Capturing History: Ireland's Marriage Equality Referendum 2015

On May 22 2015, Ireland made history by becoming the first country in the world to legally approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. In the end, the thirty-fourth amendment of the constitution was favoured by over 1.2 million people, with thousands of Irish citizens all over the world even travelling home to have their say. It was an event that meant so much to so many, and the results were covered in great length by international media, making our small country the focus of rigorous political debate.

 Crowds gathered inside the gates of Dublin Castle on May 23 as ballot boxes were emptied and votes were counted. Photograph by James Gabriel Martin

Crowds gathered inside the gates of Dublin Castle on May 23 as ballot boxes were emptied and votes were counted. Photograph by James Gabriel Martin

The following morning, and throughout the whole day, excited crowds gathered on the grounds of Dublin Castle, where ballot boxes were being emptied. I was working for a local newspaper at the time, and was frequently sent out on assignment to photograph events in Dublin for its social gallery pages. This involved approaching strangers, making a few quick portraits of them with minimal setup and taking their names for print. I had only purchased my first DSLR, a Canon 700D, a few months previous, so was still new to the process.

While I always enjoyed getting out to practice with my camera, on this particular occasion I was especially excited to learn that I would be playing a role, however small, in documenting a day that I felt held such historical and social significance. As the sun shone down over Dublin Castle, I moved through the crowd, meeting the people that eagerly awaited the result.

 Eighty year-old Charlie Mooney was there with his daughter, and was proud to fly the rainbow flag. Photograph by James Gabriel Martin

Eighty year-old Charlie Mooney was there with his daughter, and was proud to fly the rainbow flag. Photograph by James Gabriel Martin

The atmosphere of positivity amongst the people was infectious. One of the first things that struck me about the crowd was the diversity in age. While I had rightly assumed that the majority of people present would be in the teen to middle-age category, I didn't have to look far to find older or younger faces in the crowd. Whole families were there, mothers and fathers with babies and young children, as well as couples, gay and straight, friends, big groups, small groups, people on their own, Irish, foreign.

One of the joys of being a photographer is that you are allowed brief access into the lives of complete strangers. One person that stood out to me on the day was Charlie Mooney, a beaming eighty-year old man who held up a giant rainbow flag that flapped in the wind behind his head. He was there celebrating with his adult daughter, and I approached them to ask could I take their photograph. While my job only required that I take names for captions, my natural interest in people always led to me asking a few questions, while being careful not to pry into the personal lives or politics of anyone. Charlie was delighted to have his picture taken, and told me that he had jumped at the chance to come and join the celebrations and happiness.

Thomas McDermott and Sara Jane Flynn celebrate the results on 23 May 2015. Photography by James Gabriel Martin

The passing of the bill appealed to demographics with a certain set of values, people who believed in marriage equality regardless of sexual orientation. Political leanings aside however, I felt that the result was so significant because it showed younger voters what could be achieved by banding together. The surge in the youth vote on the day brought the turnout into the top five of all referendums since the Constitution was adopted in 1937.

So often, people can feel as if their lives are being controlled by unseen entities hidden away in government buildings, and political apathy is so easily bred. Not through lack of interest, but through lack of energy, and a feeling of helplessness and loss of control that takes hold. The Marriage Equality referendum was inspiring because it showed people what they could do when they were passionate and determined when it came to politics. 

 Two young boys hold up flags outside the gates of Dublin Castle. Photograph by James Gabriel Martin

Two young boys hold up flags outside the gates of Dublin Castle. Photograph by James Gabriel Martin

The significance of the day also taught me a lesson as a photographer. Throughout my time spent at the local paper, the events that I covered could range from anything, from music festivals to community picnics. I had never taken the time to consider that I was capturing snapshots in history of the people of my country.

I love flicking through old photo books or browsing historical websites, fascinated to see Dublin and Ireland of the past. While I don't hold any lofty ideas that my images will one day be archived in such a manner, taking the time to step out of the mind frame of simply clicking a button to considering one's subject can completely change a photographer's motivation. Image making is so prevalent today, anyone and everyone can and does do it. We all have smartphones full to the brim with shots that were taken and perhaps never revisited. With this ease of access to technology, we can quickly become caught up in the repetitive nature of the process, rather than the meaning behind it. 

One pitfall I have been prone to as a photographer is allowing myself to feel that I lack inspiration. Just as the referendum result itself woke people up to what could be achieved, for me, the act of capturing it did the very same thing. That day in May was free for all to attend. It didn't require a special press pass or title to meet the people outside the castle and document their stories. It taught me to spend more time considering the chances that are available to me, something that I feel has subsequently led to me seeking out more photographic moments that are meaningful and personal.

 Opportunity is out there, you just have to bring your camera. 

- JGM

More images from this gallery are available here.

 

Source: jamesgabrielmartinphotography.com