This blog post is about women’s health, sex, and perimenopause. It also offers a very brief look at Ireland’s social history.
These little pills have transformed my life in the last 6 months. Later on in this post I will tell you why I am taking them. If you are a woman aged 35 or older, this piece will be especially relevant to you.
Medicine and wellbeing
Usually I avoid medication, yet at the same time I appreciate that it is one of the miracles of our world. My choice has always been to lean on pharmaceuticals only if absolutely necessary, such as when I had painful shoulder inflammation a few years back. After three weeks of hoping that it would heal naturally, it got worse. A trip to my doctor and a prescription helped to solve that problem.
Mostly I use breathwork and movement to cope with pain and alter my state of being. It doesn’t always work, so my holistic approach to healing and wellness includes medication in an emergency.
Being able to obtain it on demand is something that I took for granted until recently. Like everything in life, not all of us are privileged enough to have access.
Mary Kenny. Photo: New Island books.
Women of change
What better time to ponder health equity than in April, the month in which Mary Kenny was born in Dublin. Mary is a writer and journalist whose actions in the 1970s impacted on the lives of all women in Ireland today.
How was it back then?
According to Rosita Sweetman, 1970s Ireland was a country that “had stagnated into a patriarchal, religious, woman-hating, damaged, cowboys’ backwater.”* That description is no exaggeration. If I were to illustrate examples of the cruelty towards women I’d be here until Winter and probably swimming in a sea of despair. But that’s not what this post about.
Swipe to see more 1970s images…
An ass spoke at mass
In 1971 Mary walked out of a Dublin church in disgust when a quote from the archbishop was read out during mass. “Any contraceptive act is always wrong“, he had proclaimed. As Mary left, she said “This is church dictatorship“, then went on to write a letter to the Irish Times agreeing with Ian Paisley’s comment that “Home Rule was Rome Rule“.
For anyone not familiar with the concept of Home Rule, Ireland’s colonisation by Britain began in 1800. The Home Rule campaign was a call for Ireland to have its own government while still being part of the UK.
The use of contraception was illegal in Ireland, and a challenge to the horrors inflicted on women was imminent.
Working-class women in particular suffered greatly from misogynistic policies of the state[i]. In the 70s, radical action was needed. Mary, along with the other members of The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (IWLM) were brave enough to step up.
The IWLM protesting at Connolly train station, Dublin, in 1971. Photographer unknown.
The Contraceptive Train
By taking the Dublin to Belfast train in 1971, IWLM members hoped to buy condoms and the contraceptive pill in Northern Ireland, then bring it all back to the Republic. This would defy the law and highlight women’s rights. Mary even paid the train fare for a young writer called Isabel Healy who had been producing features for the The Irish Press.
When they reached Northern Ireland, the women went to various Belfast chemists. Nell Mc Cafferty discovered that ‘the pill’ could not be obtained without a prescription. However, the women bought what they could.
Photo: Anna Shvets
Pills and tricks
The women brought their wares back to Dublin and showed aisprin tablets to customs officials, pretending they were contraceptive pills! Their protest was a success. The customs men, along with most people in Ireland, would have been clueless as to what contraceptive pills actually looked like. Media coverage by crews from the United States, Japan, and Ireland helped to highlight the cause.[+]
Eventually Ireland’s law was updated so that contraceptives became legal and could be more widely distributed. However, even in 1985 (and for a few years afterwards), terms and conditions still applied.
Thankfully the ongoing attempts of state control failed. Women told whatever lies they had to so that they could obtain The Pill in ‘special circumstances’, such as for medical reasons, i.e. to regulate their menstrual cycle. ^^. Some doctors had good common sense and the empathy to collaborate in favour of women’s needs. The law was ignored.
Not every women was, or will be, an activist. Researcher Dr. Laura Kelly has written about “the bravery and resistance of ‘ordinary’ women who chose to do what was best for them and their families in the period, even if it effectively meant going against their religion and wider societal mores”.^
Evolution and change
Change is slow when it comes to women’s health, however let’s remember that just a few short decades ago a group of women managed to make an impact in the midst of social poverty, a war, and a housing crisis.
Maya Angelou, just like Mary Kenny, was born in April. In her poem On The Pulse Of The Morning she wrote:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Part of keeping our courage intact means refusing to be silenced. Solidarity includes sharing our experiences and what we learn on the way.
While a lot has changed, research alerts us to the fact that young women in Ireland still feel repressed.
There is stigma and a real fear around revealing that they are sexually active. They are embarrassed about being seen at family planning clinics, and they are worried about breaches of confidentiality. ^
As for those of us in the late 30s-late 50s bracket, a lack of information and communication persists when it comes to diagnosis and treatment of perimenopause. Which brings me back to those pills in the photo at the start of this piece…
Pills and inner peace
The pills I am holding in the very first photo are not contraceptives. And they are not painkillers, despite the fact that a chronic pain syndrome squatted my body for many years to leave it feeling as warped as a wind-whipped hawthorn in Connemara.
The pills are hormone replacement therapy. HRT. AKA lifesavers!
Sweating and wondering
I had to do something. A few years ago I began waking at 3:30am with my body on fire, and I don’t mean that in a sexy way. I would wake up sweating, my mind racing with thoughts. Despite the early hour, I’d be so full of energy that I’d have to get up.
Some days I felt depressed, then my mood would rise up, up, and I’d be rearing to go again. It was manic.
For 3 months I observed what was happening. There was no pattern to it. I will not list everything here. Suffice to say it was a lot to deal with and I found it extremely challenging.
It got so intense that I began to wonder if I was bipolar. I made an appointment with my doctor. We had a chat, she took some bloods, tested my urine, asked more questions, and diagnosed perimenopause.
Perimenopause typically happens between 35 and 55 years of age. ‘Peri’ means the years leading up to menopause. It bring changes to a woman’s life that can evolve at a snail’s pace or suddenly, with symptoms manifesting as sharp as chilli spice on the tongue, and just as explosive!
Perimenopause sometimes causes anxiety, aches and pains, insomnia, low mood, rage, ‘brain fog’, a lack of libido, regular feelings of despair, and a desire to spend more time alone. These symptoms have been well-documented by scientists and sociologists.
We all have different needs
Not everyone will feel it to the same degree, however when it comes to perimenopause every woman deserves education and some tender loving care.
Womens’ bodies are completely different to mens, and we have a lot more hormonal influences throughout life. By the way there are advantages to this midlife transition too: it’s not all bad news!
To HRT or not to HRT?
Self-diagnosis is impossible. Google can tell you feck all in comparison to a medically-trained, compassionate doctor. Whike keeping your own notes and dates is good to a point, if you are experiencing intense fluctuations in mood or worried about your health in any way, a visit to your GP is the wisest option.
You might say yes to HRT, you might say no. What matters is that you say yes to making your self-care a priority.
Every woman deserves to be listened to. Ironically, as awareness increased about the benefits of HRT for menopause in recent years, Ireland experienced a shortage in supply and women once again started travelling to pharmacies in Northern Ireland to source the products. With the prices of train tickets and everything else here, I think I’ll stay just where I am. These days I feel good most of the time and I’m sailing along to port menopause. The journey can take years, and I am comfy in my own skin.
The big picture is that nationwide (and in much of Europe), more support is available to women now. I am extremely grateful to be able to avail of it. The thoughts of HRT, or being any medication, freaked me out for a while but I am making an effort to keep an open mind as new information emerges.
Here’s to Mary, Maya, and women everywhere who refused to be silenced or shamed. In doing so they addressed ignorance and improved things for women. On we go…
Thanks for reading.
Feel free to leave a comment below or share this post. My blog takes a lot of time, energy, and creativity to produce. If you enjoy it, or feel that you have benefitted from reading it, donations to support my work are always welcome.
Till next time, take care.
* Sweetman, R. (2021), ‘Chains or Change: the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement 50 years on’, The Irish Times.
[i] Chesney-Lind and Hadi (2017) ‘Patriarchy, Abortion, and the Criminal System: Policing Female Bodies’, available: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08974454.2016.1259601
[+] McCafferty, Nell (2015) ‘Ireland: Breaking the Shackles. 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt
^^Niamh Griffin (2023) ‘Celibacy was often the only option: Women’s battle to secure contraception in Ireland’, The Irish Examiner.
^ Kelly, Laura (2020) ‘The Contraceptive Pill in Ireland c. 1964-79: Activism, Women and Patient-Doctor Relationships’, Medical History Journal.
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