One man's reflections on the true meaning of family.

There’s been a lot of talk in this referendum about what constitutes a family and many people, reared by lone and separated parents, have been hurt by what they see as an attack on their upbringing. Here, John* talks about the love that fuels his family.

I am the child of a single parent.

My best friends growing up, most of them had two parents who were married to each other.

My father was an alcoholic, and my mother left him when I was seven years old. He then threw me, my mother and my two sisters, Jo and Siobhán, and two brothers, Liam and Cillian, out of what he viewed as “his” house.

My godmother welcomed us all into her home for a few months, while the legality of that was being resolved.

When we were back in our own home, my childless paternal uncle, who lived across from us, looked after us as if we were his own, despite my parents’ separation.

People would ask me if it was weird not having a father, and that question confused me. It was obvious to me that it was a good thing not to have my father in my life, while my Uncle Tom fulfilled all the roles that are typical of a dad, and then some.

So, I wasn’t lacking; if anything, I thought other people were missing out not having an awesome uncle who took them fishing in a boat, taught them how to makes things in a workshop, and who sang wherever he went.


Flash forward a few years. My cousin, Helen, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She’d just had a little baby boy and needed aggressive chemotherapy. My mother stepped up and added this little boy to our family.

We fed him, clothed him, played games with him, and took him to the hospital to see his mother. He called my mother ‘Mammy’ and his mother ‘Mummy’. That story didn’t have a happy ending, but that baby boy grew up with his loving father and my mother still treats him like one of her own.

Flash forward a few years more. My sister, Jo, gives birth to a baby girl, but faces motherhood as a young, single parent. But, again, my mother steps up and helps her daughter to raise this little leanbh.

My sister eventually rekindles a relationship with a guy she was seeing previously, and he takes her daughter on as if she was his own. He and my sister have another daughter several years later, and she’s awesome! My uncle, of course, dotes on these children as if they are his grandchildren.

Flash forward another couple of years. My eldest brother, Liam, briefly started seeing a local woman. It didn’t work out and they broke up. A month or two later, though, it turned out she was pregnant.

My brother didn’t hesitate and agreed to stand by her and be as involved as she wanted in the child’s life. So, another niece was born, and she’d come to stay with us every Friday night. Despite her parents not being in a relationship with each other, she was loved just as much.

Flash forward 10 years. In that time, my older sister, Jo and her partner ended their relationship, but worked together to make sure the girls were well looked after. They both fell in love with other people, over time, who accepted my nieces as part of the package.

My eldest brother, Liam, got married to a lovely woman from the local Gaelteacht, and his daughter was still visiting every Friday, and bringing her mother’s other daughter, too, who was also welcomed as part of the family.

My single younger sister, Siobhan, fell pregnant. She gave birth to my first, and so far only nephew, the first boy in the family since me. A soccer-crazed little messer who decided to follow Liverpool purely so he could torment my mostly Man United household. Jo’s new boyfriend, just as soccer mad, gets on like a house on fire with him, too.

Once again, my mother and uncle supported her so she wouldn’t be alone. I went through a mildly angsty teens, when I struggled with accepting my sexuality, but made it through the other side happy and accepted as a gay man, studying science at University College Cork.

Flash forward a couple of years more. My uncle, Tom, has had a heart attack and we’re all panicking. My nephew, who is thick as thieves with him, doesn’t understand what’s going on; ‘why isn’t he bringing me out on his bicycle, where is he’?

Thankfully, he makes a miraculous recovery in no time flat, though, and says that it’s because he has too much to live for with those little grand-nieces and grand-nephews waiting for him at home.

I fall in love with a Wexford man, who is welcomed into my family as much as I am to his. My brother, Liam, and his wife have a child, but, thanks to lack of work in Ireland, he has to move to Canada so he can support them — a familiar story for a lot of Irish people. My eldest niece falls pregnant and gives birth to a son, my adorable little grand-nephew.

This is a complicated one, but my older sister, Jo, ends up raising him. My sister isn’t alone, though, as her fiancé is there for this little baby, too, changing nappies, feeding him, and loving him as his own.

Now. My point. You don’t need biology to be a mammy or a daddy. Blood is thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood. My future brother-in-law is working hard to support my sister, her daughters, and her grandson, despite no biological link. My mother raised five happy and healthy children, and added an extra few children.

My incredible uncle raised the five of us in my ‘nuclear family’, and is still doing the same thing with the whole generation of his four grand-nieces, one grand-nephew, and his great-grand-nephew, too; none of which he needs to do.

Families, aren’t just a mother and a father and 2.5 children. They’re a group of people that look out for one another and make sure each other is supported no matter what. The children of single parents aren’t automatically deprived of something, nor the children of same-sex parents, because this is what the greater Irish family is all about.

People used to be uncomfortable with talking about the fact that my parents were separated, but that’s not the case anymore, because people don’t automatically assume one type of family. On May 22, acknowledge in our constitution that Irish families come in all shapes and sizes, so that I can add my own family, with my beloved partner, to my greater Irish family.

That was where I wanted it to end. Write my little uplifting look at real Irish families, contribute in my own way to the ‘yes’ side. But this isn’t an Enid Blyton family. I have the real Irish family that I craved.

A couple of days ago, I rang my uncle, all excited, and asked him if I had his blessing in putting his name and photo in with this article. Tom said he wants nothing to do with it. Fair enough, I thought, he’s a private man. But then he clarified; he wants nothing at all to do with this “bloody referendum”. He said that he’s not voting in it, but if he were, he’d be voting ‘no’.

My whole world just collapsed. This man raised me since he could pick me up, and raised me well enough that I got to give back and explain his heart medication to him, after his turn. And he would vote ‘no’, because his Catholic upbringing tells him to, even though the man he raised as his own son wants to marry a man.

My relationship has been permanently damaged with my uncle, because of that conversation. I’ll regret having that conversation with him until my deathbed. I would have far preferred ignorance.

There are 21 countries in the world that have legalised same-sex marriage. Their politicians and lawyers handled the fighting for it, though. Politicians and lawyers are hardy, well used to arguing with people who hate them and who want the opposite of what they want.

In Ireland, it’s the people of the country that are doing the fighting as individuals. People’s hearts are breaking from having conversations they wished they’d never had to have with their relatives and loved ones.

The No side is paying for this with surplus money from unknown sources. On the Yes side, we’re paying for this referendum by exposing our hearts as punching bags. I know people who are losing sleep over the worry of this referendum failing.

We have to listen to the endless misdirections of the ‘no’ side in re-gard to the protection of children, as if the referendum is to add a ‘buy one wedding, get one child free’ voucher to the Constitution, yet experts in child welfare are all advocating yes.

We have ‘no’ supporters complaining about having to be closeted about vot-ing ‘no’ and completely missing the irony that many of still hide our sexuality for fear of being judged.

I have friends knocking on doors, putting their hearts on the line, only to have hate hurled at them, but who somehow manage to dust themselves down and with a smile on their face knock on the next door.

We’re all holding our breath just waiting for this to be over. We’re terrified of the emotional consequences of a ‘no’ vote.

If Ireland says no, every LGBT person will experience the same horror that I just went through in hearing that the man who raised me sees me as ‘equal enough’ by his standards.

The identity of this family is known to the editor.

READ MORE: Marriage Equality Referendum: No campaign does not value each child


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