DUBLIN (CNN) -- Considerable surprise has been expressed around the world about the fact that traditionally conservative and Catholic Ireland approved same-sex marriage in a referendum May 22 by a majority of nearly two to one.
The fact is, Ireland is no longer a Catholic country in the old sense. Much of the state's urban population is what we call here "cultural Catholics" -- that is, they like to have baptisms and funerals in the local Catholic church, but are no longer regular mass-goers.
And the true believers who still make up a sizable portion of the population no longer feel obliged to obey the edicts of the bishops, who last Sunday opposed the "yes" vote from the pulpits. The reasons can be found in the universal disgust at the revelations in the past two decades of widespread clerical sexual abuse of children and the cover-up by bishops, as well as the mistreatment of unmarried mothers in religious institutions.
Also, in recent years Ireland has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, which has helped make the population more middle-class and secular. Half a century ago, Irish political leaders feared the "belt of the crozier" if they promoted legislation contrary to Catholic Church teachings. It is a measure of how far they have become detached from the institutional church that every single party leader, including Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams supported a "yes" vote in the referendum.
Homosexual acts were decriminalized in Ireland in the last quarter of a century, and since then, gays and lesbians have become open and accepted. Rainbow contingents are a regular, joyful feature of the St. Patrick's Day parades in cities and towns. Helped with generous funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies, organizations promoting gay and lesbian rights such as Amnesty International-Ireland have prepared the ground for what even Dublin Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called a "social revolution."
Popular sports stars and celebrities have lately written books about coping with being gay. A primetime television sit-com set in working class Dublin, "Mrs. Brown's Boys," rejoices in a gay family member. Minister of Health Leo Varadkar, 36, revealed he is gay earlier this year. No one blinked. The former president, Mary McAleese, disclosed she has a gay son and urged a "yes" vote. This was a severe blow to the "no" vote campaign, as McAleese is highly respected and a devout Catholic.
Led by the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic pressure group, the opposition could not gain much traction with its argument that a "yes" vote would mean a future of male married couples bringing up surrogate children who would never know their biological mother.
During the referendum campaign, many "yes" voters said they wanted to show support for gays in their circle of relatives and friends. They knew that in days gone by theirs was a lonely and unhappy existence. My best friend at school in the 1960s was gay. I didn't know this until we were both mature adults. He died in middle age; the pressure of living in a hostile climate literally killed him.
A leading TV political correspondent, Ursula Halligan, "came out" last week with a devastating account of how her personal life was ruined by being forced into the closet. Such events created a national urge to end the unfairness towards gays and lesbians. The sense that a "no" vote would perpetuate a denial of rights enjoyed by heterosexuals ignited a fire under Ireland's young people. Not only did they turn out to vote in unprecedented numbers, but thousands working abroad came home to vote "yes" from as far away as Canada, the United States and Australia.
As the Irish Times's Una Mullally, a leading "yes" campaigner, put it, "A lot of straight Irish people just wanted to be given the opportunity to show that they were not prejudiced, that they had no issue with people who were gay having their relationships recognized, that they wanted to live in a country where all citizens are valued equally."
It became a cause. Ireland has today a strong sense that, at long last, it has consigned to history a dark past -- a past which produced cruel institutions for unmarried mothers, like the convent featured in the movie "Philomena"; which allowed a powerful church to cover up clerical crimes, and which stigmatized those who yearned for the love that dared not speak its name.
Editor's note: Conor O'Clery is a former foreign correspondent for the Irish Times and the author of several books, including "Daring Diplomacy," an account of President Clinton's role in the Irish peace process, and "The Billionaire Who Wasn't," a biography of Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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