Hilary Fannin: My pals and I didn’t understand the stern forces that extinguished our youth

I was 17, working in a restaurant, smoking Rothmans and reading Edna O’Brien

In 1979, the year I left secondary school to begin my stellar waitressing career, I was in love with a handsome, intense boy who strongly felt the injustices of the world.

Young love, first love, is fierce and innocent, guileless and cunning, and in a society that frowned on our actions, we found, within a relatively short time, a way to live together.

I was 17, working in a burger restaurant, smoking duty-free Rothmans, drinking vodka and bitter lemon, reading Edna O’Brien and Simone de Beauvoir, and, despite outward projections, had appallingly little knowledge of my own biology.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know you could get pregnant (hell, some people said you could get pregnant from sitting on a toilet seat), it was just that, in my naivety and with precious little education on the subject, I somehow didn’t think it would happen to me.


I was lucky; many of us weren't

And despite some alarming moments, it didn’t, thanks to a great extent to my older sister, who gently steered me down South Great George’s Street to the Family Planning Clinic. And thanks also to the clinicians there, who prescribed me the pill despite the tight remit of the Health (Family Planning) Act, which had been brought in that same year.

Then minister for health Charlie Haughey’s Bill, which he famously introduced (tongue firmly in his cologned cheek, one is tempted to imagine) as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”, allowed contraception on prescription only and solely for bona-fide family-planning purposes, a stipulation which essentially meant that contraceptives were only available to married couples.

I was lucky; many of us weren’t. Many of us faced the isolating and terrifying reality of unwanted pregnancy when we ourselves were little more than children. Many of us experienced the metronomic toll of the hours and the days as the panic of an unwanted pregnancy escalated, as the body drifted towards a terrifying destination and life as we knew it slipped through our fingers.

Recently I attended the Irish premiere of Happening, a French film directed by Audrey Diwan, which won the Golden Lion at Venice and was nominated in the Best Director category at this year's Baftas. The film, which just went on general release, is based on the autobiographical novel by French writer Annie Ernaux and examines, in claustrophobic detail, the coruscating reality of an unwanted pregnancy in 1960s France, when abortion was still illegal.

The central character, Anne (a mesmeric performance from Anamaria Vartolomei), is a brilliant young student from a working-class background, with loving, ambitious parents, who is about to sit her final exams. Anne’s dreams of university life, however, are almost entirely shattered when she becomes pregnant after a single sexual encounter.

Facing the loss of her future, utterly alone with her plight and painfully aware of the probable consequences of her pregnancy, Anne makes increasingly desperate attempts to procure an abortion. In a punitive and patriarchal society (where the indifferent young man she slept with is free as a bird), her journey, which almost costs her her liberty and her life, is harrowing.

Driving home afterwards in the pouring rain, I felt a knot of anxiety for the girl that I once was

Waiting for the film to start in a tense auditorium (although that might have just been me with my long memory of the bodily injustices suffered by many in this country), I looked around at the faces of the cinema-goers. A largely young, brightly curious audience, many of whom would have grown up in a very different society from the one my generation attempted and often failed to negotiate in the decades before their birth, they were there to witness a piece of history. It is a history yet to settle into the sedimentary layers of my bones.

Deeply affecting, unforgettable and beautifully made, Happening was introduced by the writer and activist Evelyn Conlon. Her words perfectly encapsulated the importance and necessity of this particular piece of cinematic art, as a reminder in an era when the right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is increasingly being challenged in previously more liberal societies.

Happening is, she said, “about memory, history, being young and learning, illuminated by how the body controls all, especially when it gets itself unwantingly pregnant”.

Driving home afterwards in the pouring rain, I felt a knot of anxiety for the girl that I once was. I pictured myself and my pals, balancing on the cusp of the 1980s, open-hearted, joyful, irresponsible, romantic, our lives stretching ahead seemingly full of promise, yet so blithely uncomprehending of the stern societal forces that might have so deftly extinguished our youth.