Changed Utterly: Reading about the 2015 Marriage Referendum

Author: Ed Madden (University of South Carolina)

In The Name Of Love The Movement For Marriage Equality In Ireland An Oral History

Ireland Says Yes

A Day In May Real Lives True Stories

















Una Mullally. In the Name of Love: The Movement for Marriage Equality in Ireland, An Oral History. Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2014, 286 pp.

Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan. Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won. Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016, 194 pp.

Charlie Bird. A Day in May: Real Lives, True Stories. Edited by Kevin Rafter. Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016, 253 pp.

“I think Ireland was changing. We wouldn’t have passed the referendum if we weren’t at a certain point.”[1] ~ Stephen Mannion Farrell

In a prologue added to the paperback edition of Woman in the Making, the memoir of Rory O’Neill (better known as Panti Bliss), O’Neill describes a Dublin radically changed by the 2015 marriage referendum: “As I sit here, writing this epilogue three days later, I am still over the gay moon and drunk on ‘yes.’ And earlier today as I walked through Dublin city centre, I saw gay couples casually holding hands as they strolled, and kissing each other goodbye at bus stops in the late spring sunshine, and it seemed to me that all was changed, changed utterly.”[2] The reference to spring suggests incremental change, but that Yeatsian turn at the end amplifies our sense that change was sweeping—all changed, changed utterly.

On May 22, 2015, Ireland became the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, not by judicial or legislative action, but by popular vote. The referendum added the following language to the Irish constitution: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”[3]

Much of the giddiness of post-referendum coverage—when we were, as O’Neill says, “drunk on ‘yes’”—focused on the unprecedented nature of the vote. The first nation in the world to approve marriage equality via public referendum. It was hard, in the days and months immediately after, not to get a little melodramatic. Fintan O’Toole waxed lyrical in the Irish Times. “There’s no ‘them’ anymore,” he wrote, “. . . We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”[4]

In the raft of media coverage before and after the referendum, there were a few smart analyses by queer Irish scholars. Anne Mulhall’s “The Republic of Love,” for example, offered a careful and insightful examination of the Irish campaign, tracing the effects of neoliberalism and austerity politics on the Irish vote, as well as demonstrating how the Irish campaign exceeded the usual American queer critique of same-sex marriage.[5] There were also a couple of really useful essays in the radical left magazine, Jacobin, by Michael Lee-Murphy, who praised the vote’s rejection of Catholic morality and social control, and by Aidan Beatty (author of the recently released Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938), who condemned the contemporary gay movement for its abandonment of a transformative politics for assimilation and respectability.[6]

Beyond these short pieces, three recent books help us to think more carefully—if not always more critically—about the marriage referendum. They move us beyond that “drunk on ‘yes’” giddiness to recognize that what seemed unprecedented was, in fact, the result of patterns long in the making.[7]

The first book, In the Name of Love: The Movement for Marriage Equality in Ireland, An Oral History, by journalist Una Mullally and published the year before the referendum, provides a complex cultural history for the vote. Mullally quilts a densely-woven narrative of oral histories. The sheer range of voices from established and emerging political perspectives is fascinating, but Mullally carefully includes contradictory, sometimes cranky, often bracingly-critical and self-critical voices, allowing fissures in the movement to be both visible and meaningful.

The official account of the Yes Equality campaign is Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won, written by the leaders of the campaign, Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, with a lovely forward by former President of Ireland Mary McAleese. If more narratively and politically cohesive, it is marked by the weaknesses one might expect of a hastily published post-campaign narrative—an impulse to justify and defend strategic decisions and an inclination to catalogue people and projects. The authors admit in the preface that the book is “an initial, and inevitably subjective, contribution to the early drafts of the history of that extraordinary campaign,”[8] but the subjectivity sometimes blurs into self-justification as the book remains in campaign mode, intent to justify not just the end but the means used to get there. Still, the book is an important window into the campaign, particularly revelatory about the campaign’s strategic use of polling, focus groups, and social media.

A third book, A Day in May: Real Lives, True Stories, brings together moving personal stories that emerged during the campaign—a capstone to the campaign’s reliance on personal stories as the “most useful canvassing tool.”[9] As one of Mullally’s participants puts it, “That was the core to it: the telling of the stories, the making individuals visible, making families visible, making partnerships visible.”[10] These short narratives, coupled with beautiful black and white photos of the speakers, were based on interviews conducted by former RTÉ journalist Charlie Bird and later edited by Kevin Rafter.

These are three very different books, each telling a different part of the story. All three books also make clear that this vote was the result of, as Ireland Says Yes makes clear, concentrated work. Of the three, I find In the Name of Love the best for thinking about the referendum historically, even though it ends with the August 2014 March for Marriage, in part because it recognizes the need to acknowledge competing voices and narratives, not just to draft an accurate historical account but also to sustain a vibrant community. As LGBT Noise member Max Krzyzanowski puts it, “We have to have a community with a plurality of voices.”[11]

Your Republic Too

In the Name of Love is a remarkable book. It traces the evolution of a marriage movement through gay liberation, decriminalization, legal and legislative battles, focusing at length on struggles around civil partnership legislation, perceived by some as a necessary stepping stone and by others as a betrayal, a form of second-class citizenship—or as David Norris infamously put it, a kind of glorified dog license. As the book follows the emergence and development of Marriage Equality and LGBT Noise, it explores divisions in the community that were/are ideological, gendered, and sometimes generational. It also pays attention to the machinations of political parties who used partnership legislation as both wedge and bait.

Beyond the emphasis on diverse voices, three fundamental issues drive Mullally’s book. First is an insistent ideological tension between political pragmatism and idealism—most often used to characterize the strategic pragmatism and lobbying work of GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) in contrast with the emerging populist grassroots idealism of Marriage Equality and LGBT Noise.[12] The tension threads the book, surfacing especially in conversations about the value of incremental change and in conflicts about political strategy—particularly in debates about civil partnership legislation.

“We were actually accused of institutionalizing discrimination by some in the LGBT community,” Green Party politician John Gormley complains. “I tried to explain that no change comes overnight. Look at the ending of slavery or giving the vote to women. It has always been incremental.”[13] GLEN staffer Tiernan Brady admits, “In a way you need both [the incremental and the purist], you know. You have to have both because that’s how you get things done.” As he talks about the difference between street activism and lobbying, however, he makes the point that one organization can’t do both: “You need both,” he says, but “you can’t do both. You can’t be the provocateur and the conciliator all at the one time.”[14]

Too often, this tension of ideology and strategy also plays out in gendered terms. Early in the book, Ann Louise Gilligan suggests a need for a “real gender analysis of what’s going on here,”[15] and GCN editor Brian Finnegan makes explicit what is mostly implicit through much of the discussion: that there was, at the time, a clear “gender divide” between predominantly male GLEN and predominantly female Marriage Equality.[16]

Whatever opinions were on the ultimate value of civil partnerships, it is clear by the end of the book that most agree that civil partnership legislation contributed to the marriage movement by making lesbian and gay couples visible throughout the country. As Eoin Collins charmingly puts it, partner celebrations were like “happy bombs” “going off all over the country,” adding to “the momentum for marriage.”[17]

A second theme that informs the book, both the result of Mullally’s attention to diverse voices and maybe also the reason for that attention, is an awareness that every narrative has an agenda. In the midst of political change, it’s hard to accurately weigh competing voices, competing narratives, so Mullally foregrounds the problem. After calling attention to gender issues in the movement, Gilligan suggests that eventually “this tale will be told as it should be told,” but for now, “there are all sorts of attempts” to “place emphases in this narrative that are not accurate.”[18] Politician Ciarán Ó Cuinn discounts a story of political influence as “a narrative in their head” and “not actually what happened.”[19] And longtime activist Izzy Kamikaze dismisses the arguments of the marriage movement itself as “a narrative [that] was imported” from elsewhere.[20]

Kamikaze’s comment suggests a third invaluable theme of the book, one that emerges with force in chapter 24, “Why Marriage?.” That theme is the LGBTQ community’s critique of marriage as an institution—and the way that critique was muted and voices thereof often censored (or self-censored) during the campaign. Mullally’s work acknowledges that not everyone in the LGBTQ community was on board the marriage train, but that resistance had to remain unspoken as the campaign gained momentum. As Philly McMahon puts it, “Because we all have to be on message to convince the majority, we don’t get to have an open debate about what marriage means for queers.”[21] The fact that Mullally includes this substantive and long chapter—which incorporates fundamental contributions by University College Dublin professor Katherine O’Donnell, longtime activist Suzy Byrne, and others—is one of this book’s real strengths. Pointedly, Maynooth academic Michael Cronin asks, “How can we develop a perspective on this [marriage] that acknowledges that this is simultaneously a victory and a defeat?” As he explains, marriage equality is both a “progressive development” that will make society more inclusive, but also “another indication of how the utopian hopes of 1970s gay liberation and lesbian feminism have been thoroughly defeated.”[22]

In the Name of Love also draws attention to the role of Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan. In 2004, Zappone and Gilligan unsuccessfully filed suit to force the nation to recognize their 2003 marriage in Canada. While they eventually lost, this book makes very clear the importance of that moment—and those brave women—to the movement. The inclusion of their voices—along with the delightfully straightforward voice of Ailbhe Smyth—is another of the book’s real strengths.

Despite my praise, Mullally’s In the Name of Love is not without its weaknesses. First and foremost is the lack of an index, which would help a reader to follow both issues and voices. Second is a lack of transparency about methodology. The fact that the book is an “oral history,” but also includes newspaper articles, blog posts, and bits from Seanad debates, suggests a need for some explanation of method and process. How were people selected? Where were they interviewed? What was Mullally’s own method of composition? She’s often quite effective at making voices appear to be in conversation, but were they in the same room? Occasionally, too, an explanatory footnote would have been helpful—as with a cursory reference to that “huge fuss at the time about Cathal Ó Searcaigh,”[23] Mullally provides a global timeline on marriage equality midway through the book,[24] but I kept hoping for a specifically Irish timeline. An Irish timeline of the marriage movement would have been an indispensable addition to this book, especially given the sometimes confusing organization. Chapters are organized primarily chronologically but also thematically. This structure leads to the creation of some awkwardly short chapters that feel disconnected from the primary narrative (chapter 19 on the issue of children, for example); these issues might be more effectively incorporated into the broader chronology. The result of this structure means that there is a kind of recursive quality to the book, but sometimes recursive just became repetitive.

Still, there are some lovely moments. The book recalls Will St. Leger’s direct action protest at the gates of Leinster House in the summer of 2009, and Panti’s scathing and widely circulated March 2010 “No More Mister Nice Gay” blog post, which castigated the gay community (or, as he put it, the “lazy-arsed queers”) for their lack of commitment and lack of anger.[25] And a story told by Rose Golden Bannon about the April 2013 Constitutional Convention stayed with me long after I closed the book. She describes leaving the convention just as an elderly man was also leaving, “so infirm he had to hold on to the banisters to go down the stairs.” “And he stopped and he grabbed my arm,” says Bannon, “and he said, ‘This is your republic too. This is your republic too. I voted for you.’”[26] In an account marked by generational, gendered, and ideological divisions, this is a moment and a gesture that echoes throughout and beyond the book.

How We Won

“It has always been my wish that GLEN and Marriage Equality can work together.”[27] ~ Gráinne Healy

Both In the Name of Love and Ireland Says Yes address early difficulties among LGBT organizations, particularly between the established lobbyist organization GLEN and the emerging Marriage Equality organization. But Ireland Says Yes more clearly demonstrates how GLEN, Marriage Equality, and the Irish Council of Civil Liberties learned to (and really had to) work together once the referendum campaign began, despite any differences of policy or strategy. What Ireland Says Yes does best is trace the history of the campaign proper.

We learn about the problems with funding and staffing, the strategic use of and importance of social media, and the tactical use of focus groups and opinion polls. We learn that demographics determined campaign tactics. If young people were overwhelmingly supportive, they also needed to be registered. Women were more supportive than men. Not only were men 40-60 overwhelmingly “soft Yes” voters, but “soft Yes” voters were also “best persuaded by people like themselves”—though all groups responded well to parents advocating for their children.[28] Early on, the authors give us the campaign objectives they settled on, including the campaign’s strategic demographic focus: “Orientate the campaign as much as possible towards the middle-ground older audience.”[29] They also itemize outreach to various constituencies—Garda, unions, faith communities, etc. This book is an account of political pragmatism in action.

As Ireland Says Yes reveals, campaign pragmatism includes message control. We learn a lot in the book about the strategic and corporate attention to campaign “branding” and marketing—not just words but hashtags, colors, fonts, and the fact that “the right pictures were as important as the right words.”[30] (The right pictures, it turns out, are group shots—gay and lesbian people either in the context of families or in mixed groups, never alone or simply coupled.) There were other messages, of course, and the authors praise the Vote with Us video archive project, and the moving video produced by the youth group BeLong To, “Bring Your Family With You,” with its rainbow-flag-waving auntie, an ersatz thatch-roofed polling station, and a young man’s worries about his father’s vote (again that men aged 40-60 demographic). They also mention the incredible visual and viral impact of a mural by artist Joe Caslin, “the most posted and retweeted image of the campaign.”[31] Perhaps tongue in cheek, the authors note that “Yes Equality Cork, typically, had decided to do things differently and with great creativity.”[32] Throughout, the book carefully and repeatedly parses the issues and arguments—both for and against—that emerged over the course of the campaign, including difficult discussions around children and surrogacy, and the red herring of “We Already have Civil Partnerships.”[33]

Sadly, neither this book nor Mullally’s discuss the extraordinarily effective and widely posted 2009 Marriage Equality video “Sinead’s Hand.” Also, where the January 2014 Pantigate controversy receives a whole chapter in Mullally’s work, it is just a blip in Healy’s account. I was particularly interested in the accounts of Pantigate, because, like “Sinead’s Hand,” that incident—and perhaps especially the viral video of Panti’s “Noble Call” defining homophobia on the Abbey Stage (1 Feb 2014, on the closing night of The Risen People)—really brought the Irish marriage movement into international awareness. O’Neill elaborates on the personal stakes of the controversy in his memoir, and Mullally even includes the full text of Panti’s “Noble Call” in her oral history. Ireland Says Yes focuses instead on the controversy’s effect on the campaign. Though Panti’s words were “galvanizing” for LGBT people, the authors state, “it is debatable whether ‘Pantigate’ contributed to or detracted from the early stages of the pre-referendum debate among the broader public” (22). That is, after all, the point of this book: the campaign’s strategic focus—and a justification of that focus—on those moveable (usually middle-aged and male) voters.

I found the last few chapters of Ireland Says Yes gripping and moving, even though I knew the result.  But I was troubled by a false and maybe condescending note at the end. The campaign narrative ends at Pantibar in an anecdote that friends of mine who were there dispute as “a cheesy apocryphal story”—but unfortunately now part of the semi-official record. The authors describe a celebratory trip to Pantibar on results day, but alas, even though Healy changed her shoes and a videographer tagged along, those silly shallow bar queens were more interested in Eurovision than in the vote. They even (gasp) asked Whelan to get out of the way of the television screen. Next to Alternative Miss Ireland (or “Gay Christmas,” as Panti called it), Eurovision is a huge camp obsession in the gay community, but a friend says patrons were totally aware of the vote count, totally aware of who the Yes Equality team were when they arrived and received them as heroes. Yet this story about those silly silly queers is the awkward note on which the campaign narrative ends. Two clunky closing chapters follow, not one but two tacked-on official post-vote statements, both probably important to archivists but otherwise anti-climactic. So the book ultimately seems to do the very thing activists complained about in Mullally’s book: explain to the community that it, of course, knew best. Or, as they quip about themselves in third person as that closing chapter begins, “Their judgment on the strategy had been correct.”[34]

Despite my quibbles, I think this an important book. As a first and subjective draft of the history, and one with a useful index, it will prove invaluable to future research.

The Personal Is Political

“It was always about the human stories.”[35] ~ Moninne Griffith

I want to close with a brief look at A Day in May. It is a coffee table book, with beautiful black and white photographs, easily assimilable capsule stories, a cover photo from a Merrion Square marriage demonstration, gorgeous colorful endpapers of the Dublin Castle results day crowd, and a lovely foreword by gay literary icon Colm Tóibín. This book also best exemplifies a tactic fundamental to all three books and to the campaign itself: that “personal appeals and personal stories,” as Healy puts it, “had the greatest impact on voters.”[36]

If “telling stories for visibility and support had long been a successful tactic of the LGBT community,” an important tactic for LGBT people, then the campaign forced their straight allies and family members to acknowledge that “they too would need to hone their stories.”[37] The authors of Ireland Says Yes devote an entire chapter to “The Power of Personal Stories,” focusing on stories that emerged in national news media, such as TV3 correspondent Ursula Halligan’s coming out in the Irish Times, or Mullally’s heartbreaking newspaper column about cancer and visibility.[38] They also describe a series of events in which people were invited to speak: “After a couple of designated speakers had given their reasons for voting Yes, members of the audience were invited to take the microphone themselves and share their reasons for supporting the referendum.” The result, they say, was “an outpouring of personal stories.”[39] Former RTÉ journalist Charlie Bird moderated some of those sessions, and as he says in the introduction to A Day in May, those stories inspired his book (and a companion play of the same name).

After the vote, he interviewed some of the people who told their stories—about 80 interviews, he says—41 of them then edited down to pithy narratives (sometimes only a couple of paragraphs) included in the book. Many of the stories are quite moving. John Paul Calnan tells about the suicide of his partner, Dominic. Though they had been married in 2008 in California, the death certificate said his partner died single: the coroner and Irish authorities refused to acknowledge their marriage on the death certificate. And he wonders now, after the vote, if he can still register his marriage, so that he can put in writing that “Dominic was a married man when he died.”[40] Nuala Ward tells a story of being beaten because she was a lesbian, about those who left Ireland, not because of work, but “because they couldn’t live here and be themselves. It was either go or die.”[41]

Sometimes there seems to be a kind of let’s-check-the-boxes impulse to this book—making sure to include a teacher and a teen and a trans parent and a Traveler and even a Tory Islander. But the real impulse of the book is to put gays and lesbians in the context not of marriage but of family. Family is the unspoken focus of the book; indeed, the book is framed as a family story. Enda Morgan opens the book, “I am here because of my daughter,” and Brandon, the adopted son of a gay couple, closes the book, “They are like family now. Not like blood, but by heart, and they are family now.”[42]

I was struck, however, by flashes of another narrative, one invoked in Mullally’s book as one of the origins of the marriage movement: HIV-AIDS. Before 1993 decriminalization, as Bill Hughes notes in Mullally, partners had no rights: “The partner was left grieving with nothing, sometimes was thrown out of the home that they shared because it wasn’t written down anywhere. There was no contract that could be enforced.”[43] Buzz O’Neill describes families lying to hospital personnel, pretending a lover was a brother “so he could get into the hospital to someone dying in a bed.” For him, that was the beginning of a movement, “gay men dying of AIDS wanting legal recognition and a lot of lesbians that were secretly bringing up children.[44] In A Day in May, GP Des Crowley talks about going to “between eighty and a hundred funerals over a period of maybe five years,” before therapy was available. “It was devastation,” he says, a devastation that shut down conversations and that the community didn’t recover from for years.[45] That story, the history of HIV-AIDS in Ireland, has yet to be fully and accurately told.


To close, I want to return to one other voice included in Mullally’s book, that of Dundalk community organizer Bernardine Quinn. Quinn insists that marriage equality isn’t full equality, but says it does change the horizon. For her generation, growing up, the horizon was migration, shame, and loneliness. Now, young lesbian and gay people growing up have “a whole other suite of options.” If you’re growing up now, she says, “your story is going to be so much more different.”[46] The history of the marriage movement is, in many ways, a history of the power of personal stories, but surely that will be one of its legacies too, as new generations tell new stories, stories impossible to tell before.

[1] Steven Mannion Farrell, in A Day in May: Real Lives, True Stories, by Charlie Bird, ed. Kevin Rafter (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016), 123.

[2] Rory O’Neill, Woman in the Making: A Memoir, paperback edition with new prologue (Dublin: Hatchette Books, 2015), ix.

[4] Fintan O’Toole, “Ireland has left tolerance far behind,” Irish Times, 23 May 2015.

[5] See Ann Mulhall, “The Republic of Love,” Bully Bloggers 20 June 2015.

[6] See Michael Lee-Murphy, “Ireland’s Break with Tradition,” Jacobin 29 May 2015; and Aidan Beatty, “From Gay Power to Gay Rights,” Jacobin 29 May 2015.

[7] I adapt this framework—unprecedented/long in the making—from Shelley Sang-Hee Lee’s essay on teaching recent history. She asks her students, “To what extent was this event unprecedented or a culmination of patterns that were years, perhaps decades, in the making?” She refers to the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, but this question seems equally pertinent to the 2015 referendum. To what extent was this event unprecedented, to what extent the culmination of patterns decades in the making. See Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, “Working Without a Script: Reflections on Teaching Recent American History,” in Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Research Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History That Talks Back, eds. Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 45.

[8] Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016), viii.

[9] Healy et al, 83.

[10] Denise Charlton in Una Mullally, In the Name of Love: The Movement for Marriage Equality in Ireland, An Oral History (Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2014), 91.

[11] Max Krzyzanowski, in Mullally, In the Name of Love, 193.

[12] Lisa Connell of LGBT Noise, for example, characterizes the difference between GLEN and Marriage Equality as a difference of pragmatism versus idealism, adding that “pragmatism without ideology leaves you with shitty legislation,” in Mullally, 100. Kieran Rose of GLEN contrasts GLEN’s strategic work on civil partnerships with others’ radical demands for “civil marriage or nothing,” in Mullally, 98.

[13] Gormley in Mullally, 164.

[14] Brady in Mullally, 195, 106.

[15] Gilligan in Mullally, 104.

[16] Finnegan in Mullally, 101.

[17] Collins in Mullally, 208.

[18] Gilligan in Mullally, 104.

[19] Ó Cuinn in Mullally, 168

[20] Kamikaze in Mullally, 228.

[21] McMahon in Mullally, 227.

[22] Cronin in Mullally, 216.                              

[23] Mullally, 140.

[24] Mullally, “A Global Movement,” 160-162.

[25] Mullally includes the entire blog post in her book, 127-130. O’Neill also includes the post in Woman in the Making, 203-209.

[26] Rose Golden Bannon in Mullally, 242.

[27] Gráinne Healy in Mullally, 196.

[28] See, for example, Healy et al, 41-44.

[29] Ibid., 47.

[30] Ibid., 45.

[31] Ibid., 139.

[32] Ibid., 87.

[33] Ibid., 120.

[34] Ibid., 143.

[35] Moninne Griffith, in Mullally, 93.

[36] Healy et al, 146.

[37] Ibid., 83.

[38] See Healy et al, 98-102, 107-108. See also Ursula Halligan, “Referendum led me to tell truth about myself,” Irish Times 15 May 2015; and Una Mullally, “It’s hard to accept yourself when your country doesn’t,” Irish Times, 27 April 2015. Both also appear in the Irish Times ebook of referendum op-eds, Yes We Do: How Ireland Became the First Country to Introduce Same Sex Marriage by Popular Vote (Dublin: The Irish Times, 2015).

[39] Healy, 115.

[40] John Paul Calnan in Bird, 96-100.

[41] Nuala Ward in Bird, 64.

[42] Enda Morgan in Bird, 19, and Brandon, 247.

[43] Hughes in Mullally, 23.

[44] O’Neill in Mullally, 24.

[45] Crowley in Bird,83.

[46] Quinn in Mullally, 230-231.