Ireland’s abortion referendum reminds us that history is never written in stone

I was in Dublin in May 2015, on the day that Ireland held a referendum on same-sex marriage. The “yes” vote — in favor of allowing gays to marry — won resoundingly. That night, I walked through a street party which took over the city center. People spilled out of the pubs, sat on the curbs, talked and laughed. I was in town for a literary festival and asked one of the people who’d invited me how she had voted. She’d voted yes, she told me, though not because she was particularly invested in same-sex marriage. Instead, she said, “I wanted to show the Catholic Church that they don’t rule us anymore.”

Something like that has just happened again, though this time the issue at stake appeared even more controversial. Thirty-five years ago, the Irish voted to put the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe — forbidding abortion even in cases of incest and rape — into their constitution. Now, they have voted to repeal that amendment. Once again, the “yes” vote was higher than expected, not just in Dublin but also in many rural areas which had been expected to vote the other way.

Once again, this latest Irish vote also disproves our widespread assumptions about historical determinism. The belief that some nations have always behaved in a certain manner, and thus will always go on behaving in a certain manner, is extremely powerful. “Russia was always a dictatorship, and always will be,” I am often told. “They loved the czar; now they loved Putin.” But that too is just one of those mantras which will be accepted as true until the moment it isn’t. Much like the mantra “Ireland will always be Europe’s most Catholic country,” which was also true until it wasn’t.

It’s a lesson worth remembering. Places do change; people become different. Politicians can make decisions that create new attitudes; artists and writers can say things that make people think differently; economic change can also create cultural shifts. Most of all, new reporting, new information and new analysis can change how people see their history. Ireland’s vote to loosen its abortion laws is partly the result of a series of revelations about Ireland’s past: stories of the workhouses where single mothers were once pressured to live; of homes where hundreds of illegitimate children died; of pedophilia and the church hierarchy that covered it up. The cruelty of those institutions was once widely accepted, partly because people didn’t really know much about them. Now that everyone knows, they don’t seem acceptable anymore.

This isn’t to say that history doesn’t shape the present; it does, but not in the simple ways that most of us assume. “The past is never dead,” wrote Faulkner. “It isn’t even past.” We are constantly interacting with our history, reevaluating it, sometimes seeking to repeat or revive it, sometimes revolting against it. History never changes, but our memories of it, and our judgments about it, change all the time. Ireland was reckoning with its history when it voted on Friday, and it has decided that it wants a different relationship with one of its most important historical institutions, the Catholic Church. At least for the moment.

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