Cork Evening Echo Opinion Column: My experience of canvassing for marriage equality

My feet were sore and my back was at me.

It was two days to the Marriage Equality referendum and I’d taken some time off work to help with Yes Equality Cork. I had never canvassed for anything in my life and my experience of going door-to-door in rural towns and villages had been almost universally positive. I was finding standing on the street in Cork a lot more daunting.


Outside the city library at lunchtime, I decided a friendly, indirect approach was best.  Holding my Yes Equality leaflets in my hand, I greeted people “Hello! Are you voting on Friday?” The most common answer I got was along the lines of “I am voting. And I’m voting Yes.” Some people said they hadn’t made their minds up yet. I asked if they had any worries or doubts and almost all said they didn’t, which led me to suspect they were either No voters or else they genuinely didn’t care.

As a rule, I tried to avoid confrontation. Getting into a public slanging match would be hugely counter-productive, I felt, especially as I was representing a cause I believed to be so very important. Anyway, the entire purpose of the campaign was to be gently persuasive and it would have been a waste of time and energy to argue for long with confirmed No voters.

A tweedy gentleman, coming across from the Grand Parade fountain, quoted Leviticus at me. I gave him the President Bartlet reply, pointing out that while Leviticus does indeed say homosexuality is an abomination, it says the same thing about wearing cloth of two different threads or touching the flesh of a dead pig. He was having none of it. I also told him that, for Christians, the New Testament supplants the Old, and of the 41,071 words attributed to Jesus, nary a one did he utter on the subject of homosexuality. Unimpressed, he bade me a good day but I suspected he didn’t mean it. He had precisely seven white hairs on his nose.

By Bishop Lucey Park, a woman not much older than me told me angrily “Your kind have this country ruined”. As a middle-aged, heterosexual man, I had to reluctantly agree with her.

Of course I met a hundred times more people who were lovely – Yes and No voters – but it’s human nature to be rattled by extreme reactions.

In the afternoon sunshine outside the Crawford Gallery, a young busker with an electric guitar was banging out some impressive Rory Gallagher licks. I was enjoying the tunes and the chats with friendly people who smiled at me and who said of course they were voting Yes. Then a man with distracted eyes got in my face and roared “SAINT PAUL SAID NEITHER AN EFFEMINATE MAN NOR A MASCULINE WOMAN MAY ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN!” I told him he could have the Kingdom of Heaven, that all we want is equality in the Republic of Ireland. He then repeated his Pauline bellow and, being a Christian, he also told me to do something anatomically unfeasible to myself.

I left him to his ranting and headed to Paul Street. I stood at the end of French Church Street, saying “Well, you’re very welcome to Ireland anyway” to the seemingly hundreds of Canadian tourists apologising that they couldn’t vote.

Then two young men, walking close together, came toward me from Rory Gallagher Plaza. “Hello,” I said. “Are you voting on Friday?” They gave me the most beautiful smiles and held up their joined hands.

I thought that was a really mean thing to do, to make a grown man cry in public like that.

I got involved with Yes Equality about a month before the referendum. Prior to that, I had written a few newspaper articles on the subject and had been something of a keyboard warrior. I just felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was. Also, I have gay friends and I felt I couldn’t look them in the eye if I didn’t speak up when Ireland was being asked whether we considered their love to be equal.

I did what I could, which really wasn’t that much – in truth, I felt ashamed at how seldom I was able to join the canvass, when some people turned out every single night.

Still, it was my honour to be involved in the Yes Equality campaign. I am ridiculously proud to have been a tiny part of a national movement which resulted in Ireland becoming the very first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. I met so many extraordinary people. I met people canvassing for their friends, for their children, for their families, for their love. I made new friends, LGBT and straight, from every walk of life.

I met so many decent, kind and generous people on the doorsteps too. Young parents who were delighted to see us. At his Mam’s request, I gave my second-last Yes Equality Cork badge to a small boy in Shanballymore.

There was an elderly lady on a walking frame in Conna, who said she believed in “live and let live” and had gay friends herself.

There was a big gruff man who told me I was wasting my breath, as he was a member of the Defence Forces and had already voted. And then he gave a slow smile and said “And I voted Yes.”

Finally, there was a man in his eighties, standing in his doorway in Castletownroche, the evening before the vote, his eyes brimming with tears. He told us his wife would probably be too ill to vote but that we were assured at least of his Yes. He said he had never in his life missed a vote and this would “probably” be his last. He said he wanted it to count.

“I have to look after those coming along behind me. I want to leave Ireland better than I found it.”

Donal O’Keeffe

Originally published as an op-ed in The Cork Evening Echo on 28/5/2015

Thank you #MarRef


I am so, so proud today. Thank you to everyone who canvassed, leafleted, debated, argued, worried, cried, laughed, begged and loved.

We fought for the best cause of all: Love. Nothing was easy or ever seemed certain, but in hindsight, how could we lose?

We fought for equality, for generosity, for kindness. We fought for our sisters, our brothers, our children, our parents, our friends.

We fought for LGBT children, long dead, whose lives were made a misery by a brutal, unloving Ireland.

We fought for LGBT children now grown older who – until only 22 years ago – lived in a land where their very existence was a crime .

We fought for LGBT children just born, or yet to be born, who will now live in a kinder and better Ireland where the love in their heart will mean as much as the colour and the beauty in their eyes.

Senator David Norris​ said “Ireland’s Gay Community is, at most, 10% of the Irish population. We can’t do this without you.” Norris was right. This was 10% of Ireland standing up and the rest of us standing up for that 10%. This was “us” deciding we don’t want an Ireland where there is a “them”. This was us. Just us.

Thank you to everyone who voted YES.

We voted for equality. We voted for acceptance. We voted for love.

We made history.

Ireland is the very first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. How cool is that?

Thank you.

Donal O’Keeffe

Evening Echo Op Ed: It’s not about YES or NO, it’s all about LOVE #MarRef

On May 22nd we will be asked to extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by heterosexual couples. That’s all. Regardless of the No campaign’s hysteria, this isn’t about fear. It’s about love.

I had a pint last week with an old classmate of mine, a man with whom I’d never really got along. Had we grown up in America, where he’s lived now for nearly thirty years, he would have been a Biff Tannen type jock.

Someone in our company, a retired teacher with conservative opinions, said to me “I see you were in the wars!” (A woman with extremist Catholic views had written a letter to a local paper, denouncing LGBT people as “sodomites”. I and others had replied strongly to her homophobic ranting.) Our conversation then naturally turned to the Marriage Equality Referendum.

“Look,” I said, expecting an argument, “everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And their religion. But no-one is entitled to demean anyone for being exactly as God or nature made them. That’s why I wrote that letter. That’s why I’m voting Yes. I don’t want to see gay kids – and that’s about 10% of Ireland’s population – growing up in a country that doesn’t respect them as equals.”

“So,” drawled my now-Irish-American buddy, after a long swig from his Guinness, “What are we talking here? This vote? Is this about gays getting to sanctify their love in civil law? Is this about you guys saying okay, look, gays are the same as any other citizen?

“‘Cause I gotta tell you, I’m all on board with that. I mean, love is pretty cool, right? Why deny anyone the right to love?”

The retired teacher took a sup of his pint and confided “The way I look at it, it’s not going to change my marriage one iota. If two adults are in love and want to get married, who am I to judge them?”

To be honest, I was pretty surprised and heartened by this conversation. Despite the Yes campaign’s seemingly-overwhelming lead in the polls, I worry that this lead is very soft indeed.

I agree with some on the No side that many politicians are only paying lip service to the all-party support for the upcoming referendum. One local councillor all-but wept to me recently for his love of equality and his intention to vote Yes. Shortly after, in the pub at the heart of his vote, he declared loudly that enough is enough and it’s time for rural Ireland to stand up for “traditional family values”. I doubt very much he’s the only sleeveen in the village.

There’s a cheap, dog-whistle nastiness to the phrase “traditional family values”. It ties to the stated strategy of some in the No campaign to sow what they refer to as “doubt” about the effect of a Yes vote on “the children”. The Simpsons parodied such stunt-acting with the Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, who regularly screeches “Oh won’t someone PLEASE think of the children?” Hence the No campaign’s attempted introduction of unrelated issues such as adoption and surrogacy.

Last week I attended the first meeting of the Avondhu branch of Yes Equality Cork in Fermoy’s Grand Hotel. There, Dave Roche of Yes Equality stressed that he believes civil marriage equality is not simply an LGBT rights issue but rather a matter of vital importance to all of civil society.

“Those saying ‘Isn’t civil partnership enough for them’ miss the point. Civil partnership is the result of legislation and could be removed at the stroke of a pen by a change of government, whereas civil marriage equality will extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees straight couples now enjoy.

“This isn’t about IVF, surrogacy, adoption or any of the other red herrings being thrown around. It’s very simply about giving Constitutional protection to civil unions. That’s all. It’s about equality, yes, but really it’s about fairness.”

Roche points out that – for all the alarmism about “redefining marriage” – redefining marriage is something we have done many times in Ireland, with the Protection of Spouses and Children Act, with divorce, and with the introduction of radical ideas like wives being able to refuse to have sex with their husbands or, indeed, women no longer being property to be handed from fathers to husbands.

Roche makes a convincing case. Marriage rights for all adults can surely only strengthen society. Your marriage – if you’re lucky enough to be married – is no more lessened by homosexual people getting married than it is by other heterosexual people getting married.

I believe that equality should be the cornerstone of our Republic. I believe that we should cherish all our children equally. Yes, this is us, the citizens of Ireland, simply extending to gay couples the same civil guarantees and rights enjoyed by straight couples, but it’s so much more than that too.

A Yes vote on May 22nd will send a powerful message of tolerance, respect and love. “Oh won’t someone please think of the children?” A Yes vote will say to our children – of whom roughly one in ten is gay – you are Irish and regardless of the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face or the love in your heart – you are as “normal” and as extraordinary as every child of this Republic.

A Yes vote is a vote for love.

Vote Yes.

Originally published in the Cork Evening Echo on Thursday 30th April 2015.