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The hallelujah weekend of Ireland throws a long shadow (1979-2018)

The papal visit of 1979 boosted Irish fertility after John Paul II exhorted the women of Ireland to be fruitful like the Virgin Mother. His real aim was to head off tentative moves by the Irish government to legalise contraception. This was eventually done, bit by bit, but the ban on abortion remained largely unchanged. It took a series of tragedies — and 39 years — for the Irish to decide to change a constitution that had enshrined the anti-abortion doctrine of the Catholic Church.

 At the time they called it "The hallelujah weekend of Ireland", though the Irish Catholic Church had been ascendant for rather more than a weekend. For more than half a century the Church had been shaping the Republic. "After Ireland broke from Britain in 1922, it was a virtual colony to the Vatican, a theocracy in all but name." [1] The future Archbishop of Dublin even played a central role in drafting the new country's constitution. In fact, Ireland was so solidly in the hands of the Church that Pius XII had hoped to make it a base for converting Europe, (a role that John Paul II would later assign to Poland). 

When the new state television service was being mooted in 1958, Pius XII had secret contacts with [Prime Minister] de Valera on a Vatican project to mount an international service in Dublin which would broadcast Roman Catholic and anti-Communist propaganda to Europe. [2]

Twenty years later, there were signs that this bastion of the faith needed attention. The timing of John Paul II's trip was no coincidence. In the summer of 1979 the Irish legislature began the first tentative step towards legalising contraception [3] and that autumn the Pope made his visit. The pope’s homilies to the crowds insistently extolled the Virgin Mother, whom Irish women had been taught to take as their role model. He visited the shrine of the Virgin in Knock, whose statue is demurely but unmistakably fruitful.

♦  At her shrine in Knock the pope intoned three times the biblical verse about Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb".

♦  He then exhorted them to bear children for the sake of the Church: “to build up [Christ’s] Mystical Body by living with the life that he alone can grant us”. [4]

♦  Finally, the next day in Limerick he urged Irish women not to be sidetracked by any other goals. They should “not listen to those who tell them that working at a secular job, succeeding in a secular profession, is more important than the vocation of giving life and caring for this life as a mother”. [5] He emphasised that this meant “a good Christian mother” and that the aim was not only the production, but also the evangelisation of children.

 For a time it worked. The number of births recorded in 1980 was the largest in Ireland in more than 80 years. “Ireland hit a perfect demographic storm.” [6] Members of this population bulge are known as “the pope’s children” and many of them are named “John Paul”.

However, it didn't last. The Irish were shocked by several tragedies which bright home to them the costs of living in a society controlled by the Church. Just five years after the Pope's visit a fifteen-year-old was found dead at a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mother. With nowhere to turn, she had bled to death in the bitter cold after delivering a dead baby all alone. [7]

After that, Irish public opinion began to change at an increasing tempo. Between 2005 and 2012 those describing themselves as "religious" dropped from 69% to 47%. [8] However Ireland still had the strictest abortion rules in the European Union (except for Malta which bans it entirely), only permitting it — in theory — if the mother’s life is in danger. Yet although since 1983 women in Ireland have had a constitutional right to an abortion, if their lives are at risk — and despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2010 that this must be implemented and an Irish commission of experts that reiterated the call two years later [9] — the Irish government didn't dare to do so. [10]

Ireland's foot-dragging about bringing in laws to implement this constitutional right to abortion may well have cost the life of two more young woman. In 2011 a woman died of cancer after long delays in refusing her treatment because she was pregnant. [11] And in 2012 another woman died after being denied an abortion. Even though Savita Halappanavar had been told that her fetus could not survive, she was refused the potentially life-saving abortion she pleaded for, perhaps out of fear of legal consequences in this still murky area. Irish law does not specify under what circumstances the threat to the life or health of the mother justifies an abortion. [12] When the desperate, pain-wracked woman asked several times for an abortion, she was told, according to her husband, that under Irish law it would be illegal while there was a fetal heartbeat, because “this is a Catholic country.” [13]

Finally in 2013 the Irish government did the minimum that was required of it by its 1937 Constitution, a 1992 Irish Supreme Court ruling and a 2010 European Court Human Rights decision. It brought in the long-awaited law to implement article 40.3.3 of the Constitution which “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and the equal right to life of the mother”. Promptly labelled a “band-Aid solution”, and criticised in the British medical journal, The Lancet. [14], it allowed an abortion only where there is a risk to the life of the mother, including a risk of suicide. [15] And anyone found providing or having an illegal abortion was subject to punishment of up to 14 years in prison. [16]

Yet even prioritising the life of the mother over that of the fetus was too much for the Catholic Church. Archbishop Sean Brady threatened to ban Irish parliamentarians from receiving holy communion if they voted for the bill. However, Brady's own moral influence had been damaged by revelations that he shuffled the notorious Father Brendan Smyth who then went on to abuse hundreds of children in orphanages, parishes and hospitals both in Ireland and abroad. [17]

In the end the parliamentarians passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. However, even this law couldn't force the full cmpliance of Catholic hospitals. The Government warned that while there was a provision in the act for individual conscientious objection by doctors opposed to abortion, there was no such provision for the 25 hospitals named in the act — several of them Catholic — which were theoretically obliged to provide abortions. [18] Another threat to the newly-recognised right to abortion if the mother's life was put at risk appeared to be posed by the government's own implementation guidelines. The flow chart on page 21 of Guidance Document for Health Professionals depicts the obstacle course and shows the power to doctors and psychiatrists to prevent suicidal women from terminating their pregnancies. [19]

As soon as these guidelines were put in place a suicidal teenage rape victim was forced to continue her pregnancy and then, after going on a hunger strike, had to endure a forced caesarean three months early. According to a spokesman for Galway Pro-choice, the case “illustrates quite clearly that women are treated as little more than incubators under Irish law” [20] And UN Human Rights Committee chairman Nigel Rodley said Irish abortion laws treat pregnant women as “a vessel and nothing more”. [21]

Two years later, in 2016 the Committee issued a landmark judgement. It concerned a woman who, had she not sought an abortion abroad, would have been forced by Irish law to continue carrying a baby that had congenital defects and would die in the womb or shortly after birth. The UN Committee ruled that Ireland’s restrictive abortion legislation subjected her to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and violated her human rights. [22]

Finally, two years later, the Irish public showed that they agreed. In 2018 they voted in a referendum to repeal the article in the Irish Constitution which prohibited abortion, and it was removed form the constitution. [23] (The government's proposed legislation was still restrictive, requiring certification from a doctor that 12 weeks had not passed, and a 72 hour waiting period.) [24] As the results came in and it became increasingly clear that the Irish had voted to liberalise their abortion laws, flowers and messages were left at a mural put up in Dublin. This was to commemorate Savita Halappanavar, the woman who had died in agony while begging for an abortion for her unviable fetus. 

One young man said: “I’ve come down here specifically to say sorry to the women of Ireland and women like Savita that we let down. For decades in this country we turned women away, hid them and we shamed them and our generation has decided that we are never going to do that again.” [25]

The end of the Pope's hallelujah weekend – a nightmare that lasted for 39 years – was finally in sight.

Further reading 

IN GOOD CONSCIENCE: Conscience Clauses and Reproductive. Rights in Europe—Who Decides? Catholics for Choice, 7 October 2010.
Marge Berer, “Ireland: The new abortion law – Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013” [summary and comment], European Prochoice Network, 2 May 2013.
European Court Rules Against Irish Abortion Law”, New York Times, 16 December 2010.
Catholic Church stands firm after Euro ruling on abortion”, Belfast Telegraph, 17 December 2010.
How Ireland Lost Its Faith”,  Financial Times, 27 February 2010.
U.N. Committee against Torture: Ireland Must Ensure Access to Lawful Abortion”, Center for Reproductive Rights, 19 September 2011.


1. “Catholic Church Ponders Future After Same-Sex Marriage Vote in Ireland”, New York Times, 24 May 2015.

2. Eric Waugh, “This evil has its roots in iron rule of John Charles McQuaid”, Belfast Telegraph, 24 March 2010.

3. The first Health (Family Planning) Act was passed on 23 July 1979.
For a more general account see

4. “Homily of Pope John Paul II at [the Marian shrine in] Knock, 30 September 1979”, The Pope in Ireland: Addresses and homilies, (Dublin: Veritas, 1979), pp. 53-54; p. 59.

5. “Homily of Pope John Paul II at the Mass for the People of God, Limerick [Racetrack], 1 October 1979”, ibid., p. 86.

6. David McWilliams, Dublin economist and author of The Pope’s Children: Ireland’s New Elite” (2005). Quoted in the New York Times, 25 January 2007.

7. Nialler, “Ireland: A Country Deconverts”, 19 January 2008. (A superb summary.)  

8.  Global Index of Religion and Atheism 2012, WIN-Gallup International.

"Religiosity registers a slide world wide: Survey", Reuters, 8 August 2012.

9. “Experts say Ireland should clarify abortion laws”, Reuters, 2012-11-25. 

10. Wendy Lyon, “Why can’t a woman get a life-saving abortion in Ireland?” European Pro-Choice Network, 11 February 2012.

Colette Browne, “Reluctant politicians need to get real and change law on abortion”, European Pro-Choice Network, 25 April 2012. 

11. “State settled with cancer patient”, Irish Times, 22 November 2012.

12. “Ireland to Clarify Abortion Rules After Woman's Death”, Reuters, 2012-11-16

13. “Inquiry Sought in Death in Ireland After Abortion Was Denied”, New York Times, 2012-11-15.

14. Zara Qadir, “Ireland's abortion debate”, The Lancet, Volume 381, Issue 9878, Page 1614, 11 May 2013.

15. “Catholic Leader Rejects Ireland’s Band-Aid on Abortion Access”, Catholics for Choice, 1 May 2013.

General Scheme of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013

16. “Irish Parliament OKs exception to abortion ban”, CNN, 12 July 2013.

“Government wins final vote on abortion legislation”, Irish Times, 12 July 2013.

17. “Enda Kenny threatened with excommunication over abortion reform”, Guardian, 11 July 2013.

18. “Abortion act blamed as ethics expert priest quits Mater”, Irish Independent, 03 October 2013. 

19. Implementation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013: Guidance Document for Health Professionals, 2014, [Irish] Department of Health, Figure 3: Referral Pathway for Risk of Loss of Life from Suicide (Section 9), p. 21.

20. Jessica Valentt, "A pregnant, suicidal rape victim fought Ireland's new abortion law. The law won." Guardian, 18 August 2014.

21. "U.N. rights body criticizes Ireland on abortion, church homes", Reuters, 24 July 2014.

22. "Ireland Abortion Ban Violated Woman’s Human Rights, U.N. Panel Says", New York Times, 10 June 2016.

Emma Franck-Gwinnell, "Ireland’s Strict Abortion Laws Breach Women’s Human Rights Says United Nations", Rights Info, 11 June 2016.

23. "Eighth Amendment repealed as President signs referendum bill into law",, 18 September 2018.

24. "Eighth Amendment has created ‘legal paralysis,’ Lawyers for Yes says: 12 week access to abortion is ‘far from liberal’ and is in fact ‘highly restrictive’", Irish Times, 30 April 2018.

25. "Savita Halappanavar's father thanks Irish voters for 'historic' abortion vote", Guardian, 26 May 2018.



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