Review of Sonja Tiernan’s The History of Marriage Equality in Ireland: a Social Revolution Begins by Laura Kelly

Sonja Tiernan, The history of marriage equality in Ireland: a social revolution begins, (Manchester University Press, 2020)

In May 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a public referendum. The vote, which passed by 62.1% yes to 37.9% no, was historic, particularly for a country which only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993. In recent years, scholars such as Ann Nolan, Paraic Kerrigan, Patrick McDonagh and others have begun to highlight the important role played by LGBTQ activists in bringing about social change in Ireland. Sonja Tiernan’s ground-breaking text is a welcome contribution to this historiography. Drawing on a wealth of material, from newspaper and magazine articles, to published reports and marriage equality papers, the book provides a detailed overview of the social and legislative changes which led to marriage equality, largely focusing on the twenty-first century and the key developments in the period from the 2000s up until 2015. 

The first chapter sets out the Irish historical and global context, outlining the contributions of individuals such as David Norris and the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. Tiernan discusses the various High Court and Supreme Court cases which took place in relation to the liberalisation of the law on homosexuality as well as providing an overview of the key gay rights organisations which were emerging across the country from the late 1970s. The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights 1988 case taken by Norris was a turning point and led, five years later, to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Republic of Ireland. Tiernan places these developments within the wider context of gay rights internationally. 

Chapter 2 explores the important role played by Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan in the opening up of discussions around marriage equality in Ireland. Their High Court case in 2004, where they sought to obtain recognition of their marriage which had taken place in British Columbia, is described by Tiernan as ‘an intense challenge to the structures through which same-sex couples were denied legal recognition of committed relationships’ (p.29). Although the couple lost the case, they triggered an open debate on the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples in Ireland. Chapter 3 examines the various Civil Partnership bills which were debated in the Dáil in 2007 as well as the launch of the Marriage Equality campaign in 2008. The use of personal stories of queer men and women became an important element of the campaign, with couples drawing attention to their ‘need for protection and recognition of these relationships through civil marriage’ (p.40). 

Chapters 4 and 5 continue with a focus on the campaigns and strategies of Marriage Equality, in particular, highlighting how campaign approaches were inspired by those of activists who had successfully campaigned for civil marriage for same-sex couples in other countries, as well as addressing battles with the media. In 2011, the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitations Act came into legal effect meaning that same-sex couples could now obtain legal recognition of their relationship through a civil partnership ceremony. Chapter 6 shows how the general election of 2011 played an important role in progressing the issue of marriage equality with all of the major parties now recognising the need for constitutional change. 

In Chapter 7, Tiernan discusses the Constitutional Convention in 2013 where the majority of delegates called for a constitutional change to expand civil marriage to same-sex couples and to include amendments for parental rights in this regard. The chapter also deals with the ‘Pantigate’ controversy of the following year which occurred after Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss) appeared on The Saturday Night Show with presenter Brendan O’Connor. O’Connor’s comments about Breda O’Brien, John Waters and the Iona Institute sparked complaints from those individuals leading to an apology from Brendan O’Connor the following week on the programme and the removal of O’Neill’s discussion of homophobia from the programme on the RTE player. RTE received hundreds of complaints from viewers and it soon emerged that the station had not only issued an apology but had financially compensated those named by O’Neill in his interview. O’Neill/Panti Bliss took to the stage of the Abbey Theatre on 1 February 2014 where he gave a speech outlining his experiences of homophobia and how RTE’s handling of his interview ‘ultimately protected people from being labelled as homophobic rather than question opinions based on oppressive views’ (p.86). The entirety of Panti Bliss’ speech is reproduced in this chapter and re-reading it, seven years after it was posted on YouTube and received international acclaim, we are reminded of the power of this speech and its place as a pivotal moment in the marriage equality debate. 

Chapter 8 explores the political debates that followed the Pantigate controversy and the development of the Yes Equality campaign which emerged in January 2015. Chapters 9 and 10 focus on the 2015 campaign itself, including discussion of the campaign strategies and literature, the involvement of priests in the debate, as well as a detailed overview of newspaper coverage of the debate. Chapter 11 addresses the referendum itself as well as national and international reactions to the result. The book concludes with an afterword which draws attention to the Northern Irish situation in relation to marriage equality and how the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019 placed the spotlight back on this issue there. The book also contains two appendices – the first containing a 2015 statement from the Catholic Church in Ireland on the issue of marriage equality, and the second being a moving account of a lesbian woman’s experiences growing up gay in 1970s Ireland and the significance of the marriage equality referendum as a ‘game-changer’ (p.147). There is a stark dichotomy between the two accounts; the first could be said to be representing older Catholic values in relation to marriage and the family; the second illustrating how these values and societal structures impacted so negatively on many individuals’ lives and how the referendum represented a real opportunity for positive change.

The history of marriage equality in Ireland is an important contribution to our understandings of the history of marriage equality in Ireland which sets out the key developments in a clear, detailed and engaging manner. It will be of tremendous value to scholars of social and cultural history, gender history, LGBT history and the history of sexuality. Rather than addressing the Irish story in a vacuum, I really appreciated the fact that throughout the book, Tiernan placed the Irish story within the wider international context. The book is meticulously researched and as such, there is quite a lot of detail to absorb, so occasionally, I felt it might be helpful if the individual chapters included conclusions which provided an overview of the key themes discussed – for students, in particular, this would be useful. I have no doubt that this book will inspire future studies on the history of LGBTQ rights and activism in Ireland. One element that came through powerfully in this book was the importance of personal stories to the marriage equality campaign, and extracts from some of these stories were used effectively to highlight individuals’ personal experiences. I hope that future research will build on Tiernan’s excellent work and utilise oral history to further illuminate the experiences of Irish LGBTQ men and women and activists. 

Dr Laura Kelly is senior lecturer in the history of health and medicine at the University of Strathclyde. She has published two monographs on the history of women in medicine in Ireland and on medical education respectively. She is currently working on a Wellcome Trust funded project on the history of contraception in modern Ireland, c.1922-92.