Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Enniscorthy, equal marriage and the ’embrace of love’

by Chris on 21st May 2015

Equality

There are moments when something immediately resonates. Such a moment happened to me earlier this week when I learned that in the midst of the referendum debate about equal marriage in Ireland a number of people had walked out during Saturday evening Mass at an Irish cathedral.

The walk out happened because the bishop had read out a pastoral letter to the diocese during the homily urging people to vote No. This isn’t the first reported walk out of a Mass during the campaign. Irish Catholics have voted with their feet on a number of occasions. But this walk out made me stop and pause me because it was at Enniscorthy Cathedral in County Wexford.

Enniscorthy is a place I only know through the lens of fiction, the writing of Irish novelist Colm Toibin. Toibin was born in Enniscorthy and he’s gay. One of the sublime qualities of his stories is their sense of place and Enniscorthy is a place he returns to again and again. Some stories start there, some end there and others pass through it.So like many long-standing readers of Toibin’s work I feel as though I know something of Enniscorthy. Toibin has taken me through its streets, into its buildings and introduced me to its people. But more than that I have learned something about its mores and manners. And though the Enniscorthy in Toibin’s novels is not very long ago, it’s a place where the idea of gay marriage, let alone Catholics supporting it, seems unthinkable.

The moral influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the past and the impact of its suffocating relationship with the state reverberate to this day. But more recently it has been on the back foot and the pace of change has been rapid. Contraception, divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and now this. What’s at stake here is profound not least because it is about a change to Ireland’s constitution. As Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll tweeted a few weeks ago in support of equal marriage, ‘times are changing’.

While more than 80% of Irish people still identify as Catholics, as elsewhere the gulf in opinion between the laity and the church establishment, is constantly widening. During this campaign priests too have bravely defied the line of the bishops and openly supported equality. Last Saturday one of the women who walked out in Enniscorthy said she ‘couldn’t in good conscience’ have stayed having listened to the contents of the letter. Another woman said she had ‘never thought (she’d) be someone that would walk out of Mass but (she) had to leave.’

As a Catholic myself I’ve had moments when I thought I might have to leave during Mass. Such are the occupational hazards of being a gay Catholic. It’s never actually happened. And thank goodness because whenever I imagine it, the whole thing goes horribly wrong. I end up tripping over my shoe laces, and wishing I’d stayed put. So for me all those who have walked out of Mass are particularly courageous. But because of the connection to Toibin, the walk out last Saturday was especially poignant. Here is a place which Toibin, a novelist who is gay, has made famous. A town which thousands of people would otherwise not have known about.

I’m pretty sure Toibin eschews the idea of being a ‘gay novelist’ and certainly the idea of writing gay novels. His stories are of intricate human relationships, journeys and dilemmas. There are gay characters for sure, highly authentic ones at that, but they take their place alongside everyone else. And there is nothing didactic about them.I don’t know whether the parishioners who walked out in Enniscorthy last Saturday have read Toibin’s stories. They will surely know of him at least. But there is something quite extraordinary in their transgression which is emblematic of a changing Ireland. A kind of unwitting reciprocity which acknowledges Toibin’s place in, and contribution to, his country’s psyche.

The news from Enniscorthy reached me via the Facebook timeline of an old friend Kieran Rose. For months now I have been following the ebbs and flows of the Yes Marriage campaign through Kieran’s postings. He is one of the leading voices of the campaign and one of the heroes of the Irish lesbian and gay rights movement for more than 30 years.I first met Kieran when he was a guest at a lesbian and gay conference in Manchester in 1984. A year later I made my first visit to Ireland to stay with him in Cork. I have visited Ireland, north and south, on various occasions since. But that first visit has always stayed with me. We were on a shared journey to change our countries’ attitudes and laws. But I left Ireland in no doubt that his would be a very different, fundamentally more challenging, journey.

In the event one of the huge differences has been the use of a referendum on the issue of marriage which of course is still to be won. I have never been in favour of referenda on matters of policy legislation (as distinct from constitutional legislation) and have watched in dismay at referenda on lesbian and gay issues in the USA which have given the bigoted a platform and left the fortunes of ordinary lesbian and gay lives hanging in the balance. Here the lines are blurred however because the referendum is about the constitution.

I’ve been enthralled by the remarkable campaign which has unfolded on Kieran’s timeline, and in particular the extraordinarily diverse range of voices. Those of politicians and lawyers, sports stars and film stars and most affectingly ordinary voters across the country. Amongst the famous, the O’Driscoll moment was one of the sweetest. His simple, four word tweet, ‘I’m certainly voting Yes’, has been retweeted 800 times. More recently the ex-Irish president Mary MacAleese has spoken movingly of the bullying experienced by her devout Catholic gay son and changing attitudes in her own family

Indeed some the most heat rending and compelling moments are to be found amongst the countless personal stories on social media, not just from lesbians and gay men and their friends and family, but from hundreds of others who have just decided to speak their minds. And the difference with a referendum of course is that they are inspired to do so because they will have a direct stake in the decision. Those consciences of those people in Enniscorthy were pricked because they will have to vote personally. There’s no convenient compartmentalisation between church and parliament, no relying on an elected representative, no hiding place.

Nowhere has this been more moving than the story told by Ursula Halligan, Political Editor of TV3 in a piece in the Irish Times about how the referendum led her to tell truth about herself. Hannigan said that for her, ‘there was no first kiss, no wedding. And until a short time ago no hope of these’ and that now ‘as a person of faith and a Catholic, (she) believes a Yes vote is the most Christian thing to do.’

I haven’t become a convert to the idea of using referenda. But at a time when democratic institutions here are struggling in terms of trust and credibility it has been fascinating to watch the process of winning individual hearts and minds in action. Of ordinary people campaigning from their own living rooms. And the reality is that we know that the reason elected representatives here have been able to secure change is because the attitudes of those they represent have changed. We know that has in part happened because of high profile campaigning but perhaps most of all because of personal experiences and relationships.

That brings me back to Toibin because his are stories are those of ordinary people, gay and straight. Toibin memorably said a few years ago that he’d forgotten he was gay because he was too busy doing something else. Like so many of his words the phrase and the sentiment stayed with me. I interpreted it as a mark of progress, which of course in part it is. But when I met him all too briefly across a book signing table in Edinburgh sometime later, I told him that the phrase had stayed with me and he remarked in response that it had been intended as a riposte to identity politics. For a writer who happens to be gay but refuses to be defined by it that makes perfect sense. No surprise then that like him his characters are not defined by their sexuality.

Ultimately I’m drawn to Toibin’s stories because he is a truly great story teller whose writing about people’s lives combines sophistication and simplicity in a way that for me is unparalleled. So when a close friend posted Toibin’s own words about gay marriage on Facebook last week I went immediately to them. I was not to be disappointed. True to form Toibin strips away all the paraphernalia of the referendum, the constitution and the campaigns and takes us to the heart of the matter.

Drawing on four simple words, ‘the embrace of love’, from one of Irish writer Kate O’Brien’s novels he describes the how those words capture the essence of the question: ‘…we are not talking about abstract rights, abstract discrimination. We are not even talking about sexuality. Rather, we are talking about love, about the embrace of love, about how our love equals the love of our fellow citizens…’

‘If there is someone who thinks homosexual love is a lesser love’, Toibin asks, ‘how can they know this?’ His words echo the sentiment of my biggest heroes from the Yes campaign, Brighid and Paddy, a Catholic couple from Dundalk, married for 50 years, who made their own video which went viral (so much so that earlier this week they posted a sequel) . In it they ask voters quite simply to make sure that the opportunity for the loving marriage that they have had is not denied to future generations of their family and others. And to vote ‘with them’ for equal marriage.

It’s a huge day for Ireland tomorrow. A defining moment. Like Brighid and Paddy I’ll be waiting for the resulted with bated breath. Times are changing.

Postscript

To mark the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a series of events were held in Berlin under the title ‘Wir waren das Volk’, ‘We were the people’.

The title was a throw back to the events which led to the fall of wall in November 1989 when the people of East Germany had demonstrated in Alexanderplatz under the slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk’, ‘We are the people’. Which as events progressed became ‘Wir sind ein Volk’, ‘We are one people’.

Those phrases and the sentiment they embody came to mind this morning as I reflected on the wonderful scenes in Dublin yesterday afternoon. Because this was the extraordinarily powerful thing about Ireland’s Yes vote. The people had spoken. Gay and straight. Young and old. Urban and rural. Catholic and non-Catholic. People had come home to vote from around the world. This was the people’s chance to make a change. And they did.

For all my nagging concerns (which remain) about the use of a referendum to make such a change it was undoubtedly that dynamic which made yesterday so memorable. So sweet. Those women in Enniscorthy, my friend Kieran, Brighid and Paddy, Mary MacAlesse and her son, Ursula Hannigan, Colm Toibin and hundreds of thousands of others of others got their wish. People did vote with them.

Referanda do have winners and losers of course. And a sizeable minority did vote No. But as Toibin and others have remarked in the wake of the result, although it was at times a divisive debate, for the most part a great deal of respect was on display during a long, hard fought campaign. The Irish people had what they have called a national conversation. They voted and came to a decision. But they remain ‘one people’.

We celebrated in Scotland last year when our Parliament voted for equal marriage, just as they had done in England earlier. But I’m sure it was the sense that yesterday was made by the people and not the legislature which made so many of us wish we could have been there. And which in the most generous way possible made us just a wee bit envious.

And it is because it was the people’s choice that we have been privileged to bear witness to so many compelling personal stories of support for change. As I watched those scenes at Dublin Castle I just about held it together until the General Secretary of Fine Gael, Tom Curran, and his son Finnian, who is gay, were interviewed on the BBC. Tom Curran, a devout Catholic, explained how he had been on a journey, how he had supported Yes because all his children were equal, how what really mattered was love. It was, he said, the happiest day of his life. And then I lost it.

We know, here and in Ireland, that this is how the remarkable change we have seen in the last 30 years has happened. Personal relationships have driven that change. Love has proved more resilient than prejudice. And all those intimate personal stories have woven together to become part of a much bigger public story. A story, sometimes first of tolerance, but gradually of acceptance. A story that yesterday continued in conversations far and wide, none more affecting than this ‘wee story‘ from the Scottish blogger Kenny Fleming about his trip to the barbers in Glasgow yesterday afternoon. When he tweeted it this morning, I cried again. When I told him, he apologised. There was no need of course. As Kenny says, ‘Oh how far we’ve all come’.


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