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Kevin Cullen

A paradigm shift the Irish were more than ready for

People in Dublin cheered Saturday as Ireland voted in favor of allowing same-sex marriage in a historic referendum.CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS

Where’s Oscar Wilde when you need him?

Everybody in Ireland has an opinion about gay marriage — and on Friday, more than 60 percent of the Irish voted to say they were in favor it — but the opinion I’d really like to hear is Oscar’s, one of Ireland’s greatest wits and surely its most famously gay man.

When Wilde was on his death bed in 1900, he looked around his Paris hotel room and declared that either he or the wallpaper had to go. Unfortunately, the wallpaper prevailed.

It is one of the truisms of cultural history that when the Dublin-born Wilde was celebrated as one of the wittiest writers in the English language, the bon vivants of Victorian London claimed him as British, but when he was sent to prison for engaging in homosexual sex, he became Irish again.


Somewhere, in a realm different than ours, Wilde is laughing heartily because he loved nothing more than irony and thumbing his nose at shibboleths. He would have appreciated, more than most, Ireland becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by plebiscite. The plebs, he would note with delight, got it right.

As the official tallies rolled in on Saturday, from the liberal bastions of cosmopolitan Dublin to the more conservative townlands of rural Roscommon and Leitrim, and it was clear that an amendment to Ireland’s constitution legalizing gay marriage would pass easily, it became one of the biggest stories in the world. It was widely portrayed as shocking news.

But there was never any question this was going to pass. Only the margin was in question. All of the country’s political parties were in favor of same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church, and some of its more conservative members, were certainly against it. But the old paradigm of Ireland as a socially conservative country where the Catholic Church holds unusual sway collapsed a long time ago. Even while the Irish still go to Mass more than most other Europeans, they are decidedly secular and don’t listen to bishops when it comes to their rights and constitution.


Old Catholic Ireland is dead and gone. It’s in the grave, buried by the many abusive priests and nuns, the hypocritical bishops who protected them, the enslaved unwed mothers, and the institutionalized children who suffered at the hands of them all.

But even that newer paradigm, the secular versus the religious, is fading in relevance. Putting the Irish into clearly identifiable categories is getting increasingly difficult.

The remarkable thing was how many of the country’s most prominent priests and nuns, like the Rev. Peter McVerry and Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, defied their superiors and enthusiastically endorsed same-sex marriage. Father McVerry and Sister Stan work with and stick up for the poorest of the poor. They are the best of the Irish.

Father McVerry said his position on same-sex marriage was a simple matter of equality.

He spoke for the vast majority of his people, but not his bosses.

But the Irish were never very big on bosses.

In some ways, it is back to the future, a return to what Ireland was like before St. Patrick supposedly sailed over from Britain with a boatload of Christianity. Pagan Ireland was deeply spiritual before it became deeply religious and Catholic. Ireland is still very spiritual. And very gay-friendly.


No doubt, those who voted No on Friday would agree that Ireland is returning to its pagan roots.

You had to feel bad for the No campaign. Not only were all the politicians lined up against it, but just about every Irish celebrity was, too. Bono, the lead singer of U2, Sinead O’Connor, who once tore up a photo of the pope on “Saturday Night Live,” and Colin Farrell, who said his gay brother should be able to get married in Ireland, were among those endorsing same-sex marriage. Unfortunately for the No side, they had no Irish Ted Nugent.

Unable to explain how allowing same-sex couples who love each other to get married would somehow hurt the Irish nation, the No campaign focused its attention on a red herring, suggesting that a huge, unstoppable wave of gay couples would hire surrogates to bear them children. It was a ridiculous argument and clearly didn’t sway many voters.

The Irish will be chuffed, as they say, to have amended their constitution to recognize the right of same-sex couples to tie the knot before the US Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the issue here in America. Nothing like beating the Yanks.

But, again, the Irish have been ahead of Americans when it comes to gay rights for generations. In Boston and New York, the idea of openly gay people marching in St. Patrick’s parades remains a deeply divisive issue that only this year came to some uneasy resolution. Gay people have been marching openly in St. Patrick’s parades the length and breadth of Ireland for two decades. It’s just not a big deal to the vast majority of Irish.


We are extremely parochial in this town, and so we will claim a piece of this. The legal case that triggered the chain of events leading to Friday’s vote began with a love story that started in Boston. Some 35 years ago, Katherine Zappone, a native of Seattle, and Ann Louise Gilligan, a native of Ireland and former nun, met and fell in love at Boston College, where they were pursuing doctorates.

Ten years ago, I sat in a Dublin restaurant with Zappone and Gilligan and they explained how they fell in love at BC and why they were taking a legal case so Ireland would recognize their 2003 marriage in Canada.

After that story appeared, a pair of Boston women, Liz Breadon and Mary McCarthy, held a fund-raiser at their home in Brighton to support the legal challenge.

And so, on Saturday, the celebrations rang out from Merrion Square, where they put up a statue for Oscar Wilde near where he lived in Dublin, to Oak Square, where that modest, grass-roots fund-raiser for marriage equality in Ireland was held almost 10 years ago.

On Saturday, as it became clear the referendum would pass, Zappone went on live television and proposed all over again to Gilligan. RTE, the national broadcaster, was caught a bit off guard. They came back on the air later with Ann’s answer: Yes.


“There’s nothing like an Irish wedding,” Zappone explained.

She ain’t kidding.

When the results became clear on Saturday, Stephen Fry, the actor, tweeted that “Oscar Wilde smiles from his grave.”

I don’t believe that for a minute. If anything, Wilde’s saying, “Get me out of here! It’s dark!”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.