On the 22nd of May the Irish electorate will vote in a referendum on same-sex marriage equality, extending the constitutional protection of civil marriage to all citizens of the Republic without distinction as to their sex or sexuality. This of course is a historic moment for Irish society; if the constitutional amendment is passed it will represent a further advancement for tolerance and plurality in the Republic, and hopefully be another death knell to the repressive Catholic guilt ridden and socially conservative Ireland that came into being in the early years of independence, and of which lurks still in the psycho-body of much of Ireland’s social fabric. Referenda on social and civil matters (divorce, and the continuing hot potatoe of abortion) are a common feature of the Republic’s political landscape. Traditionally these referenda have evidenced a distinct urban/rural divide in the country- the urban social progressive vote vs the rural conservative articulation. However, there remains the possibility of a breakdown of this sharp divide, due to not only an increasingly socially tolerant, less faith orientated Irish citizenry but furthermore as a consequence of the spatial urbanization of rural Ireland post-Celtic Tiger, albeit a precarious, uneven and disjointed sort of urbanization.
County Longford is one the rural regions notable by its social conservatism when voting in previous referenda. In 1995 the then Longford/Roscommon constituency recorded the third highest vote nationally against constitutional amendment to introduce legal divorce in Ireland. Even more worryingly County Longford voted overwhelmingly ( a staggering 84.37%) in favour of the governments regressive, successfully carried Citizenship referendum in 2004 that sought to restrict citizenship rights to the migrant families of children born in the State- this particular shameful episode in Irish political history was followed by a rather unpleasant spate of racialist or anti-immigration incidents in Longford. However, I am cautiously confident that Longford may just buck this trend in the upcoming referendum and vote on the side of inclusion, tolerance and social progression. In the last few months I have become involved with Longford LGBT, an advocacy group and social network for LGBT and LGBT ally people in the region. I don’t think its hyperbole to state that this group punches above its weight- as the embedded video below- illustrates Longford LGBT were the first such group to march in a rural St Patrick’s Day parade in the world. They have been instrumental in setting up the Longford Yes Equality campaign, though it should be stated that this group is completely independent of Longford LGBT, and indeed the current date of the referendum may well have been influenced by the lobbying of Longford LGBT. The members of the group are deeply embedded in Longford community life and expression, and it is indeed very encouraging to witness the genuine warmth and acceptance to which Longford people engage LGBT community- there is even a gay friendly bar in the town. As a person who has struggled with my sexuality in the past, terrified to Come-Out as a teenager in what was then a highly dogmatic and intolerant society, the integrated existence of a group like Longford LGBT, along with what I hope will be a strong Yes vote on the 22nd of May, may mean that no other teenager will have to live with the torment and alienation that I and many others lived with in the Old Ireland.
The presence of a strong and active LGBT community in Longford adds counterweight to how the county is perceived nationally. Longford has in many ways become a metonym for rural decline, conservatism and social ills. When people think of Longford they think of high unemployment, crime and illiteracy, vacant houses, tensions and violence relating to Longford’s high travelling population, and a dull grey landscape. For years now travel guides like Lonely Planet annually negatively review the place, or ignore it although. With the arrival of ‘ghost estates’ in the public consciousness in 2009/2010, the global news media- CNN, BBC, Al Jezeera- as well the national TV and newspapers bet a path to Longford to sensationalize the county’s unfinished estates, and then duly disappeared when the story was no longer sexy. In the last few months alone RTÉ (the national broadcaster) featured Longford’s economic decline, lack of employment and business closures in two separate programmes. I am by no means suggesting that journalists and commentators shouldn’t highlight the difficulties experienced by rural Ireland, but the relentless negative focus on Longford feeds a certain notion of place that is ill-informed and dismissive. When the British company Centre Parcs announced on April 1st that they are planning to construct woodland tourist resort at Newcastle Woods in South county Longford, social media lit up with the idea that this was some elaborate April fool’s joke. While I have certain misgiving about the potential environmental impact of the Centre Parcs proposal, and the fanfare that has surrounded it’s announcement (lest we forget the bell ringing and triumphalism that welcomed the early stages of the Carrigglas development, neither should we overlook it’s spectacular demise), it is difficult to imagine if the story had emerged in Cork or Galway for instance that it would have been immediately dismissed as a prank.
From a historical perspective Longford, as with most places, is noteworthy but it has been criminally ignored by mainstream historians. Longford was heavily planted during the early years of British colonisation, with such key historical figures Lords Forbes, Lorton and Lefroy, and families like the Pakenhams, the Harmans, the Wilsons, and the Newcomens central to the development of the county’s history. It was home to or inspired such literary figures as Maria Edgesworth and Oliver Goldsmith. Longford was the third most militarily active region of Ireland during the War of Independence from 1919-1921, but rarely features heavily in accounts of that period. Much of the story of Longford’s has been ignored in the national historical narrative. Why? And how does this erasure from Ireland’s history impact on contemporary readings of the importance of place? Indeed the sense among Longfordians of their marginality on the national stage in keenly felt, so that by 2009 when businesses are closing left right and centre, and the eye-line of the county landscape is punctured by vacant commercial property and housing, there was a sense among locals that all this was inevitable- how could a place a forlorn as Longford ever hope for prosperity and social advancement? However, I feel that there was nothing inevitable about this decline, and it is rather down to poor spatial and economic policy on the part of the government that favoured property speculation and the interests of international capital over local community development needs.
I said goodbye and good riddance to Longford when I was 17 and felt I would never return to what I saw as the most backward and psychologically stifling place in Ireland. This project has found me back here, but it is a transformed Longford I am now working with. I am of course aware of the many social and economic disadvantages experienced by Longford, and that certain conservatism still pervades here. However, a look at the 2011 Census figures for the county reveal a fascinating demographic by product of Celtic Tiger economics and the Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme over-development in the region. In the early 2000s the Irish Government in an effort to avoid ethnic ghettos in Dublin, began a dispersal programme that saw large numbers of new communities or new Irish (I deplore the term non-national, as if migrants suddenly forsake their cultural identity upon leaving their birthplaces) setting up home in rural towns. As a result Longford is one of the most ethnically diverse or multicultural towns in Ireland. Migrant Longfordians accounted for 14.1 per cent of the population of Longford compared with a national average figure of 12.0 per cent. Polish (1,628 persons) were the largest group, followed by UK nationals (1,155 persons). Furthermore, 4,897 persons in the county spoke a language other than Irish or English at home, and 3,137 persons were adherents to religions other than Roman Catholicism, while 1,087 persons indicated that they had no religion. The negative impact of vast and poorly regulated housing construction in Longford is somewhat counterbalanced by the influx of people from urban backgrounds into Longford’s social environment, bringing with them different experiences and attitudes. The Post-Celtic picture of Longford is therefore distinctly more pluralist, diverse and nuanced than the national perception of the place would have many believe.
I believe that if Longfordians, new and old, were to return a resounding Yes in the upcoming Marriage Equality referendum, it would send a very positive message about the progressive and socially advanced potential of the place. A yes vote will not be a vote that achieves equality for all in Ireland- it will not achieve equality for the hundreds of thousands children that live in poverty in the state, nor will it directly benefit those asylum seekers who live under the dreadful constraints of direct provision. However, it will be a step in the right direction for realising a more equitable Irish society, a means of empowering minorities in Ireland to fight for their rights in the eyes of the law and the social body. It would indeed be tremendous if a marginalised county overwhelmingly played their part in saying Yes to a new Ireland.
Text: Paddy Baxter
Video: Paddy Baxter & Deirdre O’Byrne
Photo: Paddy Baxter
Audio Recording: Paul Marsden