I want to write this because, in light of the abortion vote in Ireland, everyone wants their say. To write their narrative. To decide what it tells everyone about the direction of the culture. To cheer with the women (and men) in the crowds as the result is announced, or to be appalled that anyone would cheer something so life-taking and final as an abortion.
I write it not as the cultural observation that formed the basis of my previous post, but as a personal story formed within my own family that may make some emotional sense of the decision, especially for those struggling to see why many Irish people might be cheering.
So I write this from two perspectives. The first perspective is that of a traditional Christian who believes, as all traditional Christians have believed and continue to believe, that all human life is from God and belongs to God. Who believes that a human at the instant of conception becomes a human and that they are made in the image of God – imago Dei with a value, dignity and worth far beyond what our disposable society places on them.
But I have another perspective. The perspective of the son whose mother was conceived out of wedlock in a strict Northern Irish Brethren family – well, strict on the surface at least. For the events of the past few days are not just about the Catholic story in the Republic of Ireland, but about the Protestant story in Northern Ireland too. It’s the story of how a parody or shadow of the gospel has to hide sin at all costs, and sometimes – most times – that cost is too high.
Northern Irish Protestantism has historically prided itself on speaking loudly and passionately, about the grace of God being made freely available to anyone who “believeth”.
But this can become, when mixed with the zeal that Ulster is known for, the legalistic flip-side of the Catholicism that kept many Irish people in fear down the centuries.
The papists were not the only ones that kept the people in place. There were plenty of Protestant popes as well. Ireland may be the land of saints and scholars, but it is the land of zealots too, as its troubled history will tell us.
I wish I didn’t have to say that, but I do. I wish I hadn’t had to see my mum live her life in the shadow of what happened to her from the time of her conception through those early childhood years, but I did, and continue to do so. For those distant events have stayed with her until this day, and shaped her in ways she could never have imagined.
It started back in the year before the war ended – 1944. My mum’s mum Rachel fell pregnant to her boyfriend Jim McCartney, in Belfast. She was eighteen. Rachel’s own mother and father were righteous and pious; loving in that Northern Irish righteous and pious way.
Rachel’s father had worked in the Belfast factories and her mother as a bookkeeper. They were Gospel Chapel people. Hard-working, poor and dignified, wedded to the conservative Protestantism that was suspicious of politics and interaction with “the world”. That was the Northern Ireland default in the days before the Rev’d Ian Paisley and his political move began.
But a pregnant daughter was a bridge too far. Not that they said anything. Not that they knew anything actually. But their daughter knew it. Knew it deep down. Knew deep down she was pregnant. Knew deep down that was a virtual death sentence in Northern Ireland. Rachel knew that this was a scandal that could never be lived down, and that she would bring shame on her family if anyone knew.
So Rachel and Jim did what the Rachels and Jims from poor Protestant Belfast did when they got pregnant. They got married. They got married and pretended that nothing had happened.
August 1944, the end of the war in sight, the start of official love. Rachel’s cousin Lily as bridesmaid. August 1944, three months before my mum was born and no one any the wiser, not even Lily. Rachel’s corset must have been tight that day. I’ve got the one photo of my grandparents together. It’s on that wedding day. Apart from that Jim is a chimera, a name, a choice, someone I never knew.
And then Jim and Rachel McCartney headed off to live in Dublin happily ever after. As you do. Or as you do if you want to conceal a pregnancy that couldn’t possibly be conceived as a honeymoon baby.
Of course that’s not how things happened. The first thing that happened is that my mum was born in the November. And not long after that she was fostered out to a Protestant lady in predominantly Catholic Dublin, a war widow called May Standing, or “Mummy Standing” as my mum still calls her.
Mummy Standing lived on Upper Ormond Quay near O’Connell St in the centre of Dublin, the iconic street that runs along the banks of the equally iconic River Liffey that flows, black as Guinness, through the city. She had one daughter of her own, and four other foster children besides my mum.
They were dirt poor. But not dirty. Mummy Standing loved looking after her six children, even though to be a foster child was shameful in those days. She loved them all and they loved her back.
And as far as my mum knew Mummy Standing was her actual mum. And Sylvia – virtually the same age as mum – was her actual sister. She and Sylvia certainly played and sang and bathed on a Saturday night in the tub as if they were actual sisters.
For mum, the Dublin streets were a place of freedom, even at an early age. She recalls stealing the ice off the fish at the markets on hot summer days, and sucking it, despite the taste; scraping chewing gum off the streets and eking the last bit of flavour out of it; playing along the wall along the Liffey, even after one of her young friends drowned falling in.
And Christmas was a highlight. The Christmas Tree locked in the front living room, but they could see it – just – through the keyhole. Excited restraint until the day just before Christmas the room was opened and all eight of them poured in and pored over the presents and what they might be.
And when I say presents, for mum one Christmas that was a clay pipe for blowing bubbles, an orange, and a dolly with a broken arm, bought from the Medical Mission Hall. Mum loved that doll, though was mortified at the broken arm, until Mummy Standing bound it in an old hospital bandage. “There, dolly’s all better,” mum recalls Mummy Standing saying.
But some things stay broken. As mum grew up, she noticed strange people with harder, more guttural accents, come to visit Mummy Standing. Come to visit her at Mummy Standing’s, driving there in a big black shiny car. Taking a specific interest in her.
Come and take her out for ice cream at the famed Caffola’s parlour further down the street, occasionally with Sylvia, occasionally without. And mum sensed they knew her, sensed they knew something about her, something that Mummy Standing knew, but would never say.
One day, when both mum and Sylvia were eight, a woman who mum recognised as having visited before turned up on the step. “Let’s go for ice cream.” she said.
They went to Caffola’s. A man turned up and he and the woman sat and chatted with mum and Sylvia as they tucked into their treat. The girls were happily oblivious to the manoeuvring going on. But it was a classic move.
As the woman kept Sylvia distracted in the booth, the man somehow managed to get mum into a car, before beckoning to his accomplice, who left Sylvia there in the booth with her ice cream, got into the car, and began the long journey up through the Republic of Ireland, across the border into Northern Ireland, and then up into Belfast.
Mum was never to see her old home again. Sylvia was left to wander the streets calling out for home, and Mummy Standing. A police officer eventually took her home.
Somehow mum must have fallen asleep on the journey with all of the driving and the distractions to her questions about Sylvia. Her next memory is waking up and sitting bolt upright in a strange bed in a strange room in a strange house and saying in a loud voice “Mummy will be worried about me!”
At which point her real mum, Rachel, walked into the room. Rachel whose married life had begun with a secret pregnancy, and whose married life ended with a secret affair, after Jim ran off with another woman that he’d met in Dublin.
So Rachel walked into the room to greet her eight year old daughter; the daughter she’d given away because of the shame and the pain of a guilt peculiar to religious Ireland; her daughter who had just been kidnapped from the only people she knew as family; from the only mother she ever called “Mummy”; from the loving family she pined for from that day onward.
And from that point my mum’s new life, a different life, a harder life, a more regimented, broken and emptied life as a only child in a house full of pious, earnest and well-meaning adults began in surly Belfast.
There’s more to this of course. Dozens of postscripts. Some painful. Some beautiful. So much more that I don’t have space to write here.
But it’s just one story of what can happen in what we call the “tWorld” – the traditional world of values and family and morals, where the gospel and its message of grace and forgiveness can often be assumed, and therefore lost when it really matters for people such as my mum.
It’s one reason – not the only reason – why the “iWorld” of individual rights and self-actualisation has swept all aside in Ireland the past three decades. It doesn’t make abortion any better, or any more to be celebrated, but it certainly puts it into the perspective of a nation of mums, a nation of Rachels and Jims; a nation of Mummy Standings, who, thankfully, managed to get to Belfast for my mum’s own wedding and who died not long after that.
And Sylvia? I was with mum in Dublin twenty five years ago when she got to meet Sylvia for the first time since that fateful day at Cafolla’s ice cream parlour, when the big black car took mum away from the only sister she thought she had.
Sylvia was nervous and little and sickly. She had named her two boys as mum had named me and my brother – David and Stephen – her one tenuous link to the sister who she’d had for eight short years; who she’d last seen over a bowl of half-eaten Knickerbocker Glory icecream.
This story is not to condemn the abortion decision. Nor indeed to condone it. Merely to give opportunity for all of us to extend the grace of God to the broken. To give us an opportunity to be a little more understanding of people who have celebrated decisions many of us view as abhorrent.
To give us the opportunity to offer the gospel to those who have experienced a parody of Christianity without ever meeting the Saviour who heals the broken-hearted and banishes shame and guilt. The opportunity to point to the One who offers Ireland – all of Ireland – the true liberty they believe they’d achieved just last week.
Mum has met the Saviour and felt his grace. The bitterness has been replaced by a sweetness that has directed her radar towards the waifs, the strays, the outcasts, the rejects. And it has given her a heart for the Stolen Generation – the indigenous Australians who were not simple accidents of history, but a well-planned, well executed outcome of a terrible graceless government decision.
But for Mum the scars remain. She would still feel lost without her heavenly Father. Still sometimes does.
But the pain of a rejection at birth, followed by the pain of being torn from the only mum she loved, has, by God’s grace, pushed her into the arms of the One who was abandoned by his Father on the cross for the sin of the world, and who indeed offers mercy and grace to all who believeth.
And that is something worth cheering about.