Saturday 17 August 2019

A new dawn - whatever the future holds for us

We are finally becoming a nation more at ease with itself on issues of social morality, writes Gerard O'Regan

Newly married couple Anne Fox (nee Cole) and Vincent Fox celebrate their wedding day by showing their support for the Yes campaign in favour of same-sex marriage before casting their votes at a polling station on May 22, 2015 in Dublin
Newly married couple Anne Fox (nee Cole) and Vincent Fox celebrate their wedding day by showing their support for the Yes campaign in favour of same-sex marriage before casting their votes at a polling station on May 22, 2015 in Dublin
"Of all the words spoken, and all the arguments made, during the course of the marriage referendum debate, none was more pivotal than the contribution of former President Mary McAleese"

Gerard O'Regan

Of all the words spoken, and all the arguments made, during the course of the marriage referendum debate, none was more pivotal than the contribution of former President Mary McAleese.

Hers was a very personal and human story, made all the more potent because of her deeply held Catholic beliefs. The fact that she felt so compelled to share it with the nation was surely born of one of the deepest emotions of all - a parent's love for their child. "This is personal," she said for all who would care to listen.

Ms McAleese's sense of Catholicism is in many ways unusual. Her religious beliefs were first forged as part of a tribal instinct, during her formative years in the nationalist enclave of Ardoyne in Belfast, with the hard days of the Northern Ireland troubles as backdrop.

Yet her spiritual journey also retains a strong intellectual quest; after her term as president she studied theology in Rome and now has a doctorate in Canon Law.

Despite her various achievements in politics and elsewhere, her commitment to her religion has been profound. Although she has been a strident critic of the church on certain issues - particularly on some of its attitudes to women - her loyalty to its core beliefs has never been in doubt.

But for many years she was also aware of the various challenges facing her homosexual son. She would have been conscious that some of the traditional beliefs of the church, which was so much part of her life, would have contributed to a sense of alienation that traumatised the lives of many gay Irish people over the generations.

Her story is an odyssey fuelled most powerfully by her own family circumstances. It is a journey travelled by much of the 'floating vote' in the run-up to this referendum. For the first time ever, many Irish people were made to confront the realisation that they - or members of their families - could have been born gay. How would this reality affect their view of the homosexual community?

This new awakening of consciousness has been the great by-product of this debate. Attitudes to homosexuality in Ireland have been changed forever. The biggest single advance is that - regardless of the referendum outcome - many of the old taboos around the subject have been laid to rest. Difficulties and challenges remain, but there is surely a new tolerance, born of greater understanding, in the air.

Some of the extremities of the verbal jousting on both sides may have revealed an unctuous self-righteousness by those backing the Yes campaign, and a dubious use of hard facts by those calling for a No vote. But all that is now a side issue.

The Catholic Church authorities - while rightfully putting forward their own views on the question of gay marriage - did, with some exceptions, steer a steady middle ground.

Therefore we had, for example, Mary McAleese and Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on opposite sides of the discussion, but somehow or other the discourse managed to be more inclusive than exclusive. Ireland is undoubtedly becoming a country much more at ease with itself on issues of social morality, which are increasingly being left to individual conscience and judgment. Of course, there are still those in the commentari​a​t, who insist we should continue with endless self-loathing, and self-abnegation, because of a perceived narrowness of vision. But it is they who are out of step with the times. Mary McAleese and others, by putting some of their private lives on the line, forced many of us to stop and think and confront some old certainties.

''Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,'' said the philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Given the bedraggled nature of the human condition, he may be right. But now at least one of Ireland's minorities - for so long a victim of ignorance, prejudice, and hard hearts - can at least listen out for the music.

Irish Independent

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