A great weekend for an Ireland which changed a long time ago
The 1.2 million people who voted yes to marriage equality introduced the rest of the world to a new, modern Ireland which has held sway for some time
Strange times for daydreamers. For years, it’s always struck me as weird to live in a country which bore no resemblance whatsoever to the country which people often described when they talked about Ireland, The country outlined in broad brushstrokes and clunky shorthand by people home and away never quite chimed with the country I saw around me every day of the week.
The country I lived in came across as kind, warm, generous, mad, bold, insanely unpredictable and as odd as two left feet. It was occasionally contrary, irritating, exasperating and infuriating, but all of that was trumped by love, mischief, curiosity, concern and downright decency. It was a country full of contradictions to be sure, but the good side always came out on top.
It certainly wasn’t the country so many people described as Ireland, a place which sounded more like a museum piece with its hide-bound traditions and terrible secrets and allegiance to a dusty, musty, fusty past. So much so that I often thought my Ireland was just a figment of an over-active imagination.
Sometimes, though, you realise you are not daydreaming at all. You also cop on that you are most definitely not alone.
For 48 crazy hours on Friday and Saturday, the real Ireland shone like a diamond. People went out and voted yes in their droves up and down and across the country to the simple idea that a man who loves a man and a woman who loves a woman could get married to their partners in a civil ceremony. The votes were counted and over 1.2 million people said yes (let’s note for the record that over 17,000 of them were in the much maligned constituency of Roscommon and South Leitrim) to those simple 17 words. Those numbers came from every corner and county. There were also a rake of no voters, but the majority swung very firmly to yes and it’s the majority who hold sway in a democracy, no matter what some might think.
This was not a victory for any particular set or class – this was a victory for an Ireland which was real and not imagined, an Ireland which is urban and rural, young and old, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein and all and none of the above. This was a victory for an Ireland who listened to the brave, deeply personal, hugely moving stories of so many people and decided that this was the Ireland they wanted to be in. They listened to what Ursula Halligan, Una Mullally, Colm Tóibín, Pat Carey and hundreds of others had to say (every morning seemed to bring another beautiful piece of honest writing which stopped you in your tracks) about their lives and something connected. They didn’t needed the modern scourge of celebrities or celebrity endorsements to tell them what they already knew. This was the Ireland they wanted to be a part of, a place with space for everyone.
It’s worth noting, though, that this Ireland didn’t suddenly pop up fully formed on Friday when the polling stations opened. Foreign media – and many commentators and pundits at home – may be astonished at Saturday’s result happening in traditional, Catholic Ireland, but they’re obviously following a much different set of notes about Ireland and need to actually spend some time here. Traditional, Catholic Ireland has not held sway here for some time. It still exists and it still has a part to play, but the vast majority in this country has moved on and up and beyond its shadow. The narrative has changed, changed utterly.
The country decided a long time ago that change was good. We grew up, looked around and decided that there was nothing to really get worked up about in the modern world’s mad mix of ideas, views, notions, styles and beliefs. When you hear people like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin talk about the need for a reality check for his church or look at the sour reaction from the no side to a democratic result, what you’re seeing is one of those fabled systems’ failure which we specialise in here. The country has changed, but these folks have either not realised this or don’t want to accept it. What may be even harder for them to accept is that there’s no going back.
Archbishop Martin’s reality check shouldn’t take that long to complete. When you see that thousands of people within the church – both people with public profiles like Fr Peter McVerry, Fr Iggy Donovan, Sr Stan, Fr Gerard Moloney and Mary McAleese and ordinary decent Catholics in parishes throughout the country – voted yes on Friday because they saw this as a civil rather than a church matter, the clergyman perhaps needs to ask himself if he’s taking his cues from the wrong people within. Is it time for a conscious decoupling from those lay organisations and institutions who no longer reflect the views of the majority? Is it time to say goodbye to that rigidly conservative Catholicism and lack of empathy with modern Ireland? What, indeed, would Oscar Romero do?
The Catholic Church isn’t the only institution which could do with one of those reality checks when it comes to the change which has took place over the last couple of decades. During the lead-up to the referendum, RTE’s coverage struck all the wrong notes. When it came to the red herrings bobbing around the matter before the electorate, RTE served them up with lashings of salt and vinegar and a couple of helpings of chips on the side. Even when the Referendum Commission made clear (and went so far as to repeat themselves), RTE kept on dishing up the red herrings.
But the public didn’t want red herrings for their breakfast or supper. While many fumed about the state of the set-piece debates on social media, many more simply turned off and that should be far more worrying for the broadcasters. This referendum wasn’t decided on the airwaves because most of us just were not tuning in. We realised that RTE were so scared shitless about balance that they abdicated their duties to properly hold both sides to account and the hard questions only went one way. It wasn’t just RTE either and many of the debates on other broadcasters were equally knee-deep in herrings.
Time for those TV and radio current affairs’ producers, researchers and presenters to cop on that Ireland has changed and to give those herrings a bit of a break. Indeed, when you have the same old raméis on the Marian Finucane radio show the morning after the night before, you have to say that the need for cop-on is long overdue. Time too for other commentators to realise that Ireland has moved on. It’s a hard thing to do, to let go of your pre-conceptions and ideas and opinions, and embrace change. But it has to be done because otherwise you’re writing about and commenting on a situation which no longer exists.
Instead, we live in a real country where 1.2 million picked up those pens and pencils in the polling booths and marked X in the yes box. I’m sure I was not alone in thinking about a lot of people when I went to vote on Friday. Young and old, alive and dead, people brave enough to express who they really were and people who just could not do so because of the Ireland of the past: this was a day for all of them. Voting yes won’t change everything – voting yes won’t rid us entirely of the casual homophobia which many gay people still face every day and voting yes doesn’t abdicate the strange notion that we needed to vote to award equality – but voting yes was confirmation that change had happened. Voting yes was about saying yes to the kind of Ireland we want to live in. Time to start daydreaming again because we really need more weekends like the one just gone by.