Driving from Belfast to Galway in 1987 brought an arrival on a Friday lunchtime at the town of Granard in Co Longford. The name of the town had been overheard in conversations in the North, it had become associated with a negative perception of Irish society. In January 1984, a fifteen year old girl in the town had died after giving birth to her child at a grotto to the Virgin Mary; the Northern critics believed that this was the sort of thing that happened in ‘Catholic Ireland’.
The town was a gentle place; nothing like the images spun across the border. It was hard to reconcile the friendliness of country people with thoughts of the awful deaths of a teenage girl and her infant, a girl who felt herself so alone that her baby died in the churchyard and that she died in hospital from the loss of blood and exposure.
Last March, Marian Finnucane’s Saturday morning programme on RTE radio revisited the tragic death of Ann Lovett. Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly was recalling her days a journalist and talked of the coverage of the Granard story. Emily O’Reilly believed the story far more complex than a girl reacting to the atmosphere created by the pro-life referendum, but Marian Finnucane was definitive in her view, ‘Holy Catholic Ireland would have shunned her’.
It is almost thirty years since that awful moment in Co Longford, Ireland has changed beyond recognition – in most things. The atmosphere that Marian Finnucane believed surrounded the death of Ann Lovett is the atmosphere that created the conditions surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar.
In 1992, the X Case brought a ruling from the Supreme Court that a woman had the right to the termination of a pregnancy where her life was at risk. Despite the court’s ruling, the government never introduced legislation that would allow hospitals to provide such a termination; the decisions taken during Savita Halappanavar’s hospital care were shaped by the constitutional provisions of 1983.
In a society that has undergone fundamental changes, where free market capitalism brought a social revolution, the rights of a woman to safeguard her own life still do not exist.
No tribunal of inquiry, no government report, no politicians’ statements are going to undo the wrong. Perhaps in thirty years’ time, a successor to Marian Finnucane will look back on the horror and express judgement on us, though what words would one find for a society that allows a young woman to die?