|Supporters at Dublin Castle|
I’ve been listening to Irish music all day. Volume at full blast. Dancing around my room. With the shades up. Don’t care who knows I’ve gone out of my mind with joy.
Ah, Ireland. How could I have ever doubted you? Ever said a bad word? Ever failed to note the charms of the Emerald Isle?
It’s called getting carried away. You don’t get to do it that often anymore. So much bad news out there. ISIS. The Republican Party. The collapse of American democracy. Name your reason for feeling blue, and we’ll put it on the long list. But not today. Today, the Irish have made the world a much better place. It’s the first time a nation has voted to extend full rights to its oppressed lesbian and gay minority. By referendum. Not by forcing the tyrannizing majority to live up to its constitution. Not by getting its legislature off their bums and doing the right thing. But by popular vote. By going to the polls in record numbers and making equality happen. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
It was a nail biter there for a while. It wasn’t that long ago we had great hopes that Proposition 8 would fail.* Polls indicated it would. And then the Catholic Church came in and pissed in the soup. Got together with their Mormon and evangelical friends and pointed us back toward the Middle Ages for a while until we could get that decision overturned in the courts and get marriage rights back for same-sex couples in California.
I thought this would be the season of waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to make a decision next month. That we would all hold our breaths until the U.S. goes one way or the other on federal protections for LGBT people. But then this Irish Referendum came along and snatched our focus away and made us all realize we were maybe too focused on the U.S. We needed to watch what was going on in the larger world as it moved, slowly but surely, toward full implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The tension will build again, as the U.S. Supreme Court decision gets closer. But this decision in Ireland today somehow makes the wait seem bearable. The trend is clear. And there is hope.
I was in Ireland only once. I travelled through England, Scotland and Ireland on my way home from a junior year abroad in college. I was 21, I didn’t have much money, but since I was already east of the pond, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to take in all I could before heading back to finish college. I had no plans, but the name Galway Bay had stuck in my head from songs I had heard as a child. I found my way to the western edge of Dublin, stuck out my finger and left my itinerary and my schedule to fate. It was 1962, and once out in the country cars were few and far between. The upside of that, though, was that most cars would stop.
My first ride of any length (it seemed people were only going from one town to the next) was a man who saw immediately that I was American. “From what part of the States?” he asked. “I’m from Winsted, Connecticut,” I said. “Ah, St. Joseph’s!” he responded. “Did you go to St. Anthony’s?” I don’t know what was more bizarre, the coincidence that this Irishman should know my home town of 7000 people, or that he should immediately associate it with the single Catholic Church and its parochial school. I hated to disappoint him, but he didn’t wait for an answer anyway. “Ah, yes,” he said. “The church is the soul of life!”
I assumed I had happened upon a religious fanatic. But that same night, after finding my way to a youth hostel outside of Galway, I found myself in a dorm room with several men of all ages, most of whom got down on their knees before going to bed. One continued to pray the rosary after retiring. What is it about this country? I asked myself.
The morning after I arrived in Galway it started to rain. So hard that the power went off and we found ourselves cut off. There were no provisions and I ended up going from house to house with members of the IRA (a story for another day) begging potatoes for a soup to keep the ten or so of us in the youth hostel going until the roads cleared. By the time they did, we were one happy family and so when somebody suggested we go to church, I went along. The homily was given in Irish, but I didn’t care. I was 21 and I was at the edge of the civilized world, and this was an extraordinarily good adventure.
That experience colored my view of Ireland for years afterwards. Only Poland gave it a run for its money when it came to Catholicism. To be Irish was to be Catholic. Or so I thought. And with good reason. The Irish constitution opens with the words, "In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority..." and makes reference to "obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial." The Irish church, not the state, has virtual control over the entire education system. As late as 1984, nearly 90 percent of Irish Catholics still went to Mass every week. And that meant, of course, that the Irish had regular instruction on the importance of being anti-gay, anti-divorce, anti-birth control, anti-just about everything.
Then the church began its decline. By 2011, only 18 percent still went to mass.
But there was always another Ireland. I grew up in New England and there were Irish everywhere – mostly cops and priests, it seemed – and when I wore orange one St. Patrick’s Day to mark my Scottish Protestant roots, the message backfired. Everybody, Irish or not, thought I was a bad sport. Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, I learned. “It’s a great day to be Irish,” they said. Whether you were actually Irish or not. The Irish were the underdogs, associated with poverty and a stifling addiction to religion, and people of good will stressed their contribution to music and poetry. I’ll take you home again, Kathleen, My Wild Irish Rose, – these were as familiar as any American folk songs, part of everyday life. And who doesn’t love an Irish tenor doing Danny Boy?
So Ireland has always had much going for it. Despite the weight of British rule, despite the dead hand of the church, it grew and maintained a vibrant culture, full of life and art and talent and imagination, full of poetry and song. Once noted for potato blights and grand famines, loss of almost half its population to starvation and emigration in the early 20th century, partition and civil war, by the 1990s it had acquired the reputation of being “The Celtic Tiger,” so great were its successes in developing its industry.
Socially, the church held onto tremendous power. On April 19, 1908 a decree issued by Pope Pius X went into effect known by its Latin name, Ne Temere. It declared that marriages not properly performed and registered by the church were invalid, i.e., all non-Catholic marriages. If a Catholic married a non-Catholic, children must be baptized and raised Catholic. Ne Temere was in force in Ireland until 1970.
But as the above figures related to mass attendance by 2011 indicate, it became clear that the Irish people were moving away from Catholic church teachings. Polls on the issue of abortion, also, demonstrate the change. Despite strict insistence that abortion would never be permitted under any circumstances according to church doctrine, polls showed in 1997 that 77% of the population thought it should be permitted under certain circumstances such as the health of the mother. By 2004, 51% of people under age 45 supported abortion on demand. By January 2010 60% of those under 35 thought it should be legalized, and 75% thought the morning-after pill should be made available as an over-the-counter drug (i.e., not just by prescription).
And now, the Irish have demonstrated with their overwhelming approval of same-sex marriage that the Church really has lost its hold on the country. As Ronan Mullen, an opponent of “gay marriage,” put it, in a lovely example of the Irish way with the English language, “Some Yes campaigners might be tempted to say Catholic Ireland was executed today and will be buried in a humanist ceremony on Monday.”
Ireland’s vote was stunning. Of 43 parliamentary districts, 42 voted yes. And the one single hold-out kept it from being unanimous by a no-vote of only 51.42% to 48.58% yesses. Even in the very rural county of Roscommon almost half the people voted in favor of equality. To be fair, the vote was close in many districts. Only in Dublin did it go as high as 84% in some parts of the urban area. But as one writer in the Irish Times put it, “Dublin needed to push hard, we thought, to carry the rest of the country home. Rubbish. The rest of the country did that themselves.”
“The decency of the Irish people,” she continued, “was not limited to the liberal leafy suburbs of Dublin, nor the solidarity from the flats, but that decency came from the cliffs of Donegal, the lakes of Cavan, the farmyards of Kildare, the lanes of Kerry."
People more knowledgeable about Irish society than I will debate whether the still mostly Catholic people of Ireland won this battle or whether the Church lost it. There are ready explanations for the official Roman Catholic Church’s tail-spin. The world learned the story of the 30,000 women confined to Irish asylums when a mass grave of 155 corpses was discovered at a former convent in Dublin in 1993, largely from the film, The Magdalene Sisters, based on the events. Astonishingly, the church is still fighting against having to pay restitution in the courts despite demands from the Irish government, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture. A 2009 article in the Guardian makes the case that “rape and sexual molestation were ‘endemic’ in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages.” It’s hardly a secret anymore that the moral authority of the church has gone up in smoke. I would prefer some evidence that people came to their senses on the importance of seeing gay people as no better and no worse than anybody else, but I suspect it took the hypocrisy and arrogance of the Irish Catholic Church to shake people out of apathy and blind obedience to doctrine hostile to the human spirit. That and the breadth and depth of unspeakable abuse. If you’re not familiar with the Ryan Report, have a look. It’s a mind-blower.
On the other hand, to say that it was the church’s corruption and hunger for power and control that made this happen sidesteps the possibility that it simply made itself irrelevant. People didn’t vote out of anger at the church. They voted without regard to the church.
And it bears repeating that we still do ourselves no favors by allowing the clerical authorities from the pope down to the bishops to think they speak for the church. One doesn’t stop being Catholic necessarily when one stops going to church. One source states that 80% still define themselves as Catholic. They simply take responsibility for defining religion outside the grasp of the clericals. Or, as those within the church tend to see it, the problem is not with the church or with the Christian message; it’s a problem of a demonstrably toxic clericalism, and with an institution seriously lacking in credibility.
That’s not my issue, however. Not today, anyway. Today, I simply want to listen to the Clancy Brothers, put on some green socks, and wear my Celtic family name with pride, knowing that most people think it’s Irish.
Today, that’s more than OK with me.
photo credit: supporters at Dublin Castle
*On May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down Proposition 22, which had declared marriage in California could only be between a man and a woman. That enabled same-sex couples to marry. A new proposition, Proposition 8, was put together with money from the Knights of Columbus, the Mormon Church and others, including right-winger Howard Ahmanson, opponent of evolution and promoter of intelligent design. It was supported by 85% of those who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again. To LGBT people's dismay, the Proposition passed, and the right to marry was taken away. After a long battle in the courts, that right was restored on June 26, 2013.