -2000, on the past reproductive rights activism of the London-Irish Diaspora. Between 2013 and the successful referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in the Republic of Ireland on 25th May 2018, Helena Walsh played a key role in sustaining the collective collaborations of Speaking of IMELDA.
Speaking of IMELDA is a collective comprised largely, although not exclusively, of Irish women living in London. Our collective is comprised of a diversity of women of all ages and from many walks of life, including those working in education, the creative arts, health, social care and activism. Our collective history of activism spans reproductive rights, anti-racism, LGBTQI rights, anti-austerity movements in England and Ireland, housing rights, Irish Travellers’ rights, support for refugees and migrants and formerly challenging the human rights abuses by the British Army in Northern Ireland, including supporting the rights of women political prisoners during the Troubles (1968-98). IMELDA was initiated by women who had emigrated from Ireland since 2000 with the aim of challenging the legislative restrictions on abortion across the island of Ireland. Its members from the inception of the group include Tina McCloskey, Marian Larragy, Lynne McCarthy, Ann Rossiter, Treasa O'Brien, Helena Walsh, Oonagh Kearney and Sarah Cantwell. Later members who reinvigorated the group include Anna Carnegie, Claire Henry, Lizzie Marseilles, Sophie Cannon and Ayeshah Éammon.
IMELDA stages IWASG
Placing our actions in a historical context has been central to the ethos of Speaking of IMELDA. From the outset we have sought to retrieve and activate the work of our feminist predecessors and, in particular, the legacies of the radical Irish feminist Diaspora in Britain. For example, the name Imelda, a common girl’s name in Ireland, recalls the work of Irish Women's Abortion Support Group (IWASG) – a group of activists who provided support to women travelling from Ireland to England for abortions between 1980 and 2000. Two former IWASG members, Ann Rossiter and Marian Larragy have long-standing involvement in IMELDA. IWASG used Imelda as a secret code-word for abortion. This code-word enabled Irish women travelling to England for abortions to keep their plans secret so as to avoid stigma, and up until 1992 when the right to travel for abortion was implemented, criminalisation. In reclaiming the name IMELDA we wish to act in solidarity with women’s groups who have sought to counteract the inhumanity of state legislation in both Northern and Southern Ireland, while operating against the silencing and shaming of women who have abortions.
We also wear the colour red in tribute to the work of IWASG, whose members sometimes wore a red skirt, so as to be identifiable, when collecting women travelling for abortion at train stations and airport terminals. Notably, we also harness the association of red with danger and the deviant sexuality as part of our playful twisting of patriarchal constructs within our actions, subverting the sexualisation of women and reclaiming female sexuality. We see maintaining links to past networks of feminist activists as crucial to removing the longstanding barriers to progress on reproductive rights in Ireland.In the video link below, Ann Rossiter, recalls the solidarity between Irish and Spanish women in London throughout the 1980s in supporting women travelling for abortion from their respective countries.
What We Want
We want women and pregnant people in the Irish region, and more widely, to have control over their own bodies and access to local medical services which support their reproductive choices.
Up to 12 people from the Irish region continually travel to the UK everyday to access abortion services, often at considerable expense and stress. In the Republic of Ireland the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, which equates the life of a pregnant person with that of an unborn foetus from conception, exerts a ‘chilling effect’ on the reproductive rights of women in Ireland (Amnesty International, 2015: 8). Furthermore, in 2013 the Irish Republic implemented a 14-year prison sentence for women who have abortions in Ireland illegally. This has dire consequences for women who take pro-abortive medication because they cannot afford to travel or are not permitted to leave the country. In Northern Ireland access to reproductive health services are also heavily restricted, due to the failure of the British state to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, alongside continued political opposition to abortion within the Northern Ireland Executive. Under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which remains in place in Northern Ireland, those unable to travel abroad who have an abortion illegally face life imprisonment.
What We Do
Since our establishment in 2013 we have operated in solidarity with the broader campaigns to Repeal the 8th Amendment across the Republic of Ireland. The considerable efforts of activists has led to a referendum on the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland, which will occur in 2018. We also campaign to enable access to free, safe and legal abortion services in Northern Ireland.
Speaking of IMELDA uses direct action and performance as an embodied method of provoking pro-choice discourse in the public realm. We aim to bring the often silenced, but very real issues impacting on women in Ireland into the public domain, challenging the institutional confines that maintain these silences. Our actions often demonstrate a cheeky irreverence towards patriarchal conventions and playfully challenge conventional constructions of femininity. For instance, our ‘knicker-bombing’ of the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny provides an apt example of our refusal to comply with patriarchal ideals of femininity. Interrupting the then-Taoiseach’s party fundraiser at the Crown Moran Hotel in London in 2014, we landed a pair of ‘knickers for choice’ bearing the slogan ‘Repeal the 8th Enda’ on his dinner plate.
As a diasporic voice, Speaking of IMELDA also seeks to raise consciousness in Britain of the plight of Northern Irish women. In May 2014 we paid an uninvited visit to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt. Turning up unexpectedly to his advice surgery at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Farnham we offered Mr. Hunt advice on legislation change, presenting him with bitten red apples that had messages attached which advised a slight legislative change would at least allow women in Northern Ireland to have an abortion on the NHS in England or Scotland rather than having to pay privately. Northern Irish residents who travel were finally enabled access to abortion on the NHS in 2017 and the Westminster government is currently assessing funding for travel and accommodation costs. While we welcome this change, it does little to ease the stress caused by having to travel abroad to access abortion services. Nor does it help those in precarious circumstances, such as those unable to travel due to their residency status or lack of financial resources.
Our sometimes audacious and often uninvited actions have been met with the response that ‘it is not the time or the place’ to speak of abortion.’ We wholeheartedly reject the attempts to silence women’s voices within the public domain through the policing of what can be said when, and where, alongside the imposition of a sense of polite respectability on how women should speak. As history demonstrates women’s rights were rarely won through the issuing of polite requests and more often than not advances were dependent on those who agitated for change by disrupting the status quo. We reject all attempts to tone police the pro-choice movement and instead advocate maintaining a space for a diversity of voices and multitude of strategies and expressions. While we sometimes employ humour, parody and satire, we are also proud to be spoilsports, or killjoys to use the term as Sara Ahmed’s defines it in ‘Living in a Feminist Life’ (2010). For Ahmed, the killjoy is the one who speaks out and upsets the apparent acceptance of the status quo. She is following the advice of Audre Lorde, who warned that ‘your silence will not protect you’ (Lorde, 1977 paper in Sister Outsider, 2007: 41) a pertinent reminder to Irish women that the worst has already been inflicted on them and that speaking up can hardly make matters any worse.
Speaking of IMEDLA are happy to be killjoys. We speak up, we speak out, we break the silence and invite others to do so too.