Ireland recently made global headlines in May with its Yes vote on a referendum to remove the eighth amendment of its Constitution banning abortion. Abortion has been illegal in the country for 35 years, and Ireland has one of the most restrictive laws in all of Europe, forcing its female citizens to quietly travel to England – to “get the boat” – to access the procedure.
A woman’s right to choose, in circumstances where the state has eliminated the option, is the foundation of “Get the Boat,” a tight and thoughtful piece by writer Eavan Brennan that expertly explores the human stories behind every decision.
The piece opens with a short video showing TV clips of Ireland in the midst of debate in the lead-up to the vote, including marches to honor Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in a Galway hospital after being refused an abortion in 2012 and whose death launched the Yes campaign.
A room on a boat – two beds and a table between them – is the simple setting for two young women, each traveling alone to seek the procedure for their own reasons. Grainne is reserved, the mother of two boys; Bridget is a beautifully spunky, wine-drinking, seemingly free spirit. As they begin to unfold their personal stories – both are mothers in wildly different circumstances – the topic of abortion immediately polarizes them.
Grainne is at first overjoyed to discover she’s pregnant, truly blessed, until she discovers the baby is malformed and will not survive outside the womb. She must hide her decision from her family and friends, and shoulders a belief that somehow she is to blame for this tragedy. In spite of her love for her child, this is a decision she must make. “I hate my body, but I love her so much,” she laments.
Bridget is also struggling. As a single mother abandoned by her son’s father and betrayed by her lover, she knows her son and her own life and career will certainly suffer with the burden of another mouth to feed. Her decision is as equally wrenching to her. She has painstakingly thought through every option, and whether the child be healthy or require constant care, Bridget’s focus is solely on the quality of her son’s life.
Grainne, her views colored by her faith and heartbreak, asks if Bridget has no shame – that she has no regard for her baby’s life and does have a choice. The play levels these two desperate women, neither of whom wishes to be on that boat. But Grainne cannot fathom Bridget’s choice. “Just because you don’t agree doesn’t make me wrong.”
Brennan’s thoughtful and brief piece shows that no matter what the circumstances, there is grief and pain in abortion. Blame and judgment for the most wrenching and personal of decisions comes easily – from within, from those we trust, from the church, and from the government which prevents a woman from grieving through subversion. The journey of coming to such a decision, and the journey on the boat, are both hidden in secrecy and shrouded in shame.
“Get the Boat” is part of the Soho Playhouse’s North American debut of two Irish female playwrights, and was originally performed at The Limerick Fringe Festival. The play closes with another short video clip showing that since 1983, more than 170,000 women have “got the boat.” That this work exists is part of Ireland’s liberal transformation, and serves a warning shot to Americans, whose abortion rights are becoming increasingly more restrictive.