Australia's SSM survey could be our Brexit moment

Australia's SSM survey could be our Brexit moment

RICHARD Dowling and his husband Cormac Gollogly didn't expect to be the first gay couple to be legally married in Ireland.

Just a few months after the country became the first in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by a popular vote, there were many other couples busting to hotfoot it down the aisle.

But a quirk of timing, and having a keen sense of the law, meant the pair were almost the accidental newlyweds. They emerged from a dowdy registry office in the adjunct of a hospital in a regional city and walked straight into the history books.

"It wasn't very glamorous," Richard, 37, told news.com.au from Dublin.

"The walls were yellow and we signed our civil marriage on a hospital trolley. One of the comments we heard was that it was the best news to come out of a hospital trolley for years."

The couple, who lived in Australia a decade ago, say it pains them to look at the same-sex marriage debate in the country they once called home.

Richard Dowling (left) and his husband Cormac Gollogly (right), the first gay couple to legally wed in Ireland on the day of their marriage in Clonmel, Tipperary.
Richard Dowling (left) and his husband Cormac Gollogly (right), the first gay couple to legally wed in Ireland on the day of their marriage in Clonmel, Tipperary. Supplied

The referendum was "tough", they say, and ugly in parts. While the public vote worked for Ireland, "because we have a referendum almost every Tuesday", said Richard, he feared it might not have the same outcome in Australia.

"In Britain they weren't used to referendums and they got Brexit. The postal vote could be dangerous because it can get distorted and people can use it to vote on other matters such as a reflection on a party."

Cormac, 36, was at a Dublin gay bar in 2003 when a friend asked him who his type was.

"I glanced round the room and Richard caught my eye. I said 'that guy' and as I pointed him out he turned and caught me pointing."

Richard, a banker, wasn't fazed at all. "He was handsome, I was like, 'who's tall boy, I want to meet him'."

The relationship blossomed quickly. A month later the pair travelled to London for the weekend. "We went into (a diamond shop) and looked at a cabinet of men's rings and said 'I want the rock'. I think we knew we were in for the long haul," said Richard.

At the time Ireland had a system of civil partnerships in place for gay couples but talk of civil marriage was in the air.

"We wanted to be married, not just civilly partnered. As a lawyer I was cognisant of the legal recognition of being together," said Cormac.

"But we decided to go ahead with the civil partnership because we had to book ahead so far to secure the venue.

"Also, we truthfully didn't think the referendum would pass in little old Catholic Ireland."

On 22 May, 2015, Ireland surprised Richard, Cormac and just about the whole world by solidly voting in favour of same-sex marriage by 62 to 38 per cent.

"Dublin just shut down and partied. I can only imagine what Sydney would be like - it would be so positive," Cormac said.

But while the vote went Yes, there were still some parliamentary hurdles and by the time their civil ceremony came around, in September, gay marriage still wasn't law.

The couple went ahead with plan A and had "the full day, the fireworks, the first dance," at a manor house in County Tipperary, about 200km south east of Dublin.

Two months later, on 17 November, same-sex marriage became law. That morning, gay couples walked into registry offices to get married. But they still had to give three months' notice before they could wed.

Cormac and Richard had a trump card. Their civil partnership meant they had to give just a single day's notice.

They made the two hour trip back down the motorway to Clonmel in Tipperary and found the same official who performed their ceremony just a few months before.

"There was confusion with other registrars how it worked but my husband, being the clever lawyer he is, informed the registrar of the notice period," said Richard.

"On 17 November at 8am we were the first through the door and the first same-sex couple in the whole of Ireland to marry," said Cormac.

He said there were more journalists in the small room than guests.

"It exploded; we made the news and were in every paper and on the news. I was overwhelmed, it was a beautiful beginning to the next chapter for us".

The couple lived in Australia in 2008 and marched in the Sydney mardi gras with Kings Cross religious organisation the Wayside Chapel.

Cormac and Richard on the day of their civil partnership in September 2015. Same-sex marriage would become legal in Ireland two months later.
Cormac and Richard on the day of their civil partnership in September 2015. Same-sex marriage would become legal in Ireland two months later. Supplied

So accepting was Australia of gay people, they assumed same-sex marriage would happen here before Ireland.

The referendum in Ireland was ugly, Richard said. "It was very tough having to go around asking people to vote for my marriage. It's demeaning to be told by those people that it doesn't apply to you."

Just like in Australia, the No campaign swung the debate towards children.

"It was so divisive. There were days we were both very worried," he said. "But the No arguments fell afoul of a lot of logic as people realised it was just about friends and family members regularising their relationship.

"The Irish are very compassionate and that argument won a lot of people over."

Richard said he was concerned the Australian postal survey had been set up to lose momentum and fail.

"It's the responsibility of every gay person to be as proactive and as focused as they can. It's crunch time."

What about all the dire predictions of crackdowns on freedoms of speech and "radical gender education" in schools?

"There's been no change to sex education in Ireland. We're still a relatively conservative country - we're not bloody Holland," said Cormac. "In fact there's been a nurturing effect and Ireland has got more mature."

"The sky hasn't fallen in, in fact the wedding industry is booming," said Richard.

Actually, there was one thing that happened. "We now have a gay Prime Minister but his sexuality wasn't really a huge debate."

Cormac said he knew the campaign was difficult for gay people in Australia. "But we might be pleasantly surprised. We're all very hopeful in Ireland that Australia will vote Yes.

"And you might end up having gay marriage and being in the Eurovision Song Contest in the same year - it'll be like Australia's starter pack."

benedict.brook@news.com.au

News Corp Australia

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