By Catherine Healy
Crowds cheered on the streets of Dublin shortly before 7pm Ireland time Saturday night, when the official result of the marriage referendum was announced. Ireland had just become the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote, with 62% of the electorate backing historic legislation that would constitutionally enshrine the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Over 2,000 people gathered Saturday morning in the cobblestone courtyard of Dublin Castle, in the capital’s city center, to watch the results from around the country be announced. People cried, embraced and jumped up and down as the map of Ireland on a screen in front of them gradually went green, the color marking districts that had voted in favor of marriage equality.
At one point, a section of the crowd began signing the Irish national anthem, while cars and buses crawling along the streets outside beeped their horns in support of the hundreds of people waiting to get in. The only boos came when Roscommon-South Leitrim, the only constituency that didn’t back the referendum, was announced.
Senator David Norris, the most prominent figure of the 1980s campaign to decriminalize homosexual acts in Ireland, was mobbed by applauding supporters as he arrived at Dublin Castle in the afternoon. A young man, with a rainbow flag around his neck, hugged him after they had posed for selfies. “Thank you making this possible,” he said.
Alex Molloy and Eilis Murray, who have been engaged for two years, were holding hands outside Dublin Castle as it became clear that the referendum would pass. “This means our marriage will be treated seriously,” Molloy told MTV News. “We’re finally going to have the same rights as straight couples.” Her fiancee said they had been “blown away” by the level of support voters had shown for marriage equality. “People realize we’re human and that our relationships are just like theirs.”
Close by, Sara Flynn, who was painted from head to toe in the rainbow colors, was also awaiting the final result. She was 13 when homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland in 1993. I asked her how different the Ireland of today is to the country she grew up in. “It’s unrecognizable,” she said. “Even today, we live in a different Ireland than yesterday. The gay community has a new confidence because we know now that we’re accepted by others.”
Traffic on the streets outside momentarily came to a halt as drag queen Panti Bliss (aka Rory O’Neill), one of Ireland’s most well-known campaigners for LGBT rights, left Dublin Castle surrounded by photographers and television crews shortly before the final result was announced. She was applauded as she walked through Dublin streets, with passersby stopping to shake her hand and congratulate her.
Once the result was official, revellers packed into the many pubs and clubs across the city that were holding post-referendum celebrations. One of Ireland’s national TV channels, in a sign of how far the country has come in recent years, broadcast its evening results show live from the iconic George, the country’s oldest gay bar, as drag queens in the background performed in front of ecstatic crowds.
UK-based Paul Logue was one of thousands of Irish emigrants who travelled home to vote on Friday. “[It] was a no brainer,” he told MTV News. “Being LGBT in Ireland isn’t always easy and I felt an obligation to myself to make sure I was home to witness history being made.” The referendum was carried by 51% in his home area, the northern county of Donegal, which is known for its conservative views. In Donegal South West, it was passed by just 33 votes.
Sarah Toye, who has a 9-year-old daughter with her partner, was in high spirits outside Dublin gay pub Panti Bar when she spoke to MTV News. “I no longer feel like a minority,” she said. “The change I’ve seen in Ireland in my lifetime has just been monumental. I find it hard to put into words what I’m feeling today.”
With her was Lynne Cahill, who said she was proud to have been able to vote for marriage equality along with her family on Friday. “It’s not just about marriage to me,” she said. “It’s about breaking the shackles of Catholicism.”
Personal stories and relationships were key to mobilizing voters ahead of the referendum, according to Darragh Genockey, a volunteer with the Yes Equality campaign. “The simple reason this referendum would not have passed 20 years ago is not that there were no gay people, it is that very few people knew any gay people,” he said. “Now that it is relatively easier to come out to friends and family, a lot more of us know gay people and we all know that we’re all the same, and that our relationships are no different.”
David Doyle was one of hundreds enjoying the post-referendum party in gay club Mother, where the music was occasionally interrupted by passionate speeches from the stage. “Our taxi driver described the atmosphere as being like New Year’s Eve,” he said. “It feels surreal. Because this was a referendum and not a legislative decision, it feels even better. People around the country were able to have this conversation and come to the decision that we’re equal.”
The next step, he said, is to repeal Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which allows Irish schools and hospitals under a religious patronage to sack staff for being gay. Still, he added, Ireland has come a long way since 1983, when 31-year-old Declan Flynn was beaten to death in a Dublin park for being gay. His four killers walked free from court after a judge said they had been “cleaning up the area.”
Student Matthew Mulligan, who first came out at the age of 15, was also celebrating. ”I feel so happy that the love I feel for my boyfriend - the most natural feeling I think anyone could have for another human - is vindicated and that we’re more equal citizens than before.”
The campaign run by the No side (against same-sex marriage), which argued that the referendum was ultimately about the right of children to a mother and father, had often been difficult to deal with, he said. “[Their posters] suggested a lot of things about gay men in particular and their capacity to be loving parents, but at the end of the day love won out.”
Far from the celebrations in Ireland’s capital, the No vote was highest in rural areas, where the Catholic Church, which opposed any change to the definition of marriage, has more influence. But what is clear from speaking to young voters, the vast majority of whom support marriage equality, is that they feel they have grown up in a new Ireland, tolerant of differences and open to social change. They voted in unprecedented numbers, many for the first time in their lives. “We couldn’t have won it without them,” Colm O’Gorman, the director of Amnesty International Ireland, told Irish public broadcaster RTÉ on Saturday.