Across the Pond: Connections to Marriage Equality Ireland

Here is a chapter I wrote for the upcoming book ‘The Marriage Equality Papers’
(Merrion Press, Dublin, 2016) Edited by Gráinne Healy

Across the Pond: Connections to Marriage Equality Ireland

Íde B. O’Carroll, PhD


I grew up in grey and white,

in half-tones and undertones…

(Eavan Boland, The Lost Land, Carcanet, 1998, p. 49)


Despite being located for much of the year over three thousand miles away in

Amherst, Massachusetts, there were several strands – professional and personal – to

my connection with Ireland’s Marriage Equality Ireland (MEI) campaign. I knew and

admired many of the leaders from my experience of conducting research on social

change issues in Ireland. When the campaign commissioned me to act as its external

evaluator (along with a Dublin-based colleague, Finbar McDonnell), I felt honoured.

During a particularly intense year, 2009-2010, we piloted an innovative advocacy

evaluation approach in the Irish context. While most of our reports were for internal

use, we made public Marriage Equality: A Case Study, September 2010 (see my

website,, to view or to download a copy of the report).

Once the evaluation commission came to an end, my spouse, Annie G. Rogers and I

became financial supporters. We followed the campaign’s progress from afar via

social media right up to that glorious day of celebration in Dublin Castle. However, as

a member of Ireland’s diaspora, I was deeply disappointed not to be allowed to vote in

the historic referendum in May 2015. Nonetheless, our spirits were lifted in June,

when the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality in America. And,

then, to crown it all, we marched in Dublin’s 2015 Pride Parade alongside

campaigners from our former home in Stoneybatter, Dublin. Finally, back in Amherst,

in September, I discussed the Irish referendum result with Professor Lee Badgett as

part of the Amherst Irish Association’s Event Series. An internationally respected

marriage equality specialist, I’d first met Lee in 2009 when I’d interviewed her for the

advocacy evaluation.

Therefore, in the space of just six years, from 2009 to 2015, marriage equality for

same-sex couples had become a reality on both sides of the Atlantic.

In this piece, I take the view, based on my experience, that the Marriage Equality and

Yes Equality campaigns in Ireland used effective advocacy strategies that built on

decades of LGBT organising to deliver the successful outcome. I also comment on the

importance of some American links and lessons that influenced the Irish campaign. I

end with a note on some outstanding issues that directly impact on my family’s life,

immigration matters.


From the vantage point of campaign success in 2015, those observing the outcome in

Ireland from afar tried to understand how a country for so long considered

conservative and Catholic could have delivered such a progressive result – the only

nation in the world to secure same-sex marriage by popular vote. This was not

something that happened overnight. Marriage Equality and the later Yes Equality

campaigns’ advocacy took place in a particular Irish policy context, in a small society

(population of just 4.6 million people), with significant social networking and a

political culture highly attuned to constituency needs. In addition, it built on decades

of LGBT community-based projects that facilitated a growing capacity, confidence

and visibility, activities that resulted in enhanced public awareness and achievement

of a range of incremental human rights.

Not until 1993 was the Victorian legislation criminalising male homosexuality

overturned in Ireland, and the presence of lesbians acknowledged by default. That

year I worked on the first national study of lesbians and gays in Ireland, with Eoin

Collins, Poverty: Lesbians & Gay Men – The Economic and Social Effects of

Discrimination (Combat Poverty/GLEN, 1993). Our research provided ample

evidence of numerous forms of prejudice, discrimination, social exclusion and

negative health outcomes for Irish lesbians and gay men. People lived in fear and

anxiety, were threatened, bullied and beaten up. They lost jobs, left jobs or didn’t get

jobs for which they were qualified, because of their sexuality. Others were banished

from their family of origin, the shame of their sexuality enough to render them exiles.

There were serious consequences to being “out” at home, at school, at work and in

Ireland’s towns, villages and cities – no wonder people were loath to publically, or

even privately declare their true sexuality. In 1993, Eoin and I compiled an informal

list of people whom we considered as pubically “out” in Ireland – you could count

them on one hand. Compare that with the sea of smiling faces at Dublin Castle in May


Yet even in the 1990s, things were improving – albeit gradually. A number of

community-based activities were building the capacity of Ireland’s LGBT

communities, work that often took place under the public radar. Again, allow me to

draw on my experience here to illustrate the point. A collection of essays by Irish

lesbian and gay activists, artists, writers and academics, Lesbian and Gay Visions of

Ireland: Towards the Twenty-First Century (Cassells, UK, 1995), edited by myself

and Eoin Collins in 1995 proved the vibrancy of community-based activities in Cork,

Limerick, Galway, Dublin and among Ireland’s emigrants abroad, in London and New

York. The essays also demonstrated the emergence of confident Irish lesbian and gay

activists, writers, artists and scholars willing to assume a public presence in that book

– people like Joan McCarthy in Cork, Brendí McClenaghan in Belfast, writer Emma

Donoghue in Cambridge, UK, visual artist Louise Walsh in Dublin and academic

Eibhear Walsh at University College Cork. In one truly memorable essay from that

collection, NYC-based activist, Dubliner, Anne Maguire, wrote about ILGO’s (Irish

Lesbian and Gay Organisation) battle to include Irish lesbians and gays in NYC’s St.

Patrick’s day parade, an issue only finally resolved in March 2016!

Significant progress on LGBT rights from 1995 to the 2000s was the cumulative

effect of substantial community work, building the capacity of organisations at grassroots

and national levels, as well as strategic policy-related initiatives by

organisations. Supports like the telephone help lines – a vital first point of contact for

isolated lesbians and gays – were run by local volunteers. Other projects like LOT

(Lesbians Organising Together) and Outhouse, both in Dublin, or LINC (Lesbians in

Cork), developed in part because of the support of a range of European Union and

State-sponsored measures to promote equality and rights. In addition, strategic

initiatives by leaders in organisations like GLEN (Gay & Lesbian Equality Network),

NXF (formerly, NLGF, National Lesbian and Gay Federation) and the NWCI

(National Women’s Council of Ireland, of which notably Gráinne Healy was

chairwoman for a period), were crucial to building this early equality infrastructure in

Ireland. As a result of these various activities, substantial progress was made in

relation to LGBT rights. Sexual orientation was listed as one of the nine grounds

dealing with discrimination within employment (Employment Equality Acts, 1998,

2004), and in non-employment areas such as education and services (Equal Status

Acts, 2000-2004).

American Influences

In tandem with the cumulative effect of substantial grassroots and policy-related work

on LGBT issues in Ireland over several decades, we can also trace the origins of

Ireland’s Marriage Equality campaign to two individuals and to another country,

America. American-born, Katherine Zappone met Irish-born Anne Louise Gilligan

while they were graduate students at the Jesuit-run, Boston College, in Massachusetts.

When Drs Katherine and Ann Louise returned together to Ireland in 1983, it was as

life partners. Almost two decades later, they assumed a very public position as they

sought to have their 2004 Canadian marriage recognised. The KAL (Katherine &

Ann Louise) Advocacy Initiative was a legal case to establish their right to file joint

tax returns as a married couple living and working in the Republic of Ireland.

From 2004 onwards, Ann Louise and Katherine’s consistent and persistent public

claim to equality in the eyes of the law and their superb media engagements won over

many Irish hearts and minds. While the KAL case slowly progressed through the

various channels of the Irish legal system, it was nonetheless the main catalyst for the

Marriage Equality campaign, founded in 2008 by Gráinne Healy, Denise Charlton,

Ailbhe Smyth and others, to ensure civil marriage for same-sex couples in Ireland.

The Marriage Equality Ireland campaign (MEI) sought and received funding from

The Atlantic Philanthropies, founded by Irish-American, Chuck Feeney, a champion

of human rights (see In its earlier, anonymous

funding cycles, The Atlantic Philanthropies, then operating as Tara Consultants,

supported a number of community-based lesbian and gay projects in Ireland. Often

these initial grants helped to leverage State or European funds that enabled projects to

expand, and lesbian and gay groups to grow.

One of MEI’s first steps was to invite a representative of the Massachusetts Marriage

Equality group to conduct a workshop in Ireland in order to share lessons about what

worked there. For example, a successful project in Massachusetts involved visits by

campaigners to public representatives at their constituency base to advocate for

change. That evolved into the “Out to your TD” effort in Ireland.

However, just as the MEI campaign took off in 2008, Ireland entered a deep

economic recession, a time when unfortunately much of the government’s equality

infrastructure had been downsized because of lack of political will and a concern

about the growing capacity of civil society organisations in the area.

In addition to these challenges for the MEI campaign, a sequence of inter-related legal

and political advances from 2006 onwards, with GLEN’s Eoin Collins as a main

advocacy driver, precipated the publication by the Irish government of a Civil

Partnership Bill in June 2009. The bill sparked some fascinating parliamentary

debates in December 2009, and again in January 2010 on the meaning of marriage,

family, and politicians’ contact with same-sex couples in Ireland. By July 2010, the

Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 was

signed into law, with rights accruing in relation to social welfare, pensions and

immigration. For GLEN in particular, this result was interpreted as a massive victory,

based on what was politically feasible at the time, a view shared by its primary funder,

The Atlantic Philanthropies. Exhausted by the campaign, my friend Eoin Collins left

for New York, where his long-term partner, Josep Adalla was working after several

unsuccessful attempts to establish residency in Ireland.

Since the Marriage Equality Ireland (MEI) evaluation was happening in 2009 and

2010, side-by-side with these Civil Partnership developments, it is important to

highlight the MEI position. MEI was absolutely adamant that Civil Partnership did

not represent the position of the vast majority of lesbian and gay communities’

members as it fell short of affording lesbians and gays the same rights as heterosexual

citizens. Therefore, at that stage, while GLEN and Marriage Equality Ireland were

working towards the ultimate common aim of civil marriage, the two organisations

approached the challenge of policy change in different ways. Eventually, GLEN and

MEI would join forces, along with the ICCL (Irish Council for Civil Liberties), under

the Yes Equality banner.

Back in 2011, a year after our work on the MEI evaluation came to a close, Civil

Partnership became available in Ireland, the first State recognition of same-sex

relationships in Ireland. Yet, of course, the MEI campaign continued. Others have

written of the steps taken by the Marriage Equality and Yes Equality campaigns,

including an important book by Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan and Noel Whelan,

Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won

(Irish Academic Press, 2016). I’d now like to briefly describe why our evaluation

approach was innovative and some of the lessons that emerged. Since much of the

information on the analytical framework and evaluation methods used is available in

our Final Case Study report, I’ll limit my remarks to some process issues and


Advocacy Evaluation 2009-2010

We piloted an innovative advocacy evaluation framework in the Irish social change

context devised in America by leading evaluator, Michael Quinn-Patton, in addition

to proven advocacy evaluation methods, created by the Harvard Family Research

Project. Quinn-Patton applied his framework during an evaluation of a project

advocating change in the treatment of juveniles within the US judicial system. The

Atlantic Philanthropies funded both the project and the evaluation.

The idea was that a campaign’s progress and effectiveness as an advocacy effort could

be assessed and continuously improved based on an analysis of six interconnected

factors: 1) Strong high-capacity coalitions; 2) Strong national-grassroots coordination;

3) Disciplined and focused messages with effective communications; 4) Solid

research and knowledge base; 5) Timely, opportunistic lobbying and judicial

engagement, and finally, 6) Collaborating funders. Using this framework, along with

proven advocacy methods such as bellwethers (gathering data from strategicallyplaced

informants who forecast which way the wind is blowing on the issue), and

intense-period debriefing (conducting immediate analysis of data following major

events to inform future actions), we were able to provide ongoing, real-time analysis

of the Marriage Equality campaign’s progress and effectiveness as an advocacy effort.

We gathered a range of data, with the support of the MEI Team, and completed

regular assessments of campaign effectiveness. We then discussed our findings with

the MEI Board. In that way, the evaluation process informed the actions taken in the

following weeks and months. Since the aim was to influence legislation and policy in

relation to same-sex civil marriage in Ireland, recommendations for change emerging

from the evaluation analysis needed to inform the campaign’s activities and facilitate

the MEI team to adapt to shifts in the wider context.

In the final analysis in September 2010, we were of the view that a constitutional

referendum was necessary in order to achieve the ultimate aim. Nonetheless, we

concluded that significant gains, and outcomes, were achieved by a campaign with an

annual grant of 200,000, and with only 2.5 paid team members. Let me end this

brief review of the evaluation by listing some key learning points emerging from the


Given its modest financial resources, MEI relied heavily on volunteers and

professionals willing to contribute on a pro bono basis to deliver on its four campaign

strategies – political, legal, communications and mobilisation. This, in turn, widened

the campaign base and facilitated multiple points of influence on Irish policy-makers

and the general public. Activity by MEI volunteers throughout Ireland improved the

level of lesbian and gay visibility and political engagement, and influenced policy


The campaign’s tiny paid team of workers and its active volunteer board were content

to slowly build a broad-based coalition of support with members of all political

parties and none, with community-based and equality organisations, with Trade

Unions etc. In addition, the advocacy message and method were framed in positive

terms, as collaboration rather than control, as doing what was decent and right, as

addressing a gap in current provision, and so forth. This approach helped to harvest

political capital way beyond Marriage Equality’s “natural” or immediate allies.

The campaign sparked debate on lesbian and gays issues using findings from

international and national research commissioned by the campaign or accessed via its

partners, including in relation to families with lesbian or gay parents. In that way, its

arguments for rights and equality were substantiated by evidence-based research.

With an eye to influencing those in the legal profession in Ireland, MEI listed the

provisions in other countries to illustrate the growing legal consensus and body of

case law on same-sex marriage.

Of course the campaign didn’t always get it right. What project or person ever does?

Often the most valuable learning is in relation to the points of weakness. In this case,

during the period 2009-2010, with only a part-time communications person, the

campaign lacked the resources to complete detailed statistical and content analysis of

media, to inform its communications strategy. Nonetheless, one of the key strengths

of the campaign, we concluded, was its capacity to promote lesbian and gay visibility,

especially via the “Out to your TD” project, and its use of media images of lesbian

and gay families. All of these activities helped to counter the idea of a hidden Ireland

and communicated the ubiquitous nature of lesbian and gay citizens and families in


During the evaluation, we consulted widely in Ireland with community leaders,

equality and legal specialists, politicians, journalists, church leaders, those for and

against the idea of same-sex marriage equality. It was interesting for us to chart how

people were “evolving” on the issue, politicians in particular, a trend influenced in no

small way by the pressure at constituency level. Since I was living much of the year in

America, I also interviewed marriage equality leaders and organsiations there as part

of the evaluation process. I recall meeting Evan Wolfson in New York, founder of

Freedom to Marry, USA. A legal scholar and advocate, he was happy to facilitate the

transfer of knowledge from the US experience. He later became an advisor to the

Irish campaign and was a keynote speaker at an event in Ireland. This was just one

example of the enormous goodwill towards Ireland’s MEI campaign.

Another American connection was M. V. Lee Badgett, Professor of Economics, and

Director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration, at the University of

Massachusetts, Amherst, author of When Gay People Marry: What Happens When

Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage (NYU Press, 2009), the first text on the topic.

During an initial interview that lasted several hours, I was struck by her capacity to

provide an analysis of the European approach to MEI advocacy compared to the US

approach. It was insightful and compelling, and informed the evaluation. Some years

later, in April 2015, just before the referendum, the Yes Equality campaign invited

Lee to speak at the Mansion House, Dublin. The event, co-hosted by MEI and the

EROS Centre at Dublin City University, was attended by a large number of

academics and media.

When the advocacy evaluation came to an end in September 2010 with the delivery of

our Case Study Report, it seemed that successful realisation of access to full, equal

civil marriage rights for lesbian and gay people in Ireland would require a

constitutional referendum that would certainly be contested. And indeed it was.

While Civil Partnership became widely available in 2011, Ireland was heading into a

period of further economic difficulty that hurt the campaign’s budget and donations

from supporters. Nonetheless, as evidenced by the strategic alliance that emerged

under the Yes Equality banner – GLEN, ICCL, and MEI – the advocacy effort

continued and ultimately succeeded in May 2015, under the astute leadership of

Gráinne Healy and Brian Sheehan, in particular.

Regrettably, I was disqualified from voting in the referendum along with other

members of the Irish diaspora resident abroad, but I followed events closely on social

media. Only those who had emigrated from Ireland in the eighteen months prior to

the referendum were technically allowed to vote. I was impressed by younger

advocates, savvy social media users, especially recent emigrants who returned in

droves, their #hometovote the number one trending hashtag on Twitter. Impressive

too was the “Call Your Granny” project that initiated a conversation on the issue

between the generations. I watched several children of lesbian and gay parents speak

with truth and conviction about the quality of their experience growing up in such a

household. Theirs was a remarkable media presence.

Other campaign work was conducted outside of the media, but was no less impressive.

One friend took six months off work to organise a seriously sophisticated canvassing

effort unsurpassed in that Dublin Central constituency. Another travelled the length

and breath of Ireland in the Marriage Equality bus. Massive engagement. Major

commitment. Visibility. Public presence. What a contrast to the 1980s and early


Of course the Catholic church in Ireland sought a “No” vote and advised its flock

accordingly, though in fact many Catholics campaigned and voted for marriage

equality. In Amherst, one morning I sat riveted by an NPR radio interview being

conducted with Maeve Lewis, Director of One in Four, in Ireland (an organisation

which advocates for survivors of sexual abuse). She interpreted the referendum result

as a loss by the Catholic church of its moral authority because of the extent of

institutional cover-up of child sexual abuse which she claimed Irish people found

simply “unforgiveable.”

When the Marriage Equality bill was signed into law on 29th of August 2015, I was

already back in America, watching proceedings in Ireland from afar. Not all issues

were resolved, however, at least for my family. Like Katherine and Ann Louise, I met

the love of my life, Annie G. Rogers in Boston, Massachusetts. In our twenty-one

years together, the official definition of our relationship has gone from classification

as “domestic partners” in Cambridge, MA, to “married” in Massachusetts in 2006, and

US Federal recognition of our marriage in 2014. In Ireland, however, despite the

marriage equality victory, we still encounter a major challenge.

In the past, marriage to an Irish citizen afforded the spouse immediate immigration

rights and access to a passport without need for residence in Ireland or naturalisation

(1956 Act). This is not the case now. And that is equality, too. Each time Annie

enters at Shannon she is quizzed as to her financial resources, the reason for her trip

and given a maximum of ninety days to remain. She’s had ongoing professional ties

with colleagues and projects in Ireland since the 1990s, when she was a Fulbright

Scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, and is a member of a Dublin-based psychoanalytic

organisation. Yet, only by residing in Ireland for a period of uninterrupted years might

she access an Irish passport, despite the fact that we have had a home in Lismore, Co.

Waterford, for almost twenty years. Unfortunately, despite the success of the marriage

equality campaign in Ireland, nothing has changed for my family. Before the win,

Annie was allowed to remain in Ireland for ninety days at a time. The same holds

true now.

Nonetheless, we remain upbeat about Ireland after the marriage equality win. It will

never be the same place. It feels different to arrive into Shannon from America now,

as we did in June 2015, holding hands as we walked through the arrivals gate to be

greeted by friends wearing Yes Equality badges. I will never forget coming into

Lismore, a small town in West Waterford, where one elderly neighbour came over to

embrace me, tears in her eyes, and said: “I voted for ye. We did the right thing.”

Íde B. O’Carroll, PhD, is an Irish-born social researcher and writer who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts (USA), and summers in Lismore, Waterford (Ireland). In 2014, she retired her consultancy business in order to concentrate on writing (see She is the author of Models for Movers: Irish Women’s Emigration to America (Cork Uni. Press, 2015) and Irish Transatlantics (forthcoming, 2017). She is a Visiting Scholar at Ireland House, New York University.

Share this postShare on LinkedInTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+