Sunday 20 January 2019

Marriage vote gives us a new global identity

A young couple celebrates the result of the same-sex marriage referendum amid the crowds in Dublin Castle last weekend. Photo: PA
A young couple celebrates the result of the same-sex marriage referendum amid the crowds in Dublin Castle last weekend. Photo: PA

Eoin Hahessy in Sydney

'The overwhelming vote in favour of gay marriage in the Irish referendum has hit a sensitive spot in Australia because, despite our substantial Irish heritage, we have often displayed a superior attitude towards the Irish."

So began an opinion piece in an Australian national newspaper that has neatly summed up the collective jaw drop to Ireland's historic decision. Just as the vote on May 22 built global foundations for equality for same-sex partners, it took a sledgehammer to Ireland's convenient stereotype.

To the world, we are still that tiny, funny potato-munching nation, tipping the cap to the clerics, fond of a fight, a drink and a dabble. We catapulted that stereotype to dizzying levels with our recent economic Jenga and annually we wave that flag furiously on St Patrick's Day.

Any deviation from this 'live in the moment, throw the pay packet on the counter, who gives a tuppenny' narrative is met with an uncomfortable eyebrow raise from our global friends.

In the lead-up to the vote, a flood of quiet puzzlement that Ireland, yes Ireland, was actually having a debate on same-sex marriage drenched global debate. The trickle began with dazed disbelief, then an idle meander stalling on the temerity of Ireland to lead the worldwide question, finally it washed forth with a strong conviction that such a vote would never pass in little Ireland.

Ireland's vote in the same-sex marriage referendum has done more for its global reputation than every minister's shamrock-shoving, heartstring-tugging visit we have witnessed for generations.

This vote has ripped apart the cloak of cute hoorism that suffocated our politics, it challenged a modern nation to a debate as the world sat watching from the gantries, and being Irish, it was a pride-filled occasion to witness.


A collective Gaelic surge washed imaginatively across the globe to demand a debate on a subject so many had shirked. This was democracy in action, which has left the world in a tailspin.

Immediately after the Irish vote was passed, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott curtly dismissed the idea of a national referendum, only to sharply reverse tack in the face of a political gale to now outline a route for the Australian parliament to vote on the question.

It didn't sit comfortably that a proud Australian nation that rejoices in a litany of social reforms gave little reflection to today's generational question.

"Months ago, it seemed to some like a long shot that love, common sense and justice would prevail as voters in Ireland began contemplating whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry" ran an editorial in 'The New York Times' that reeked of the same world astonishment that Ireland became the only country in the world to put the issue to its people and receive an ear-splitting Yes.

In a considered piece, the 'Boston Globe' mused that the Irish same-sex vote was "very much rooted in faith and family and a wish for dignity for gay children, siblings, aunts, and uncles". Meanwhile in Germany, the news ran heavy with Ireland's choice as the national broadcaster Deutschlandfunk said that Ireland had "buried the cliches about itself", as 'Ireland' became a worldwide trending topic. Ireland knew it changed a long time ago, but this was a global rebrand.

The late Seán Ó Faoláin once remarked that the definition of an Irish 'homosexual' in the 1950s and 60s was someone who preferred women to drink. A neat quip that in many ways summed up the Guinness-stained, masculine identity that has lingered around our debates and ultimately signposted our political direction. Not this time.

A creative campaign developed some years ago at home, marshalled with humility, respect and honesty to the very end, that rather than paying lip service to its emigrants, courageously invited them to be part of the conversation. A generation forced from Ireland due to failed leadership provided inspired leadership to create a global swell.


Ireland's rallying post, #hometovote, has been scribed on the walls of Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco as more than 50 leading businesses, including Google and Qantas, take out full-page advertisements across Australian newspapers calling for marriage equality.

In just a under a year, Ireland will mark 100 years since the embers of its nation flickered. The 1916 Rising would occupy the front page of the 'New York Times' for 14 days in a row. Just shy of this centenary, Ireland has etched out a new global identity.

Irish Independent

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