On Friday, Irish citizens overwhelmingly showed their support for same-sex marriage legalization, passing a referendum by more than 60 percent. This made Ireland, a traditionally conservative nation, the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Only one of the nation’s 43 parliamentary constituencies failed to pass the measure. With 60 percent voter turnout, the final tally announced Saturday was 1,201,607 in favor, 734,300 against.
Patrick Mullen, an associate professor of English and an expert in Irish and English culture, is in Ireland with students for a Northeastern Dialogue of Civilizations program. Here, he discusses the experience of being there for the landmark vote and how the vote came to be.
What was it like to be in Ireland during this historic vote?
It has been an incredible experience. The energy in Dublin over the weekend was electric as people cast their votes and waited for the results. Everyone you met talked about how transformative the experience was for the entire country. The stories people had of casting their votes were very powerful—friends described standing in the voting box almost stunned that they were able to cast a vote, going over the form again and again to make sure that they’d filled it out correctly. Flights from London were sold out the day before as people flew home to vote.
I think that people believed deeply in a sense of human dignity. The vote here seems to have become something much broader, a richer embrace of human worth. Interestingly, there were not a spate of marriages that took center stage—instead it was about how enthusiastically the nation embraced all of its citizens. There is a line from James Joyce’s Ulysses that seems apt: “love loves to love love”… it was a very loving weekend.
In what ways did Irish culture play a role in the outcome of this vote?
“Irish culture” is a phrase that means so much to people in Boston but I’ve always thought that there is a real disconnect between what actually goes on in Ireland and what Americans think being Irish is all about. I know that students that I bring on my yearly Dialogue of Civilizations to Dublin find that Ireland is nothing like what they expected. The vote came to figure much more than simply granting access to marriage. Talking to people revealed that the vote symbolized a rejection of the religious authoritarianism of the Catholic Church that marked the 20th century, a rejection of fear and paranoia, an embrace of fairness and equality, and an embrace of dignity and modernity.
What factors led Ireland to go from a country that criminalized homosexuality in the 1990s to being the first nation to ever put same-sex marriage to a popular vote?
Ireland only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. A national referendum to make divorce legal only passed by a very thin margin in 1995. Two factors played an important role in the historic shift that has occurred over the past 30 years.
The first is the collapse of the moral authority of the Catholic Church. The sex abuse scandals, the brutal history of the Magdalene asylums in which supposedly “fallen” women were confined, the mother and baby homes where children born out of wedlock were hidden away—these scandals revealed the violence and oppression behind the Church’s political and economic power over the country.
On the other hand, the women’s movement and lesbian and gay activists worked tirelessly to change things. With the vote this weekend, the country seems to agree that they have succeeded.