'Well Done': The Legalization of Gay Marriage in Ireland

Only 22 years after decriminalizing homosexuality, the country becomes the first in the world to approve marriage equality by popular vote.

Yes supporters celebrate as first results in the Irish referendum start to come through at Dublin castle, Ireland, Saturday, May 23, 2015. (Peter Morrison/AP)

Until 1993, homosexuality was a criminal offense in Ireland. Now, Ireland’s gay population has earned the right to marry. Ireland overwhelmingly approved a referendum to allow same-sex marriage on Saturday, becoming the first country in the world to achieve marriage equality through the popular vote. Though the final tally is not yet known, the referendum obtained the support of an estimated 65 percent of the population. David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute and a prominent supporter of the “no” campaign, conceded the referendum’s defeat early Saturday morning.

Supporters of marriage equality erupted with jubilation in Dublin, Ireland’s capital, which has long been a liberal stronghold. But the referendum received support throughout the entire country, even in rural districts that have traditionally resisted social change.

As a result of the referendum, which amends Ireland’s constitution to approve marriage of two people “without distinction as to their sex,” gay couples in the country will be able to marry as soon as this summer.

A “Most Catholic Country”

Saturday’s legalization of same-sex marriage represents a stunning turnaround in an Ireland that, for decades, was known for its religiosity and social conservatism. Deemed the “world’s most Catholic country” by Pope Paul VI in 1946, more than 90 percent of Irish citizens attended Mass as recently as the 1970s. Correspondingly, the church’s conservative values held sway over the country’s political and legal life. Homosexuality remained a criminal offense until 1993, 26 years after a similar law was overturned in England, and Irish voters only legalized divorce (by a slim margin) in 1995. Abortion remains illegal to the present day.

Ireland’s evolution on same-sex marriage was not unlike similar movements across Europe and North America. But the country’s turn toward liberal social values also reflects the declining influence of the Catholic Church in the country, whose sexual abuse scandal dominated national headlines for years. A poll conducted in 1981 showed that 51 percent of Ireland’s population had confidence in the church. By 2008, that number had fallen to 19 percent. Once an exporter of Catholic priests, only 15 men across the entire country were ordained in 2014.

A People’s Victory

Universally illegal until 2001, same-sex marriage is permitted across western Europe, where only Italy recognizes neither marriage nor non-marriage partnerships. But Ireland is so far unique in achieving marriage equality without legislation.

“While there is no doubt that certain politicians deserve applause for their work during the campaign, this was a people’s campaign,” wrote Una Mullaly in the Irish Times. “The work on the ground was by and large done by regular citizens, who had nothing to gain other than the betterment of society.”