Mary the Virgin and Mary the Magdalene - it's time for Ireland to untangle itself from it's old impulses and make history at this May 25 Eighth Amendment referendum.

History has a lot to teach us about the impulses that guide us if we only had the patience to take a look.

In the past we have treated pregnant Irish women as one of the most stabilizing social forces and one of the most potentially destabilizing social forces, too. 

That's because two main roles we allotted to women were either mother or harlot. One venerable, the other unspeakable. We absorbed these two contrasting responses from the church of course, much of it from the two Mary's, Mary the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene.

For generations when the hundreds of thousands of unmarried Irish women and girls became pregnant outside of marriage in our new Republic they quickly discovered they had committed the gravest sin in the Irish canon. They were bold girls, Mary Magdalenes. Minus a ring they stopped being natural mothers and instead became black marks.

We placed them in penitentiaries, hidden behind high walls, where they often performed hard labor without wages. Working night and day without payment was the least that could happen to them, in fact.

They were lonely old holes, those places. One look at them told you that they existed to punish women not aid them. We had demolished most of them by the turn of the century after it became clear the modern world would no longer accept them. But in Ireland we held on till the last possible moment. We held on until 1996.

Given that fact, I don't think many of us have really moved on from the good girl, bold girl, Mary the Virgin and Mary the Magdalene set up in Irish life. I think that many women and men are still in the long process of untangling themselves from that unhelpful and distinctly dualist way of looking at life. That kind of black and white thinking is still leading us all into an awful lot of trouble even now.

Ask yourself, is a morality that pummels every thorny question into submission really worthy of the name? In protecting the greater good just how much are we all willing to overlook? In Ireland the answer is that we were all very willing to overlook the despairing cries of hundreds of thousands of women. And we did this for decades. We pretended we couldn't hear or see them.

That's because in Ireland we don't tackle our problems, we prefer to contain them. In the past we just hid them behind high walls. In the present we have learned to successfully stonewall.

History tells us what to expect of the current abortion referendum. All the old impulses will kick in again. The first impulse is always to deny that there is any problem. This is Ireland, sure we're grand, sure there are no problems here anyway, hah?

Blame those interfering angry hipsters and feminists who keep listing all the names of the young women who have needlessly died because our well meaning doctors were prevented by Irish law from performing life saving terminations. We like to call these agitators hipsters and angry feminists. We like to pretend we don't know what's making them so angry.

The second impulse is to blame other people for our own actions. Call it the you made me do it impulse. We had no choice but to put this draconian law into the Constitution because you hadn't the sense to keep your mouths shut. Away with you all to England like before, and don't be besmirching the good name of Ireland with your sinful demands for a range of medical options.

The third impulse kicks in when it looks like the consensus and the status quo is really under threat. It's basic bullying. We will insult and intimidate you, tear down your posters, attack your character, protest your points of assembly with gut churning images, then shout so loudly that you can not be heard, and insist that we are doing this for your own good. It's always for your own good. We know better than anyone what good is.

Ireland has reached the third impulse already. Both sides have recognized that this referendum may be very close. Both sides realize that abortion is an uncomfortable and unsettling issue for many people. Both sides hope that will lead to a vote for their position.

I hope both sides will reflect on our history. In the past we brutally stigmatized and isolated women and girls who broke the basic contract of Irish life, the directive to be good – or our idea of good, at least.

We made them pay dearly for their terrible infractions. Often they paid with their lives, or through lives of unpaid indentured servitude. And I don't think that impulse to make women pay has ever left us.

A repeal the 8th amendment march in DublinWikimedia Commons