DUBLIN — The gay couples of Ireland woke up Sunday in what felt like a nation reborn — some with dreams of wedding plans dancing in their heads.
Many weren't rising too early, however, after celebrating the history-making outcome of Ireland's referendum enshrining gay marriage in the constitution. The festivities began when the final result — 62 percent approval — was announced Saturday night, and ran until sunrise in some corners of Dublin, with tens of thousands of revelers of all sexual identities pouring onto the streets.
The unexpectedly strong willingness of Irish voters to change their conservative 1937 constitution is expected to lead to a wave of gay weddings in Ireland in the fall. The Justice Department confirmed Sunday it plans to publish a marriage bill this week, and with the support of all political parties, it should be passed by parliament and signed into law by June.
For Ireland's most prominent gay couple, Sen. Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, this victory is emotionally overwhelming. Since 2003 they have fought for legal recognition of their Canadian marriage. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, but suffered only setbacks and delays. Now, their day has come.
"For so long, I've been having to dig in my heels and say ... Well, we ARE married. I'm a married woman!" said Zappone, a Seattle native who resettled with her Irish spouse in Dublin three decades ago. "Now that it has happened, at a personal level, it's just going to take a long time to let that acceptance sink in."
Zappone and Gilligan thrilled a crowd of thousands packed into the results center at Dublin Castle with a playful promise to renew their vows. Zappone dramatically broke off from a live TV interview, stared directly into the camera and asked Gilligan to marry her all over again. Gilligan declared to the rainbow flag-waving revelers: "I said yes to Katherine 12 years ago at our marriage in Canada. And now we are bringing the 'yes' back home to Ireland, our country of Ireland! Yes, yes, yes!"
In a more sober mood Sunday, the couple reflected on their long road to social acceptance, the unprecedented joy of the "yes" victory — and the legal work that remains to be done before they can get officially hitched in Ireland later this year.
"It took us hours to get a taxi (Saturday night) because so many people came up to us in tears, wanting to talk to us. They now felt so much freer, and proud," said Zappone, who became Ireland's first openly lesbian lawmaker when Prime Minister Enda Kenny appointed her to the Senate in 2011.
"There aren't that many moments in life where you are surrounded with an exuberance of joy. These are rare moments. ... We are now entering a new Ireland," said Gilligan, a former Loreto nun who left the order in her mid-20s to pursue social justice projects as a lay Catholic. She wasn't sure about her sexuality until Zappone walked into their first doctoral theology class together at Boston College in 1981.
"The door opened, and this gorgeous woman came in. I didn't know I was lesbian. I'm a late learner," Gilligan recalled with a laugh. "I fell in love with Katherine, and I went for it. I simply adored her, and I wanted to be with her forever and ever, and here we are!"
They married in Vancouver and sued Ireland in hopes of winning legal recognition, but in 2006 the High Court ruled that Irish law — while never explicit in defining marriage as solely between a man and woman — universally understood this to be the case. The Supreme Court sidestepped their appeal in 2012.
Months later Gilligan, who is in her late 60s, suffered a brain hemorrhage and was hospitalized. Zappone, yet again, faced bureaucratic presumptions when trying to see her wife, since hospital admissions didn't recognize her as a spouse or family member. She could have lied and said they had an Irish-recognized civil partnership, a weaker form of marriage-style contract enacted into Irish law in 2010, but Zappone insisted on stating uncomfortable reality: "In those moments, I am married to her, and you have to recognize that," she recalled.
The medical staff understood and, after Zappone had spent five weeks at Gilligan's bedside, one of their Chinese doctors wrote them a long note of appreciation, wishing he had what they had.
What they won't have, for many months to come, is an Irish-recognized marriage.
Article 41 of the family section of Ireland's constitution now reads, "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex."
But Zappone and her parliamentary colleagues must pass a same-sex marriage bill. Unlike in many other countries, the change faces no significant parliamentary opposition. Potentially thorny issues such as divorce — narrowly legalized in a 1995 referendum — and adoption shouldn't pose roadblocks. Parliament recently passed another bill permitting couples and single people to adopt regardless of gender, reflecting the reality that more than a third of Irish children are being raised out of wedlock.
"Technically and legally we'll probably have to wait until towards the end of the year," Zappone said. "Then we'll head towards the big day."
By then, several commentators have noted, a new generation of Irish people should already be accepting the sight of a gay couple holding hands in the street, or exchanging their vows and kissing in front of their families.
"We've made it clear to the world that there is a new normal — that 'ordinary' is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life," wrote Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole.
"LGBT people are us: our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship," O'Toole wrote. "And we took it in both arms and hugged it close."