Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, left, and drag artist Panti Bliss celebrate a Yes victory in the same-sex marriage referendum in May. © Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images

The strange death of Catholic Ireland

The referendum legalising same-sex marriage capped an astonishing 50-year social revolution
June 17, 2015

In the referendum held in Ireland on 22nd May, voters chose overwhelmingly—by 62 per cent to 38 per cent—to endorse a proposal to amend the country’s constitution in order that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” All the major political parties had supported a Yes vote on same-sex marriage. Predictably, the Catholic Church, once such a power in the land, had urged its flock to reject the proposal. Many of the Church hierarchy did so only half-heartedly, however, and in rural Ireland, where for decades the writ of the Church had run unchallenged, there were reports of walkouts at mass when priests called for a No vote from the pulpit.

A couple of days after the referendum, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a senior Vatican official, described the result as not just a “defeat for Christian principle, but… a defeat for humanity.” But Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said that the crushing popular vote in favour of same-sex marriage was a “reality check” for the Church. It was more than that: it was confirmation of the strange, slow death of Catholic Ireland.

The story of its demise can be told be told in four acts.

Act 1: July 1949 Soldiers lined the route and bowed as the funeral cortège of Douglas Hyde, first President of the Irish Republic, founder of the Gaelic League and campaigner for the cultural “de-Anglicisation of Ireland,” passed through the streets of Dublin to St Patrick’s Cathedral. The surrounding streets were packed with well-wishers, but as Hyde’s coffin, draped in the tricolour, was carried inside, few of the mourners followed.

Hyde was a Protestant, and St Patrick’s the cathedral of the Anglican Church of Ireland. In those days, before the Second Vatican Council (or “Vatican II”) began the process of ecumenical outreach to other denominations in the early 1960s, Roman Catholics were forbidden from attending services of worship held by other Christians. Only two Catholics attended the funeral itself: the poet Austin Clarke and the French Ambassador.

Three months before, Ireland had formally declared itself a republic, concluding the process of constitutional divorce from Britain that had begun with the establishment of the Irish Free State 27 years earlier. The state that emerged was unambiguously Catholic. Article 44 of the constitution recognised “the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church.” John A Costello, the Prime Minister, would later announce: “I am an Irishman second, a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the Church to which I belong.”

"While the Church was cementing its dominance, Ireland was haemorrhaging its population"
The power of the Church was nearing its zenith during this period. In an egregiously shameful episode, tens of thousands of orphans or otherwise “undesirable” children, as well as unmarried mothers, were placed in institutions run by religious orders where wilful malnutrition, violent punishment and sexual abuse were endemic. (In June 2014, the full horror of this system of incarceration was brought home when a researcher found records for 796 babies and toddlers believed to have been buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.)

While the Church was cementing its dominance, Ireland was haemorrhaging its population. Irish men and women travelled in their thousands across the Irish sea to find work in the old imperial power. Irish labourers powered Britain’s postwar council house-building programme and Irish nurses formed the backbone of the new National Health Service.

Ireland may have been Catholic, Gaelic and free, but it was bleeding to death. Before the Famine, which began in 1845, its population peaked at around 8.5m. Immediately after that cataclysm ended in 1851, it stood at 6.5m. By 1961, the population of the Irish Republic was just 2.8m, despite it having one of the highest birth rates in Europe. (The population of the entire island of Ireland, including the six counties in the north belonging to Britain, was 4.2m.)

Act 2: September 1979 For the first time ever, a Pope, John Paul II, visited Ireland. And for the first time since 1523, the Pope was not an Italian (John Paul was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland). Setting foot on Irish soil, he received the kind of reception usually reserved for rock stars.

Perhaps because of the parallels between Ireland and Poland—Poland was the only country in Europe whose loyalty to the Catholic Church and fidelity to Our Lady rivalled Ireland’s—the Irish found what they were looking for in this Pope. In Ireland, as elsewhere in the Catholic world, the disagreements fomented by Vatican II were still rumbling on. John Paul appealed to those on both sides of these debates. His personal warmth and popular touch captivated radicals, while his doctrinal orthodoxy and robust anti-communism enthralled conservatives and reactionaries.

At Phoenix Park in Dublin, 1.25m people, an astonishing quarter of the population of the divided island, attended the Pope’s opening mass, with young people particularly in evidence. Crowds of hundreds of thousands attended subsequent services in towns and cities across the country. Over the course of the following year, a tenth of the boys born in Ireland were named John Paul.

The violent guerrilla conflict then taking place in Northern Ireland cast a long shadow over the visit. Fears of an assassination attempt by loyalist paramilitaries and threatened mass protests led by the Protestant demagogue Ian Paisley meant that the Pope did not cross the border. His response to the Irish Republican Army’s campaign against British rule—“Murder is murder no matter what the cause or end”—which he made at Knock, the centre of the Irish cult of devotion to the Virgin Mary (a shrine in the village commemorates a supposed apparition of the Blessed Virgin), chimed with the public mood in the Republic. Catholics in the Republic sympathised with the grievances of their co-religionists in Ulster, but were weary after a decade of bloodletting there.

The papal visit crowned an optimistic period in modern Irish history. From the late 1950s on, Irish society and the country’s economy began to open up to the rest of the world. Ireland, along with Britain, had joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. A few months before the Pope said mass in Phoenix Park, the Irish currency, the punt, joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. A modest economic boom coincided with a brief reversal in the flow of people out of Ireland. Highly educated, successful emigrants returned from Britain and the United States. Irish diplomats played leading roles in European institutions and at the United Nations. Ireland was becoming more integrated into the cultural life of the west, too—Dublin bands like the Boomtown Rats and Thin Lizzy had legions of fans across Europe and North America. Ireland’s baby boom topped out in the year of the Pope’s visit. Its progeny would rewrite the meaning of Irishness.

If those who came of age in Britain in the 1980s Britain were “Thatcher’s children,” their counterparts in Ireland are John Paul’s. Ironically, they are the generation that has abandoned the Church. They didn’t rebel or convert; they just stopped caring. Mostly, they didn’t even think about it; they simply stopped going to mass or listening to the priest once they left the family home. They were part of a tide that would drown not just Catholic Ireland, but the Catholic west as a whole.

Already in 1979, in societies long defined by an “ultramontane” Catholicism that stressed the supreme authority of the Pope, clerical power was beginning to wane. In Quebec, for example, the so-called “Quiet Revolution” was well underway. In Belgium, the once powerful Christian Democrats, now riven by linguistic differences (Flemish speakers against Francophones), increasingly defined themselves as secular humanist moderates. An Italian campaign to liberalise abortion laws was gathering momentum, while in Holland, “the rich Roman life” of processions and social clubs that sustained the Roman Catholic State Party was dying—a process exemplified by the once devout city of Nijmegen earning a reputation as the gay-friendly, pot-smoking “Stalingrad on the River Waal.”

Across the Catholic west, attendance at mass was going into steep decline, and Ireland was no exception. The decline was particularly dramatic among the working classes of Dublin, though the crowds greeting the Pope in Phoenix Park meant no one was paying attention.

Act 3: November 1995 In a referendum in 1986, voters rejected a proposal to legalise divorce in Ireland by a margin of 63.5 per cent to 36.5. The question was posed again in another referendum nine years later. Although the polls narrowed in the final few weeks of an increasingly divisive campaign, the Yes side appeared to be ahead. But within a quarter of an hour of the first ballot boxes opening, it was clear that the polls had been way off.

Ireland’s army of “tallymen” are known for their ability to call the result of an election from watching a handful of ballot boxes being opened and sorted. This time, however, tallymen from both camps agreed that the referendum result was too close to call. One ballot box from inner-city Dublin contained an unusual ballot paper. As well as a cross placed in the No box, it had attached to it a miraculous medal of Mary, a prayer for divine assistance for a cause that had seemed to be lost on polling day. It symbolised a clash between two understandings of modern Ireland.

For those opposed to legal divorce, Ireland, though poor, was an unusually stable and secure country in which families mattered and stayed together. Its vocation was to stand proudly apart, holding true to faith, independence and tradition.

For supporters of legalisation, the ban on divorce didn’t just leave tens of thousands of formally separated people in a legal limbo; it was also one of the things that locked Ireland in isolation and poverty, and drove the young and talented to emigrate.

After the optimism of the 1970s, which peaked with John Paul’s visit in 1979, the 1980s were something of a lost decade for Ireland. The economy crashed in the global recession in the early part of the decade and government debt accrued at an alarming rate. In an era of sovereign debt crises, many worried that Ireland would go the way of Mexico or Argentina.

Emigrants poured out of the country as unemployment peaked close to 20 per cent. Mile-long queues at the American embassy in Dublin were not an unusual sight. Many made the journey to the US without work permits, and the regularisation of their status became a major political issue in American cities with large Irish populations. Britain, which had no entry requirements for Irish workers, received them in large numbers, with the educated pouring into the City of London, attracted by the Big Bang deregulation and the money that followed. Others took advantage of the new freedoms offered by the EEC to head to the building sites of Denmark and West Germany, or to Amsterdam, where English-speaking office workers were in demand. Others headed for the oil rich states of the Middle East.

For liberals, the lost opportunities of the 1980s were symbolised by a series of referendum defeats which culminated in the 1986 No vote on divorce. That result provoked the collapse of the nearest thing Ireland had had to a liberal-left government since independence.

In 1995, they were sure things would be different. Another broadly liberal-left government was in office, led by the Prime Minister John Bruton. Even the leader of the socially conservative opposition was a legally separated man prevented by the divorce laws from marrying his new partner. The secularisation that had been barely discernible in 1979 was now firmly established, especially in the cities. Meanwhile, over the previous three years, a series of clerical sex scandals, involving both consenting adults and the abuse of children, had eroded the moral authority of the Church.

The economy had picked up in the early 1990s, as Ireland reinvented itself as the perfect jurisdiction for multinational corporations. Ireland became a land of low tax and minimal regulation—the ideal home for companies seeking access to European markets in an English-speaking country with deep links to the US. The population was young and many had lived abroad before returning home with world-class skills and CVs to match. With polls early in the year recording majorities for legal divorce of three to one, it was easy to see why the Yes campaign was confident.

The No side, however, benefited from not being backed by any of the major political parties, and ran an effective insurgent campaign, making much of the impact of divorce on the Irish diaspora. One in three marriages among the Irish in Britain was said to end in divorce. In a country where family had often been the most effective social safety net, billboards emblazoned with the message “Hello divorce, bye bye Daddy” struck a chord.

But for all the effectiveness of the No campaign, the consensus on polling day was that there would be a clear majority in favour of reform. In the event, turnout was high and the No side succeeded in getting its core voters out in droves. Rural constituencies produced majorities of up to two to one against divorce, while major provincial cities returned only the barest of majorities in favour. For much of the day, it looked as if the referendum would be lost, until Dublin, declaring its results late in the afternoon, produced a heavy majority in favour. In the end, divorce was legalised by just 9,000 votes out of 1.6m cast.

In hindsight, change was inevitable. The “Celtic Tiger” was about to roar and dizzying rates of economic growth would bring hundreds of thousands of emigrants home, while many young people would never leave at all. Secularisation gathered pace, while clerical sex scandals continued with dreary regularity. Ireland’s liberal citizenship laws would see yet more hundreds of thousands of “New Irish” come on to the voter rolls, many coming from places where divorce was normal.

But on the day the votes were counted, it seemed to the No side’s supporters that they had come within an ace of preserving all they held to be beautiful and special about their country. Most No voters were philosophical about their narrow defeat, but Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna, one of their side’s most abrasive and effective television performers, gave voice to the despair that many of them had suppressed. Encountering Yes campaigners celebrating at the capital’s vote-counting centre, she was unable to contain herself. “G’way ye wife-swapping sodomites,” she shouted. She knew that the defeat was bigger than the narrow referendum majority suggested.

Act 4: May 2015 In the little town of Bandon in County Cork, Kitty Cotter went out to vote wearing a rainbow-coloured coat. A devoutly Catholic retired schoolmistress, at 101 years old, Kitty was older than the Irish state itself. As a child she lived through the Irish war of independence and civil war, which were particularly rough in the Bandon valley. She was 80 years old by the time homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland.

Shortly before polling day on the same-sex marriage referendum, she recorded, with the assistance of her granddaughter, a YouTube video in which she said: “I believe in equal rights for all our citizens. Therefore I will be voting Yes in the coming referendum.”

Bandon is the quintessential small Irish town. In the 1995 divorce referendum, the Cork South West constituency in which it sits voted No by a three to two margin. BBC TV comedian Graham Norton, who is gay, grew up here in the 1970s and remembers a miserably homophobic time. But by the end of referendum day, a majority of Kitty’s neighbours had joined her in voting to legalise same-sex marriage. Cork South West recorded a 56 per cent Yes vote.

Young Irish emigrants returned home in huge numbers to vote, and overwhelmingly to vote Yes, perhaps as many as 70,000 coming back to a country with little over three million registered voters. In Ireland itself, 100,000 people registered to vote for the first time. It is estimated that over 80 per cent of these voted in the referendum. Yes campaigners went to bed confident after the polls closed: the young had turned out heavily and those in the cities had voted in greater numbers than in the countryside. In parts of working-class Dublin, where political disaffection is deep, 15 per cent more people went out to vote than is usual in a general election.

The economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s had produced the biggest wave of immigration into Ireland since the plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. As much as 15 per cent of the population is now foreign-born. It was a sign of the times that, in the last few days of the referendum campaign, liberals feared traditional Catholic Ireland much less than they did naturalised citizens from Poland and the Philippines, who, it was thought, were much more likely to obey the teachings of the Church. The booming evangelical conventicles of the Nigerian diaspora also frantically emailed their faithful insisting that only a No vote could uphold God’s plan, as did the mosques.

In the inner cities of this new Ireland, immigrants outnumber the increasingly unobservant Irish at masses in many churches, while urban Anglican parishes report congregations that are about a third “from the cradle” Church of Ireland, a third converts from Catholicism and a third immigrant. In the countryside, things have also changed, but less dramatically. It was in the rural areas that conservatives hoped for at least a moral victory in the referendum, a string of No votes that would show that some corners of the country, at least, would forever be loyally Catholic and traditionally Irish.

Polls narrowed in the final fortnight of the campaign, but much less dramatically than in the divorce referendum 20 years before. And unlike 1995, there was no shock when the ballot boxes were opened at 9am on 23rd May. By 9.15 the tallymen, these days tweeting live from the counts, were predicting a landslide for the Yes side. Conservative rural counties like Mayo and Donegal were said to be voting narrowly Yes. Ballot boxes in the poorest parts of Dublin recorded margins of up to seven to one for marriage equality.

By 10am, the No campaign organisations began to concede defeat and congratulate the victors. If there was one surprise, it was that the gap between urban and rural Ireland was much narrower than in previous referendums. Dublin, although recording the highest margins of Yes support, didn’t quite deliver the knockout punch Yes campaigners had hoped for. Rural Ireland, however, voted consistently, if narrowly, in favour of same-sex marriage. Out of the country’s 43 constituencies, 42 voted Yes. The lonely holdout, Roscommon-South Leitrim, only voted narrowly against. Little Ireland, for so long an emblem of rigidly loyal Catholicism, became the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, doing so by a margin of five to three.

The Catholic Church had attempted a bellow from the pulpit during the campaign, but the bishops who called for a No vote most vocally did so clumsily and offensively. And their case was undermined by a substantial minority of clergy and countless laity who made it clear they would be voting Yes. Among churchmen who supported the No campaign, only Diarmuid Martin seemed capable of understanding the scale of what had happened. But his analysis still missed the mark—the defeat of the Church hierarchy was sealed not just by the enormous turnout among the normally politically disaffected young, which Martin noted, but also by the tens of thousands of elderly rural churchgoers who joined Kitty Cotter in voting Yes.

If in 1995 the miraculous medal was the symbol of the Christian contribution to the referendum, then perhaps a woman known as “Yvonne,” a recovering heroin addict who came to the attention of the media during the campaign, was the symbol of 2015. “Yvonne” had become a born again Christian. Although she was baptised a Catholic, she now attended an independent evangelical church. She had been told to vote No in her Bible class, but wanting to support her daughter, who recently came out as bisexual, she voted Yes.

Maeve Calahan, a 64-year-old from Tipperary, was another example. Leaving Sunday mass shortly before referendum day, she told a reporter: “I have a brother who is in a civil partnership and he certainly wants to have a full marriage. I’m not concerned about the Church’s thinking, I have my own opinions.”

Rural Ireland was full of people like Maeve, churchgoing Catholics, middle-aged or elderly, who at some point in recent decades found they had a gay brother or a lesbian niece, whom they loved dearly. Former President Mary McAleese, another devout Catholic, was perhaps the Yes campaign’s most effective voice. She began making equality a political priority several decades ago when her gay son came out and was bullied in school as a result.

Over the past 30 years, Ireland’s closet doors have been opening little by little. At first they were nudged ajar, at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised, by the brave or the foolish or the handful whose jobs weren’t at risk. Then from the mid-1990s, after decriminalisation, the young started coming out as a matter of course, a process hastened as TV soaps worked actively to normalise same-sex relationships. As older gay men and women started to find they had gay nieces, nephews and workmates, they began to follow suit. Even deep in rural Ireland, nearly everybody had a gay friend or family member. The deeply macho and largely rural Gaelic Athletic Association now boasts a number of openly gay stars.

The Ireland of 2015 would have amazed and probably horrified most of the citizens who lined the streets for Douglas Hyde back in 1949. It is globalised, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, heavily secular and proudly liberal. Most citizens of traditional Irish Catholic heritage are nominally religious, and many of those who are religious have explored other alternatives, from the bourgeois formality of choral High Church Anglicanism to the exuberance of working-class pentecostalism.

This Ireland is, at first glance, one where Catholicism is dying as a social force. But we should remember that many whose Catholicism is central to their life also voted Yes: the campaign boasted the support of numerous monks and nuns. Perhaps a third of Catholic priests voted Yes, and probably an outright majority of Anglican clergy.

Catholic Ireland of 1949 has died a death; the rigid mores and rules of that time have given way to a surprising liberalism. But it is a strange death, in which many of those who still describe themselves as passionately Catholic have joined in Ireland’s astonishing half-century of social revolution.