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Sonja Tiernan

Manchester University Press. 192 pp.

ISBN: 9781526145994

On May 22, 2015, Ireland made history as the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. While marriage equality has been achieved in other nations either through judicial decision or legislation, Ireland held a national referendum to change the language of the constitution, which they did by a 62 to 38 percent vote. The Thirty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland added one sentence to Article 41, the section on marriage and family: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”. Soon after, pundits and scholars began to explain and analyse the vote. They pointed to the huge voter turnout, especially young voters and migrant voters returning home to vote. They noted as well the significant decline in the Catholic Church’s political and cultural power – in part a result of the recent and overwhelming revelations of an institutional culture of emotional and sexual abuse – as well as the not-unrelated decline in church attendance. The campaign for marriage, Yes Equality, also seemed to be very much a people’s movement. Even as the measure was endorsed by celebrities, national leaders, and the political parties, the movement was driven by door-to-door campaigns and the insistent use of personal stories.

The Irish referendum remains a singular historical event, and now, five years later, we have its history in Sonja Tiernan’s The History of Marriage Equality in Ireland: A Social Revolution Begins (2020). Although there have been any number of public referenda around the world to ban same-sex marriage, and though Australia held a non-binding postal survey on same-sex marriage in advance of the passage of marriage equality legislation in 2017, Ireland’s referendum remains the first and only instance of marriage equality enacted by popular vote. It is worth noting that the vote was, in some way, simply about equality – equal citizenship for gay and lesbian people, their families and children. With a series of laws banning many forms of discrimination, civil partnerships in place since 2010, and legislation protecting the rights of same-sex families and their children in early 2015, many of the appeals that drove marriage equality campaigns elsewhere (hospital visitation and medical issues, custody and family recognition, inheritance and tax status, indeed all the benefits and rights that accrue to two people when they are legally married) were in some ways beside the point, even as they remained part of the personal stories that saturated campaign messaging. Tiernan points out that the passage of the 2015 Children and Family Relationship Bill – even though problems with its executive would be revealed the next year – made the referendum question simple, a yes or no vote on equal marriage.

The steady if not always stirring story of legal reform and legislative process is one of the important themes threading Tiernan’s history of Ireland’s marriage movement. Indeed, despite that revolutionary subtitle, the strength of this book is not a portrait of social revolution but the author’s careful and almost methodical representation of the movement and its legal and political contexts. I emphasize political movement because this book leans toward a statist and organizational history of change. This makes sense, of course, since marriage is a legal and legislative issue and a political campaign is a political campaign. Though the introduction asks readers to imagine “a new wave of social reform in Ireland” that begins with the marriage referendum and leads to the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment in 2018 (2), when it gets going, the book is doggedly and effectively focused on the legislative and the legal, and on the political campaign that shaped public discourse. There are more citations from Seanad Éireann debates than from Gay Community News. What discussions there are of cultural context or cultural production – the 2009 Pride, where speakers savaged civil unions as second-class citizenship; the 2015 Pantigate controversy; the brief but important analysis of the 2009 campaign video Sinead’s Hand – are always in the service of Tiernan’s careful analysis of the campaign and its strategies for persuasion and mobilization. This focus is the book’s strength and, perhaps to some readers, its limitation. It is about a change in public policy and the political movement that made that possible, more than it is about the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, and more than it is about cultural and social evolution.

Tiernan frames her history with useful paratextual materials and with critical context. She opens the book with a global timeline of marriage equality, 2001-2019, and with a chronology of key events related to the Irish campaign, beginning with the 1993 decriminalization of male homosexuality and concluding with the 2019 extension of marriage equality in Northern Ireland, effective on 13 January 2020. You won’t see a Pride March or Emma Donoghue’s 1995 novel Hood or the 2009 Ryan Report. You will see every relevant legal or legislative step, including the foundational lawsuits of Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone, who had married in Canada and sought recognition in Ireland, and to whom Tiernan devotes an early chapter. Indeed, I would highlight those first two chapters on Irish historical contexts and the Zappone and Gilligan court challenges as critical historical context for the campaign. The book closes with a short account of the campaign for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, and two appendices: a message on the referendum from Ireland’s Archbishop Eamon Martin, released on May 2 and read in churches the next day, and a May 15 Irish Times opinion piece by Ursula Halligan, political editor at TV3, in which she came out as lesbian in support of the referendum. These are valuable examples of the messaging of both sides, as well as historically important, given their prominent appearance in the closing days of the campaign.

Tiernan’s attention to context includes the 2012-2014 Constitutional Convention, during which the citizens’ assemblies met to reassess the 1937 Constitution as a vision for the nation, the change in marriage only one – albeit a massively visible one – of a number of recommendations made to the government. Tiernan is careful to trace the viability, at times fragility, of legislation as it was grounded in the strength of political parties and the rise and fall of coalition governments. She is also quite good at recognising how certain elements or issues emerge from particular contexts, some obvious, some not, though she does not always explicitly signal the connections she is making. She marks how the group LGBT Noise emerged from reactions to a failed 2008 civil unions bill; how children’s charity endorsements countered the No campaign’s fictions about the damaged or deprived children of same-sex parents; and how, less directly, the emphasis on personal stories in the campaign might be linked to the influence of Zappone and Gilligan’s personal story in Irish media. Tiernan is also careful to note how one of the major tools of religious opposition – complaints about “unbalanced” coverage – developed in response to the media’s embrace of personal stories, and how despite resistance in the LGBT community to civil partnerships as a second-class version of marriage and citizenship, the resulting visibility of lesbian and gay inevitably helped to shape the shift in public opinion.

Tiernan is clear from the beginning about tensions in the movement between those who sought incremental (or in early years possible) change in civil unions and those who insisted on full equality – a tension prominent in one of the early books on the marriage movement in Ireland, Una Mullally’s In the Name of Love: The Movement for Marriage Equality in Ireland (2014). Though these community rifts became less visible (and less relevant after 2010), Tiernan recalls their importance to the formation of the campaign. Tiernan is also clear from the outset that this is not simply a celebratory narrative of inevitable progress. She will not gloss over the negative elements; they are part of the story. In addition, she devotes some attention to the work of the anti-marriage campaign, primarily their messaging and the prominent organisations, though I honestly wanted more. In a discussion of the conservative organization Mothers and Fathers Matter, Tiernan also smartly reminds us that, in Ireland, the same key figures keep showing up in both the LGBTQ campaigns and in those that oppose them. (I know better, but every time I saw MFM, I kept thinking it the acronym in personal ads for a three-way!).

Although much post-election analysis focused on the Catholic Church’s waning power, Tiernan points instead to a growing difference between Catholic hierarchy and the local priests and congregations who supported the campaign, contrasting stories of protesting parishioners and supportive clergy with the Church’s effective manipulation of media in the closing weeks for the campaign – especially the statement from Archbishop Martin, released on May 2 to be read to parishioners the next day, and perfectly timed for the evening news. Even though Tiernan does, at times, mirror the Yes campaign’s own claims about the success of their strategies, her refusal to fall into the usual easy explanations and attention to the nuances and effects of arguments strengthens the book’s analysis. Though, as a campaigner for marriage equality in South Carolina, I was familiar with many of the general arguments for and against, I found a couple of arguments of political reciprocity and historical analogy specific to Ireland instructive – and maybe a little surprising. In early debates about civil unions, the Irish Human Rights Commission argued that Ireland was required to introduce civil union legislation under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which stipulated that Ireland was responsible for guaranteeing human rights equivalent to those in Northern Ireland, where civil partnerships for same-sex couples had been available since 2004. In 2013 in an address to the Dáil, then Minister for Justice Alan Shatter compared the ban on same-sex marriage to the restrictions of the Penal Laws, which prohibited religious intermarriage and refused recognition of marriages performed by Presbyterian ministers.

What complaints I have are minor. As a literary scholar, I wanted more cultural context, but it is clear that is not the book Tiernan set out to write. As an American reader who thinks a tabled motion is a postponed not a proposed one, I kept stumbling on the repeated reference to motions being tabled. Though I liked the almost breathless drive of incident and fact and the short chapters, particularly as the book entered the campaign proper, I did find some of the chapter titles a little much – “Meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century” (on the Constitutional Convention) and “Preparing for a revolution” (the Children and Family legislation and Pantigate) – when most titles were descriptive and deft (“The path to the High Court” or “The campaign in action”). Maybe, though, in the narrative drive of historical detail, these chapter titles are meant to remind us that these facts add up to something bigger than names, incidents, dates, places. These are the signposts reminding us that this singular referendum is part of “a new wave of social reform in Ireland”.

Tiernan’s useful and important book joins a small list of books about the marriage campaign: Mullally’s In the Name of Love (2014), published before the referendum; Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won (2016), by Yes Equality campaign organizers Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan; journalist Charlie Bird’s beautiful coffee table tome or portraits and personal stories, A Day in May: Real Lives, True Stories (2016); and Crossing the Threshold: The Story of the Marriage Equality Movement (2017), a collection of essays from various organisers and community leaders, edited by Healy. To this list we should add Susan Parker’s pamphlet, The Path to Marriage Equality in Ireland: A Case Study (December 2017), a pamphlet report available online and published by Atlantic Philanthropies, one of the critical early funders of marriage quality work in Ireland. I would also include the 2015 edition of Woman in the Making (2014), the memoir of Rory O’Neill (alter ego of drag queen Panti Bliss), with its prologue added to the paperback edition describing an Ireland “drunk on yes” and “changed utterly” by the referendum.

And now we can add Sonja Tiernan’s careful and rich historical account to this little bookshelf of radical change.