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Dublin: 2 °C Wednesday 13 December, 2017
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We went to the most Catholic county in Ireland to ask about same-sex marriage

Outside of the urban centres, how is the debate shaping up? We spent a day finding out.

“REALLY? I’M AMAZED. We used to live straight across the road from the church… And we would have seen a massive fall-off in churchgoers.

I’m a good Christian myself… But I’m not a good Catholic.

People in Tipperary seem pretty surprised to hear they live in the most Catholic county in Ireland, during TheJournal.ie‘s visit on a blustery, showery (almost spring-like) Tuesday.

The default reaction: furrowed brows, quizzical looks.

“Hmm… How are they measuring that, exactly?” a woman asks…

The figures, as is happens, come from the most recent Census.

As far as the CSO is concerned, if you’re looking for a Catholic county in Ireland, South Tipp is the place to be: over 91 per cent of residents ticked the ‘RC’ box in the 2011 survey.

North Tipp, for that matter, isn’t too far behind.

In any case, when we were looking for somewhere outside the main urban centres to assess how the same-sex marriage debate is shaping up – the Premier County seemed as good a place as any to start.

Come to think of it, wasn’t Tipperary itself the subject of a pretty historic union around this time last year?

The polls, nationally, have shown a slight narrowing of the Yes side’s lead, since the campaign proper started.

One in last Sunday’s Business Post said 1 in 3 Yes voters have reservations about their intended vote. Voters in Munster are also a little more likely to vote No (support is highest in Dublin and the rest of Leinster).

So… Would that spread be borne out on the streets of Roscrea and Cashel?

A veteran local journalist, before we set out, said he reckoned the vote would be around 65:35 AGAINST in the county.

A local politician, who will be voting ‘no’, said people were more concerned with other issues.

A Yes activist said many hadn’t really engaged properly with the debate yet – and that some weren’t even certain what they were being asked.

‘Yes… Of course, yes’

First stop on TheJournal.ie’s trail is the family home of a Yes Equality activist on the outskirts of Roscrea.

25-year-old Karen Eastwood has been taking the photos of locals happy to affirm their pro-change stance over recent weeks – posting the pictures to the local group’s Facebook page. The subject today: her father, Gary (definitely voting yes, but would prefer not to be interviewed).

Along with her husband-to-be, Stephen, and another local, Damien McKelvey, she’s one of three active campaigners with the Yes umbrella group in Roscrea.

12 Source: DaraghBrophy/TheJournal.ie

They’re getting plenty of support, Karen says. Shops and businesses are happy to take their leaflets – and people are even signing-up to help drop them through letterboxes. In terms of face-to-face canvassing, however – they’re pretty much a three-person team.

There’s a lot of people supportive of it but they’re not really getting up and helping. I suppose they don’t want to put themselves out there, or they’ve no experience of canvassing [...] I suppose people maybe don’t want to face the risk of getting abuse at the doors.
While social media and big-ticket media debates will play a role – for Yes campaigners in small town Ireland, it appears the influence of well-known locals will be the key to changing minds in the run-up to polling day. Damien – Karen’s fellow activist – has been a leading figure locally (a speech he gave about his experience growing up as a gay man, delivered at a campaign launch last week, has gone near-viral on Youtube).

He’d be comfortable putting himself out there, sharing his thoughts and experiences. He’s from a big family, seven brothers and sisters – they’d all be well-known too in their own right.

gary Karen's finished portrait. Source: Karen Eastwood

There’s still quite a bit of confusion around what’s being asked – even three weeks out from polling day, says Karen.

“Someone was asking me at the weekend ‘Will the church be forced into performing same-sex marriage forever?’ and I have to explain – no, it’s totally different.

So there’s a lot of uncertainty about different aspects of it.

Lashing rain, firm opinions

Back in the centre of town, however – there’s no sign whatsoever of that uncertainty.

Of the ten people who speak to TheJournal.ie around Castle Street (mostly sheltering from the torrential rain in doorways and lanes) the vast majority – across all age groups – are very firmly in the Yes camp. For that matter, the one person with an opposing view is equally unequivocal.

“I’ll be voting yes,” says local Debbie Reynolds.

“I’d vote yes for the simple reason that I have a child myself and… You just don’t know from one day to the next – kids are growing up, and its their choice really.”

Outside the shopping centre, Margaret Fletcher first says she “can’t see why there’s a big ruckus about it” before giving an enthusiastic argument in favour of a Yes.

People are entitled to be who they want and marry who they want.

The one opposing view comes from a woman in her 60s, with concerns about same-sex couples raising children.

“I think it’s not normal.

In my own mind I think that as children are going up – that they’ll get maybe the wrong perspective on life. Now I could be as far out as a lighthouse – I’m sure that there are many people doing it, but I just don’t agree with it.

Back on the road

Heading further south, it becomes apparent that, whatever about the battle for hearts and minds – the No side have certainly won the race to the lamposts.

There aren’t that many – but, as in Roscrea, the centres of Templemore and Thurles are all dotted with posters from campaign group Mothers and Fathers Matter. (Before we set out, however – a press officer for the Iona Institute-backed group had said they didn’t have any spokespeople available in the county to meet us.)

Down in Cashel, one figure who has been vocal in opposing the change is Fianna Fáil councillor Roger Kennedy – going against his party’s official stance. He’s been making his views known at party meetings, and on local radio.

Over coffee at Mother Hubbards it becomes clear his opposition is based pretty much entirely on the title given to the institution of marriage, which he describes as “the building block society is based on”.

He’s not opposed, however, to further rights being given to same-sex couples.

They have Civil Partnership – and if there is a problem then the rights of Civil Partnership should be upgraded to accommodate them, whether it’s inheritance, financial or whatever, the Civil Partnership should be upgraded.

He also has no problem with the recently-enacted Children and Family Relationships Act – which, for the first time, allows same-sex couples to adopt. ”If they’re going to be suitable parents, that’s not an issue.”

I don’t have any problem with gay people. I work with them and I’ve always known them. I’m not homophobic in any manner of means.

In terms of the wider picture – on polling day, he reckons, the balance in Tipp will be slightly in favour of a ‘No’.

“I am actually amazed at the number of people on both sides of the debate who will say privately, one to one, ‘yes, I’m on the no side’ but will not voice their opinion publicly.”

Outside the diner, in a video chat, the councillor warns that legalising same sex marriage would be akin to drafting Garda Reserves into the police force proper…

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Confusion abounds

In Cashel town centre, it appears at first that the pattern of strong ‘yeses’ from Roscrea might be repeated.

A (slightly startled) mother, on her way back from the shops:

“Of course, yes.”

Diane, who runs the NCBI charity shop:

“I know a lot of people who are gay and I think they should have the same rights that I do.”

A young woman, waiting for her friend at the bank:

“I’ll vote yes – I might as well, sure. Sure doesn’t affect me in any way.”

However (and it might be something to do with the fact that we have much more time to canvass the town) a much more diverse selection of opinions soon emerges.

Those contentious No posters, for instance, have kicked off quite a debate…

Sinead, a solicitor and confirmed Yes supporter:

“As if adoption had anything remotely to do with it, I’ve got friends who were raised by mothers on their own.”

An undecided voter:

They’re upsetting people. It’s on Facebook that they’re annoyed about the posters coming into town.”

The woman at the bank, again:

“They’re ridiculous – aren’t they?”

While most people, it should be noted, are keen to talk – there’s also plenty who clam up once they hear the question.

A well-dressed woman, for instance, simply smiles and puts her finger to her lips – in the universal ‘shush’ position.

A factory worker in his fifties says it’s the first time anyone’s spoken to him about the issue – and predicts a very low turnout.

While butcher Donald Walsh – a keen observer of politics in the town – says it’s just not something customers are talking about…

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

There are plenty of undecided voters happy to talk too.

A woman in her 50s, visiting town with her husband:

“I haven’t really decided – but you know the question I would have is why gender balance is suddenly out the window in a family situation.”

One of two women in the undecided camp, walking on Main Street:

Myself now, I’ve a nephew that’s in a relationship with another man. But that wouldn’t tell me whether I’d vote yes or no.

John, a sales rep from ‘around 20 miles away’:

Just haven’t my mind made up… Having two same-sex parents – will it lead to confusion down the road?… At the same time, I don’t want to deprive same-sex people of their rights either.

Indeed, even among Yes voters, issues like adoption and custody keep coming up – even though we’re not being asked about them at all in the 22 May vote (the provisions of the Children and Family Bill will still apply, regardless of the result).

“I don’t think that it’s good for children to be brought up in single-sex homes,” Patrick Hourigan, a retired council worker says – before going on to say he thinks there will be “a massive yes” and that he’ll be voting in the affirmative himself.

He speaks movingly about a young relative who recently came out to the family (“we’d have no problem whatsoever with that – absolutely none”) and agrees to a video chat with TheJournal.ie. 

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

As we head back onto the M8, Yes Equality gets in touch to confirm that its posters will be going up around Tipperary at the weekend – and to put forward more spokespeople we might want to talk to (thanks, we’re done for the day).

The political parties, of course, will also be out canvassing and holding information nights in the days and weeks to come. Those No posters will have company on the lamposts, soon enough.

In Tipp – as in the rest of the country, it’s clear that while there are plenty of firm opinions out there – there’s no shortage of uncertainty and misapprehension either.

As seasoned commentators have been telling us for months, the outcome of this vote is far from certain.

The campaign, as far as most of the country’s concerned – is just getting going.

[Note: Please be mindful, none of the people who stopped and spoke to us in the street were professional politicians or campaigners. Bear that in mind if adding to the comments section? Thanks. - DB] 

Originally posted 8.30pm Saturday.

Read: Some older gay people are ‘excruciatingly lonely’ and ‘struggle to exist’

Read: ‘There isn’t a celebrity in the country who would dare come out and say they’re voting No’

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