Wednesday 17 July 2019

Lise Hand: It was a magical day of planes, trains and polling booths

Whatever the outcome, Ireland shifted a little on its axis due to the positivity of Yes campaign

Rory O’Neill (Panti) casting his vote in Dublin city centre
Rory O’Neill (Panti) casting his vote in Dublin city centre
Renua leader Lucinda Creighton with her daughter Gwendoline (14 months) voting in Sandymount, Dublin
John Lyons TD with his mother Josie Lyons voting in Ballymun. Pic: Collins Photos.

Lise Hand

Rory O'Neill hurried into his polling station on Marlborough Street in the heart of Dublin city centre, just a stone's throw from O'Connell Street. He had just returned from Norwich in England, via two trains, a flight from London Stansted and a lift into town.

"The airport was crazy," he said. But then again Rory, aka Panti Bliss, would probably have swum home rather than miss out on voting in the marriage equality referendum.

For perhaps it could be argued that the debate on this issue began in earnest over a year ago, on February 1, 2014, when (as Panti) he stood on the stage of the Abbey Theatre and delivered an impassioned and eloquent speech on homophobia, bullying and inequality - the video of his oration won praise from the starry likes of Madonna and Stephen Fry and which attracted hundreds of thousands of hits on You Tube.

But after he cast his ballot yesterday, Rory had a somewhat different view. "I think the Pantigate thing did start the conversation regarding this referendum a little earlier than anyone expected," he said.

"But there's a narrative that this has been a top-down campaign, as if it's been driven by the Government or whatever. I think that's absolute rubbish - it's the epitome of a grassroots campaign that started 40 years ago with a tiny number of individuals who got more and more people on their side and changed minds making small advances. It has just intensified in recent months," he reckoned.

And all the evidence over the past 48 hours in particular would confirm Rory's belief that this has indeed been a campaign which grew into a cause, nurtured by activists at grassroots level and brought to full bloom by not just the people of Ireland, but the people from Ireland.

For waves of bittersweet emotions swept through anyone with an interest in the outcome of the marriage equality referendum as it became startlingly obvious that the Twitter hashtag #cominghometovote wasn't simply an invention by online armchair warriors, but a reality. Photos of throngs of Irish diaspora flooding through arrivals in Dublin and Cork Airports or setting sail on ferries to return and vote, sparked mixed emotions - sorrow that so many of our young are scattered abroad, and pride that they were so committed to have a say on the issue of marriage equality.

More than one group of strangers started conversations on streets, in cafés on the phenomenon of #cominghometovote.

There was mingled wonder and pride in the moxie and madness of the Irish.

From 7am, it was evident that this referendum would be no forgotten child of Irish history. There were many reports of queues at the gates of polling stations at 7am, with many youthful faces in the line. The watchword of the day was 'brisk', which is poll-speak for busy. At 10.30pm, co-director of Yes Equality Grainne Healy and her partner Patricia O'Connor arrived at their polling station in Glasnevin. And Grainne was cautiously optimistic. "I'm feeling positive, from what I'm hearing," she said. "But whatever the result, transformative conversations have been had between children and parents and between friends because of this referendum."

Patricia, a teacher for 30 years, added: "I'm looking forward to the intended consequences of a Yes vote, when every child in every classroom will feel protected by the Constitution, and feels equal and able to be who they are."

As the day wore on, the numbers increased, rather than fell. There was a building sense that something special was under way, as the scratch of pencils resounded through the 26 counties, many being wielded for the very first time.

Just after 2.30pm, Health Minister Leo Varadkar strolled up to vote at his station in Castleknock.

"The turnout is higher than usual, which is encouraging but you never know what people have said until the little bits of paper fall out of the ballot box," he said cautiously. And he too was struck by the number of citizens who had returned from overseas to take part. "I know people who have cut short their holidays, or come back in the middle of their holidays from America and Mozambique to cast their votes. This hasn't been an ordinary referendum, it's been something of a social movement," he said.

"I've been out on the campaign with so many first-time canvassers, and many gay men and women who until now kept themselves to themselves but have decided to call to everyone on their estate. I've never seen that before. It's a big moment, I think."

Leo stopped to chat to Maria and Bernard Brogan Snr, parents of Dublin footballers Bernard and Alan. "This vote has engaged people more than others," said Maria. "We've had a few family discussions around the kitchen table - this will affect our children and grandchildren more than us."

Whatever happens when the votes are counted tomorrow, something has shifted on Ireland's axis. The nation's gay men and women are finding their voice and finding acceptance.

BeLonG To has seen a 10-fold rise in their members over the past six weeks, and are now seeking extra funding to cope. By late afternoon yesterday, Rory O'Neill was allowing himself to believe a Yes vote was possible.

He planned to watch the votes at his bar. "And if it is a Yes, there'll be a spontaneous party. I hope our neighbours will be forgiving, because I imagine it could get pretty busy," he smiled.

Irish Independent

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