The world is a confusing place. I am in Ireland for two weeks with the writing program that I direct at Carlow University, and here the recent referendum on same-sex marriage is still very much on people’s minds. In 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via a popular vote on the subject. The decision, in the end, was not close: sixty-two percent voted Yes, with nearly every part of the country voting to support the referendum. Roscommon-South Leitrim, a rural county toward the north of the Republic, voted No by a slim margin. Everywhere else, most voters pulled the lever to approve the constitutional change. In parts of Dublin, the vote to approve same-sex marriage was almost three-to-one.
But contradictions remain. A country can support progressive politics with one hand and hold them back with another. In the United States, we tend to see support of LGBT rights and women’s rights as fellow travelers. Here, the connection is not so clear. Abortion remains firmly, absolutely illegal throughout the Republic; each year, thousands of Irish women travel to Wales or England to terminate pregnancies. Change would require another constitutional amendment, and there is little sense here that the situation will shift anytime soon. These facts exist in the present as well as in the past and in the landscape, sites of deep meaning for the Irish and particularly for its writers. The bodies of almost 800 babies were recently unearthed from a water tank behind a home for unwed mothers that was operated by Bon Secours nuns in County Galway. The children died from malnutrition and neglect over a thirty-six year period, from 1925 to 1961, and their bodies were brought out to the backyard, wrapped in a simple shroud, and buried with no markers. That is mid-century Irish history, and it doesn’t feel far away.
Ireland has already had a female president—Mary Robinson was elected in 1990, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was still planning a campaign to be First Lady. Right now, Críona Ní Dhálaigh is Lord Mayor of Dublin, and the fact that she hails from the Sinn Fein party (the first Dublin mayor to do so) feels much more notable than her gender. But as we know in America, breaking barriers to elected office can have only limited effect on the day-to-day experience of the marginalized. Citing the example of the unwed mothers’ home, and the persistent sexism of everyday working life, an Irish writer, mindful of the Cormac McCarthy title, said, “Ireland is no country for young women.”
Based on Columbine, on Virginia Tech, on Newtown, now on Orlando, maybe America is no country for young men, since young men are the common thread that links those events over geography, time, people killed, people wounded. In each case, young men were the ones people ran from, hid from, confronted, begged. Or maybe America is only a country for young men, since so much of our country exists for them and it is still not enough. How they seem to hate the country we have made for them.
The pedophilia scandals of the 1990s changed the relationship of many people in Ireland to the Catholic Church, but it remains an ubiquitous institution, even if it has much less sway than before. Attendance at mass is in steep decline, but basic education is still under the Church’s purview; 93% of primary schools here are run by the Catholic Church. Returning to the subject of the referendum—yes, the Church fought against the same-sex marriage referendum, as it did against a pro-abortion referendum years before. What was different this time? So much of politics focuses on how young people will vote, but the sense here is that young people weren’t the real deciding factor. “The Grannies of Ireland did it,” one Irish poet told me. Their grandsons and granddaughters, whom they loved, came out to them, and the grandmothers of the Republic of Ireland saw the value in continuing to love them. “Love won,” the poet told me. “Love won.”