In this excerpt from Well I Wonder, narrator Fergus and friends listen to the results of 1995’s divorce referendum coming through on the radio. All had been deeply involved in the Yes campaign and are nervous and expectant. Everyone was predicting a tight result . . .
“Come on, the Banner!” I moaned sarcastically. My county, Clare, nicknamed “the Banner”, had let me down. Its majority vote had been against the constitutional amendment.
“Bloody hell!” added fellow Clare(wo)man Maeve. “‘Twould make you wonder.”
“Incredible — 56.22% against,” said Alison, shaking her head, echoing the dry male voice coming through the radio.
“Cork East,” it continued. “Total valid poll: 40,035. Yes vote: 17,287. No vote: 22,748. Percentage Yes: 43.18. Percentage No: 56.82.”
It was the Saturday night after polling day. We were in Claire’s kitchen — all the Well I Wonder crew, bar Emma, who had gone home for the weekend and probably wouldn’t have attended anyway in the wake of the shame she still felt over making a show of herself in front of the whole discussion group on Wednesday night — sitting at her table, taking the odd mouthful of wine from long-stemmed cut-crystal glasses, ears glued to the radio. The last of the counts from the country’s forty-one constituencies had finally come in and RTÉ One’s referendum special had patched through to the RDS in Ballsbridge, Dublin, where the state’s Chief Returning Officer was going through them all, from Carlow/Kilkenny to Wicklow. For the last half hour or so, RTÉ had been keeping us in suspense, building tension, forcing listeners to stay tuned in until this moment,— the programme’s — heck, the referendum’s — dramatic denouement. They surely must have had the data collated from all the regional count centres by then but, for the sake of theatricality, wanted the key overall figure for the entire country to be given as a live OB from the country’s nerve centre on that long-awaited day — the RDS. We’d been listening to the special since mid-afternoon, but it was so tight we had no idea which way the result would finally go. From the unofficial tallies that had come in, it appeared that all of the rural constituencies except a few clustered around Dublin had voted No. Only the figures from the various and many Dublin constituencies were keeping the Yes side in the game.
Word had gone out on Thursday that Claire was having a bash at her house on Saturday — a “count party” she called it — exclusively for the Well I Wonder team. She said she’d be receiving guests from about four onwards; we’d all rustle up dinner together (vegetarian lasagne; didn’t turn out as bad as it sounds) while we listened to the counts coming in, have a couple of glasses of wine and wet the baby’s head (the baby being the new amendment) or drown our sorrows, depending on which way the plain people of Ireland had decided to vote. It wasn’t that clear even based on exit polls whether it was going to be a Yea or a Nay. Some newspapers on the Saturday morning predicted a Yes while others plumped for a No.
I had gone home on the Friday evening to proudly vote (for just my second time ever, believe it or not) and come back up on the two o’clock number 51 bus. After dropping a few things off at 28 Hazel Park, I walked southwards towards the sea listening to Radio 1 on my Walkman. Claire lived on the far side of Salthill from the Tara complex, on the interestingly named Threadneedle Road. Her house was on the brow of a hill that ran all the way down to the seafront, a short, dormer-windowed bungalow set in a wild, rangy garden. What surprised me upon being let in by Alison, who I gathered to have been in the house since mid-morning listening to the results with Claire, was its plain ordinariness. I had expected Claire to be living in the lap of Bohemian colour and quirkiness, imagined her in one of those bracingly original rooms I saw in Dave’s Dazed and Confused or i-D magazines. I pictured her sipping her Earl Grey tea seated at a futuristic Perspex table in a primary-colour-splashed kitchen adorned with posters from pre-revolutionary Cuba and with a bulky and chrome-finished 1950s American fridge, a clock made from an old Harley-Davidson and a venerable Belfast sink. She would have a study with shelving of reclaimed wood (perhaps washed up on one of Salthill’s very strands) and packed from floor to rafter with books and manuscripts. Her living room would be sparse; no television, a futon (the very idea of exotic in 1990s Ireland), a few books — first editions and luscious illustrated texts, a stereo system beyond the wildest dreams and budgets of a student like me, original paintings (all of them empowering female nudes, of course) and a few objets d’art from her travels. But no; her house could have been my family home (decor 100% my mother’s mandate) or any of the houses of my mother’s friends. Dull carpets. Dark, heavy furniture. Magnolia walls. Waterford crystal and Arklow china in the living room. A couple of Matisses scattered here and there. Net curtains. Doilies. A Hummel holy-water font at the entrance. Boring, boring, boring.
Claire explained the discrepancy to me later on. The house belonged to the not-long-deceased mother of a friend of a friend. While the woman’s children decided what to do with the property, which had been their family home after all, they needed a responsible tenant, who, in recompense for cheap rent, wouldn’t mind living amongst the old woman’s belongings and would be prepared to leave the place on short notice if they decided to sell up.
“Suits me down to the ground,” she said. “Place is in a great spot. Sea views. Ten minutes’ drive from the college. I don’t have to share with anyone. And it’s not like I’m going to be putting down roots here. I’m not going to be in Galway much longer. My contract’s up next year. And then I’m off on my travels again!”
I asked her why she didn’t want to stay in Galway.
“It’s not like I don’t want to stay in Galway. Galway is grand. But I’ve to think about the old CV. Gotta keep moving; onwards and upwards. You know? Degree. Ph.D. Post-doc. Post-doc. Contract lecturer. Junior lecturer. Senior lecturer. Professor. HOD. Once you’re on the academic career pathway — the old treadmill — you’ve got to keep on moving. Stand still and you go to pot. Just look at some of the dinosaurs in our place. Never set foot outside of UCG and it shows.”
With this, Claire had given me an insight into something I’d never thought about before. From my position in the cheap seats of the lecture theatres and classrooms, lecturers were simply lecturers — one solid, undivided category. In my ignorance and lack of interest, I had never appreciated that there may have been a strict hierarchy among them and that each of them was acting out a role commensurate with their rung on the career ladder. I wondered was it a coincidence that it was the younger, untenured lecturers like Claire needing to make a name for themselves that tended to do extracurricular stuff like the discussion group with the students, while the older, senior lecturers — the greybeards — barely bothered with us. I also wondered, with the likes of Claire and the Maneen mentoring her, how much of this careerist BS Alison would take on board. Would Alison come to lead some sort of nomadic, have-Ph.D.-will-travel kind of lifestyle into middle age until she “gained tenure”, as the Yanks might say?
“Hey, guys. Shut up!” ordered Bridge and then tersely shushed us. “Galway’s coming up.”
The rest of us froze and stared at the radio — probably the coolest thing in the kitchen, a late-’70s Ferguson mono cassette recorder, black, with silver trimming and a built-in microphone under the three-band tuning dial. I would have loved to get my hands on that for making rough home demos, certain in a they-don’t-make-them-like-that-anymore way that it would produce lovely, warm, hiss-free recordings, head and shoulders above those that spluttered forth from the piece of shit I was using at the time.
“Galway East,” came the voice, crisp and resonant, from the Ferguson’s speaker. There was more than a touch of reverb; it was clear the man was addressing a large auditorium. “Total valid poll: 25,732. Total Yes vote: 9,001. Total No vote: 16,731.” Cheers and applause. There was a sizable body of No campaigners in the RDS.
“Fuckin’ Jesus!” exclaimed Bridge.
“C’mon now, Bridge,” quipped Claire. “We’d enough swearing the other night!”
A reference to Emma’s episode on Wednesday. I let it pass.
“Percentage No,” continued the voice. “65.02.” More cheers, more applause.
“Galway East; a hotbed of rural Catholic conservatism,” observed Alison.
“I join you Bannerites in your shame,” said Bridge, her head hanging low. She was from the village of Mountbellew, on the eastern edge of Co. Galway.
“Galway West. Total valid poll: 47,238. Total Yes vote: 22,977. Total No vote: 24,261. Percentage Yes vote: 48.64. Percentage No vote: 51.36.”
From the RDS, another burst of cheers, roars and clapping. In Threadneedle Road, there was a chorus of “motherfuck it”s, “Christ Almighty”s, plain old “fuck it”s, “Jesus wept”s and whatever you were having yourself! Galway West was not only the constituency in which the city of Galway sat, but also covered the large expanse of wilderness — the Connemara Gaeltacht — to the west of the city and stretched as far north as Renvyle and Leenaun. Polls taken earlier on in the week hinted that it was going to be a very close-run thing and that a couple of hundred votes either way could decide whether the constituency would go into the history books as one of the few outside Dublin that would say Yes to divorce. Everyone was agreed that the campaign sat on a knife-edge. Those of us in the Yes camp were convinced that, through hard and smart campaigning, we could push the result in our favour. Hence the frantic activity of the last week; the leaflets, the posters, the radio show, the stall on campus, the door-to-door canvassing. This was the discussion group’s Tet Offensive. By the Thursday night on the eve of polling, we were certain Galway West would vote Yes. Even preliminary tallies as recent as an hour previous to this final count had not dashed our hopes of a Yes vote emerging. Thus, our bitter disappointment on learning the final result.
Alison broke our stunned silence.
“The fucking Pope!” she snarled. “The bastard coming out on Thursday to put the fucking hex on people; it’s pushed all the undecideds over the line for the No side. The Catholic Church always play their fucking trump card.”
“But it shows how worried they were,” said Claire, more calmly. “They wheeled out Mother Teresa a couple of weeks ago with that ill-written letter of hers. ‘Dear People of Ireland’ my arse! And the Pope pops up on Thursday with his nuclear warhead of a sermon from the Vatican. If we win — and we’re gonna know very shortly — then it’ll be a real kick in the balls for those misogynistic bigots!”
“C’mon. There’s no ‘if’ about it,” said Alison defiantly. “We’re going to win this. Dublin’ll pull us through. Wait and see!”
Truth be told, we grew less and less hopeful as we sat in silence barely tasting Claire’s Merlot, as we polished off another bottle between us, and listening to the echoey voice run through the rest of the constituencies. Alison nervously lit cigarette after cigarette, filling the kitchen with smoke. I tapped the table. Maeve was shroud-pale. Bridge’s cheeks and ears glowed red. Claire uncorked another bottle of wine. Both Kerries (North and South) voted strongly against the amendment. Similarly, the two Mayos, the two Meaths and the two Tipperaries. Of the eighteen constituencies below Galway in alphabetic order, only Kildare (a feather in the cap for Claire, this being her county), Limerick East (with a whopping 50.05% voting Yes!), Louth and Wicklow recorded majorities in favour of the amendment. By the time the Chief Returning Officer finished giving the results for Wicklow, we were sure that the Yes side was screwed. There was a silence from the radio which was only distinguishable from dead air by the odd cough or rustling of paper. The anchor of the referendum special explained to us from studio, in a low, wildlife documentary voice, that the silence was due to the Chief Returning Officer’s taking of a drink of water and putting some papers in order.
Maeve nervously took Bridge’s hand and gasped. “Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes! The final tally!”
“Shhhhhh,” said Bridge while squeezing the other’s bony hand between her thick palm and stubby fingers.
I looked across the table at Alison, who was draping an arm over Claire’s shoulders and being clasped around the waist by the latter. Alison noticed my attention on her, flung a glance at Bridge and Maeve and then back at me, laughed and said: “Poor Roz has no one to hold. Why don’t you come over here for a group hug?”
“I’m grand,” I said flatly.
“Shhhhhh.” Bridge again.
“And now,” said the Chief Returning Officer, a brighter tone entering his voice, “after having totalled all the valid ballots of all forty-one constituencies, I give you the final, nationwide count. Total valid poll: 1,628,576. Total Yes votes: 818,837. Total No votes: 809,739―”
A sustained and raucous cheer erupted in the hall, mirrored by an outbreak of abandoned, elated pandemonium in Claire’s kitchen. Bridge lifted Maeve off the ground in a powerful bear hug and swung her round. I jumped for joy and bounced across the floor to gather Alison and Claire, already hugging and screeching into each other’s ears, in a tight embrace. A few seconds later, I felt a body lock on to mine and all five of us were bouncing around the lino in time to one another, shouting, laughing and crying in pure ecstatic happiness.
“We did it,” said Maeve over and over again, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Yessssss!” I screamed, my own eyes moist.
It was like Ireland had scored the winning goal against Italy in the ’94 World Cup all over again.
The strains of “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé” carried across the airwaves to us from the RDS. There’d be one hell of a party in Dublin 4 that night — among the Yes side at least! And we would do our best as well! Arms thrown around one another’s shoulders, the five of us skipped about in a circle in what was almost an infantile Cossack style, hollering eruptions of relief, bellowing pure happiness, lifting our heads back and just plain screaming. Eventually our tumult joined with the singing coming from Dublin and Claire’s kitchen rang out with exultant Olé-Olés.
“Could I have your attention please? Could I have your attention please? Could I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!”
The Chief Returning Officer’s voice was waspish, dripping with annoyance. He had run out of patience with the crowd, which, in spite of being chiefly made up of grandees of the various political parties and groupings involved in the referendum campaign, political apparatchiks, operatives and their hangers-on, was showing all the group dynamics of an audience of giddy teenage girls at a Take That concert. I suppose the poor man couldn’t be blamed for his irascibility; he’d probably been in the count centre all day managing mini-, midi- and maxi-crises of all descriptions, putting up with the tallymen and election officers from the smallest, kookiest far-right Christian parties (a lot of these parties had sprung up like mushrooms in the lead-in to the 1992 abortion referendum) to the two colourless, odourless and tasteless behemoths of the Irish scene (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael), brushing aside a myriad of journalists’ queries and probably ingesting no more than a couple of hasty, soggy ham sandwiches and gallons of migraine-maker coffee since breakfast. He’d also had to grind his teeth through forty-one mini versions of the wild and seemingly open-ended celebration currently preventing him from delivering his lines, getting back to his paperwork, finishing up and getting the hell home to some semblance of sanity.
“Could I have some silence in the hall please? Silence, please! SILENCE! SILENCE!”
The crowd in the RDS finally piped down. Though not pristine (a low-fi, vinyl-LP-type buzz of excited, whispered chatter and a crackle of electrified, unstill bodies fizzled from the Ferguson’s speaker), enough silence once more held sway in the count centre for the man to continue. In Salthill, we stopped our jigging to be able to hear the final section of his ritualistic and constitutionally ordained set piece.
“Thank you,” he said, ungratefully. “Your consideration is appreciated. To continue. Percentage Yes vote: 50.28. Percentage No vote: 49.72. Winning margin: 9,098. In my role as the state’s Chief Returning Officer, I hereby declare the proposal to amend Article 41.3.2 of the Constitution of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann, as carried. Thank you. Go raibh maith agaibh. Oíche mhaith agus beannacht Dé libh.”