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'Tread Softly Because You Tread on My Dreams': Ireland Votes on Gay Marriage

Thousands of young Irish emigrants have traveled home from all over the world for today's vote on whether to legalize same-sex marriage in the traditionally Catholic country.
Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

In the passport queue in Dublin Airport on Thursday night a young dark-haired man glanced furtively at other passengers' chests. "I thought there would be more," he commented ruefully, gesturing at the "yes" badge pinned carefully and prominently on his sweater.

Ciaran Hewitt, 22, is just one of the many Irish citizens who has traveled home to cast a ballot in the country's referendum on legalizing same sex marriage today — Ireland has a high level of emigration and no postal vote for those who have left. While Hewitt came from London, others have made the journey from Australia, the Democratic Republic of the CongoMozambiqueThailand, and the US.


"After all, I think the hardest thing about getting married should be trying to find a husband," Hewitt told VICE News.

Came — Kevin Beirne (@KevBeirne)May 21, 2015

The — Colm O'Regan (@colmoregan)May 21, 2015

In the airport arrivals hall two young women wearing "yes" badges enthusiastically hugged their mother who was "back from a holiday," as she told VICE News. However, most people present were more sedate. Though seat prices from London to Dublin rocketed and many sold out, it was difficult to spot those who had made the journey primarily to vote in what is the first national referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage in the world.

Polls have consistently said Friday's vote looks likely to pass, but the margin has been narrowing in recent weeks. And for some people the outcome matters a great deal more than to others.

"For a lot of my older gay friends this referendum has been really emotional. It's really struck at the core of who they are," an Irishwoman in her 50s told VICE News.

In a traditionally homogeneous Catholic country, this vote is a sign of how far Ireland has come since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993. The same-sex marriage question has also created something of a schism in the Church, with many religious figures refusing to read out orders to vote no, coming out in favor of the referendum passing, or simply coming out.

Related: Will Ireland Become the First Country to Legalize Gay Marriage by Popular Vote?


In Windy Arbour, south Dublin, Emma Walsh, 23, was one of those who got up early on Friday morning to hasten to the polling station.

"I think it's important to vote in every election, not just this. Every referendum that there is. It's our democratic duty to do it and it's important to ensure that equality is there and discrimination is eliminated from our constitution," she told VICE News.

"We're all one society and anyone who has an opinion should be able to express it, whether they're voting no or voting yes."

Meanwhile, a grey-haired man told VICE News that while he had cast a vote, he was undecided on how important the issues really were. The man — who declined to give his name — said he had voted the way he had "because of my age and nothing else."

In Dublin's Dundrum suburb, a teenager wearing a "yes" badge strolled past the polling center. His uniform was that of an elite Dublin Jesuit school, and the teenager's lack of self-consciousness once again portrayed an adjustment in national attitudes. The majority of Irish citizens attended state-funded Catholic schools, where confession was mandatory and the teachings of the Church often went unquestioned.

While a moratorium — active from Thursday — has banned broadcast outlets from discussing the upcoming referendum, social media has observed no such limits. Ireland's prime minister Enda Kenny took to Twitter on Thursday evening to quote William Butler Yeats: "For gay sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends, Yeats said it best: 'Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.'"


Related: Irish Priest Tells Congregation He's Gay, Receives Standing Ovation

Every major political party has come out in favor of the referendum passing, along with the current and several former presidents. Ireland's most recent ex-president, Mary McAleese, spoke publicly this week about how grateful she was that her gay son had grown up in a "gay-friendly household."

"But we were not able to protect him from hostility outside our home and like so many parents of gay children we were worried sick about the man-made barriers we knew he would encounter," she added. "No parent brings a child into the world to be a second class citizen."

Meanwhile, the "no" side argue that civil partnerships are enough, and that introducing same-sex marriage would "change the meaning of marriage" and lessen the special status of marriages between a man and a woman. They also advance the idea that this constitutional change may in the future give gay couples access to surrogacy and other methods of assisted reproduction, as well as claiming that anybody who wants to debate these issues properly is being "shouted down" and labeled "homophobic" when they attempt to air their reservations.

Prominent "no" campaigner Breda O'Brien has stated: "There is no human right to same-sex marriage. Countries can decide to vote it in, but it has been established by the European Court of Human Rights that there is no human right to it."

Adding his voice to the discussion, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin wrote in the Irish Times: "Marriage is not simply about… two people being in love with each other. For me the fundamental question in the debate on the marriage referendum is: why do humans exist as male and female? It is not an accident or a social construct. There is a unique complementarity between men and women, male and female, rooted in the very nature of our humanity."

The ballot boxes will be opened at 9am (local time) on Saturday morning, when the counting will begin.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd