On May 24, 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to codify marriage equality through a popular vote. Significantly, the popular vote enacted a constitutional amendment, adding protection for two adult’s right to marry regardless of sex or gender. In a country that only just decriminalized same-sex sex in 1993, this turn of events might be surprising. 61% of eligible Irish voters voted. 62% of those voters said Yes, to approve the referendum amending the constitution. Members of the main mobilizing campaign–the “Yes Equality” campaign that advocated for the amendment–credit their success to a strong social media movement, the mobilization of real people’s stories, and a non-confrontational high-road approach in comparison with the No campaigners. The leaders of Yes Equality, Grainne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, also insist that Ireland was just ready to accept gay and lesbian Irish people as equals, evidenced by the smashing success of a 62% victory. The 2015 referendum was absolutely a major milestone in Irish gay and lesbian history. Whether or not it signaled Ireland’s definitive acceptance of queer Irish people as “equal” is less clear. 

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Edited by Averill Earls

Averill: On May 24, 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to codify marriage equality through a popular vote. Significantly, the popular vote enacted a constituional amendment, adding protection for two adult’s right to marry regardless of sex or gender. In a country that only just decriminalized same-sex sex in 1993, this turn of events might be surprising. 61% of eligible Irish voters voted. 62% of those voters said Yes, to approve the referendum amending the constitution. Members of the main mobilizing campaign–the “Yes Equality” campaign that advocated for the amendment–credit their success to a strong social media movement, the mobilization of real people’s stories, and a non-confrontational high-road approach in comparison with the No campaigners. The leaders of Yes Equality, Grainne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, also insist that Ireland was just ready to accept gay and lesbian Irish people as equals, evidenced by the smashing success of a 62% victory. The 2015 referendum was absolutely a major milestone in Irish gay and lesbian history. Whether or not it signaled Ireland’s definitive acceptance of queer Irish people as “equal” is less clear. 

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: 2020 was a crazy year, and we could not have done what we do without you, listeners! Our patreon supporters keep the lights on and the microphones recording, and we are grateful for each and every one of you. We want to give a special shoutout to our mega-donors, our Auger and Excavator level patrons: Maddie, Denise, Colin, Edward, Susan, Christopher, Peggy, Maggie, Danielle, and Iris! Thank you, a million times! Listener, if you are not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.

Averill: First, a quick word on sources and my approach to writing this episode. As you all know, I am a historian of Irish same-sex sex by training, so this is my wheel house. I say that, BUT, I also have focused my area of expertise on the pre-1960 period, and everything I’ve published is on the 19th and early 20th century. I am one of like, three historians who work on Irish same-sex sex in that period. There is a bit more on the 1960s to the present, but most of it has been written by the activists who actually made that history. That is as true of the 2015 Referendum as it is of the early Irish gay rights movement. So with the exception of a couple articles and one book, Sonja Tiernan’s very recent The History of Marriage Equality in Ireland, the histories of the referendum have been written by those involved in the campaign itself. So in 10 or 50 years, most of what has been written will probably be treated more as primary sources than as analytical secondary sources. Which is brilliant – because all of these books have either been written by these historical change-makers themselves, or they include lengthy (though edited-down) oral history interview transcripts from those folks. Still, I gotta say, I’m kind of sad that there has been more written about one year in Irish queer history than the previous 100 years. Which, sure, is partly my fault because I haven’t finished my book yet, but jeez, can more people please start studying queer Irish history? But anyway. I wanted this episode to give insight into the history that precedes the 2015 referendum, since that’s my jam and I rarely get to talk about it on the podcast. Then we’ll do a deep dive into the referendum itself, and also offer a bit of a critique of the linear “progress” narrative that tends to be associated with same-sex marriage agendas. Marriage, at its core, is a conservative value, and as Eithne Luibhéid rightly points out, the marriage offered to lesbian and gay couples by the referendum is not extended to certain migrant, especially brown and black, populations in Ireland, because of various anti-immigrant laws that the Irish government has passed in the last 20 years. The Referendum was a major victory for gay and lesbian rights generally, even if it ultimately privileges a particular vision of same-sex relationships while excluding others. And really, the Yes Equality campaign tapped into those conservative values to propel their movement to victory. 

Marissa: Let’s start with some background. To understand the significance of the referendum, you need to have some sense of the history of same-sex desire in Ireland. Today, 84% of Irish people identify as Catholic, and even if not nearly that number are practicing or adhering strictly to Catholic worship, that’s still a lot of people. It would be easy to say that the long history of homophobia is rooted in Christianity, which does of course have a couple of Biblical passages that ostensibly outline sex between men as bad. 

Averill: But it’s not that simple. Christianity coexisted with Brehon [bre hen] law, the Gaelic laws that governed everyday life, for centuries. In Brehon law, male partnerships were tolerated as long as neither was married. It wasn’t until the English completed their conquest of Ireland that Brehon law was abolished and replaced with English laws, which included Common Law precedents as well as legislative measures like Henry VIII’s anti-sodomy statutes from the 16th century. So by the 17th century, when Ireland was fully colonized and ruled by England, those explicitly anti-sodomy laws were put into effect in Ireland. 

Marissa: England’s sodomy laws were rooted in the Christian tradition, just like their early laws against witchcraft and murder and other “heinous” acts. Sodomy was defined as a crime against nature, an ‘unnatural act.’ It was a crime so potent that it would offend–maybe even tempt–good Christians, and so it was often called the crime “not to be named by Christians.” It was a capital crime until the 19th century, punishable by death. In 1861, following a trend which removed the death penalty from over 200 different kinds of crimes, “buggery” was give a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, with a minimum of 10 years. It was exceedingly rare to actually execute sodomy offenders in the 19th century anyway; by 1861, most judges commuted sodomy offenders’ death sentences, often sending them to Australia’s penal colony instead. The 1861 law, then, was supposed to be an invitation to juries to find more sodomites guilty of their crimes, though evidence of anal penetration was needed to exact the full extent of the law; attempts to commit sodomy carried lesser sentences. 

Averill: The UK parliament, which included Irish members of parliament from 1801 until 1920, expanded the possibilities of policing same-sex desiring men in 1885, with the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Section 11, or the “Labouchere Amendment,” introduced by Henry Labouchere and accepted without debate, made any act of intimacy between men criminal. Instead of “buggery,” the law referred to “gross indecency,” which was left to be defined by police, juries, and judges. 

Marissa: Concurrently in Ireland, two major movements were reshaping how the Irish would later understand same-sex desire. First, starting in the 1850s, Ireland was Catholicizing. While Christianity had been introduced to Ireland in the 5th century by various missionaries, and English rule reinforced Christian norms and values — like the anti-sodomy laws derived from biblical passages — the institutional infrastructure of Catholicicsm specifically was haphazard at best until the later part of the 19th century. There were not nearly enough priests to meet the needs of the millions of Irish who self-identified as Catholic. Strict Catholic religious observance was limited to the southeast, while in the west and north most Catholics were nominal or syncretic. In the 1850s, Ireland experienced what historian Emmet Larkin called the “devotional revolution” — a major commitment of resources and reinvigoration of Catholicism on the island, led by Paul Cullen, one of Ireland’s archbishops from 1850-78. His success in increasing the number of priests and expanding Catholic infrastructure was largely due to the gradual abolition of the Penal Laws, which had restricted Catholic freedoms in Britain and Ireland since the 16th century. One of the major goals of Irish political activism in the 19th century had been to achieve “Catholic emancipation,” which was achieved with the abolition of the Penal Laws in 1829. (and obviously this is all like, a really shallow sketch of several centuries of Irish history, so — sorry?)

Averill: In addition to the sort of Catholic renaissance that Ireland experienced in the second half of the 19th century, Irish nationalist politics were also heating up in that period. Since the Act of Union in 1801 there’d been a small but motivated movement seeking to Repeal the Act of Union, to reinstate an independent Irish parliament (though the Repeal goal was usually not to leave the English crown, just to be able to deal with domesticate issues in-house.) The English insisted that the Irish were too barbaric to self-govern, which seemed to be confirmed regularly by violent uprisings (1798, 1848, 1867, the 1880s) and pretty steady agrarian resistance to absentee landlords, unfair rent hikes on and evictions of tenant farmers, and – oh right – the Famine. Regardless of the righteousness of Irish uprisings, some of which were fabulously socialist at their core, these people were true revolutionaries, non-state-sanctioned violence was perceived by the British as unrespectable. With the rise of the British middle class and respectability ideology, self-governance was not a right, but a privilege one earned by becoming more “English.” So Irish nationalist politicians had to play the game – leaders like Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell and William O’Brien dressed the part, went to the right schools, walked and talked the “right” kind of parliamentary lingo, and tried to affect change through legislative pressure and a unified Irish Parliamentary Party voting block — but they also had to keep the love and votes of their Irish constituents, so they played that game too. Parnell founded the Land League and was seen as the leader of the Land Wars in the 1880s, which supported tenant farmers and advocated for fair rents, Free Sale of land to those who worked it, and fixity of tenure. And as the English politicians and presses lamented about how violent and barbaric the Irish were, the Irish had to hit back in kind. One of the key tactics that Irish politicians and nationalist newspaper editors used was to highlight the immorality of the English as evidence that the English had no right to rule the Irish. 

Marissa: Irish politicians and newspapers focused specifically on England’s sexual immorality. Tim Healy, a member of parliament and writer for the nationalist newspaper United Ireland, once called out a fellow (English) MP for living with his wife before they were married. Scandal! Well, not really, it was an “open secret” – except Healy said it in a parliamentary session, which was then recorded and published with the rest of the transcript! Irish newspapers highlighted the higher rates of “immorality” in England – from morally suspect behavior like divorce to actual sex crimes like bigamy and rape. You may recall from Ave’s episode on the Dublin Castle Scandal that the #1 crime that the Irish nationalists loved to capitalize on was sodomy. 

Dublin Castle in 1905
Dublin Castle in 1905 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Nationalist newspapers in particular regularly reported on sodomy and same-sex desire as a uniquely English vice, one that no Irishman would ever be guilty of — even though many were, in fact, tried and found guilty of it. This was something that newspaper editors like William O’Brien repeated throughout the 19th century – that Irishmen did not have sex with men, and that Englishmen brought that terrible sin to Ireland. 

Marissa: So 19th century Irish politicians laid a foundation of anti-homosexual politics on which to construct Irish moral authority to self-governance. Catholicism specifically wasn’t the origin of that homophobia. Most of the major Irish politicians were themselves Protestants, and the late-19th century nationalist movement was actually non-sectarian, despite representing a Catholic-majority country. Remember – we’re talking about a time in history when almost all Christian nations had long outlawed same-sex sex, particularly between men. Different countries and states policed same-sex sex to different degrees, but nowhere was it acceptable or normalized. 

Averill: Right – and of course you have the complications that psychology and sexology introduced to Irish and British understandings of same-sex desire, which is happening more or less at the same time that all of this anti-homosexual nationalist politics was going on, but that is a story for another day. 

Marissa: During WW1, the Irish nationalist movement shifted from one to repeal the Act of Union to a full-scale bid for independence now. At some point Ave will have to update and re-release her episode on Roger Casement and the Easter Rising of 1916, which definitely complicates the nationalist politics narrative. Casement had copious sex with other men (and male teen sex workers), and was also one of the leaders of the Rising. He was caught, imprisoned, and executed – and when the British government released his “Black diaries,” which contained notations of his various sexcapades with men, all his friends dried up. The memory of Casement as a nationalist hero was majorly complicated by his sexuality. For decades, Irish people either refused to believe that the diaries were real, or rejected him as a nationalist hero. For much of independent Ireland’s early history, one could not be both Irish and gay. 

Averill: Funny story, though – lots of Irish men and women were. Well, maybe not gay in the modern sense; few felt free to embrace a modern gay or lesbian identity. But men were definitely having sex with men – often in public places like parks, lavatories, parked cars, alleyways… the gamut. But in that nascent Irish state, which was built on that anti-homosexual ideology, there was no place for those men. Policing of consensual sex between men increased over 700%. In Dublin, from 1900 to 1920 only 18 men were arrested for same-sex sex crimes. From 1924-1931,145 men were prosecuted for gross indecency or sodomy. It fell to the new police force to enforce that moral vision of Ireland, by clearing the streets of men having sex with men and sex workers. 

Marissa: While the initial revolution in 1916 had been non-sectarian, and super radical in its goals – socialist, femininst, all that jazz – the Free State, founded in 1922, was far more conservative, and far more Catholic-centric. Catholicism became another unifying force to the Irish nationalist movement. Many Catholic priests in Ireland – often acting against the instructions of the Pope! – were champions of the independence movement, hiding rebels, writing scathing letters to the editor about the English, encouraging political involvement from the pulpit, even fighting in the war of independence themselves. As the nascent state sought to distinguish itself from its former colonial rulers, it leaned heavily on Catholic influence. Remember that divorce was in the list of heinous immoralities the Irish saw in the English. Divorce had always been difficult to obtain in Ireland, even when under English rule, because it was against Catholic canonical law. By 1937, the new Constitution written by Eamon de Valera explicitly outlawed divorce, asserted that a woman’s place was in the home raising children, that the ‘family unit’ as cherished by the Catholic Church was foundational to the state, and that the Catholic Church itself held a “Special Place” in Ireland. De Valera did not give over so much power to the Church as to make it the official state religion, but only just barely. 

Averill: To be gay and Irish was really horrible throughout the 20th century. Which is not to say that isn’t true of most North American and European states at the same time. But Ireland was not growing or urbanizing or industrializing the way that Britain or the US or Germany were. There were no bustling metropolises into which young queer people could disappear, get jobs that paid enough to get out from under the thumb of conservative families, meet people like them and develop community. Dublin was the city – the only city. Cork and Galway may as well have been villages, because everyone knew everyone’s business, and that fostered informal policing and self-policing, more effective at curbing same-sex sex than any formal policing that Garda could ever hope to do. 

Marissa: And the Garda also took their job seriously. While the actual concerted policing efforts came in waves – some years they’d arrest and take to trial only one or two men in Dublin, other years it could be 50 men arrested in a few months’ time – they harassed and threatened and intimidated men and women who transgressed gender boundaries. The bar scene had to change regularly, so as not to attract too much attention. If you were attacked or robbed by a sexual partner, you’d be lucky if you weren’t arrested on the spot when reporting to the Gardai. In 1982 Charles Self, an Englishman who worked for RTE, was attacked and killed in his home in Monkstown, Ireland. His murder remains unsolved to this day. According to Jim Cusack, “‘Old fashioned homophobic bigotry on the part of some Gardaí, not involved in the investigation towards the gay community in the early ’80s, may well have played a part in the failure to solve Dublin’s most high profile gay killing in 1982.”

Averill: The Garda got hold of Self’s contacts book and immediately started harassing the men in it. A community of men who were barely out to each other were under police scrutiny. Brian Sheehan, who was interviewed by Charlie Bird about his life as a gay man in Ireland, said: “The police turned up at your home, at your place of work to interview you and suddenly and that’s a lot of where the profound mistrust of the police came from, is that, a whole community who couldn’t be open, because they were illegal suddenly felt that the state, through the arms of the police were out to get them. I have no idea if it’s true but I have heard a number of times people say that specific people died by suicide because they were already under intolerable pressure in their own lives and suddenly the police were turning up. And the police did it to intimidate. So the culture was, it was OK, it was a bit like the heavy gang were out raiding houses and you know turning up at people who were suspected of being in the IRA. So it was the same kind of approach to people who were in Charles Self’s circle of friends and wider. And it literally terrified people you know.”

Marissa: And certainly by mid-century Ireland, widespread Catholicism was compounding the state-sanctioned homophobia. By 1988, over 85% of Irish Catholics reported attending mass at least once per month. Priests shamed parishioners from the pulpit and the confession box for all of their sexual desires, regardless of the object of affection. Masturbation, pre-marital sex, and same-sex sex were surefire ways to damn your eternal soul to hell. Parents were discouraged from discussing sex with their children, lest it stir their passions. Children got Catholic “moral education” in the Church-run state schools for decades, but anything resembling actual sex education wasn’t even on the table in schools until 1994. According to one student who completed Ireland’s “Relationships and Sexuality Education,” “when RSE came in at the end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, it wasn’t boom time but there was, you know, that was the whole reaction to cases of infanticide. So therefore, you know, it was typical Ireland. It wasn’t that it was planned and systematic, it was a crisis response to a crisis situation.”  And even that programme, when finally introduced, was deeply problematic, focusing on disembodied uteruses and spermatozoa rather than teaching students about their bodies and paths to sexual wellness. 

Averill: Sex was censored, both formally – banned books, movies, art, and all the good stuff – and informally, in families, schools, churches. You were lucky if you had worldly siblings or friends to instruct you on the mechanics of sex. Too many teen girls got pregnant, died from botched abortions, were locked away in magdalene laundries only to have their babies taken from them and given to American or British adoptive parents, or murdered their unwanted babies. And of course same-sex desiring men continued to be arrested and harassed by the Garda well into the 1980s. 

Marissa: Like the Lavender Scare in the US, there was a mid-century hunt for “gross indecency” offenders in the summer of 1950, when police systematically arrested 49 men who hooked up in public lavs in Dublin. But unlike the US or Britain, there was no saving grace of a mid-century homophile movement in Ireland. There was no the Mattachine Society or Daughters of Bilitis like in the US, nor a government inquiry into the suffering of same-sex desiring people like Britain’s Wolfenden Report. The formal and informal policing created a culture of fear and self-loathing for decades, until the success of gay rights campaigns across the world inspired Irish men and women to stand up for their own rights. 

Averill: In the wake of Stonewall, the Compton Cafeteria Riots, and the UK decriminalization of same-sex sex in the late-1960s, Irish gay and lesbian activists formed their own organizations with goals to liberate queer Irish people and decriminalize same-sex sex. One of the major rights movements was led by David Norris, Ireland’s first openly gay politician, who challenged Ireland’s criminalization of same-sex sex at every level of the Irish court system; when he failed in Ireland, he took his case to the European Court, which ruled that Ireland’s laws were in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to respect for private and family life). All member states of the EU were required to meet all articles of the Human Rights document, lest their membership be revoked. Norris and his team won their case in 1988, and five years later, the Irish Dail (parliament) struck the anti-homosexual laws from the Irish statutes. 

Marissa: Concurrently throughout the 1970s and 80s, gay and lesbian activists worked to change public opinion about LGBT people. Historian Patrick McDonagh has published several articles outlining these efforts, and he argues that the 2015 Referendum’s success was due to the efforts of those activists in the 1970s and 80s, far more so than Norris’s high court win and even the 1993 decriminalization. This is important to differentiate — the 1993 decriminalization was effectively imposed by the EU high court, and then passed by politicians rather than by popular vote because of that external pressure. When compared to the referendum, which was achieved by a majority popular vote, the tone of the success is significantly different. 

Averill: Essential to 1970s and 80s activism was simply embracing out and gay identities. According to McDonagh, “Much like their gay and lesbian counterparts in San Francisco, Irish lesbian and gay individuals in the 1970s/1980s resisted society’s condemnation of their sexual orientation by choosing to live out, as openly as possible, a gay or lesbian lifestyle. Their refusal to follow the accepted social mores was crucial in the creation of a gay and lesbian identity in Ireland at a time when such behaviour was not welcomed.” Members of these activists worked to engage Ireland in open dialogues, made media appearances, challenge preconceived notions about gay men and lesbians, and creating a sense community in towns and villages across the country. The Hirschfield Centre in Dublin and Quay Co-op in Cork were openly queer spaces – which sometimes opened their members to violence, but also claimed real estate for LGBT Irish people where there was none before. Irishman Gerard Lawlor recalled, “When I was 30, which was around 1979, the Hirschfeld Centre was opened and it was, I think, the best thing that happened in Ireland to the gay scene because suddenly we had a place to go to that was organised for us and where you could attend – you could to go to discos, you could go in during the week and have coffee. It was a great place. What most of us of course enjoyed was the discos on the Friday and Saturday nights, at the weekends. They were excellent. And there was just a wonderful friendly atmosphere and a great place for gay people to go to.”

Dublin Gay Pride parade float
Dublin Gay Pride parade float | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Between 1975 and 2015, dozens of LGBTQ community and support groups and organizations formed. Those involved with the Yes Equality campaign represent only a tiny fraction. Some were and are mostly social clubs, organizing events and getaways and festivals for queer Irish folx, some had or have mostly political goals. All strive to improve the lives and expand the rights of Ireland’s LGBT citizens, and to improve relations with Ireland’s profoundly heteronormative citizens. McDonagh suggests that the 2015 Referendum evidences their success, the long-term impact of those efforts in the 1970s and 80s, the regular exposure to and humanizing of LGBT people. Sensational celebrities like Rory O’Neill, whose drag stage name is Pantibliss, have appeared on talk shows and at Ireland’s many festivals. A number of popular politicians have come out as gay, or run for office already out; between 2017 and just recently, Leo Varadkar, who came out publicly in 2015 while he was Health Minister, was the first openly gay taoiseach [teeshook] of Ireland. 

Averill: These efforts to change Irish perceptions of lesbian and gay people have undoubtedly been successful to some degree. Charlie Bird’s collection of oral histories, which include men and women who came out to families and friends in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, are largely positive. Fathers and mothers who tell children “you’ll always be my son/daughter, I love you,” sisters and brothers who hug their siblings and say “of course you are, I love you.” 

Marissa: And while the work of the activists in the 70s and 80s may have paved the way for the positive coming out stories, there are just as many imperfect stories. Mothers who cry and ask what they did wrong, a father who tells his son that being gay is a lonely life and he never wanted that for him. Much of the successes and failures can be chalked up to family dynamics, but undoubtedly one has to consider the societal pressures and perceptions that would lead a parent to fear that a daughter who seeks love from another woman could not find happiness. 

Averill: In January 2014, Rory O’Neill appeared on the RTE show The Saturday Night Show, “talking about what it felt like to be gay in Ireland. He said that, despite the positive change in attitude toward gay people, there remained some, particularly in the public eye, who were ‘really horrible and mean about gays’. The show’s host asked O’Neil to name those public figures, and though he hesitated, O’Neil said, “Oh well the obvious ones. You know Breda O’Brien today, oh my God you know banging on about gay priests and all. The usual suspects, the John Waters and all of those people, the Iona Institute crowd.” 

Marissa: As the authors of Ireland Says Yes put it, “all hell broke loose” in the wake of what folks called “Pantigate.” The Iona Institute sued RTE for defamation, for letting O’Neill’s accusation that the Iona Institute was homophobic air on television. RTE apologized to the Iona Institute, and paid them damages – which really enraged a lot of people. There were protests outside RTE headquarters in Dublin. On social media, letters to the editor and the like, people asked how one was supposed to challenge homophobia if one was not allowed to say when something or someone was being homophobic? Significantly, Noel Whelan, who would go on to be one of the leaders of the Yes Equality campaign, and thus set the tone for the campaign, wrote in the Irish Times “in their anxiety to advance the issue of gay rights, some liberals indeed are seeking to set aside the basic tenets of free speech’ and that his worry ‘at this early stage of the campaign is that the intolerance shown by some liberal advocates on the issue will undermine the prospects of achieving constitutional reform.”

Averill: We’ll get to what that meant for the Yes Equality campaign in a minute. I wanted to share the deeply rooted challenges, and these imperfections, to give perspective to the 2015 referendum. I will never forget in 2013, just 2 years before this momentous vote, when I was at the National Archive of Ireland, I was requesting all these court records – sodomy and gross indecency cases that I’d identified through the State Books – and one day, after several weeks of bringing up these documents, one of the workers asked me what I was looking for. When I said same-sex sex, his eyes just got kind of wide, and he didn’t say another word, just sort of backed away slowly and returned to his mates – I presume to tell them what the American girl was up to. 

Marissa: Well into the 1990s, including after decriminalization, Fromer’s Guide to Ireland – the famous guidebook series – cautioned LGBT visitors to be discreet in rural parts of the country, and even in Dublin and Cork, outside of the gay-friendly South Great George’s St or Temple Bar. Gay bashings were all too common in 1980s and 1990s Ireland, and as suggested by the Charles Self case, the Garda were not always helpful to gay victims of violence. 

Averill: So I think that a Yes on the marriage equality referendum was never a sure thing. Stigma lingers in Ireland. All the more reason, though, that what the Yes Equality folks did deserves recognition. 

Marissa: The Yes Equality campaign was a coalition effort of three key Irish rights groups: the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, and Marriage Equality. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties takes on a wide range of group  that has been around since 1988, and built upon David Norris’s European Human Rights Court win to decriminalize homosexuality. They’d been active throughout the 1990s, lobbying for workplace equality for lesbian and gay people, which they succeeded in through legislation in 1998, and full protection in the provision of goods and services, passed in 2000. Marriage Equality was explicitly a group that was, shocker, pushing for marriage equality. They initially approached the issue through the courts, attempting in 2004 to challenge Ireland’s internal revenue’s refusal to recognize Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan’s Canadian marriage license. Their legal battle was continuously unsuccessful, but they became the leading group dedicated to marriage equality. GLEN had worked with parliamentarians to pass a civil unions bill in 2010. The members of Marriage Equality were never going to be satisfied with a civil unions bill; in 2011, after the Civil Partnerships bill passed, Marriage Equality launched a Just Love? Campaign, partly, according to Sonja Tiernan, to ensure that activists did not become complacent after the implementation of civil partnerships. When Yes Equality came together in 2014, their mission too was marriage – anything else would mark same-sex couples as second-class citizens.

Averill: The three organizations were first pulled together in 2013 when Ireland held its first ever Constitutional Convention to address much-needed updates to the 1937 Constitution. While Ireland’s constitution had been amended some 30+ times since 1937, the 2012 coalition government between Fine Gael and the Labour Party was predicated on a pledge to organize a Constitutional Convention. The Convention was to meet at least eight times between 2012-2014, and make recommendations for potential amendments on a range of issues. (I actually think the other issues that were debated and recommended during the Convention are super interesting, and maybe worth returning to at some point – reducing the presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections; reducing the voting age to 17; review of the Dáil electoral system; giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections at Irish embassies, or otherwise; amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life; increasing the participation of women in politics; removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; and following completion of the above reports, such other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it. Obviously the marriage referendum took place, as did a vote to remove the criminalization of blasphemy, a referendum vote that passed in 2018. Some of the recommendations were dealt with at the Oireachtas level, some – like lowering the voting age to 16 – were tabled in favor of other “more pressing issues,” and others – like amending the clause on women, have been studied and debated endlessly, and curiously naught has been done to amend it yet. Hm.) 

Marissa: Until 2015, Article 41, Section 1 of the Constitution stated that “the State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack.” Previously attempted same-sex marriage bills, and David Norris’ 2004 Civil Partnerships which would confer all the same benefits of marriage upon civil partners, were deemed untenable and unconstitutional. While legal scholar Brian Tobin argues that the language was not actually a barrier to a same-sex marriage bill, interest groups and legislators both believed same-sex marriage to be an “attack” on marriage, which was unofficially but universally defined in Ireland as between a man and a woman. Ultimately the Convention members recommended that the Constitution amendment be changed to require that marriage was to be permitted without distinction as to the sex of those involved, rather than simply allowing for such a provision in undefined language. 

Averill: The marriage clause was debated in the Convention in April 2013, and the ICCL, GLEN, and Marriage Equality were all invited to speak to the convention in support of a change of the constitution. The Irish Bishops’ Conference, the Knights of Columbanus, and the Evangelical Association of Ireland were all invited to speak in opposition. Each side of the debate were given 30 minutes to address the convention. The ICCL, GLEN, and Marriage Equality put together a panel that included individuals to speak to the legal benefits to same-sex couple-headed families, international trends toward recognition of same sex marriages or the equivalent, legal changes that would need to be made to issues like adoption, parenting, and guardianship, and evidence that same-sex couple-headed families did not have adverse effects on the development of children. The Yes side also had parents of gay children, children who’d been raised by lesbian or gay parents, and gay men and lesbians speak during their panel. On the No side, the invited groups discussed the Catholic Church’s absolute and unwavering position on the issue. In addition to these formally invited speakers, the Secretariat of the COnvention received over 1000 submissions from groups and individuals in Ireland who supported or opposed the potential provision for same-sex marriage, and he presented that evidence to the conventioners as well. 

Fianna Fáil poster in support of the Thirty-Fourth Amendment
Fianna Fáil poster in support of the Thirty-Fourth Amendment | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The Convention voted overwhelmingly with the Yes side. According to Una Mullally, 79% voted to change the constitution, 78% favored mandatory wording that would provide for the protection of marriage without distinction as to sex in the constitution; and 81% voted for the state to enact laws that would protect the children, parents, and guardianship in same-sex couple-headed households. Ross Golden Bannon, one of the panelists on the Yes side, remembered “We were leaving and this very elderly conventioner, one of the one hundred, this very elderly man was leaving. And he was so infirm he had to hold on to the bannisters to go down the stairs. And he stopped and he grabbed my arm and he said, “this is your republic too. This is your republic too. I voted for you.’ I was just completely overwhelmed. Completely overwhelmed that a man of his age had come so far and felt so strongly about us being really part of the Republic. I was just blown away. And people had a lot of stories like that.” Few of the Convention’s debates had such a decisive set of recommendations and votes supporting the recommendations. The government had committed to responding to Convention recommendations within 4 months. In August, the Taoiseach announced that a vote to amend the constitution would take place in spring 2015. The referendum would introduce language protecting marriage between two people without distinction to sex  The three organizations that had led the panel discussion at the convention reconvened to start mobilizing the Irish vote in favor of the marriage equality referendum. 

Averill: Marriage Equality, GLEN, and ICCL got to work in autumn 2014 to map out their game plan, establish a social media presence for their cause, and form a steering committee. They shopped around for a campaign name and identity for a while, rejecting anything that was too confrontational or explicitly queer. No rainbow flags or intertwined Venus and Mars symbols here. They went with the bold “Yes Equality,” with a logo in primary colors. According to the co-authors of Ireland Says Yes, who were also the co-chairs of the Yes Equality campaign, “It did not identify the campaign as lesbian, or gay, or LGBT, but identified it as the collective values of Irish people. It would not be about ‘them’ – lesbian and gay couples, isolated, apart from, not fully integrated with their broader families and communities. This campaign would create an identity in which everyone could see themselves and the values they would be happy to stand up and vote for.” 

Marissa: The campaign did not have a lot of money, but they had grassroots potential. They pulled in various college campus groups to push a sort of Obama-esque “rock the vote” vibe, because only 19% of those under twenty-five had voted in the senate referendum in October 2013. They mobilized social media and key hashtags to make their messages viral without spending precious euros on advertising. They encouraged individuals and the small LGBTQ support and social groups across the country, in every little town and village, to engage their neighbors in conversations. They implored young people to call their grannies and ask them to vote Yes. Building on the success of the personal stories at the Constitutional Convention, they launched the “I’m voting Yes–Ask me why” campaign. Rather than standing on street corners and shouting at people to vote yes, they tried to engage the fence-sitters in conversations, to create opportunities for empathy. As one commentator noted, the Catholic hierarchy and other opposition groups campaigned from the head – theologically, philosophically, same-sex marraige defied the Church’s rules – while the Yes side campaigned from the heart. Every vote was personal. 

Averill. (It’s almost like the personal is political. Thanks second wave feminists.) In addition to the Yes Equality group, Fine Gael and Labour were openly and collectively in support of the referendum, as were numerous Irish celebrities like Colin Farrell, Bono, and country music star Daniel O’Donnell. Individual members of Fianna Fail were supportive of the referendum, though not the party as a whole. When the Yes, Equality team officially launched their campaign in March 2015 – they had to wait for the government to announce the actual date of the vote – it was attended by the Tánaiste, Joan Burton; Labour Party Minister, Alex White; Fianna Fáil Senator, Averil Power; and Fine Gael Minister, James Reilly. Notably, however, Averil Power resigned from Fianna Fáil because of their failure to collectively support the referendum. And though the Catholic Church as an institution was obviously opposed to the referendum, a number of individual priests came out publicly that they would be voting yes, and urged their parishioners to do the same. They in turn were lambasted by parishioners who opposed that position, and the hierarchy. 

Marissa: The Yes side really made a massive effort to corral all their support under one umbrella – even, at times, trying to censor actions that could be construed as too confrontational or rebellious. According to Healy and Sheehan, the co-chairs of Yes Equality, they didn’t wish to control all the content that was produced in support of the campaign (and they couldn’t) but they did play “a part in moderating the tone of the debate and coverage on social media, intervening where it could. At a press conference that took place in late April, the day after the website of pro-life Youth Defence group had been hacked and pro-marriage equality messages placed on it, Gráinne criticised the hackers, saying that those who engaged in such activity were of no assistance to the marriage equality cause. At about the same time many Twitter users began replacing the photos on their accounts with a photo of a prominent No campaigner, Breda O’Brien, overlaid with the Vote Yes twibbon. Yes Equality staff contacted those they knew, asking them to change them back again and once more sent out the word, both online and offline, that this kind of behaviour was counterproductive. While acknowledging the frustration many felt, especially at tweets from some of those opposed to the referendum that were deliberately provocative, Yes Equality encouraged its own activists towards positive messaging.”

Averill: Despite attempts to manage the tone of the campaign, of course, this was a highly emotional vote, and both sides attacked with vigor. According to one BBC article, “Activists from the No camp say they are regularly “shouted down” by their Yes side opponents, while LGBT campaigners say they have been subjected to demeaning posters and pamphlets, including one that likened voting for same sex marriage, to voting for Sharia.” The Alliance for the Defence of the Family and Marriage distributed leaflets that “instructed” readers that same-sex desiring people get cancer earlier in life, that same-sex marraige was “short-lived” and “promiscuous,” and that persecution of Christians would “surely follow.” The Iona Institute, which tried to peddle decades-old studies of single-parent households as evidence that same-sex marriages was bad for children, and commissioned a legal brief to assess how the referendum would impact the “government’s ability to roll back the Children and Family Relationships Act of 2015, which provided more legal protections to same-sex couples, including adoption rights. Ultimately the No side campaigned on the basis that their definition of marriage and family were the only or ‘correct’ definition of marriage or family, as demonstrated in the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference publication, “Why Marriage Matters.” The Yes Equality’s approach, which demonstrated over and over that in people’s lived and actual experience, that heteronormative vision of family was not the only definition of marriage or family. Single-parent families, same-sex couple-headed families, families with adopted or IVF-produced children, and a range of other stories told evidenced the absolute contrary, and swayed enough voters to recognize those varied experiences of marriage and family. 

Marissa: The polls opened at 7am on May 22, 2015. According to Sonja Tiernan, “Voting turnout was remarkably high for a referendum, with 60.52 per cent of those entitled to vote showing up at polling stations around the country. This was in fact the highest recorded turnout since November 1995, when 62.2 per cent turnout was recorded for the divorce referendum.” In the last 10 or so years, Ireland has made some changes to their voting and citizenship laws. Irish citizenship is obtained through birth, descent, marriage to an Irish citizen, or through naturalisation. “Birth” in this case means being born to an Irish parent, so jus sanguinis rather than jus soli like we have in the US. This means that non-EU immigrants born in Ireland have to go through the process of naturalization to get citizenship. Citizenship by descent is interesting, as people who have one or more Irish grandparents can claim Irish citizenship, even if they’ve never been to Ireland themselves! Those eligible to vote are citizens who’ve not been living abroad for more than 18 months and who declare that they “intend to return” … at some point. There were no options for those voters to do mail-in, so they had to fly home in order to cast votes. According to Tiernan, thousands did; there were 72,000 mentions of #HomeToVote on Twitter on May 22 and 23.

Averill: When the vote tallies started rolling in, the Yes Equality campaigners were nervous. Most of the polls were projecting in their favor, but the No campaigners were very effective in their use of the “Silent No” to strike fear into the hearts of the Yes side. Back in 1995, when Ireland voted on a referendum to remove the ban on divorce from the constitution, the polls also skewed in favor of the removal, but the actual final vote tallies were much closer. That referendum only passed by 10,000 votes – a slim margin if ever there was one. Even though the Yes Equality team had taken up Nolan Whelan’s mantra to avoid calling those thinking of voting no “homophobic” (even if…they were), it was always still possible that there was a silent No majority lurking out there, not admitting to their opposition outloud but voting that way with their pens.

Marissa: But in the end, the Yes side did not need to worry. Only one constituency across the country had a No majority, Roscommon South Leitrim, which had a 51% majority – a difference of less than 4,000 people. 1,935,907 ballots were counted. 1,201,607 voted yes. Following the referendum, the Oireachtas [ear-rok-tus] passed a Civil Marriage bill, nullifying the lesser 2010 Civil Partnerships bill. And Ireland made some history.

Averill: Marriage between two individuals is fundamentally a conservative way to imagine and define families and sexual relationships. The way that Healy, Sheehan, and Whelan describe their own campaign for marriage equality in Ireland – the Yes Equality campaign – is itself also very conservative in nature. It resembles more the homophile movements of the 1950s in the US and Britain which projected a sort of heteronormative passing. When the Mattachine Society protested in Washington DC, they dressed in the uniform of the white middle class – suits and slicked-back hair for the men, dresses and lipstick for the women. Even as they protested, they did so in a non-confrontational way, as if to say “Hey, we’re just like you straight people – we just want that suburban American dream that you all want. Oh, and for our very existence to not be a crime, of course.” Ireland is a country where 84% of its population still identifies as Catholic, even if not nearly that number are practicing. The opposition to the vote was led primarily by Catholic priests and Catholic-adjacent groups like the Iona Institute. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that as recently as October 2020 the best Pope Francis could do was affirm that God’s gay children deserve civil unions — but never marriage. 

Marissa: As John Hirschle has shown, regular church attendance has decreased significantly since the mid-1990s. Significantly, attendance has decreased steadily as Ireland’s GDP per capita has increased. GDP per capita rose from about US$13,500 in 1988 to over US$35,000 in 2005, whereas church attendance has gone from 85% to less than 60% reporting monthly attendance. While those numbers were trending opposite, Ireland finally came to terms with the open secrets and actual secrets of their Church’s abuses – the Magdalene laundries, child sex abuse, priests with illegitimate children all over the country. Blind obedience to the Church and its representatives has clearly decreased. Whether improved economic circumstances or the earth-shattering revelations of the Church’s abuses came first may be a chicken or egg situation. Whatever the case, both sets of circumstances seem to have decreased Ireland’s blind faith in the pulpit. But shockingly (to me), neither has fully obliterated Ireland’s ties to Catholicism. According to the 2011 census data, still more than 67% of Roman Catholics attended church at least once / month, with 41% attending weekly. That number spiked considerably during the 2007 economic crisis. It will be interesting to see the numbers from the 2021 faith survey, to gain some perspective on how numbers have fared in the wake of the 2015 marriage equality referendum, and the 2018 abortion vote. 

Averill: We will have to follow up this episode next year with the actual data, but I’m going to pose my hypothesis. I think that the actual church attendance numbers will be pretty steady. Not just because 39 percent of the eligible Irish population didn’t vote at all. There is little chance that the non-voters are also the people who are attending mass weekly – on the contrary, I’d guess that there were many weekly attenders on both sides of the vote. I think that if we consider the way that the Yes Equality organization framed their campaign, and side-stepped the theological implications in favor of the empathy/sympathy vote and equal rights narrative, it makes sense that even some of the faithful would have voted Yes. The Yes campaign had a couple – not many, mind you – Catholic priests to speak on their behalf, and lots of Christian leaders more generally. They built their campaign on the idea that marriage is an expression of love, and questions like, why would you deny me or my children the right to have that with the people we love? They talked about pedaling away from the “queer” politics to the family-centric politics that are, after all, at the core of Irish Catholicism. 

Marissa: According to Eithne Luibhéid, “Same-sex marriage is deeply homonormalizing because it offers a means to incorporate select LGBT people into a key state- and nation-making technologies that have deep roots in conquest, empire, and war, and moreover, depends on and reproduces normative gender, racialized inequalities, and economic disparities.” In the Irish case, homonormalizing is achieved under the umbrella of normative family units. The Family is a literal section heading in the Irish constitution, and is an institution protected by the state. This referendum only tweaked the model a tiny bit. Still permitting only a two-person marriage, still encouraging nuclear family units, still empowering an orthodox view of social organization. 

Averill: The 2015 Referendum was a victory! We are not suggesting otherwise. But it’s always important to ask – for whom is this a victory? And if when there are people left behind, when victory is for some, or when victory reproduces systems of oppression, it’s the victors’ job to recognize that. And challenge that. And maybe work to dismantle that. Just a thought. 

Marissa: Thanks for listening. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter at dig_history. You can join our exclusively inclusive Facebook group, Dig History Pod Squad, a place to share your history finds and favorite memes and revel in the glory of a community of historians. And if you’re interested in supporting the show, you can become a patron and make a monthly contribution at patreon.com/digpodcast, or visit our swag store on TeePublic to bedeck yourself in cozy witchy sweatshirts and penis tree mugs. Thanks to all who supported us in 2020, and to all our new listeners, welcome to the show!

Bibliography and Further Reading

Ed. Charlie Bird and Colm Toibin, A Day in May : Real Lives, True Stories, (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2016).

Averill Earls, “Solicitor Brown and His Boy: Love, Sex, and Scandal in Twentieth-Century Ireland,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques, vol. 46, no. 1, (March 2020). [[Yes, that’s me!]]

Averill Earls, “Unnatural Offences of English Import: The Political Association of Englishness and Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century Irish Nationalist Media,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 28, no. 3, (September 2019), 396-424.

Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin

Brenda Gray, “Mobility, Connectivity and Non-Resident Citizenship: Migrant Social Media Campaigns in the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum,” Sociology, Vol. 53(4)  (2019) 634–651.

Grainne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, Ireland Says Yes : The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015). 

Brian Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures 

Eithne Luibhéid, “Same-sex marriage and the pinkwashing of state migration controls,” International Feminist Journal Of Politics, Vol. 20, No. 3, (2018) 405–424

Patrick McDonagh, “‘Homosexuals Are Revolting’: Gay & Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland 1970s-1990s,” Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies, n. 7 (2017), pp. 65-91.

Una Mullally, In the Name of Love (2014)

Elizabeth O’Connor, “Discourse, performativity and the Irish marriage equality referendum debate,” Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, vol. 8 no. 1, 81-93. 

Sonja Tiernan, The History of Marriage Equality in Ireland: A Social Revolution Begins. (Manchester University Press, 2020)

Brian Tobin, “Marriage Equality in Ireland: The Politico-Legal Context,”  30 Int’l J.L. Pol. & Fam. 115 (2016), 115-130.


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