“So, how has the, um, topic of abortion…been part of your life…up till now?”
I am floundering.
“Well, I’ve… helped women access abortions in Northern Ireland, illegally, for the last maybe ten years.”
It is a few minutes shy of midnight, and Emma and I are sitting beneath bucolic friezes in the empty theatre at Belfast’s Ulster Hall. Emma — white-haired, polite to a fault — doesn’t look like a criminal. But, in the eyes of the Northern Irish State, that is exactly what she has been considered for the past decade. Until, that is, just four days ago — 22nd October 2019 — when abortion and gay marriage were legalised in Northern Ireland.
Laconic technicians walk past, packing microphones and cords into heavy black boxes. Ulster Hall is a Belfast institution. Since it opened in 1862, it has hosted the likes of Charles Dickens, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. But it is unlikely that it has ever hosted a show quite like tonight’s, the reason we’re here in the first place: American singer Amanda Palmer’s four-hour solo performance There Will Be No Intermission, a meditation on, among other things, motherhood, miscarriage, and abortion.
Emma has a friend, Clodagh, who has been fiercely hovering. When I ask Emma for her surname, Clodagh cuts in.
“What’s your name? Jack? Do you even know who you’re talking to? This is Emma Campbell, the repealing Queen of the Fucking North. She made it happen, she’s like Mother Teresa, and people were like, ‘Thank you, Abortion Queen!’ Which I guess makes her like the opposite of Mother Teresa. But the point is, you don’t even know. Like, she is literally a celeb. You laugh, Emma, but he doesn’t know!”
It was true; I didn’t know. Amanda Palmer had come to Ireland to tell her own story, but for generations of Irish and Northern Irish women, storytelling itself had been criminalised.
The year this Victorian concert hall was built was the same year that the “1861 Offences Against the Person Act” was codified in a fit of Victorian morality. The act decreed lifetime imprisonment for any woman who induced her own miscarriage, as well as any person, like Emma, who helped them. The Swinging Sixties that saw the rest of the UK legalise abortion in 1967 — they didn’t happen here. That law had loomed over the citizens of Northern Ireland for 158 years until, thanks to a lifetime of activism by women like Emma, it had suddenly vanished at the stroke of midnight.
The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act prohibits “unlawfully supplying or procuring poison or noxious things to procure the miscarriage of any woman.” Emma knows first-hand what unlawfully supplying noxious things really means: video-calling with women as they sit alone in their living rooms and induce their own miscarriages, or receiving a whispered, tearful confession from a woman hiding in an office supply closet.
For the first time in her life, Emma can tell her story without fear of arrest. And since by wild coincidence, Amanda Palmer was in Ireland for this moment, the first person Emma is legally telling her story to is me: a childless, male-bodied, Australian writer, hired by Amanda to document and publicise her tour.
I am feeling, to put it mildly, out of my depth.
“These aren’t even the worst stories, you know. Just the ones that come to mind,” Emma says. “And you have to understand, until this week, just listening to someone’s story could land you in prison if you didn’t report them. Just listening to people who needed help.”
Amanda thought she could help women’s causes by speaking to the people of Ireland. But in the course of our week there, I would come to realise that perhaps the most important thing we could do — in the space Amanda created with her music — was listen.
“Writing a good abortion song is really fucking hard,” says Amanda Palmer, in the opening of her stage show. She would know; she’s been trying to do just that since her first abortion at seventeen.
Her latest attempt was “Voicemail for Jill,” a song structured as a compassionate voicemail message from Amanda to a faraway friend, who is contemplating an abortion. Her lyrics offer support and understanding from someone who has been there.
If “Voicemail for Jill” was the culmination of Amanda’s lifelong desire to write a good abortion song, the seeds for the song had been planted on the other side of the Irish border, in Dublin, on the 25th of May, 2018. On that day, over a year before this tour would happen, Amanda had unwittingly arrived in the Republic of Ireland just in time to see the laws outlawing abortion overturned in a popular referendum.
“It was like Christmas, feminists were dancing in the street. And listening to them talk about their abortions with no shame, I realised that even as a supposedly ‘outspoken rock star,’ I’d been hiding in shame my whole life,” reminisced Amanda, who has experienced three abortions and a miscarriage, as well as giving birth to a son. After that moment, she went straight home and wrote, “Voicemail for Jill,” and the rest of There Will Be No Intermission had quickly followed.
Eighteen months later, Amanda had come full circle. She returned to the country the week that Northern Ireland was following in the footsteps of its neighbour. Amanda had lined up a performance on The Late Late Show — an Irish television institution — where she intended to perform “Voicemail for Jill,” and she had booked shows in Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Belfast to play to the audiences that had inspired her. “Normally I wouldn’t do such a big tour of Ireland, but given what is happening, this was the time,” said Amanda. After six months of touring this show, Ireland was to be her victory lap.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
As Northern Ireland won its new, progressive freedoms, we were in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, where the atmosphere was more tense than celebratory. Before two thousand empty seats in the golden auditorium, a small, precise piano tuner repetitively tapped the highest keys of the grand piano, his head cocked to hear dissonances beyond my perception. Accompanied by the menacing, plinking notes, I wandered the venue like a doomed teenager in a slasher movie.
Amanda rarely loses her cool, but her smile that day had been growing progressively more strained. She’d been inviting activists to set up tables in the lobby at her shows all around America, the UK and Europe, to inform people about abortion rights and hand out flyers. It had never been a problem until the show in Cork, where she’d been told that abortion could not be discussed in the venue’s “apolitical” lobby.
On top of that, The Late Late Show had been in touch to tell Amanda that at five and a half minutes, “Voicemail for Jill” exceeded their allotted segment length, and might she play something simpler? Amanda had called their bluff and spent a day struggling with edits. “What’s more important to a piece of art,” she asked me, “the words or the space to let them breathe?”
At least, she said, we were now in big-city Dublin and “the bullshit” would stop. But ninety minutes before she was due to take the stage, I received a text from her: things are looking shaky. management wants a meeting.
I found Amanda and her crew in their long, mirrored dressing room, sitting opposite four representatives for the venue — all men. Their open-collared shirts belied the tension in their bodies. Behind them sat our local Dublin promoter, Julie, in her leather jacket, with her arms tensely crossed.
Amanda took a seat opposite them. Her casual body language was in sharp contrast to the stiffness across the table. “What’s the problem?” she asked.
The sticking point was that Amanda had invited representatives from Abortion Rights Ireland and Disabled Women Ireland to speak at and outside her shows; it was a platform she had been offering activists all over Europe. The men slid their eyes away from Amanda’s gaze as they murmured, “whatever our personal sympathies…” They spoke in generalisations, not mentioning the “A” word or acknowledging women with disabilities at all. They explained that the Concert Hall “was strict on its neutrality,” and that they would not allow any activity on their grounds that could be construed as the hall endorsing a political cause. Especially no “distributing literature.”
I studied the tableau reflected in the mirrors of the dressing table. Beside the lead negotiator, a middle representative kept his eyes fixed on the wall behind Amanda’s shoulder, looking so studiously blank he might have been having an out-of-body experience. The lead negotiator leaned forward. “Listen. We’re a national cultural institution in a country with a troubled history. Maybe the way to address this is to have you do it from the stage, which is your space, rather than through others.” In other words: Amanda was an outsider, so her stance was Art. The activists were local, which made their stance Politics. Even when access to abortion was now the law of the land.
Amanda tried to appeal to them as co-conspirators. “This site in Dublin is one of the most important of my tour message-wise, and these people have shifted their schedules around to be here. I’m willing to be as weird as I can be within your boundaries, but you need to tell me what those boundaries are.”
The four men looked uncomfortable and said nothing. Julie the Promoter bit her lip.
“Look, I don’t understand why this is coming up now,” said Amanda. “This is all covered in our rider that we sent months ago, before you booked the show.” She was referring to the clause included in every performer’s contract, listing their necessary technical and hospitality requirements, which in her case included lobby-space for a non-profit organisation; what management was now arguing was what they had already agreed to when they booked the show.
“We get three hundred riders a year; you expect us to read them all?” the lead negotiator asked.
I could see the crew around me were shocked by this blatant acknowledgement that the contracts that governed music tours were illusory, but Amanda didn’t press the matter. Whereas most musicians would have their record labels or managers handle this sort of negotiation, Amanda’s independent status and stripped-down crew meant she had to be her own advocate, and that was not playing to her strengths. “I have a lot of reach on social media,” she threatened half-heartedly, but the venue organisers ignored her. Their weapon was silence, and Amanda abhors a vacuum. While she suggested compromises, the Dubliners sat mute until, conscious of the time ticking away, Amanda abandoned the debate.
Despite her threat to cancel the show, in the end Amanda came away with an allowance that the activists could appear briefly on stage, but they were only allowed to mingle unofficially, incognito as it were, with the audience. Negotiations concluded, the men gathered their untouched notepads and left the room.
“Talk about fear,” Amanda said. “That was some real fear.”
Promoter Julie’s expression of tight neutrality had crumpled. She came around to draw Amanda into a hug. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said, apologising on behalf of a nation.
“Hey, we can talk! At least it’s not Gilead!” Amanda said. “Those men…I kept staring at that silent one in the middle. I was thinking, you’re not even here; where are you?”
Or in the words of The Cranberries, “What’s in your head, zombie?” I could only guess. The gulf between the freedom to speak and the freedom from civil unrest was the clash between Amanda’s confident American culture and the culture of a “country with a troubled history.” The Irish Constitution, ratified in 1937, guarantees the right of the citizens to freely express their opinions, with the proviso that they do not “undermine public order or morality,” a loophole that could encompass all manner of sins. Later I would write to both the Cork and Dublin venues, asking if there was a more specific regulation than this behind their decisions, but Cork ignored the question and Dublin only reiterated the ban on “politics” without defining it. Trauma does not have to be merely personal; it can stain a whole society.
I thought somebody should stay behind with the orphaned activists, so while Amanda played her show, I joined the “incognito” huddle alone in the huge lobby, fussing over Clipper the Seeing-Eye Dog. “Welcome to Ireland,” said the activists, who didn’t seem surprised about the night’s turn of events. They told me about three-day waiting periods between doctor’s consultations, and how debilitating that could be to a disabled person for whom a single doctor’s visit could require the equivalent of military planning. They told me about protest-free safe zones promised and not delivered, and about the doctors who refused to sign up to provide abortions, out of fear of social stigma.
Since nobody was about, I asked if I could have some of their contraband literature, and they passed me a 12-page pamphlet titled In Her Shoes: Women of the 8th. I opened it up and read: “Abortion is in the lived experience of 1 in 10 women and girls in Ireland — suggesting you know someone who has faced that decision. Walk a mile in her shoes.”
I read through the stories of rape, trauma, hopelessness and grief, and sniffled as apolitically as I could. The group smiled at me, and I wanted to ask them — did they have stories of their own? But I didn’t know how to frame the question.
The doors sprang open and the crowd emerged for the interval, sporting a variety of defiant tee-shirt messaging: GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN-DAMENTAL RIGHTS, GET YOUR ROSARIES OFF OUR OVARIES. I spoke with a man who told me that the show had been powerfully educational for him, since he had never known anybody who had had an abortion.
“You do, actually,” said his wife. “We know two people that have had abortions, but they didn’t tell you. Women don’t tell the guys. It’s just not done.”
IN THE CLOSET
A few years ago, on a London spring afternoon, I wore my peacock party dress to celebrate the imminent arrival of a niece. As I watched the swollen figure of the mother-to-be, an older relative, slightly tipsy, laid her hand on my shoulder.
“Does it make you jealous?” she asked.
“I guess,” I muttered, assuming it was what she wanted to hear. As someone who grew up identifying as more girl than boy, despite living a more or less masculine life, it was true that I had fantasised about pregnancy. Of course, I never fantasised about miscarrying. I never thought about it, because it was never discussed.
In the eyes of trans-exclusionary feminists, the biology of childbirth is one of the key things that makes a woman a woman, and much of the inequality between the sexes has its roots in men’s desire to control women’s wombs. As Amanda says in her show, “We live in a cultural paradigm where, as a woman, you have a job to make babies. And so we don’t discuss miscarriage, because it means you have somehow fucked up your job.”
Since the development of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, women could increasingly be defined by more than just that job. As our idea of women’s roles in society has expanded to include prime ministers, police officers and poets, it has opened a conceptual space for trans women to also be included among womankind.
Nonetheless, the aggressive discourse around this subject online had put a critical female voice in the back of my mind warning me that childbirth, miscarriage and abortion were subjects I was not qualified to discuss, no matter my outfit. So when Amanda asked me to join her in Europe on a tour supporting a record so centred around women’s experiences, I was initially uncertain. “You’re not alone,” Amanda said. “God, before I had a child, I was afraid to talk about this. Like, until you’ve been through a miscarriage and a child and an abortion, there’ll be someone telling you that you can’t understand.
“But men need to talk about it. Every man I know who’s gone through an abortion experience has had a really tough time. If abortion is invisible and closeted for women, it’s a secret closet within the closet for men.”
My own life experience supported her case. Most of my friends are women, and we’ve shared many an intimate story over wine, but there remained an invisible wall around certain subjects. Each miscarriage in my circle had been acknowledged once, in lowered voices, never to be mentioned again. Nobody had ever shared with me a personal experience of abortion. Nobody before Amanda Palmer.
One night on Amanda’s tour bus, Ireland’s green black outside the windows, Amanda strummed a few familiar notes on her ukulele. “Do you know the song “Brick,” by Ben Folds? The song about a man taking his girlfriend to get an abortion? I played it in Dublin after the referendum. Ben and I have worked together in the past, I joke that we should cover each other’s abortion songs.”
I knew “Brick”, though for years I hadn’t understood it. The song triggered tight-collared memories of my single-sex Christian high school in Australia, and the bizarre episode when a line of 16-year old boys sang it to our parents at a school concert, as if in mass confession.
Teenage boys are full of questions, mostly crafted to humiliate. “You ever kissed a girl? You ever had sex?” But to those Leaders of Tomorrow, sex was the end of the line. Nobody ever asked, “You ever got a girl pregnant and not know what to do?” We’d learned the biology of pregnancy in science class; I remembered the nervous sniggering and cartoon sperm. But what to do if we knocked a girl up? That was Woman’s Business. Not to be discussed.
Even though abortion was completely accessible in Australia, the walls of culture protected teenage boys from ever having to think about it. Which was probably why we could line up and sing that she was a brick and we were drowning slowly, and none of us knew what it meant.
It wasn’t our fault. “Brick” doesn’t mention the word “abortion”. Nor does “Giving You Back” by Robyn (1999), “Autobiography” by Nicki Minaj (2008) or “Heartbeat” by Beyonce (2013). For that matter, neither did Amanda’s “Mandy Goes to Med School” (2006), her first, angrier attempt at this theme. In pop music culture, abortion has traditionally been skimmed over or swaddled in poetry to get it past censors, and the songs that are written are usually drenched in guilt.
Amanda’s song, “Voicemail for Jill”, was the first song I heard that stripped its subject bare of euphemism and refused to place it into a narrative of regret.
I told Amanda my “Brick” anecdote, and she nodded. “When you include lovers and partners, everybody is affected by abortion, and we do not talk about it. Nobody gets taught in school that they have the capacity and the fortitude to deal gracefully with a miscarriage or abortion.” And she went on to tell me about her own miscarriage, on a Christmas night in 2017, alone in a snowbound hotel. Later, in her show, she would tell the same story, and then perform the Disney song, “Let It Go.”
To Amanda, there’s no such thing as a secret closet.
“I joined Amanda’s Facebook community. They’re all so sad!”
These were the first words from my girlfriend Jodie as she staggered onto the tour bus in Dublin. Jodie and I had been together two years. After three months apart, she had flown over from Australia to visit me, adding to Amanda’s motley crew that now included a filmmaker and a martial arts master-slash-masseuse. Jodie and I were feeling starved for affection, but with ten people crammed on the Amanda Palmer tour bus, our reunion was necessarily platonic. We lay in the highest adjacent bunkbeds and touched hands. “No sex on the bus,” chirped Amanda, as she passed beneath our Sistine Chapel re-enactment.
We drove across the Irish border in the dead of night and arrived in Belfast at dawn. Amanda wanted to stretch her legs, and while exploring the town, we paused at a mural of Lyra McKee, a local journalist and community organiser. Amanda smiled sadly to see it. The last time Amanda visited Northern Ireland, she worked with Lyra to put on a show for LGBTQ kids. But there would be no reunion. Six months earlier, Lyra had been shot dead by a terrorist Republican gunman, caught by bullets ostensibly aimed at police while she was reporting on a riot.
Sexual politics intertwine with national politics. In Northern Ireland, the Catholic community were a minority; within Ireland as a whole, the Protestant Community were the minority; and everybody’s ancestors had suffered during the centuries of British colonial rule. When everyone feels beleaguered, they hold more strongly to conservative traditions. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Northern Ireland had been embroiled in a low-grade civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions. Euphemistically labelled the “Troubles,” the conflicts played out in a wearying succession of bombings, riots, hunger strikes and street fights, as nationalists within Northern Ireland sought independence from the United Kingdom. Belfast eventually became a patchwork of “peace walls,” built to keep feuding communities apart, to stop them asking questions of each other. While the Troubles had largely faded from memory in the rest of the UK, Lyra’s death was a reminder of the trauma that still underlay Northern Irish politics.
“It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better,” Amanda read aloud from the mural. The line was taken from a 2014 letter that Lyra had written wishfully to her past teenage self, explaining how her life was going to improve. How she would tearfully tell her mum she was gay, and her mother would fully support her — adding, “thank God you’re not pregnant.” And how Lyra would feel like a prisoner who had at last been given her freedom.
Lyra hadn’t lived to see it, but with this week’s decriminalisation of abortion and legalising of gay marriage, that freedom was spreading across Northern Ireland. To mark the occasion, the Dublin-based Irish Times Women’s Podcast had crossed the border and was recording in a Belfast theatre. The podcast was advertised as “a female take on Ireland,” and Róisín Ingle, the host, had made waves in 2015 by courageously publishing her own abortion story in her newspaper. Róisín was also the journalist who had escorted Amanda around Dublin on the day of the Repeal Referendum, and now she’d asked Amanda to join the discussion again. Amanda, frustrated after The Late Late Show had now regretfully rescinded her invitation to perform any song, was keen to do so.
Jodie, our travelling photojournalist Gabrielle Motola, and I sat in the audience of about a hundred, many wearing DECRIMINALIZE tee-shirts, or jumpers on which curved fingers subliminally traced the shape of ovaries. It was clear that many people in the room knew each other, though they were male and female, North and South, Protestant, Catholic and Atheist. It was a community built not on the pre-packaged identities we were born into, but on stories of shared experience. “I don’t know if I’d call us a sisterhood,” said one speaker, Danielle Roberts. “A coven, maybe.”
Amanda was at her most respectful, in black pumps, velvet dress and white cuffs and listened from the edge of the group as the other women shared stories of their years of grassroots campaigning. When Amanda took the microphone, she began with a kind of disclaimer.
“I should say, my expertise here is as an emotional artist, and not as one who has sat and actually studied the nitty-gritty of your policies. But being in Dublin for that historic moment of repeal was both inspiring and distressing. Because I’m from America, where abortion is being made surely, quietly inaccessible. So I’m sitting there celebrating in Dublin, but reading that women from Louisiana are going to have to travel eight hours for an abortion; and you know, many of these people can’t afford to travel. They can’t take off work. So they are forced to give birth. And it was sobering to watch these two stories happening at the same time.”
Róisín asked Amanda if she might play them something relevant. “I wrote this after the Irish Referendum, in two hours,” said Amanda, crossing to the piano, “The Late Late Show has basically uninvited me because I insisted on playing it. But I think it’s important for our culture to make space for these experiences.”
Then she played the song that Ireland had inspired in her.
Jill, it’s Amanda, just waving from London
I know that you’re going tomorrow, the hardest decision
You don’t need to offer the right explanation
You don’t need to beg for redemption or ask for forgiveness
And you don’t need a courtroom inside of your head
Where you’re acting as judge and accused and defendant and witness
It’s a strange grief, but it’s grief
Look at all the women in the street
You know the statistics, Jill
Even though they may not help
Isn’t it amazing
How we can never tell
Who is in an identical hell?
I’d heard “Voicemail for Jill” a hundred times since the tour started, but among that audience I felt it in a way I never had before. The song was a blast of empathy, and it triggered a collective moment of near-silent weeping. Tears of pain and pride, respect and release. It reminded me of ceremonies to honour fallen soldiers, and perhaps that was as it should be, as women had died in Ireland from being refused abortions. Jodie reached for my hand, and sniffles echoed through the room like distant rain.
“If I had heard that when I had my abortion…” said Róisín, then dropped her face into her hands. Someone in the audience flung a clump of tissues, and she gratefully dried her eyes. “Well, at least now we have this song.”
“Hello Belfast,” purred Amanda, dwarfed by the church organ on the stage of the Ulster Hall. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
Belfast was a tremendous show. Amanda opened with Sinéad O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” singing, “These are dangerous days, to say what you feel is to dig your own grave.” Then, pausing only for a quick costume change from ruffled shirt to slinky black dress, Amanda strode the stage for four hours. She wove stories of marriage, mistakes and miscarriage, then banged out on the piano eight-minute songs about the human condition. “I’ve been waiting for this show all tour; we are blowing through curfew!”, Amanda yelled, to the cheers of the crowd and sighs of the management. The audience seemed half-drunk on the victories of gay marriage and abortion decriminalization, and when Amanda sang her encore, the pair of young women beside me slow-danced and kissed beneath the soft green glow of the EXIT sign.
But it was the moments happening away from the spotlight that most interested me. Amanda believed that outside of religion, society did not provide space “where people can go to be with community and feel human.” To that end, she wanted the physical environment of her concert halls to function as an extension of the compassion she often sang about. What’s more important to a piece of art: the words or the space to let them breathe?
A moment: A ghostly-pale young woman arrived for the show with a placid baby-in-arms, saying her babysitter had cancelled at the last moment. She was refused entry by the venue “for insurance reasons,” so Amanda offered her the use of her dressing room. The team set up speakers, and she sat with us backstage, exiled by motherhood, and listened while breastfeeding for three hours. “Welcome to Ulster, where the sixties never happened, and other people decide what to do with my infant,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be named.
A transgender artist, Joni Augustine, gave Amanda an acrylic portrait she had painted of her, then asked if the singer would witness her change-of-name form, marking Joni’s legal transition to womanhood. “This is the ‘me’ I see when I look in my mirror,” said Amanda, as she stared at the painting, then signed so that Joni could be the “me” she saw when she looked in hers.
A woman hunched in apology approached Alex Knight, the chivalrous young Englishman who stood his nightly vigil manning Amanda’s merchandise desk. She told him that she had just given birth to a son who was now in the Intensive Care Unit, struggling for life. She knew that Amanda would be singing her ironic lament, “A Mother’s Confession,” and could not bear to witness her leading the crowd in an upbeat chorus of “At least the baby didn’t die.” “I’ll come get you before it happens,” Alex promised. “You can come and keep me company out here.”
Moments of connection like this happened every night at Amanda Palmer’s shows. “It’s a safe space,” said fans, who would frequently spill decades-old secrets with complete strangers. As chronicler, however, I did not feel entirely safe. I grabbed Amanda at the interval and said, “You have to help. I can’t just wander down the line outside the women’s toilets and ask people about their abortions.”
“Can’t you?” said Amanda, who has written a self-help book called The Art of Asking. “Well, I’ll put the call out.” When she got back on stage, she did so, telling the crowd where they could find me and Gabrielle for anyone that wanted to talk about anything. This won’t work, I thought. Nobody wants to talk about these things to us.
But as the auditorium emptied after the encore, woman after woman moved decisively towards us, tears often glistening on their cheeks. And they had a lot to say.
…she was crying, told me that she had ‘killed her baby’
…it was a horrible situation
…came back from having been raped, and I was pregnant
…protestors threw holy water in my face
….you say you’re listening, but are you really listening?
These stories had always been there. I’d just never heard them before. Nor, I guessed, had the men who wrote the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
Kirsten told us that she never thought she would have an abortion, until her foetus was diagnosed with severe abnormalities. “I thought, I still do believe, that women should have the choice. But it should only be in cases where there’s like abuse, there’s rape, there’s foetal abnormalities. I feel guilty every day.”
Tara from America apologised for her running mascara while she described the torture of navigating abortion clinics in Arizona, the number of which have dropped from 37 to 8 in the last thirty years.
Nico, a local woman, spoke of choice. “You don’t understand, in Belfast…” she tried to compress the sweep of history into a helpless gesture of her hands. “My mum, growing up in Belfast, she was raped. Raped again after going to the police. Burned out of her house by unionists. She wasn’t allowed to study science because she was a woman. Every one of those terrible moments, my Mum had no choice. When she got pregnant with my sister, she didn’t have a choice about that either. And now she’s been gone seven years, and I can hear Amanda Fucking Palmer sing about choice in the Ulster Fucking Hall. Anyway…it just made me think about my mum.”
Natalie, like thousands of others, had been forced to “take the boat”, meaning travel to England for an abortion. She told me that the shame and silence around the act had been far more damaging to her mental health than the abortion itself.
“Having an abortion is not your identity,” she said. “It’s not a scarring issue. But if you can’t talk about it, it’s a burden that you carry with you. I won’t lie. I carried that burden. But dare I say that to anybody? I could be put in jail!
“But then there was this Facebook group called In Her Shoes. It’s the most powerful thing that has ever happened on the Internet. Being able to share your story anonymously and getting support and love from people the same as yourself, saying ‘I understand, I love you, you’re so fucking powerful, you don’t know it.’ I didn’t know these women, they didn’t know me. But there was so much love.”
A guard coughed — it was past midnight, and they were closing the hall. Natalie sprang up, “Thanks for listening. Tell Amanda this gig was fucking powerful, and it won’t just stay here. Somewhere in a bar, a girl will say she needs an abortion, and she’s terrified. And their friend will lean over and say, ‘Why don’t you listen to this song?’ And they’ll play ‘Voicemail for Jill.’”
We were parked at the University of Limerick, amidst fountains, wooden halls and a spiral of lime trees. But near this idyllic scene, a second-storey window had the word REDRUM scratched into it in the style of The Shining. From the reverse perspective, it spelled murder. Much like abortion, it depended on where you stood.
That morning, her last in Ireland, Amanda published an article about The Late Late Show’s censorship, with the headline, “Singing About Abortion Isn’t Quite Allowed Yet. But It Should Be.” It had been written for The Irish Times, but the editors got cold feet, so Amanda released it online, a cry into the void.
It was, as Amanda likes to say, “a micro of the macro.” I knew my own role documenting the tour had been prompted by Amanda’s frustration at feeling shut-out from mainstream media, and I’d watched her clash repeatedly with media outlets over her belief that her art deserved coverage, appealing to sisterhood in the cause of self-promotion. It was a righteousness that too often came across as entitlement, but from within the maelstrom it was clear to me how much of her defensiveness was driven by anxiety, as she ran weekly calculations of seats sold. As an artist without a record label behind her, Amanda lives and dies by her authenticity and her connection with fans.
That connection was sometimes scattershot, but it wasn’t faked. After breakfast, I saw Amanda in hushed consultation with her team. Amanda had just been contacted by a nurse who worked at a nearby hospice. She was caring for a woman named Sinéad Dinneen, who was dying of ovarian cancer. Sinéad, an artist and abortion-rights campaigner, had bought tickets to see Amanda eight months ago, and though the hospital was literally fifteen minutes’ walk from the venue, she wasn’t going to be able to make it, or maybe even make it to her birthday in a couple of days. Would Amanda possibly visit her?
Left on our own, Jodie and I joined a martial arts session, run by Amanda’s friend David Franklin. There were no drugs and little debauchery on the Amanda Palmer tour bus, so travelling with an in-house sensei was Amanda’s one rock-and-roll indulgence. We practised our primal screams and empowering waddling alongside a handful of local women, and after the session wound down, we chatted with a pair of Irish-Americans called Cara and Erin, who were there to see Amanda’s show.
“I’m writing a book,” Erin told me shyly.
“Tell them what it’s about!” urged Cara.
“It’s about the Facebook group In Her Shoes; do you know it? I helped set that up.”
It felt only right that the last of these shows would connect me with these figures we’d heard about. For a moment, I hesitated, the voice in my head warning me not to put my foot in it, but I shook it off and asked if they would speak with us.
Of course they would. So we sat down together at the University of Limerick where, surrounded by trickling fountains and mythological mosaics, the two women unfolded their story about stories, like we were falling into the Arabian Nights.
“With the referendum coming up, we weren’t allowed to even book venues to talk about abortion,” said Erin. “So we just talked in the street. It was from having a conversation with a man on the street that I was inspired to do In Her Shoes.
“You know, he told me he was okay with having abortions in England, but not in Ireland. So I asked, “What happens to the women who come back from England bleeding, and they can’t to go to the hospital?” And he said, no, no, that was bad. So I just said, “Try to understand what it’s like from her perspective. Place yourself in her shoes.” And he said, okay, he had a lot to think about. Nobody had actually talked to him about these stories before.
“I went home that night and started taking pictures of my shoes and started asking some friends if they could send me their story to tell online. I started putting up their stories anonymously, and instantly people started emailing me, asking if they could tell me their story as well.”
“And did they all send a picture of their shoes?” I asked.
“Our shoes are very well represented,” said Cara. “But the point of the shoes pictures was this could be anybody. This is everybody. It’s the girl who’s doing your hair or teaching your kids. She’s just not telling you about it.”
“Women have always been whispering stories to each other. Where to find help, who to avoid,” said Jodie. “Like a guerrilla force under occupation.”
Around that point, Amanda arrived from her visit to Sinéad’s bedside. She looked harried, and sank gratefully into an armchair. “Don’t let me interrupt,” she said. “I know who you guys are. I’m just here to listen.”
So Erin and Cara told us the story of the small team (with thirteen babies between them) setting up the Facebook page in January 2018, watching it go viral, the backlash as Erin came out as its public face, and then in May winning a referendum where, Erin said, “Forty-three percent of the people who voted ‘yes’ had voted ‘yes’ because of the stories.”
Amanda broke in. “You know, we’re seeing right now so much of the dark side of the Internet. But this is like, don’t forget about the blindingly light side of the Internet that makes something like this.”
“Yes, and it was huge,” said Erin. “A waterfall of stories, and once we started, we saw how puny the anti-choice pages were by comparison.”
“So puny,” laughed Cara. “But they tried. We had trolls from America, trying to take down the page.”
“You guys know America, you must know how dark things are getting there,” said Amanda. “Today they’re trying to shut down the last abortion clinic in Missouri. Missouri has a bigger population than Ireland.”
Cara got fiery. “It’s all connected! I’m trying to tell my American friends, like, once you start losing rights you’re going to lose more. In Ireland, I was practically tied down in labour.”
Amanda was cutting her timing dangerously close, so she had to go. “You know, growing up and thinking about these things, I used to think maybe I was crazy. But when you start telling the truth, other women tell the truth, and you realise that we’re not crazy. Thank you. You guys are really something.”
“Oh, it wasn’t really us,” protested Erin.
“Women did it,” added Cara.
“Yeah. Women did it. The stories did it.”
Limerick Concert Hall, the final show. The seats sloped downwards, and on the stage at their base, Amanda seemed exhausted, pinned to the floor by her spotlight.
“Guys, Ireland has kicked my ass in every possible way. I’ve had an incredible time, but there has really been no fucking intermission.” She ran through the list of obstacles she had faced in the past week — the apolitical venues, the men in the meeting rooms, The Late Late Show.
“Fuck The Late Late Show!” someone cried back encouragingly.
“No, no! The thing is, I don’t want to be upsetting these people. I don’t want to be disrespectful or noxious. But doing this tour, I have encountered so many people who are carrying suffering, and they feel they cannot talk about it.
“I know what it’s like, I’ve been pregnant five times. I’ve had three abortions and a miscarriage. And I know you get this mountain of complicated feelings, mixed up with shame and guilt and baggage. But every time you hear someone share a story, it’s like you take a rock off this giant mountain. So I’m not going to stop, because I believe music is healing.”
Then she picked up her ukulele and sang the bittersweet “In My Mind”…
And it’s funny how I imagined
That I could win this winless fight
But maybe it isn’t all that funny
That I’ve been fighting all my life…
The audience took a breath, primed to join in with the final line, “Fuck yes, I am exactly the person that I want to be!” but at the moment of completion, Amanda hesitated, then on an apparent whim switched the combative lyrics.
“I love you. We are exactly the people that we want be.”
It didn’t quite scan, but then, as she says, Amanda’s expertise has always been as an emotional artist.
Writing from a domestic bunker during the COVID-19 lockdown, it is strange to think back to that night of singing and chanting in Ireland. The hundreds of people holding hands, crying. The moment Amanda recorded the audience singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for Sinéad Dinneen, dying of cancer nearby. The togetherness of the show.
What we had there, we don’t have now. In our isolation bunkers, we are surrounded by digital entertainment of every kind, but entertainment alone is not enough. I have a newfound appreciation for what live music can provide: community, empathy, healing.
Across the world, women are trapped in their homes, some with swelling bellies. In the chaotic first months of the pandemic, government officials across the United States attempted to outlaw all abortion procedures, classifying them as “non-essential medical procedures” during a health crisis. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health missed the 1st April 2020 deadline to provide abortion services locally, arguing ludicrously that during a pandemic, women’s needs could be met by, again, “taking the boat”; literally an eight-hour freight ferry to England, to procure an abortion in a city where they would find no accommodation.
We may be reducing the size of that giant mountain, but every landslide can send us slipping back downwards.
Amanda went straight to bed, but Jodie and I went with some of the crew to bid Ireland a farewell at a late-night pub. Having still not had a moment alone with Jodie, I rested my hand just inside the waistband of her jeans, comforted by her presence. We were interrupted by a slap to my shoulder, and a woman’s shout. “Get your hand off her ass!”
A blonde Irishwoman stood swaying above us like an angel of vengeance. “I’ve been watching you for ten minutes, being disgusting and treating her like a whore. She’s a goddess!”
Jodie laughed, too entertained at my dressing down to help, as the woman’s fury continued unabated. It became clear that the woman, who introduced herself as Olivia, expected me to apologise for my offence against Jodie’s person. “You should worship this woman!” she said, jabbing a wavering finger towards my chest.
“I don’t think worship is a very healthy basis for a relationship,” Jodie managed.
“You’ve got to love yourself more than that, darling,” Olivia urged. “You don’t need to stand for disrespect.”
“I respect Jodie very much,” I protested, and illustrated this by stroking Jodie’s cheek.
“Jesus Christ, don’t touch her with that hand — it’s just been on her ass!” Olivia shrieked.
Jodie tried to mollify Olivia, explaining that while perhaps no better than other men, I was at least no worse, and Olivia gave her up as clearly a lost cause. As Jodie and I headed back to the tour bus soon after, I thought about how worshipping women as goddesses was just another way of closing down communication. We confess to our gods, but nobody wants god to confess back.
The night was quiet as we strolled arm in arm, and I had a question. “Jodie, did you ever have an abortion or miscarriage before we met?”
Our footsteps on the pavement. Our breaths in the silence.
“Yes,” she said. “When I was eighteen, I got pregnant. I didn’t even know until I miscarried in the shower.”
“You never told me that before.”
“Well,” she said, “you never asked.”
This essay is part of a series of four long-form articles by Australian writer Jack Nicholls and British/American photojournalist Gabrielle Motola, completely funded by more than 15,000 of Amanda Palmer’s Patreon supporters. The other three chapters are available at:
Chapter 01: There Will Be Some Introspection: Us and Them
Chapter 02: There Will Be Some Introspection: Revolutions
Chapter 04: Safe Spaces
Gabrielle Motola is an award-winning documentary, travel, portrait photographer and author. She is known for her immersive journeys which take her around the globe. “Henge to Henge” chronicled her solo motorcycle trip from Stonehenge to Iceland’s Arctic Henge. Her first self-published book, “An Equal Difference”, is a sociological portrait of the Icelandic mindset, published in 2016. She maintains an Instagram account at @gmotophotos. Gabrielle teaches photography and shares her process, extended stories and images on Patreon. If you’d like to become part of her community, learn from her, or support her work visit www.patreon.com/gmotophotos. Her website is www.gabriellemotola.com.
Jack Nicholls writes speculative fiction, poetry, and essays, all part of their attempt to chronicle the tectonic social shifts of the 21st century. They are interested in history, climate change, and the narrowing space in our culture between plausible science-fiction and implausible reality. You can find links to their work at www.jack-nicholls.net or on Twitter at @Jackofninetales.