Almost a hundred years ago, WBYeats had walked out on the Abbey stage in front of an audience rioting in outrage at O’Casey’s The Plpough and the Stars with its portrayal of a prostitute. This wasn’t the first time.
“You have disgraced yourselves again,” the poet thundered at the audience.
On Saturday, as the results came in, we needed a reverse Yeats. Someone to tell us we had got it right and should be proud of ourselves. We had done the right thing, not the self-serving thing. We had voted out of idealism, not out of clientilism. We had expressed trust, rather than fear. We were a better nation as a result of our own actions. We knew that, and some of us, let’s be honest, here, were high as kites.
I was high on the knowledge that Linda Cullen, daughter of my beloved Collette, my friend and co-worker for decades, will get to dress her little daughters in their best finery for her wedding to her partner, Feargha. I know her since she was the age her twins are now at: five. But she’s just one of a long, long line of friends who now have a freedom they may or may not choose to exercise. This isn’t about changing tax allowances or killing off USC, desirable and all as both may be. This is about bringing down an old, old barrier. It’s about belonging. It’s our equivalent of Rosa Parks sitting wherever she wanted to sit on the bus, not where the law said a black woman should sit on the bus.
It started as a referendum issue and ended as a social movement, a confirmation of who we are and what we want for the future. Saturday’s referendum result drove a stake through the heart of a prejudice that has been around a long time, even though it hasn’t been doing so well in recent years. In fact, one of the suggestions made by a man promulgating a no vote in the final days of the campaign was that Ireland had always shown tolerance towards gay people. Happy out, they’d been. Look at the fact that Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards had walked through Dublin and everybody had nodded at them.
I listened to that, coming up to polling day, and the words of a country music some came into my head: “You had to be there. You really had to be there.” In order to fully understand the exclusion of gay people, you had to have lived during a time when Edwards and MacLiammoir were kept as social pets, as licensed eccentrics. I was there. I met and interviewed MacLiammoir. I remember how middle-class Dublin congratulated itself on how broadminded it was, because we didn’t bat an eyelid about MacLiammoir’s make-up or his cravat or his extravagant gestures.
We don’t bat an eyelid, but of course we talked about them all the time. Except when either of them entered a radio studio, knowing that interviewers like me wouldn’t go near the nature of their partnership. At the time, it seemed decent and discreet. Now it looks like a sad dance of denial and denigration. Nobody physically assaulted either man. The gardaí never charged either of them. They got lucky, to that extent. But equality it was not. Equality it very definitely was not.
We talked about compassion and tolerance to make ourselves feel good about it. But compassion is the gesture of the victor to the vanquished, of the rich to the poor, of the senior to the junior, of the significant figure to the marginalised. Compassion flows downward. The most senior person in a large organisation may show compassion to the most junior. It doesn’t work the other way. And tolerance? Tolerance, too, is the one way consolation prize given to people we perceive as less than ourselves. Tolerance is a kindly therapy vouchsafed to those injured by inequality.
As time went on, laws were changed to make it less easy to discriminate against gay people. Civil partnerships offered a couple some protection. It was fairer. But it was not equal, until Saturday, when a sweeping affirmation of Ireland’s capacity for ambiguity was made. That ambiguity is what allowed some voters to be absolutely committed to Catholicism while voting precisely the way the hierarchy had indicated they shouldn’t. It was about virtue, rather than dogma — and the virtue was altruism.
What brought home the yes vote, ultimately, was altruism. That’s the truth of it. Statistically, Ireland’s LGBT couldn’t have done it on their own. It was brought over the line by mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cousins and friends. Most of them straight. Most of them strangers to each other, but united around the possibility of changing the world for people they knew and cared for or for kin they loved.
They did strange, out-of-pattern things, did those who won the referendum. They travelled - some of them from as far away as Australia - in order to put a folded bit of paper in a rectangular hole in a box in their local townland. Having never voted in their lives up to this point, others went through the registration palaver in order to have their vote counted in this particular ballot. Or got their parents to do it so that when they came home, they could vote en famille.
There was a lot of coming out. Individuals like Maire Geoghegan-Quinn came out of retirement to sound a call for action. Others, like the general secretary of Fine Gael, came out of a lifetime of anonymity and privacy to go against the advice of the Church of which he is a devoted member. Activists from mutually competitive political parties compared notes and shared information like old pals.
Then TV3’s Ursula Halligan attracted international attention by personifying all of the contradictions inherent in the issue. Here was a woman who shamefacedly describes herself as a homophobe, coming out to announce that she’s always been gay. Here was someone of household-name fame, revealing herself to have been, as she put it, living in a prison for the totality of her adult life.
Up to that point, global media hadn’t paid that much attention to our equal marriage referendum. From then on, they were fascinated by the possibility that so Catholic a country might be the first in the world to change its constitution in order to accommodate gay marriage. A couple of hours after the ballot boxes were opened, the Washington Post and others of its like were headlining the possibility that Ireland was going to opt for gay marriage.
The sun shone on us as the result was confirmed and we stood in its light, warmed by the certainty that, in casting our vote, we had shown faith, hope, and love.
And the greatest of these was love.