Ireland’s Marriage Referendum and Religion

The marriage referendum in Ireland last Friday marks a watershed in the religious history of Ireland. A Saint-Patrick-style moment. Although it wasn’t a referendum about religion, it has huge implications for religion in the country and represents yet another radical departure from the Catholic Church and from stories that hypnotise us into believing there are ideal and unequal ways of ‘being’.


My local church with ‘vote no’ poster

On Saturday morning as the votes were being counted there was a First Holy Communion celebration in the church around the corner from where I live. The street was packed with cars hunched up on footpaths between poles that were blazing  with ‘vote no’ posters. Outside the church there were mothers in high-heels, short dresses and fake tans, fathers in too-tight suits and kids in their best rig-outs with little girls in their pretty white mini-wedding dresses and ringletted hair.

The church around the corner from me is a busy church. It’s a modern church. Built in the late 1960s to cater for the growing suburban population, it is hexagonal in shape and has nice funky stained-glass windows and walls. Instead of a spire it has a large cross that thrusts up into the sky from the centre of the church. On Sundays the church car park is full. On weekdays I regularly see sombre crowds of funeral mourners and an emptied hearse waiting by the door. Weddings are rarer but regular too and on weekdays it’s often busy when girls from the nearby school waltz up to the church, walking across three busy roads on their way freezing traffic to a standstill at each crossing. It would be easy to think that Catholicism is still vibrant and important in the lives of the majority of Irish people.

inside church

Sign for novena in local church

The last national census of 2011 belies the truth of the seismic changes that have been happening in relation to religion in Ireland over the past twenty years. The majority of Irish people still identify themselves as ‘Catholic’ but what this identification means has changed enormously. Some sociologists talk of a new ‘cultural Catholicism’. Others talk about ‘believing without belonging’ or of ‘belonging without believing’. The lines have skewed. Many people who have religious faith don’t go to mass whilst lots of atheists take part in church activities in order to secure a place for their children in the local Catholic school. Schools in Ireland can still legally discriminate in their enrollment policies based on religious affiliation. This can be problematic in a country where the majority of state-schools are still run by the Catholic Church.

stained glass

Stained glass wall in local church

The slogan ‘Yes for Equality’ was adopted early by campaigners for the ‘yes’ vote. As  far as I was concerned we weren’t voting for equality, we were voting for same-sex marriage. It seemed that people were uncomfortable with campaigning openly for same-sex marriage whilst ‘equality’ was a more nebulous concept. I figured that if we were voting for ‘equality’ then all sorts of groups and people would, in theory, benefit – including the disenfranchised, the homeless, asylum seekers, religious minorities and the poor. As I watched friends change their profile pics on Facebook with the slogan ‘yes to equality’ I stood on the sidelines. ‘Yes’ I said. ‘Yes to same sex marriage’.


At the polling station where I voted

Polling stations around Ireland on the day of the vote were often located in Catholic schools. There were bibles, statues of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus, statues of Jesus and books about religion strewn about the walls and shelves of polling stations. One person commented online that ‘the priests read out a letter from the local bishop last week asking for a ‘no’ vote so that’s enough for me to vote ‘yes’’.  But plenty of Catholic clergy also spoke openly in favour of a ‘yes’ vote. Social media was exploding with people publicly casting their ‘yes’ votes but there was also a palpable nervousness. What of all the people who weren’t publicly stating what way they were voting? What about the ‘don’t knows’, what about the people who were silent? Would the high turnout translate into a yes or could it be a no?

Within minutes of the first boxes being opened on Saturday morning it became clear that the ‘yes’ side was going to sail through on the day. As the stories, images and videos streamed across the internet I understood that this was not just about ‘same sex marriage’, that for many this actually was about ‘equality’. The equality of thousands of people who have felt marginalised, ostracised, outside of mainstream Irish society and who now could feel ‘equal’.

So, what of the referendum and its implications for understanding religion in Ireland? Saturday morning as the early tallies came through to indicate that the ‘yes’ vote was going to be a landslide, someone tweeted the words ‘BREAKING: Catholic Church’. As the day progressed it became increasingly clear that Irish people, voting in their hundreds of thousands, had quietly slipped away from under the banner of Catholicism. The reins of the Catholic Church were cut if not severed completely.

At least a part of the story of the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community in Ireland was written by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church saw homosexuals and LGBT people as somehow flawed, abnormal and ‘unequal’. Stories are told by others but internalised by those the stories are about. Gay people sometimes never ‘came out’ as gay because of the weight of the stories that they carried on their backs. This story has now been changed.

‘Stories are medicine’ says Clarissa Pinkola Estes. The words we use and the stories we tell have the power to heal and to elevate (or to hurt). The story of the marriage referendum was not just a story about ‘marriage’. The campaign, whilst on the surface about marriage, did actually become about the slogan that carried the campaign. It became about the open acceptance, and celebration, and equality, of a marginalised group in the heart of mainstream Irish society. People believed that it was about equality and so that is what it was. That is what it became. That is what it is.

As religion changes in Ireland, the stories about who we are and who is ‘equal’ changes too. In terms of religion, the referendum has broken the final strands of the stranglehold of the Catholic Church on the stories we have been told and the stories we tell ourselves about ways of ‘being’ and who is equal and who is not. In this process we are re-creating ourselves in our own eyes but also in the eyes of the world. We are reclaiming our own ability to tell and create our own stories independently of religion and of the Catholic Church.

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