Sunday, May 27, 2018

James Joyce's 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room,' Updated in Observance of the Irish Referendum on May 25

Irish citizens demonstrate in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment.
The overwhelming vote two days ago to repeal a constitutional amendment banning abortion indicated how much Ireland has changed. You don't have to go back to 1905, when James Joyce wrote "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," to be aware of the tumultuous changes. But I have done so out of admiration for the story — my first encounter with "Dubliners" more than 50 years ago. I've kept some of the names and lines of dialogue, the conversational phrasing, and the general structure of the story, modernizing the situation but attempting to show some continuity between the early manhood of Ireland's most illustrious 20th-century author and (from what I read) the Ireland of today.



The computer screen in the darkened room stuttered and stalled, loading, loading, under the anxious
eyes of Repeal advocates gathered to assess the chances of their cause a few days hence. Old Jack, his rheumy eyes brightened by a fresh idea, tapped a few places on the keyboard, and suddenly the desired spreadsheet appeared: the results of canvassing efforts about Repeal throughout the country.

"That's better now, Mr. O'Connor," he said. The committee members gathered round.

"How's Roscommon-Galway showing?" Mr. O'Connor asked in a husky falsetto.

"Doubtful," said Old Jack. "Only constituency against gay marriage in '15, remember. All country people over there."

"No doubt about Dublin, at least," Mr. Henchy said hopefully.

"Sure thing, Dublin," Jack said. "The repeal vote will be big here. How many city houses have I known took every holiday in England just to fix some daughter's or niece's mistake."

"Of such mistakes is the world made," muttered Mr. O'Connor, fishing in a vest pocket for a cigarette.

"If you must, smoke outside, please," said Ms. Tiernan, giving him a level gaze.

Mr. O'Connor stayed put, stowing the cigarette, rolling his dim hazel eyes toward the ceiling. Women had the upper hand in politics now, he thought. And this one, with her sleeve tattoos. Cliches up and down the arm from the elbow. Arabesques and whatnot. Celtic knots straight from the Book of Kells. Society's progress surely stunts the imagination. Acceptable cost, he supposed.

The door to the room opened suddenly. "Is that you, Hynes?" asked Mr. O'Connor.

"Sure. And what are you doing in the dark?" Mr. Hynes asked nobody in particular as he stepped toward the computer screen.

"We were about being as mysterious as Brexit," Mr. O'Connor retorted merrily. The light switch came on, flooding the room and its second-hand furniture. The committee settled in, appearing to contemplate the forthcoming vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

"We will see where that lands the kingdom across the water," sniffed Old Jack, replying to the witticism. "The English invented common sense, but every tinker in this republic has more of it than to let the Eighth stand. The working man knows what's good for the Irish family."

"That's a sure thing, as long as he's represented well in Parliament," said Mr. Hynes.

"And as long as the working woman is as well," added Ms. Tiernan pointedly.

"That's true enough," Old Jack said. "Patriotism knows no gender, nor gender preference nor gender identity, either. We have a gay PM now. What further proof does anyone need?"

Silence overtook the room. "Is there a chance of a drink itself?" asked Mr. O'Connor. "We've done enough work for a bottle or two each, I'm thinking."

"I've a good feeling we'll have plenty of opportunity to slake our thirst soon," said Mr. Henchy. "Ireland's entitled to a miracle once a century, at least."

"Indeed," said Mr. Hynes, "though it's been barely more than two decades since we heard the roar of the Celtic tiger. Maybe it's too soon to hope for another miracle."

"This wouldn't be a miracle," said Mr. O'Connor. "It's foreordained." The men and the young woman all nodded.

Just then an unprepossessing figure appeared in the doorway, looking a bit like a poor clergyman or an actor poorly playing one. "O Father Keon!" said Mr. Hynes, jumping up to greet him. "Do come in!"

The questionable-looking priest said he was looking for a particular canvasser on a business matter, and was soon directed to the Black Eagle. Father Keon thankfully declined a general invitation to sit down, then descended the dark stairs carefully.

"What about that one?" Old Jack asked the company moments later. "Is he attached to a chapel or church or institution or — "

"None of that," came the answer. "There's talk he's been involved in that terrible way with boys, you know. He's in a kind of suspension. Don't know the truth of it or not."

"The Church brought this on itself," said Old Jack, a trace of spittle appearing at his moist lips. "They'll have only themselves to blame if the Repeal goes through. Messing with lads as the priests have, and then those awful homes in the country they've packed unwed mothers off to so that they could get rich Americans to adopt the babies."

"It's a priest-ridden island it's been, for centuries untold," said Mr. Hynes. "Hard to tell what this country needs most right now, other than reproductive rights for women. So many have suffered!"

"That reminds me," Mr. Henchy said, turning abruptly to Ms. Tiernan. "That thing you wrote about this matter. The women who made great sacrifices, a beautiful piece that is. Can you give us that? Have you heard it, Hynes? It's a splendid thing."

Savita Hallappanavar, born in India, died in Ireland
"Oh, that," said Ms. Tiernan, suddenly betraying a shyness she had been raised to exhibit but had overcome after rising in tech support during the aughts. "That old thing."

"Out with it, woman," Mr. Henchy insisted. "Ssh, everybody — listen!"

And so Ms. Tiernan stood up and collected her thoughts. After a rather long pause, she announced: "The Death of Savita Hallappanavar, 28 October 2012 at University Hospital Galway." Then she rubbed her hands along her tattooed arms, looked over the men's heads at the opposite wall and began to recite:


She is dead. The martyr to our cause
Laid on the Eighth Amendment's altar,
Felled by sepsis in miscarriage
While doctors were required to falter.

And so she died, who'd come to us
From India, her ashes' home,
Where her three-decade life began
Only to end by will of Rome.

Denied abortion, women's health
Was long a trivial matter here,
Served secretly abroad in pain
And savage cost year after year.

Then bold Amanda Mellet sued
The state at the United Nations,
Arousing Ireland's dormant conscience
Toward pregnant women's situations.

Amanda's case, her health imperiled,
Forced her like many to the UK,
Now promises referendum justice
The fateful 25th of May.

The day that brings us Freedom's reign,
Heals Erin's wound, yet leaves a scar
And lifts aloft the dearest name:
Savita Halappanavar.

Ms. Tiernan paused after finishing and slowly sat down. There was a silence, then a burst of clapping. There was talk of getting drinks all around. Mr. O'Connor reached into his vest again for a cigarette, then thought better of it.

"'What did you think of that, O'Connor?" shouted Mr. Henchy. "Isn't that fine, what?"

Mr. O'Connor said that it was a very fine piece of writing.