MONTREAL – Michelle Sweeney said there was no way a mere 7,000 kilometres could stop her from making the journey from Vancouver to Dublin to vote in Friday’s historic Irish referendum on abortion.
She paid more than $1,500 for a three-day trip to her homeland, where she cast her vote to repeal the country’s Eighth Amendment, which banned virtually all forms of abortion.
The jet lag and hit to her bank account paid off, as referendum voters supported rescinding the ban by an almost two-to-one margin: 66.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent.
It was a humbling and emotional journey for the 25-year-old Sweeney, who said she’d campaigned for a vote before moving to Vancouver 18 months ago.
“It was so worth it, even just to see what’s happening,” she said from the Dublin airport, where she was preparing to fly back to Canada on Saturday afternoon.
“Irish women haven’t really been treated as equal citizens, but now it feels we have autonomy over our own bodies and can make our own choices.”
Sweeney was one of many Irish expatriates who made the journey home to vote in the landmark referendum.
For many, the trip was a symbolic one, given the number of Irish women who have traditionally had to fly to the UK to access abortion services.
Many went online to share their flight itineraries, and some tweeted photos taken with like-minded voters at airports — most wearing the “Repeal” sweatshirts that became the symbol of the prevailing sentiment.
“There was just so much solidarity with everyone I saw,” Sweeney said.
“It felt like the Ireland that I knew, but I haven’t really seen.”
Other Irish Canadians who couldn’t make the trip found other ways to participate in the referendum.
Fiona O’Brien, who moved to the Toronto area five years ago, said she followed some of the vote over Skype with her mother in Dublin and is “over the moon” with the result.
She said the results end a dark period in Irish history, when pregnant women had to risk jail time or travel overseas to terminate their pregnancies.
“Women would travel to England, alone and scared, and have abortions with no after care,” O’Brien said in an email.
“And it was a huge dark secret, because of the law and also the shame you were made feel.”
O’Brien said she banded together with other Irish citizens who have spent too much time abroad to be eligible to vote to donate money to pay the cost of plane tickets for others.
She said members of online communities such as “Abroad for Yes” set up “amazing support systems,” with people quickly chipping in to buy tickets for would-be voters who couldn’t afford the trip home.
“It’s incredible how the Irish at home and abroad came together to make this happen,” she said.
The Irish government estimates that more than 100,000 Irish have come to Canada since 2008.