IS THERE anyone who wasn’t shedding big, fat tears of hope as Ireland’s diaspora headed home on Friday in a mass attempt to take their country from its benighted past into a happier, more inclusive future?
By reading tweets on #hometovote, we were able to follow them with bated breath, as they journeyed by boat, by plane, by stranger’s car, battling against the clock to reach polling stations in far-flung parts of their native land so they could put their X in the box that said: “Hell, yes: we WILL have love for all in the 21st century”.
‘What a mirror this held up to the social revolution in Eire’
There were so many “something in my eye” moments, I could fill this column with them: stories such as that of Damian McGlynn in Edinburgh, who, belatedly realising he was registered to vote, walked out of work and caught an Aer Lingus flight, finally posting a picture of himself, mission complete, in Tallaght at 9.25pm. And the footage of a girl on a ferry singing the Irish folk song She Moved Through The Fair, with its haunting “it will not be long now, till our wedding day” refrain.
In the end, their efforts were well rewarded. Despite fears that “shy No voters” would make a mockery of positive polls, the Yes campaign won the referendum so convincingly their opponents conceded defeat hours before the result was announced. With that, a country where homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until 1995 became the 20th in the world to allow same-sex marriage and the first to have it enshrined in its constitution; and all those people who – like TV3’s political editor Ursula Halligan had “no first kiss, no engagement party, no wedding and until a short time ago no hope of any of these things” – were given the same shot at happiness as everyone else. It’s a remarkable feat that, after centuries in thrall to the Catholic Church, so many were able to cast off their religious straitjackets and embrace a freer, better version of the world.
We know that when it comes to issues such as equal marriage, referenda aren’t really the answer: the rights of minorities should not be subject to the whim of the majority etc. But without endorsing them as a way forward for others, what a mirror this one held up to the social revolution that has taken place in Eire. Scotland’s Equal Marriage victory was exciting too, of course. But while other countries’ shift towards equality has been gradual, Ireland’s has been dramatic. It’s as if the series of sex scandals that beset the Church tore down the dam holding back people’s own, instinctive sense of right and wrong; and now it has been unleashed, there’s no turning back.
In 1995, the right to a divorce was passed by a narrow margin after a vicious campaign which saw Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa pitch in with their views. This time round, no diktat from on high could have persuaded the bulk of the Irish population that their conscience or their faith required a No vote. Indeed, worshippers in several churches staged walkouts when priests read anti same-sex marriage letters from bishops at Sunday masses.
Drawing on personal stories, the Yes campaign successfully communicated the misery discrimination causes; former taoiseach Mary McAleese told how her gay son suffered years of torment before finding the courage to come out. But the dominant mood was one of positivity. All the cool celebrities were for same-sex marriage, of course. But then some uncool ones got behind it too and, in a way, that mattered more. When country singer Daniel O’Donnell – whose fan base is mostly ageing and conservative – said: “I think everyone should be equal”, you could almost taste victory.
Even more inspiring were the ordinary people who spoke out about their own epiphanies. Standard bearers for these unshowy heroes were Brighid and Paddy, a devout couple married almost 50 years, whose home video urging people to vote Yes went viral. This pair were Everygrandparents, which made their message all the more remarkable. “Twenty years ago, I probably would have voted ‘No’, but now that I know gay people and see the love and joy they can bring to life, I will be voting Yes,” Paddy said. Their appeal proved we do not have to be slaves to our upbringings, but also suggested that – in a country where 85 per cent of the population still identify as Catholics – many are re-imagining rather than abandoning their religion. “I know the ever-loving God that we believe in will say that we did the right thing,” Brighid said.
And what did the No side offer to counter such displays of quiet certainty? A campaign by the socially conservative Iona Institute based on prejudice, manipulation and a 19th-century concept of what constitutes “a family”. That and two auld bigots wielding a homophobic oven glove like characters from Father Ted who had wandered onto the wrong set. Time travellers from a soon-to-be-forgotten age, their “No is a vote for Jesus; Yes is a vote for Judas” placard was like a window into the empty Craggy Island wilderness of their hearts.
Of course, the battle for civil rights in Ireland is not yet over; this is a country where abortion remains illegal even for victims of rape. Feminist campaigners must be hoping gusts of liberalism will now blow in their direction. But all that is for another day. Just now, all I want to do is wave my rainbow flag and party along with those who fought and won the equal marriage vote. Great job, well done. And a hearty Sláinte to you all. «