Same-sex marriage: gay couples await people’s decision

‘It’s a terrible thing to ask all the people can you get married and to think they might say No’

Orla Howard and Grainne Courtney

For a long time, says Orla Howard, she has pictured “walking up the hill, as a family, to the polling station.”

Orla has been campaigning for equal marriage for years and the whole family have become immersed in the campaign. Her partner Grainne Courtney describes herself as a “marriage equality widow”.

In 2012 they got married in New York, on the Staten Island Ferry. “We didn’t want to get civil partnered so we went to New York,” says Grainne. “There was no sign marriage was going to be on the cards in 2012.”


“Back home it was downgraded to a civil partnership,” says Orla.

The distinction matters hugely to them, and it matters to their daughters Clare (24) and Daire (20). “The thing for me when I was younger was always that if something happened to mum I wasn’t sure where our family would be,” says Daire. “I wasn’t sure if Orla could keep being our parent legally…. I always knew that our family wasn’t equal, in the eyes of the state anyway. We were always equal in the eyes of our friends.”

The referendum has been an emotional experience. “It’s been very hard to listen to people talking about how our families don’t measure up,” says Grainne.

On the other hand they’re moved by the outpouring of support. “Something very profound has changed,” she says. She says that “a no vote would be unthinkable.”

"It's a terrible, difficult thing to have to ask all the people of Ireland can you get married and to think they might say 'no'," says Grainne. "Then where would you be left?... We just want to be recognised for what we are: a boring family in deep suburbia in a semi-detached house."

Michael Barron and Jaime Nanci

Michael and Jaime met nine years ago and moved in together "almost immediately". They got married five years ago in South Africa "but it's tangible that when you go home your marriage is downgraded to something that is less than that… If a heterosexual couple get married in Rome their marriage is automatically recognised. They don't have to do anything else."

Ultimately, says Michael, this referendum is about “what our state thinks about our relationship. Our own state doesn’t think our relationship is valuable.”

Neither of them think a referendum like this is a particularly fair way to go about recognising same-sex marriages. “I think there are better ways of doing it,” says Michael. “The idea of putting a minority’s rights to a private vote is, in general, a terrible idea.”

They have been actively campaigning and feel a bit worn out by it all. “We’ve been waking up at five in the morning all the time,” says Michael. “With the adrenalin.”

“It will be a huge weight off,” says Jaime. “For the last few months it’s been like a warzone - feeling insults everywhere you go. When it’s over it’s going to be a huge relief first and foremost.”

The flipside of this, he says, is seeing “the visibility and camaraderie and all that love and respect. [If it passes] it will mean something huge, beyond marriage.”

“When I was coming of age you were destined not even to have a long term relationship,” he says. “Gay people met in the dark. That was it. It was just driven into you.”

“The world then and now is just completely different,” says Michael.

Kit Geraghty and Darragh Staunton

“I’m just excited to vote for the first time,” says 18-year-old Darragh Staunton.

“I’ve wanted to vote for years,” says his 18-year-old boyfriend, Kit Geraghty, “because I’ve always cared about stuff but I’m really happy that this is the first thing I get to vote on.”

They were always optimistic about equal marriage becoming a reality. “When I was younger I looked up the countries where gay people could get married,” says Kit. “I assumed it would be here by the time I’d be old enough.”

But the run-up to the referendum has been an interesting experience for them. Darragh was sad to hear a lot of the negative “opinions” (he makes the quote symbol with his hands) because “I’ve never had a bad experience with my sexuality at all.”

Kit seems a little less surprised. “A lot of people don’t see queer people as the same as straight people,” says Kit. “They treat you as lesser, the people who bully you or whatever.”

On the other hand, they say, it’s fantastic to see all the people wearing ‘yes’ badges and all the businesses expressing their support for the yes side. They’ve been involved in the campaign (not as much as Darragh would like due to his Leaving Cert) but they’re feeling a little tired. “I’ll be happy to go back to normal life after this,” says Kit.

A ‘No’ vote is inconceivable to them. “It would be catastrophic for a lot of gay people for mental health reasons,” says Darragh.

A ‘Yes’ vote, he says, would mean “Ireland is changing for the better.”

“I don’t intend to get married any time soon,” says Kit. “But a yes vote will mean my country accepts me for who I am.”

Seamus Moore and Gearoid Kenny

Seamus always had a “romantic” notion that his partner Gearoid would ask his brother for his hand in marriage. “And now we’re asking permission from millions of people,” he says with a sad laugh.

Whatever happens, they are marrying in September. The first time Gearoid saw Seamus, in 2009 at the Dublin LGBT running club, Frontrunners, he knew he’d marry him. “My friends tease me because I’m level-headed and logical and don’t tend to do this kind of dramatic outburst of emotion. But the first time I saw him, I knew.”

The idea of marriage never even entered their heads when they were younger. “Never mind marriage,” says Gearoid. “I assumed as a gay man I had no future in Ireland.”

“I always hoped I’d end up living with someone,” says Seamus, who came out in his early thirties. “But I never thought we could get married. So it’s very emotional.”

But this is about much more than their right to marry in September, says Gearoid, “it’s also about being accepted as an equal in society.”

“It’s made me stronger as a person,” says Seamus. “The idea of [canvassing] really freaked me out. Even Gay Pride - I never would have done that - but now I think I will. This has given me confidence and I think it’s the same for the whole gay community. It’s okay to be gay. It’s okay to be seen to be gay.”

And now they have to wait. “It feels like the Leaving Cert is starting and we’re hoping to do well,” says Seamus. “It’s that sense of ‘Oh my God’. Being gay for the last ten years is all culminating in this. Will people accept us? If they don’t, that’s going to be really hard to take. But whatever happens, it’s made us stronger.”

Una Mullally and Sarah Francis

“I’ve run through it in my head a million times,” says Irish Times columnist Una Mullally, “visualising voting and visualising trying not to cry and crying when I visualised trying not to cry. I think it means more than anything I’ve ever done.”

Una and her partner, Sarah Francis have been fighting for this for years. “It comes down to equality and inclusiveness,” says Sarah, “to saying ‘we’re all the same.’”

“My siblings have all got married, so many friends have got married and I love weddings,” says Una. “But there’s such a sadness because you’re sitting there thinking ‘this is for other people and I’m excluded for this.’ I always get quite sad at weddings.”

They have no immediate plans to get married, says Una and she laughs, “But the question that straight people have been plagued with, we might now have to answer.”

They've been hurt by the 'no' campaign's characterisation of their lives but they're moved by the support they've seen coming from straight friends and businesses and once silent politicians. Una recalls early marriage equality rallies with only a few dozen people attending. Sarah remembers being one of only two members of the LGBT Society she formed when she was in college. "I've been crying so much," she says.

A ‘no’ vote is hard for them to think about. They have discussed with friends the possibility of leaving the country if that were to happen. “It would be the most devastating blow that anyone could give to you,” says Una.

“A huge gut punch,” says Sarah.

Una hopes that Ireland is kinder than that. “I don’t think any more about holding [Sarah’s] hand and the consequences of holding it on the street,” she says. “If anything I hold it tighter because you know you’re somehow protected by solidarity.”

Feargha ni Bhroin and Linda Cullen

On Friday morning Feargha and Linda’s five-year-old twin daughters mistook the news that Ireland hadn’t got into the Eurovision final for news that the referendum had been rejected. “They were shocked,” says Linda.

They have to turn the radio off a lot in their house. “Because our family structure is being attacked,” says Linda. On the morning of their fifth birthday the girls woke to find a poster outside their window declaring “Every child deserves a mother and a father.” Linda worries how they might explain a “no” vote to the children in “a way that’s not awful.”

The last few weeks have been very emotional, she says. “The question has been asked now and I almost can’t contain my tears because I don’t know which way it’s going to be.”

Marriage is hugely important to them. “I don’t even have guardianship of my own children and it’s devastating and frightening,” says Linda. Linda and Feargha are “civilly partnered” but the experience was bittersweet. “We had a great day with our families but it was also quite a sad day. In the hotel they were lovely, but they kept called it the ‘wedding.’ It wasn’t. You need to call it what it is.”

That said, things have changed and they are hopeful. “When I was younger I thought [marriage] was just impossible,” says Feargha. “I never really lifted my head and looked at myself in comparison to other people... I always saw my life as not quite the same - that I couldn’t have the same expectations other people had.”

Feargha and Linda wish their parents were still alive to see the change. “They were observing us at a time pre-decriminalisation that was very frightening,” says Feargha.

“I was looking at old photos of them recently,” says Linda, “and I was thinking - “you’ll never guess how it turned out.’”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times