If, as expected, the Irish people today vote to extend the constitutional definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, it will represent the final step in a transformational but astonishingly brief cultural journey for the country, given that homosexuality itself was only decriminalized in 1993.
The sea change in values is explained by many factors—the fading influence of the tarnished Catholic Church (which, needless to say, opposes same-sex marriage) chief among them.
However, there is also a powerful argument to be made that the attitudinal adjustment is at least partly down to the exposure of young Irish emigrants to more liberal values abroad.
Ireland has always had a significant and vocal Diaspora, with a steady stream of young people emigrating to America and England since famine times. In the old days, however, Irish emigrants rarely returned to their native shores.
These days, thanks to cheap flights, they can easily come back for holidays or big family gatherings.
Or, indeed, to vote.
Thus today, many Irish have traveled back to the “auld sod” specially to vote in the referendum (There is no option for postal voting on changes to the constitution under one of the quirks of Irish electoral law, nor are long-term Irish residents allowed to vote unless they have obtained full Irish citizenship.)
The phenomenon has captured the attention of both mainstream and social media, and has spawned the hashtag #hometovote on Twitter. #hometovote was, for much of Friday the top-trending topic on twitter in London, Liverpool, Belfast, and Cork, while #voteyes topped trends in Dublin and Manchester.
There were extraordinary scenes at Dublin airport as groups of friends arrived from destinations as far afield as Abu Dhabi, Ethiopia, and San Francisco to cast their vote.
There were also dozens of Yes voters wearing rainbow clothing and T-shirts reading “Love” traveling by the more traditional method—the 9:10 train from London to Holyhead port in Wales, where it connects with the Dublin ferry.
Louise Acheson, 33, originally from Clondalkin in Dublin, now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, told Mashable:
“I decided to do this a good few months ago, but only booked it last month. It feels like a momentous moment. I don’t want to be giving out from afar about a No vote when I could have done something about it.”
Jess O’Callaghan, returning to Cork City from Brighton, England, said, “There are so many people who can’t make it home, so I thought that if I can get home and make my vote count, I should. I only decided to about a month ago.”
One of the many ironies surrounding the referendum being held today—in which voters are being asked whether or not “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”—is that whilst in Ireland, campaigners on both sides have struggled to engage voters, international support for the Yes vote has snowballed. There was even a subtle logo change on Reddit in favor of the Yes side:
However, there was concern today among the Yes camp that the No vote was enjoying a surge of last-minute support.
Even before the utter failure of pollsters in the UK to predict the Conservative general election victory earlier this month, few believed that the result would be anything like the 70-80% Yes majority that polls predicted at the beginning of the campaign.
Even the 63% Yes (with 26% against and 11% undecided) predicted in the final poll, which was published on Sunday, looks optimistic at this stage.
Very little is being taken for granted as the Irish have a long history of cussedness in this regard, frequently voting against expectations in referenda.
On this issue in particular, there are concerns that “shy” voters may have told pollsters they will be voting one way and then in the privacy of the voting booth, proceed to do the complete opposite.
For all that, there is a sense, however, that the Yes vote will ultimately prevail, and the positive energy of the Yes campaign on voting day is in no small part down to the efforts of returning citizens.
Turnout is said to be higher than for many previous referenda, which are held fairly frequently in Ireland, and usually see about 50% of eligible citizens actually casting their votes. But turnout is said to be much lower in rural areas, where the No vote is expected to prevail, suggesting that the No campaign is demoralized.
If Yes does win as expected, another important factor will be the increased willingness of younger people to come out to their parents in recent years, forcing an older generation to reconsider their views on gay equality.
The former Irish president, Mary McAleese, has spoken about her son’s difficulties growing up as a gay man in Ireland while advocating a Yes vote, and the writer Sebastian Barry sent a widely shared letter to the Irish Times in which he said a Yes vote in the gay marriage referendum was a way for him to honor the “majesty, radiance and promise” of the “human soul” of his gay child who is not quite old enough to vote.
When it comes to accepting parents however, few can rival the mother of Kevin Beirne, who came home to vote only to find his mum had decked out his room with a rainbow duvet cover and curtains.
Counting begins tomorrow (Saturday) at 9 a.m. local time, with a result expected by about 5 p.m. local time (noon EDT).