Sunday 18 February 2018

Same sex, different Ireland

The public used to kiss the rings of bishops. But at the ballot box last weekend, they took their cue from Father Ted and gave the hierarchy a kick up the backside by voting for same-sex marriage. How did the Church lose its grip on middle Ireland from Bundoran to Ballydehob?

Carly Moffitt and her partner Jennifer Cleary from Dublin celebrate after the announcing the reults of same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle. Photo: Mark Condren
Carly Moffitt and her partner Jennifer Cleary from Dublin celebrate after the announcing the reults of same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle. Photo: Mark Condren
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When Tonie Walsh marched through the centre of Dublin in 1980 for gay rights, he was joined by just 15 other people - barely more than a dozen souls could be mustered in the capital city to advance the cause.

Tonie, then a 19-year-old, recalls how he was met with sympathy and bemusement as he gave out pink carnations to puzzled Dubliners for gay pride. When the tiny group reached Henry Street, some Christian fundamentalists were preaching fire and brimstone, and promised the marchers "damnation".

Never in his wildest dreams would Tonie Walsh have imagined that thousands of people would gather at Dublin Castle last weekend to celebrate a referendum vote that will make same-sex marriage legal.

"It wasn't even part of our agenda then, because the possibility would have seemed so remote," the veteran gay activist told Review this week.

Tonie Walsh and his generation of gay and lesbian people grew up in a country that still operated under a Victorian statute of 1861, at the behest of powerful bishops. The law declared that 'whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with an animal, shall be liable… to be kept in penal servitude for life'.

The Yes vote in the referendum was not only a stunning victory for the gay rights movement, the culmination of campaign that has lasted decades.

It was also a most bitter defeat for the hierarchy of the Catholic church, a sign that its power and influence is ebbing away, and may yet be consigned to oblivion.

The first chinks in the armour came with the gradual legalisation of contraception from 1979 onwards; then we had divorce; and the battle is still being fought over abortion. At every turn, the authority of the Church is being undermined, and the bishops and priests give the impression of no longer having the stomach for a fight.

Next, the secularists are likely to storm the ramparts of state-funded education, and seek to seize control of a sizeable chunk of the 90pc of primary schools, currently under Catholic patronage. Many of the campaigners are now also pressing for legalisation of abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.

Tonie Walsh is surely right when he declares: "The referendum was not just about same-sex marriage. It is another signpost we have passed on the way to imagining a new Ireland."

We have moved from a situation where ordinary people would genuflect to kiss the ring of a bishop to one where over 700,000 have watched with rapt attention the speech of a drag queen on YouTube.

In his persona as Panti Bliss, Rory O'Neill made an impassioned rallying call about the everyday sense of oppression felt by gay people in Ireland.

As many people have watched that video as voted No in the referendum. Tonie Walsh believes the meticulously crafted speech helped to turn a sectional minority interest group into a mass movement.

After the loss in the referendum, the Vatican was stunned into silence for four days, until the Pontiff's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, called the result a "defeat for humanity".

The international media seemed surprised that same-sex marriage could be legalised in a country that to the outside world seems "staunchly Catholic". But in truth, we may be reaching the end of secularisation process that has lasted decades.

The authority of the Church has been almost fatally weakened since the era of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in the 1960s, when Catholics who attended Trinity College, without sanction of the powerful prelate, were deemed to have committed a mortal sin.

Proving how influential the Church's social policy was, as late as 1973, women had to leave the public service once they were married.

Unmarried mothers were so frowned upon that in 1967, 97pc of children born outside marriage were given up for adoption. Now the figure for adoption is 1pc. In another sign of the loosening grip of the Church, 36pc of children are now born outside marriage.

Garry O'Sullivan, publisher of the Irish Catholic, says the turning point for the Church came as early as 1968 with the papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae. This reaffirmed the Church's ban on artificial contraception.

"The Church stood by what many saw as an outdated view of natural law," says O'Sullivan.

"At the time of Vatican II, the Church had seemed to be moving with the times, but then the brakes were put on."

The vast majority of Catholics continued to go to church, but they were reluctant to continue having large families, and many went on the Pill, or used other forms of contraception.

Garry O'Sullivan says: "After Humanae Vitae, many Catholic people ignored the teaching of the Church, and they continue to ignore it.

"They discern what they want from the Church, and they discern what they don't want."

Garry O'Sullivan questions how deeply Catholic values were ever embedded in the population.

"People go to Mass, and you might regard them as cultural Catholics, but how many ever take on board Catholic ideas? They don't sit down and read the Bible."

As Archbishop Martin remarked this week, 90pc of the young people who came out to vote Yes were educated at Catholic schools.

The number of schools under Catholic patronage may remain high, but the influence of the Church's teaching on these schools has long been waning. The doctrine has been watered down.

Whatever moral authority the Church had was diminished by the Church's own scandals. Why should young people listen to priests, when Bishop Eamon Casey seemed to go about like a playboy, and had a child with his lover?

This led to jokes such as "Bless me sinners for I have fathered." And the child abuse scandals were a hundred times worse.

In the great battles between the conservative Church advocates and the liberals, many of the same campaigners have found themselves ranged against each other on different issues - from divorce and abortion to gay rights. When she heard the results of the same-sex marriage referendum last weekend Mags O'Brien was in tears.

Twenty years ago, she had led the Divorce Action Group in a Yes campaign that only scraped over the line by 9,114 votes. The tutor at SIPTU College was also involved in the same-sex marriage referendum, canvassing union members for a Yes vote over the phone.

"I am amazed that we have come so far," says Ms O'Brien.

Like the recent referendum, the divorce campaign was occasionally bitter and divisive.

There were dire warnings that Irish family life would be torn apart by broken marriage.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, warned that divorce would lead to "a fundamental disorder in society".

In the event, the doomsayers were proved wrong. Twenty years on, Ireland has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world.

The fact that the introduction of divorce did not lead to some kind of secular apocalypse where children were forced to fend for themselves surely helped the Yes side in the same-sex referendum. The scaremongering about children failed to work this time out.

In 1986, a proposal to allow divorce at a referendum had been defeated.

"The difference then was that marital breakdown was covered up in Ireland in the 1980s," says Mags O'Brien. "By 1995, people were much more open about it. So, everyone knew someone who was separated.

"The same happened in the same-sex marriage referendum. In recent years many more gay people have come out in Ireland and that made a huge difference. Everyone knows someone who is gay."

While the No side engaged in legalistic casuistry, the Yes campaigners appealed to a new notion of family values, using real people to illustrate their case. The theme of the campaign was: would you deny this right to your own son or daughter, brother or sister?

The Bishops came out with ­pastoral letters warning of the dangers of same-sex marriage, but it was as if they were going through the motions.

"I know that some bishops really didn't want to take part in the campaign," says Garry O'Sullivan. "They are trying to revitalise the Church and have been told to go out and find the lost sheep. The referendum was not helpful, because they had to draw the battle lines again.

"I don't think people accept the message from the Church that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, but gay people are welcome in the Church."

The influences of television, the internet and requirements of being in the European Union all helped to change attitudes.

The Vatican may call last week's vote a "defeat for humanity". But who kisses the rings of prelates any more?

At the ballot box, almost two-thirds of voters were more inclined to take their cue from Father Ted, and give the bishops a firm kick up the backside.

The great change

A comparison of the results of the divorce referendum of 1995 and the same-sex marriage referendum last weekend shows the dramatic change in attitudes in 20 years.

In 1995, divorce was carried by 9,114 votes with 50.3pc of the vote. But the Church's teaching still held sway outside Dublin. Outside the capital, the only constituencies that voted Yes were Kildare, Wicklow, Louth, Cork South Central and Limerick East.

In the same-sex marriage referendum, 62pc of the country voted Yes. The only consituency to vote No was Roscommon-South Leitrim. The Church's teaching no longer holds sway across rural Ireland.


Vatican's Humanae Vitae Encyclical re-affirms Catholic ban on artificial contraception


Bar on married women continuing in public service jobs is lifted


Contraceptives legalised, but only on prescription: "An Irish solution to an Irish problem"


Eighth amendment to the Constitution acknowledges "right to life of the unborn", giving "due regard to the equal right to life of the mother"


Media reveals Bishop Eamon Casey's sexual relationship with Annie Murphy, and that he fathered a son


Decriminalisation of homosexual acts


Father Brendan Smyth child-abuse scandal leads to downfall of Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition


Yes vote for divorce in referendum


Referendum clears the way for same-sex marriage

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