Hilary Fannin: Dublin was the biggest closet in living history

‘There were women, friends, who genuinely didn’t know each other were gay,’ says my friend Janice as she prepares to get married

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

A number of years ago my husband became seriously ill in London. He received treatment, came back home and became ill again. His hospitalisation in Dublin meant I could go and see him, get back to our kids and manage a life.

One day, as I was about to step into the lift, having left the ward, a member of the team called me back urgently.

The consultant was doing his rounds, and I was being invited back to hear his latest findings.

Eight years ago Helen’s lover and life partner became ill and was hospitalised in Dublin. Helen waited with her partner for the consultant to arrive. When he did, Helen was instructed to leave the room or the consultation would not continue. She left, stood outside the door and wept with anger.

Eight years later Helen sits at a manicurist’s table in Dublin, delicate fingers spread out on a white towel. Behind her, at another table, her fiancee and civil partner, Janice, also sits, fingers splayed, her nails uncommonly maroon.

“I’ll have to hold my hands up beside my ears so everyone can see this,” Janice says with wry wonder.

When the 20 nails are dry, Janice, Helen and I retire to the smooth-talking, chandelier-lit bar of the hotel they are staying in. We order coffee and peppermint tea. Outside the high windows the sky is grey; a tempest called Imogen is gathering, taunting the trees on St Stephen’s Green. On this morning, though, even the rain seems celebratory, Imogen’s elemental power fuels a moving and proud day.

Today Janice and Helen will marry. In an hour or two the hair and make-up person will arrive. Helen’s dress (short and white), her vintage coat and her gorgeous shoes will come out of their wrappings. Janice’s white Hawaiian shirt will slip off the hanger. The couple will be escorted into their wedding car by top-hatted porters. They will drive to City Hall, their car decked in rainbow ribbons. Today a lifetime of discrimination ends.

When Janice and I were little girls, shivering in our grey school jumpers, we would walk around and around the tennis courts of our convent school, beads in our grubby fingers, reciting decades of the rosary.

It was unimaginable back in those bouffant days, under those virgin blue skies, that two women could marry, could have the same constitutional rights as any other couple in the country.

“Dublin was the biggest closet in living history,” Janice says of the years that followed. “No one turned on a light. There were women, friends, who genuinely didn’t know each other were gay.”

“Then someone lit a match,” Helen adds. “It was probably the boom. People travelled more, international companies came in to Ireland.”

Their commitment to one another is profound, palpable, and they put their heart and soul into their civil partnership. But civil partnership was an institution that could be abolished by a future government. On the morning of the ceremony, conducted in the rose garden of their local park by the same humanist minister who would later officiate at their marriage, the women were looking over their shoulders. It is hard to let go of a lifetime’s awareness of other people’s chagrin and disrespect.

Other people’s helpful remarks could be equally as puzzling. “But you could have any man in the room” was a phrase Helen was expected to stoically endure for years.

And then the referendum. A No vote would have been reason, they say, to leave the country. But a No vote didn’t happen. Gloriously, beautifully, the country’s answer was Yes.

“This is like Narnia,” Helen says, with such tenderness and honesty that I have to look into my coffee cup. I feel overwhelmed.

Human rights

I remember when my husband and I lashed over to Edinburgh to get married, because my brother had offered to mind the kids for the weekend and we were vaguely worried about paternal rights in the event that I stepped under the 46A. It never entered my head to question why my human rights, so casually taken for granted, should be denied to my friends.

Imogen is dancing in the trees, the coffee cups are empty, there is joyful business to attend to.

In a matter of hours Helen Crawford and Janice Walsh will be married. Momentarily, the thought stills us all.

“I hope your mascara is waterproof,” I say to Helen.

“I’ll be armed to the teeth with tissues,” Janice replies. “Armed to the teeth.”

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