Irish veteran broadcaster Vincent Browne almost reduced me to tears with his heartfelt conclusion to his gay marriage referendum TV special in the iconic The George Bar. Amidst the audience’s tears of joy and celebration following the official confirmation of a win, Vincent reminded us on its significance: “gay Ireland had to hide away for so long and felt abandoned and alone and sad and degraded… I’m proud to be here.” The credits rolled with the crowd singing a cheery Irish chant sung even by Vincent himself. This was and is indeed, as openly gay Irish Health minister put it, “a social revolution.”
This referendum takes us a step further beyond the darkness and into the light. The path to change began decades ago. People who knew they were different got together and formed pockets of resistance. Through their conversations and shared pains, they formed connections that eventually become political. In 1982, Declan Flynn was beaten by a group of young people between 14 and 19 simply because he was gay. He was left to die on the path, and protests followed. Change is incremental, and many have lost their lives through suicide along the march to freedom, but this result is a monumental turnaround.
Irish Catholic history is a dark and grisly legacy of shame, snide and bitterness. Rather than being an institution of love and acceptance, the church’s brutal attitudes, disdain for those who defied its teachings, and narrow-minded visions can only be described as evil. I have often overheard conversations amongst the elderly reminiscing the sneering and gossiping directed at those who missed Sunday mass even if they were sick. Within the language of these stories, there is little talk of resistance and of turning against the tide. It was all discipline and punish. It was all conformity and confinement. Women who were raped or seen as disobedient were sent to the infamous Magdalene Laundries to work long hours, sometimes never to see their families again, had their hair shaven and mattered little.
The supposed loss of community within Irish society is lamented and regretted. It’s a cliché but so true: in the past we knew our neighbours profoundly, gave them bread when they needed it and trusted each other so much so our doors did not need locking.
Still, Ireland is better off now. In the past, vicious homophobia and soul destroying shame probably lead to many suicides that would be subsequently slapped with the deceitful label of ‘accident’ to hide the truth. Reading the history books, one gets a sense that Irish society was a chokingly repressive place. I was born in 1992 and glad it was no earlier. My little country faces enormous challenges ahead: child homeless, a housing crisis, growing inequality, mental health and an ailing health service. Many of these issues are not known to the public. Indeed, much more debate and decisions need to be made in the years ahead.
Today however, we have taken one more step out of the darkness and into the light. ‘Proud’, ‘thankful’, ‘recognised’. Ireland’s message to its LGBT community was ‘We love you too’. Though we may not even know our neighbours, we have not become so atomised so as to abandon compassion, decency and concern for minorities. This was a stunning repudiation of discrimination. Rainbows appeared over Ireland’s capital and over my own city of Cork. Ireland’s support of same sex marriage is a declaration of secular independence. Today Ireland did not just go against the tide, it turned the tide around.
Robert Bolton is a PhD. student and freelance writer.