DUBLIN — Last Sunday outside the General Post Office, where rebel leaders of the Easter Rising declared Irish independence in 1916 — stunning the world, or at least the British — a few thousand people had collected on O’Connell Street, this city’s grandest boulevard.
Some waved flags or hoisted balloons, others sported slogan badges. Upbeat music blared from speakers, as politicians and pop stars took their turns addressing the crowd.
It could have been any other modern campaign rally. It was anything but.
The Irish, those gathered hope, will again soon stun the world — or at least reshape the global conception of Ireland — with a May 22 vote that could make it the first in the world to approve a national popular referendum on same-sex marriage. It’s a prospect hardly fathomable not many years ago in this small, heavily Catholic country, where the church held enormous influence over all aspects of society for generations.
Strategists on both sides of the question say that the “Yes” vote — establishing civil marriages regardless of the couple’s gender — is favored to win.
The battle lines appear lopsided. The Roman Catholic Church, still a force in Ireland despite widespread disaffection, is officially opposed, although small numbers of priests have broken ranks to support the measure. But business groups, unions, and all the major political parties have lined up in favor. Early polling shows the question passing with ease; an Irish Times survey published on Friday found 74 percent felt gay people should be permitted to marry, a decline of 6 points since December.
There is also a substantial undercurrent of quiet opposition, people who profess public support or neutrality, but privately say they plan to cast their secret ballot against.
David Quinn, a journalist who founded the Iona Institute, a leading Christian organization that is helping spearhead the opposition, said his side could still win, but it would be “against the odds.”
“If we were to win, it’d be a narrow victory,” Quinn said. “The ‘yes’ side could also win by a landslide.”
Gay marriage critics in Ireland call it a corruption of the time-honored family unit and an affront to religious freedom, part of a growing pattern of governmental intrusion. Proponents say it is an overdue extension of the equality the revolutionary leaders envisioned on the steps of the General Post Office a century ago and say it is time to declare that Ireland, as Justice and Equality Minister Frances Fitzgerald put it Wednesday in an address to the Irish Senate, is “embedded in the modernity of the 21st century.”
Convulsed by rapid social, economic, and demographic change over the past few decades, Ireland, where homosexuality was outlawed outright until 1993, may be approaching another turning point. And, as the nation draws near the Easter Rising’s centennial and considers where it has been and where it’s headed, the referendum’s outcome will serve as a key indicator of the new Ireland’s path.
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The Irish have something of a love affair with the governing tool known as referenda. Since 1992, they’ve voted on legalizing abortion and divorce, on several questions related to the country’s entry into the European Union, and to endorse the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, hailed as a major milestone in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
But the same-sex marriage question comes at sensitive time in Irish politics, when a wave of antigovernment feeling is swelling over austerity programs imposed over the last several years — higher taxes, layoffs, reduced benefits, and, most recently, new water fees. Widespread demonstrations have protested those measures.
Strategists on both sides think that unrest may prompt antireferendum votes. With the political establishment lined up on the other side, opponents hope that otherwise unmotivated voters are sufficiently angered at the string of tough government measures to go to the polls in protest.
“Outside the Irish version of the Beltway, [same-sex marriage] is not an important issue at all,” said Quinn,seated in the lounge of the Davenport Hotel near Leinster House, where the Irish legislature, the Dáil, meets.
“Some people are wondering, why is this happening, when the economy is still repairing itself, and we’ve got water charges and so on? And so people could well see this opportunity to lash out,” Quinn said.
Pro-gay-marriage strategists, too, say the antiestablishment mood could blow back on their efforts. Averil Power, a senator from Dublin helping to lead the campaign, told a group of volunteers that early canvassers had been fielding questions about water rates from residents harboring a general concern about government overreach.
More traditionalist Irish see their national government increasingly ceding power to the centralized European coalition and say the referendum is another unwelcome example.
“It’s the individual atomized citizen against big government, and that government is not Dublin, it’s Brussels,” said Brian Flanagan, a retired furniture maker from Buncrana in the northwest county of Donegal who opposes same-sex marriage. “It’s not them and us at all. It’s both of us against the government.”
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The Rev. John Joe Duffy, a big man with two bad knees, jokes about his little car parked by the grassy diamond in the center of Donegal Town. Welcoming a passenger for the short ride to the town harbor, he casually brushes a purple stole, the length of fabric priests wear around their necks for sacraments, off the seat and into the center console.
Duffy, 40, works in nearby Stranorlar. He knows the migration pattern of the Donegal diaspora, many in Boston, many in Chicago, many still in the shadows of the US immigration system.
On the banks of the River Eske, which feeds into the North Atlantic, Duffy walks toward the ruins of a 15th-century abbey, where monks known as the Four Masters wrote “The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland.”
Duffy is the face of the young clergy, and initially expressed trepidation about speaking to the press about his stance on the referendum. But, after a night of consideration, he agreed to meet.
Duffy said, “I personally have no difficulty with people who are in gay unions. . . . We need to be much more compassionate and caring and pastoral toward them.”
On the policy, though, he said, “My belief is that I have to be consistent with the teaching of the church, and that’s the belief that I hold personally as well, and it’s that marriage is between a man and a woman and that it be open to procreation.”
His concerns echo those of many Catholics and leaders from other Christian faiths, that expanding marriage beyond a pact between a man and a woman represents an infringement on their religious freedoms.
“This is smashing the last defense that individuals have in their own families against big government,” said Flanagan, part of a small group of conservatives hoping to build a larger organization to resist the referendum. “There will be nothing between the individual and the state.”
But while the church is still the largest institution working against the referendum, what once seemed an all-powerful force in Irish society has watched its influence wane in recent years due to the country’s rapid modernization and the public furor over clerical sex scandals.
Many politicians, sensing the church on the defensive, have felt freed to take steps they would have shunned as unthinkable in the past. In 2011, the government announced plans to close its embassy at the Vatican, and pull its ambassador back to Ireland, before reversing course last year.
During Wednesday’s Senate floor debate over the referendum, Senator David Norris, a former university lecturer and the country’s first openly gay politician elected to public office, mocked the church’s stance on marriage, calling it “an institution of which they know sweet damn all.”
Norris called the notion that referendum supporters were practicing anti-Catholic discrimination “utter and total rubbish.”
Only one senator during the day’s debate spoke in outright opposition to the referendum, saying the question is being railroaded through.
Some see the gay marriage vote — and the near unanimity among the political establishment — as something of a referendum on the church itself, and how much clout it retains in a country where, according to the 2011 census, 84 percent of people at least identify as Catholics.
“I put it down to a reaction to the previous dominance of the Catholic Church in Ireland,” Quinn said. “It used to be a very rock-hard Catholic consensus, which completely dominated politics. And now we have a reaction against that — just as there was in Boston, for example.”
Perhaps wary of its tenuous position in the political debate, the church hierarchy has, so far, adopted a modulated stance on the referendum. Some priests have delivered homilies on the referendum, while others have held off, instead discussing the institution of marriage more obliquely.
In a March 19 letter to priests, Bishop Philip Boyce of the Diocese of Raphoe warned of “serious and far-reaching consequences” of changing the constitution by loosening the definition of marriage.
“The family is important: think before you change it,” Boyce wrote.
Some Catholics wish the church would get more involved.
Mary Rose Doherty, along with Flanagan and a handful of others, is organizing a local opposition group in Buncrana. She has bookmarked with a Novena prayer card the article in the Irish constitution targeted for change.
“I think they should be making a very strong push,” she said. “If I was the church, I would think this is a great time. I think they probably will speak, but it’s too early perhaps yet.”
But even church officials acknowledge that the referendum is well positioned to pass.
“I think that there is a desire on the part of the Irish government to show that we are a very modern nation, and when they think modern they think liberal, so there is a desire to show how liberal we are to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world,” Duffy said.
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The second floor of Outhouse, a gay community center on Dublin’s Capel Street, is standing room only. Some two dozen campaign-hardened activists and political neophytes are getting advice on how to spread the message. The goal: knock on every door in Ireland.
“I think we can beat them on the ground game, if we can mount it,” Tiernan Brady, policy director for the Gay Lesbian Equality Network, had said earlier.
Victory in the ground game — door-knocking and leafleting in an effort to turn out supportive voters — seems all but assured for gay marriage proponents. Mothers and Fathers Matter, the chief organization created in opposition, will muster a similar effort only if it can draw enough volunteers, according to Quinn — and even then on a much smaller scale.
The young urban dwellers are encouraged to return to their hometowns and canvass there when they can.
“One of our biggest issues is visibility outside of Dublin,” said Power, the senator, who holds a seat based in the capital. Gay marriage is, she said, “now seen as a liberal Dublin issue, and I hear that all the time.”
“Go home on the weekends,” she advised.
Canvassing in the rural areas creates “a bigger multiplier effect” because word spreads quickly in small towns, where some families have lived alongside one another for generations but where there is a “cultural silence” around gay issues, said Brady, himself a former town councilor from a small Donegal town.
“Being able to knock the door breaks that silence,” Brady told the gathering. “There aren’t enough social spaces to have that conversation in rural Ireland.”
While much of the divide on the issue is geographic — similar, Quinn said, to the “red state, blue state” split in the United States — perhaps an even starker schism exists between generations. Many older and more conservative voters are already aghast at pell-mell social change here, while many of the younger Irish shrug at questions about the referendum and wonder why anyone would oppose it.
At the O’Connell Street rally, Pat Carey, a former lawmaker and government minister who came out as gay after leaving office, said the referendum could hinge on older voters.
“What’s needed above all else is to convince the people who are doubters — and there are many of them, particularly of my generation — yes, Ireland has become a kinder, more compassionate, and more caring society,” said Carey, 67. “But Ireland needs to take the next step. And, by the way, the skies won’t fall in.”
Donal Reid, 53, a star footballer in Donegal in the 1980s and 1990s, worries about that next step. Now a physical therapist who still coaches and works with football teams, Reid has the scattered teeth and mangled hands of an aging contact-sport athlete.
One of his successors on the current Donegal team, Eamon McGee, drew national headlines earlier this year when he publicly threw his backing behind the Yes Equality campaign.
Reid speaks fondly of McGee, but called the younger man misguided.
“I used to be like them. I used to be like them, but I’ve become more mature and rationalized things more,” Reid said.
“Ireland is under a lot of pressure to move with what’s called the times. Young people are under an awful lot of pressure. But this issue needs more debate.”
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The referendum debate has thus far only infrequently climbed onto the front pages of the major Irish newspapers, and much of the public attention is consumed elsewhere: the water rate controversy, Ireland’s second straight championship in the premier European rugby league, the salacious murder trial of a suburban Dublin architect.
But tensions have begun simmering, and advocates of both positions say they expect them to worsen as the election nears.
After McGee’s declaration of support for the referendum, a Donegal priest chastised the football star from the pulpit, according to a transcript of the homily in the Donegal Democrat. Several Massgoers stood up and walked out of the church.
A printing company in County Louth, north of Dublin, drew headlines recently when it refused to print wedding invitations for a gay couple anticipating the referendum’s passage. The company’s owners cited opposition to same-sex marriage, rooted in their religious beliefs. The couple is reportedly considering litigation.
Still, longtime Irish political observers said the debate has not approached the caustic tone that marked earlier fights over cultural issues like divorce and abortion.
Referendum proponents say they are trying to steer the debate away from the ad hominem, saying they respect the opposition’s views, but disagree in principle. Publicly, organizers instruct supporters to keep their rhetoric trained on undecided voters, and to eschew pointed rhetoric in favor of an emphasis on the happiness a yes vote could bring to someone they know who is gay.
“You can’t look like you’re selling love if you look like you’re chewing a wasp,” Brady said.
Critics of the change profess to see a darker mood. Universally, opponents interviewed by the Globe said that the establishment backing for the referendum had helped create an atmosphere of intimidation.
Doherty said the government and the European Union forces behind it have helped depict referendum opponents as hostile to homosexuals — a charge she called unfair.
“We have respect for them,” Doherty said, seated on a couch in her living room. “We’re being called homophobic, we’re discriminating, we’re intolerant. Well, those things are not true.”
“People suddenly, because they continue to hold the age-old belief in what marriage is and what family is, find themselves being treated as the equivalent of white racists in Alabama circa 1950,” Quinn said.
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Because it is so well known as a heavily Catholic country, Ireland’s vote on the referendum is bound to resound beyond the small island.
Irish activists are aware of the attention.
“This will be an international tipping point,” said Brady. “The impact as far as we’re perceived internationally will be huge. The message, in other parts of the world, will be that you can complete an entire circle of social change within a generation.”
Conversely, Brady said, the fallout from a failed referendum could be harmful to the gay-rights movement.
“It would be a devastating blow to the morale of lesbian and gay people and to their family and friends to think that when asked the question, people said, ‘No, I don’t think you’re entitled to full and equal recognition under the constitution.’ ”
Opponents say the referendum’s passage would have dire consequences on Irish society, and that it would establish a dangerous momentum that could spill across borders.
“They’re taking away the right of a child to have a father and a mother. They’re taking away the right of the child to be in a family — a proper family with a father and a mother. And that has very serious consequences,” Doherty said.
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“There’s about 60-odd days left,” Carey, the former lawmaker, said at the O’Connell Street rally. “And some of them will be rainy.”
Damp spring weather appears to be one of the few certainties about the remainder of the referendum campaign. Both sides expect the now-yawning gap in the polls to be whittled down as the vote approaches. Quinn, of the Iona Institute, estimated the ratio could be as disproportionate as 10 to 1. “Yes” strategists dispute that figure, but acknowledge that they expect to have a heavy financial advantage.
Still, wariness of Ireland’s volatile referendum process, which by law requires strict media adherance to balance in the final weeks, has prevented handicappers on either side from feeling overconfident about the outcome.
“I would give a signal of warning. The atmosphere here today is almost as if the referendum has been passed,” Norris told the Senate on Wednesday during an impassioned speech. “I don’t think it’s by any means certain that this referendum will be passed.”
The two sides share an appreciation for what is on the line on May 22.
Advocates envision the natural next step in the still-young country’s proud and hard-fought history of social progress. Citing a steady march of civil rights extensions of the past several decades, and a long line of battles against the colonialist British, they frame gay marriage as the most recent expression of the Irish ardor for freedom.
Opponents — “hell-bent on defending marriage as it is,” as Reid put it — see themselves as the rearguard in a twilight struggle against the overpowering change that has so quickly and dramatically reshaped Irish society.
The modernity that yanked Ireland from its historical poverty has, for them, now come to collect its due.
Near the Northern Ireland border, Eddie Allingham, 70, was chasing lambs one day last week. It had rained, cold, the night before and the little ones were “like ice” when he picked them up in the morning, Allingham said.
Allingham is adamantly against the referendum, seeing it as part of a larger breakdown in social mores.
“I don’t see it making sense,” Allingham said. “It really makes me sick, to tell you the truth.”
On O’Connell Street outside the General Post Office, waiting for the rally to start, Natalia Sheeran, 16 years old of Blackrock, a Dublin suburb, said she knows that the older generation, in her own family and across the country, is having a hard time keeping up with Ireland’s rapid social evolution.
She said, “They can’t get over how much it’s changed.”Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.