It all changed a year ago today. People danced in Dublin’s streets when Ireland became the first country in the world to vote through marriage equality by referendum.
For a country that had only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, the vote symbolized a resolute step towards shaking off its traditionally Catholic conservatism.
Irish journalist and Yes campaigner Charlie Bird has published book A Day in May, looking back at the experiences of LGBT people and their families affected by the move towards marriage equality. His aim was to put a human face to a potentially dry and politicized conversation.
I rang Charlie up to hear about the stories he gathered for the book, those that lingered with him, and what he’s learned in the year since the vote.
VICE: Hi Charlie, can you tell me about your initial involvement in the Yes Equality campaign?
Charlie Bird: I’d been working for Ireland’s national broadcaster for almost 40 years, and as a journalist you keep away from activist politics and don’t get involved. All I did was chair the launch of the Yes campaign’s first meeting, but as I oversaw more meetings, the same theme recurred again: brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, people telling their own stories. And that’s what last year was all about.
The book’s a pretty powerful compilation of interviews and photography. What made you choose that particular concept?
I interviewed 80 people, sat in a room with each individual who, in a way, was telling me the most personal and intimate details of their life. They were doing it because they felt they wanted to raise a voice. At many points I laughed and cried. Doing this book was emotionally draining, but it was this human intensity that I wanted the book to carry.
What particular stories from the book stood out to you?
One that really blew me away was the story of Enda Morgan and his daughter Rachel—it features in the book. Enda’s talking about how Rachel had covered up her sexuality, not telling her parents or her friends. She was lying to everybody, hiding from the whole world.
It was creating this huge anxiety for her. When she was driving back from Galway one time an incredible anxiety attack took hold of her and she called her mother, convinced that she was dying. What are we doing to our loved ones and the people around us when we allow this to happen?
Thankfully Rachel had loving parents. Enda’s own brother was gay so they were open and receptive. Rachel describes how that when she told her parents, all her anxiety went away. She and her partner are now planning to get married, and I was just blown back by the story.
What have you learned in the year since the vote?
At a recent book event in Cork, a father approached me asked me to sign his copy of the book. I asked him who to and he replied, “I don’t want you to sign it to anybody. I have an 11-year-old son. I’d love you to sign your name but simply write the words, ‘Be Yourself.'” This is the nature of the change that we’re witnessing across this country. Another person who had voted No told me that if he were to vote again he’d vote Yes. The intervening year has opened up hearts further.
But surveys and reports on the mental health of young LGBT people in Ireland are frightening. Self-harm and even suicide is still a massive problem. The figures are going up, not down. There are still huge challenges to be overcome. In fact, we decided that all royalties from the sale of the book will go to suicide awareness. In the past year I’ve become much more that there’s much work still to be done.
That being said, what did the campaign teach you?
Well, 1.2 million people voted Yes but what astonished me was the realization that Irish people were voting for someone they knew and loved. It was the right thing to do for their loved ones.
The emotion and common unity was powerful in this country last year. I open my introduction with a quote from Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney: “the dazzle of the impossible suddenly blazed across the threshold.” I think it beautifully captures that feeling.
What do you think about the way LGBT rights have developed in Ireland, in all the time you’ve been reporting?
You sometimes have to pinch yourself. Many of the young people have no memory of what might be called “the dark period”—when the Catholic Church ruled everything. It wasn’t just one generation, though, it was overwhelmingly passed with 62 percent of people voting Yes. I know many people did vote ‘No,’ and that’s what democracy was about, but there was some energy.
The emotion was amazing, that Ireland should make history in becoming the first country in the world to vote, by popular mandate, to bring in marriage equality. Absolutely mind-blowing. In the UK the Tories had to introduce it, in the US the Supreme Court ruled it through, but we did it in a sense the hard way. The people took to the polling booth and willed it into being.
You sound both happy about what’s been accomplished so far and aware of challenges that may come up next.
There are many places that marriage equality has still not yet been achieved, for example, in Northern Ireland. At the book launch in Belfast last week, we jokingly said how we want to get a copy of this book into the hands of every Northern Irish politician. If you simply read the stories and boil them down to basics—take politics out of the equation—and learn about your neighbor, a young person, a couple, any person in the book, you’ll think, how can we deny them?