The night after Ireland’s vote counters announced the victory, by a nearly 2-1 margin, of a constitutional amendment establishing marriage equality, my daughter and her partner left their Dublin flat to party in the streets with other ecstatic Yes voters—thousands of lifelong residents alongside throngs of economic émigrés who had flocked back to their birthplace from London or Los Angeles or Seoul or Sydney as part of the unprecedented #HomeToVote campaign. My daughter found herself next to a man so overcome with emotion that he was unable to snap a picture of the occasion. He welcomed her offer to photograph him against the exhilarating backdrop, but couldn’t stop his tears.
Ireland’s vote is momentous and should be an occasion for worldwide joy. “I wanted to be an equal citizen in my own country and today I am,” exulted Leo Varadkar, minister for health and the country’s first openly gay cabinet member. Conventional wisdom holds that great gains in minority civil rights get imposed from above—from judges, from legislators, by executive order. Even Senator David Norris, so long a warrior for gender equality that he used to be called “the only gay man in Ireland,” admitted that until recently he had assumed justice for his country’s LGBT community would have to come through the courts. Yet here were the people of Ireland, by an overwhelming majority, enshrining marriage equality in the national charter, leaping past the other social democracies of Western Europe and the still ruminating US Supreme Court. How Ireland got here—how this small country, in barely a generation, shook off the tangled legacies of Britain’s colonial sodomy laws and Rome’s theocratic stigma to emerge on this sunny Saturday, with rainbows marking the sky, as the world standard-bearer for gay rights—is worth both contemplation and celebration.
The huge Yes vote debunked the conventional dichotomies that even leftists use to describe the Irish public: Catholic versus non-Catholic, youth versus the old, rural versus urban. Quite the contrary: This triumph owes a great deal to an unofficial coalition of LGBT activists, millennials, the elderly, those overseas citizens who returned home, and members of the clergy—as well as to citizens in none of the above categories.
Take the presumption that the marriage-equality movement belonged to Ireland’s cities and cosmopolitan elite. Fact: If you wipe Dublin, Cork, and Limerick, Ireland’s three largest cities, off the electoral map, the Yes Equality margin was still prodigious—61 percent to 39 percent. The Yes Equality campaign held majorities in the most rural, tradition-bound constituencies in the West—Mayo, Donegal, Kerry—counties with typically older and more conservative populations. And in Roscommon–South Leitrim—the single constituency in which the No campaign held a majority—a 2.8 percent swing would have sent results the other way. Many of the rural people, who it was once presumed were herded to voting booths by their pastors with instructions on how to cast their ballots, this time made plain that they voted with their minds not on the pulpit but on the lives of their own and their neighbors’ children.