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Marriage equality

The day that Ireland changed forever

One year on from the historic same-sex marriage referendum, key figures from both sides share their memories.

THIS DAY LAST year, 1.2 million Irish people went to the polls and voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage – the first country in the world to do so by popular vote.

On May 22, 2015, 62% of people voted Yes and the following day, there were jubilant scenes at Dublin Castle as thousands of people took to the streets for one big party.

On the one-year anniversary of marriage equality in Ireland, key figures from both sides of the campaign reflect on the historical referendum.

Brian Sheehan,  executive director of GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) and co-director of the Yes Equality campaign.

23/5/2015. Marriage Referendum Brian Sheehan became emotional as the results of the referendum were announced last year. /Photocall Ireland /Photocall Ireland

“It feels like it’s been a very short year,” says Sheehan. “It’s great to think back on when Irish people went to the ballot box and generously said yes, that their family members and their friends should be treated equally for the first time ever.”

Working on the Yes Equality campaign was an “extraordinary journey”, he says.

All across Ireland, tens of thousands of people joined in a campaign – for themselves, their family members, their friends – to say we have to start looking at what has been hidden in plain sight for generations and face up to the new and changed world we now live in.
And that’s what happened.

Sheehan believes if the referendum was held again today, many of those who voted No last year would change their minds.

“I think a lot of those people would say, ‘OK, I get it now. All that has happened is that gay and lesbian people have got married and their families have the same certainty and security as all other families’,” he says.

While marriage equality has had a positive impact on the LGBT community in Ireland, a recent study found many still find it difficult to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Many LGBT people discover who they are in hostile environment,” says Sheehan. “More than half experience bullying in schools. Three-quarters  have been verbally abused because they are LGBT and a third of those have been in the last year – since the marriage referendum took place.

The referendum was the beginning of a great cultural change but there’s a lot more to go before people feel comfortable. We’ve seen a number of people over the year being harassed on the street.
All is not well yet.

Luke Hoare Greene

Gay marriage referendum Luke Hoare Greene and his boyfriend Paul Bonass share a kiss at Dublin Castle. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

A photo of Luke Hoare Greene, 25, kissing his boyfriend Paul Bonass, 28, at Dublin Castle last year became one of the iconic photographs of the Yes victory, appearing in newspapers all over the world.

“It was probably one of the best days of my life,” Hoare Greene says. “The atmosphere in Dublin Castle and in the streets – it was like a party. It felt like a whole new Ireland in a way. It was such a great feeling after suffering through everything the No campaign threw at us.”

On the day the Yes vote came through, Hoare Greene and Bonass smuggled their giant Yes balloon into Dublin Castle under their hoodies (in case they weren’t allowed bring it in) and were surrounded by photographers within minutes.

“There were camera guys lying on the ground around us taking shots, it was really funny. That photo went everywhere. We had people texting us saying we were on the New York Times website. But then we had to babysit that balloon for the rest of the night.”

Reflecting on the last year, Hoare Greene feels like life is pretty much the same. “Everyone is equal and it feels normal. And that’s the way it should be, I think.”

Hoare Greene and Bonass have no plans to marry at present – “We’re still young” – he says.

But there is one downside to same-sex marriage being legalised: ”I can’t count how many people have asked us in the last year when we’re getting married,” he says.

Moninne Griffith, executive director of LGBT youth organisation, BeLongTo

23/5/2015. Director of Marriage Equality Moninne G Moninne Griffith and Clodagh Robinson celebrate the results of the marriage referendum.

When word came through that Irish people had voted Yes to same-sex marriage, it was the culmination of eight long years of fighting on the part of Moninne Griffth, then the director of Marriage Equality.

“It was hugely emotional, both professionally and personally,” said Griffith, who has a daughter with her partner, Clodagh Robinson. “And by May 23 it was all done after eight years of my life working on it.”

“That day in Dublin Castle was the best day of my life, bar the day my daughter was born,” she says.

Looking down at the sea of faces, all the young faces, how hopeful they were and how hard they’d worked. They’d been written off as apathetic and apolitical by so many people, but they weren’t. They were motivated and engaged.

Gay marriage referendum

That day in Dublin Castle inspired Griffith to join BeLongTo to continue working with young people in the aftermath of the referendum.

Research released by BeLongTo today shows the referendum outcome has not necessarily made life better for young people. It found 56% of all young people agree that homophobic bullying has not stopped since the referendum.

In BeLongTo, we know that young people are experiencing difficulty coming out to themselves, to their family and their friends. They’re still experiencing mental health problems, rejection at home or from friends, and they’re experiencing bullying in schools and the community.

Dr Tom Finegan


“It was a remarkable effort by the No side to get 38% of the vote,” says Finegan, who was a spokesman for Mothers and Fathers Matter during the referendum campaign.

“(It’s a remarkable effort) considering we were up against every major political party in the state, the editorial line of every major media outlet in the state, and a Yes campaign composed of groups that received over $15 million from the US alone in the seven years prior to the referendum.”

The No campaign was a grassroots campaign that had only a fraction of the funding of the Yes side, he says.

“Many of our spokespeople were ordinary members of the public, while many of those on the Yes side were full-time professional politicians or campaigners.”

Before the campaign started, the No side was at 18% in the polls. “We ended up representing nearly three-quarters of a million people in Ireland – a huge cohort of people who had no political or media platform to represent their views.”

A few months after the referendum passed the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, confirmed that his department would be introducing surrogacy legislation which would provide for the right of two married men to commission the birth of a child via a surrogate mother.
This news was welcomed by a leading member of Glen as perfectly in accord with the view of equality endorsed by the marriage referendum. He was correct, of course, but no one on the Yes side admitted this during the referendum campaign.

Finegan says it’s not clear what room is left in our law to “protect a child’s right not to be deliberately deprived of a mother and father”.

We hope that the government be will be mindful of this human right and do what it can to vindicate it – laws and policies that impact upon children should not be guided solely by the idea of adult autonomy.

Colm O’Gorman

Dublin LGBTQ Parade Niall Carson Niall Carson

“What has changed?” asks O’Gorman. “Well, fundamentally LGBT people in this country are now treated as equal citizens and that’s just had an enormous impact.”

O’Gorman’s 2011 New York marriage to his husband Paul was recognised last November when the Irish legislation came into effect.

“At the stroke of a pen the Minister for Justice effectively married us,” he says. “And the same is true for hundreds, if not thousands of couples.”

It’s not necessarily that the referendum changed hearts and minds, but it gave people a chance to say what they really thought.
And actually we all found out that we’re pretty cool with things and we are a generous, tolerant open, decent society who value family, who value relationships, who value caregiving and who recognise that comes in many, many forms.

O’Gorman believes the No side instilled fear in people that led to more No votes being cast than might otherwise have occurred.

“I’m not aware of any children being damaged because their family are respected and protected at the level of our constitution and they’ve finally been granted security under the law,” he says. “Nor do I accept these were fears of the No side. I think these were efforts to stoke up fears.”

O’Gorman feels there’s also an element of history being rewritten when it comes to the level of political involvement in the referendum.

“Now you would think this was a referendum that was politically driven. It wasn’t. It was driven at grass roots level, at the level of the street.”

He wants to move the conversation to other major issues, including a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.

“We have a responsibility now to look at other places where people’s human rights and rights to equality are not being respected,” he says. “Women’s reproductive rights, issues around issues and migrants and direct provision, Traveller rights…

We need to be careful we don’t get so caught up in celebration and clapping ourselves on the back that we lose focus of our responsibility to keep moving forward.

Cormac Gollogly

Ireland's first same sex marrage Cormac Gollogly (right) marries Richard Dowling. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Cormac Gollogy, 35 and his husband Richard Dowling, 36, became the first same-sex couple to get married under the new legislation in November last year.

The Dublin couple had a civil partnership ceremony in September last year – four months after the referendum was passed. “We had booked the September date months beforehand and we didn’t know when the legislation was going to come through, so we thought we’d just go with it,” says Gollogly.

Having the civil partnership meant the couple could get married as soon as the legislation was enacted, without the need to give three months notice.

“We’re together 13 years and we wanted to get married for a long time,” he says. “It meant everything to us. To be able to stand up in front of your family and friends and say those words. You do feel more unionised. Civil partnership doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

Gollogly feels like there has been a “total change” in Ireland since the referendum.

Dublin is a better place for it. You feel more confident as a gay person. On the day the referendum passed, we were walking down the street holding hands and some little kids who were playing yelled, “congratulations” to us. That was really nice.

Read: There have been around 16 same-sex marriages a week since it was legalised

More: Cork-based Social Democrat dropped as mass reader over party’s abortion stance

Earlier: Gay couple asked to leave Dublin restaurant for holding hands

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