Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 interview: Eva O’Connor on abortion drama My Name is Saoirse
'Society is catching up with what women want. It’s not even feminism. It’s just equality'
This article is from 2014.
Teenage naivety about sex comes face to face with Irish anti-abortion laws in Eva O’Connor’s provocative new play. Hannah McGill spoke to her about the challenges of achieving a balanced perspective on an incendiary subject
Eva O’Connor’s new play, set in her native Ireland in the late 1980s, deals with an issue that could hardly be more profoundly personal to those whom it affects, nor more politically incendiary. Like countless other teenagers, the protagonist of My Name is Saoirse (it’s pronounced Sorcha) is naive about alcohol, and naive about sex, and is introduced to both at the same time. An unplanned pregnancy results, in a country that criminalises terminations.
‘This is the story of an innocent girl who has no role models, no support, no personal development,’ explains O’Connor. ‘The play doesn’t really even state what she’s going to do, because she doesn’t know herself.’ Yet as the actress and playwright herself is well aware, unwanted pregnancy can affect anybody. ‘I found out I was pregnant during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘And I had an abortion in Edinburgh. I was fortunate; I had really good care.’ But the contrast with her experience in Scotland and the situation in her homeland struck her – as did the irony that the nurses who dealt with her were all Irish. A long-held desire to write about the issue of abortion took shape as Saoirse’s story. ‘The play is a culmination of a lot of things; it’s not completely autobiographical, and it’s not an in-your-face abortion polemic. I have written in that way before, but I was aware that this needed to be handled differently.’ So the work expresses empathy with one girl and her situation, while also drawing a parallel – ‘The naivety of Saorise is the naivety of Ireland’ – and venturing the hope that ‘society is catching up with what women want. It’s not even feminism. It’s just equality.’
The fact stands that criminalising abortions has not succeeded in stopping Irish women from having them: thousands every year travel to the UK, while others take matters into their own hands at tremendous risk to health. ‘You can’t ignore the statistics,’ says O’Connor. ‘We’re just exporting our problem.’ The preventable death of Savita Halappanavar during a late miscarriage last year brought a limited change to the law, but campaigners want more; the UN is currently considering whether Ireland’s current laws breach human rights.
Primarily, O’Connor hopes that the fictional framing of Saoirse’s story will help to humanise a scenario too often reduced to emotive black-and-white. ‘I don’t think the situation in Ireland is because of a lack of compassion; it’s just the way that the Catholic church has moulded us,’ she says. Nor has she any wish to exclude contrasting opinions; her hope is that My Name Is Saoirse will start conversations rather than preaching to the converted. ‘I would never attack someone for being pro-life,’ she says. ‘I come from a family of pro-life people. If all you have ever heard is “It’s a human life”, of course you’re going to think that. I would like people of a range of opinions to come and see the play, and to get their feedback.’ This is said with a touch of trepidation: is she daunted by the prospect of going over such emotional ground repeatedly during her Fringe run? ‘It’s a hard enough emotional slog,’ she acknowledges. ‘But there’s a lot of joy and light and fun in it too. I’m very fond of her.’
My Name is Saorise, Storytelling Centre, 556 9579, 1−5, 16−19 Aug, 7pm, £10 (£8).
just Festival, St John’s Church, Princes Street, 226 0000, 6−15 & 20−23 Aug, 10pm, £10 (£8).