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This Is How It Feels To Be In Ireland For Today's Historic Same-Sex Marriage Vote

"A 90-year-old man broke down in tears and said, 'It's too late for me now. But I wish you all well and I'll certainly be voting yes.'"

Posted on May 22, 2015, at 9:13 a.m. ET

Paul Faith / Getty Images

Polling stations have opened in Ireland for the referendum on same-sex marriage.

The opinion polls point to a victory for the Yes Equality campaign, but within the campaign itself, tension remains high.

At the campaign's headquarters in central Dublin yesterday, dozens of organisers worked frantically to secure victory. As activists darted in and out, phones ringing, stress and exhaustion visible on volunteers' faces, constituency coordinator Eimear O'Reilly admitted that there was still concern about voter turnout, particularly among young people.

"We feel we can't be complacent," she told BuzzFeed News. "We felt that way all along. Over 65,000 people have newly registered to vote, for the first time, which is hugely significant. But we have to drive voter turnout. That's the only way we'll win this."

Despite this anxiety, she said, excitement was also brewing in the Yes camp as all the signs, from opinion polls to responses to canvassers, suggested a win.

"I'm overwhelmed by the amount of support we've had. You can see it on the street; it's visible in towns and villages all across Ireland. Businesses are putting up Yes Equality posters. People are wearing badges – badges have come back into fashion!"

Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed
Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed
Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed

Outside the office, the Yes campaign's bus was making its final stop after an 11,000km journey lasting 25 days, taking in more than 78 locations across the country. On board, a clutch of activists told BuzzFeed News how moving the experience had been.

"We cried a lot," said Moninne Griffith, who had coordinated the bus tour. "We cried every day."

Fellow volunteer Mary McDermott recalled one particular incident that brought home what was at stake.

"In Thurles [County Tipperary], one of the team members came back to the bus in tears. He said he had spoken with a man in his nineties and the man himself broke down and said, 'It's too late for me now, but I really wish you all well and I certainly will be voting yes.' So it was a man whose entire life was lived in shame, secrecy, and silence and this opportunity [for same-sex marriage] was a really hopeful thing for him but an overwhelming wave of sadness for a whole life lived like that."

Many other older voters surprised the Yes campaigners with their support. McDermott described a farmer he met with five children and several grandchildren who refused to take any Yes badges or leaflets, as he didn't want anyone to know he was voting Yes, but told them: "I want a new Ireland; we need change."

Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed
Patrick Strudwick

The general assumption has been that Dubliners will vote Yes while those in rural areas will vote No.

But McDermott said that it hasn't been as simple as that.

"Donegal always gets a hard time for being more conservative but we found most people were saying they were going to vote Yes. Sometimes because they have gay or lesbian brothers or sisters, friends or colleagues. Or people just think, Live and let live, or, Why not? The time has come, we've moved on, we're over judging people because of their sexual orientation. They're pretty laid back about it."

"People have got used to seeing and hearing about lesbian and gay people in their communities," she added. "And that's changed a lot of minds, along with high-profile people coming out."

In central Dublin, said McDermott, they saw 90–95% support, but that still their optimism was only "cautious".

"We won't count our chickens," she said.

Still, this morning, at a polling station in south Dublin, a clear pattern seemed to be emerging.

Of the voters emerging from the polling station in Mercy Convent, Baggot Street, all those under 40 were happy to speak to BuzzFeed News – and all said they had voted yes. Older voters comprised a mixture of No supporters, Yes supporters, and people who did not wish to say.

Rob Fox, 40, stopped on his bike to tell BuzzFeed News why he'd voted yes.

Liam Murphy

"It's the obvious thing to do," he said. "It's not a question of debate for me, equal marriage. The clue is in the name – it's equality, for making society a fairer place."

He added: "I'm nervous after the election in the UK – I don't believe the polls; I think it will be close. But the amount of high-profile popular support it's got, that should swing it. If [singer] Daniel O'Donnell and [TV host] Gay Byrne can't nudge middle Ireland in the right direction, I don't know what will."

A late middle-aged woman, who would only say her name was Carol, told BuzzFeed News why she had voted no: "Marriage is man and woman, it's not two men or two women. I did support the civil partnership bill, I was very much in favour of that."

She added that her decision to vote no had wavered, however: "I watched a programme on English television about how difficult it was to place children for adoption and I was very impressed when a gay male couple had five children they'd adopted with special needs and that made me think. But not quite enough [to change my mind]."

This couple, Mike and Lou Soden, have been married for 46 years, and voted yes.

Liam Murphy

"I truly believe our society is changing," Lou Soden told BuzzFeed News. "And I feel we must change with it. In my heart in an ideal world I would prefer that it was a mother and a father, but the world has changed today and I feel we must move with the times and be realistic."

She added: "It's provoked a lot of discussion and a lot of people who started off supporting yes have gone back to voting no. A lot of my friends."

Mike Soden agreed: "People I went to school with whose opinions I respect, out of eight people at a dinner party all the men said no and all the women said yes."

As the couple left, an elderly man on crutches was being helped out of the polling station by his wife and daughter. He smiled and explained to BuzzFeed News why he voted yes: "I grew up in California in the '60s and I haven't changed too much!"

Another elderly man, who would not give his name, told BuzzFeed News that he voted no because he was concerned about family life.

"I think there's a much bigger issue that hasn't been discussed, which is the breakdown of heterosexual marriasge in Ireland, with half a million kids with no fathers. I think that's what we should be talking. I've no problem with gay people but I think this whole thing has been overpoliticised. We're not talking about the real issues."

These two friends, Patrick Stewart and Hilary White, voted yes and were keen to tell BuzzFeed News why.

Liam Murphy
Liam Murphy

"It's a matter of basic equality and everyone should have the right to fully participate in society," said Stewart. "I wouldn't like to see anyone denied their right to get married." He said he was very optimistic that the referendum will pass.

"People are getting nervous in the Yes side, but I don't think there's any need to because the feeling's in the air and I don't think there's any chance it's not going to go through."

"It's amazing we even have to have this conversation," added White. "It's 2015, Ireland needs to change, it is changing. We've got a young progressive population that's travelled the world and seen what life is like outside of Ireland. Ireland was very closed off and provincial and Catholicized for years. Those days are over."

But an older voter Eamonn Fingleton, a journalist, told BuzzFeed News he'd voted no because he still believes in "traditional marriage".

"I think gays and lesbians as far as I can see it basically have equal rights so this is a symbolic thing. The family is in very serious trouble. I think back to my own childhood and would I want to be brought up in a same-sex marriage? Probably not. I spent 27 years in East Asia and I think that those countries have figured this out, and they think if it ain't broke don't fix it. There's no need for this."

Liam Murphy
Liam Murphy

David Darcy, picture above left, said he voted yes because, "No one could give me a good reason to vote no."

"It just seems perfectly natural that a minority of people are gay and why shouldn't they be able to organise a family life the same as everyobody else?

A woman called Siobhan, above right, told BuzzFeed News: "I just know so many people who will really benefit from it and who it means so much to. I don't have any reason why they shouldn't have the same opportunity."

A man in his eighties, who gave his name only as Eddy, revealed that he voted yes because he could remember what life used to be like for lesbian and gay people in Ireland.

"They were ostracised for so long. Marriage would integrate them more into society. That's what I feel. When I was brought up, it wasn't even spoken about. It was totally illegal. I didn't even know what a homosexual was until I was well into my thirties. It just wasn't mentioned."

Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed

Many Irish people have been flying home especially to vote.

Outside the Yes Equality offices yesterday, Sarah Bolton explained that she had come back from Paris because of a creeping fear that fellow Yes voters might not turn out in sufficient numbers.

"Since being home I'm anxious," she said. "A lot more than I have been previously. You don't see the No voters on social media, but being back I'm seeing the posters, the arguments on television and it's worrying that people support them."

Gavin Keaveney, standing next to her, said he had been out canvassing in south Dublin.

"It's traditionally a liberal area and we've had about 70 to 75% support," he said. but he added that in some cases, canvassers sensed voters were saying they would vote yes "just to shoo you off their doorstep".

One of the Yes campaign's celebrity supporters is Rory Cowan, star of Mrs Brown's Boys.

Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed

Cowan, who plays Rory Brown, the gay son in the hit BBC sitcom, was also outside the Yes headquarters yesterday, having lent his support throughout. Cowan told BuzzFeed News he was feeling "hopeful", before revealing the indignities he suffered growing up gay in Ireland.

"They were terrible times," he said, about the period before homosexuality was decriminalisation in 1993. "Everything you saw in the media of gay people were either dead or beaten up or dirty old men in bushes. When I was growing up I couldn't tell anyone I was gay. I knew when I was 12."

Up the road from Clarendon Street, where we stood, was a gay bar he used to go to.

"I'd walk up and down four or five times to make sure I didn't recognise anyone on the street that would see me going in," he said, "and then I'd jump sideways in the door. We would never call ourselves by our [real] name because blackmail was a huge thing at that time.

"I remember going to the Hirshfield Centre, a gay club years ago on Fownes Street. You'd go in and police in unmarked cars would be outside taking pictures of everyone. They weren't arresting anyone, it was intimidation, so a lot of people wouldn't go in. If you got beaten up, you wouldn't go to the police because they wouldn't protect you, they'd arrest you."

Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed

Cowan told BuzzFeed News that he could not believe the pace of change in Ireland.

Before 1993, he said, no one even thought homosexuality would become legal, let alone same-sex marriage. "They would have been laughed off the stage," he said.

But it's for young people more than anyone he wants the referendum to succeed.

"The sad part about it is, if this vote is passed, it's too late for me, I'm 56. The chances of me finding someone now and getting married … I could have done that years ago. But when I met people then, they weren't seen as proper relationships. No wonder gay relationships never worked because they were underground, hidden."

Now, Cowan sees young gay couples walking hand in hand entirely unaware of what life was like for his generation.

"And it's wonderful," he said, adding that the support from young straight allies has been equally heartening. "For the last few years you'd think the country had gone to shit but the amount of people from universities who registered – that's the most important thing to me. You might think they'd be apathetic but not about this, they recognise that this is a big issue. That shows the future of Ireland."

Patrick Strudwick / BuzzFeed

It's a view shared by many on the Yes side. Even if it loses, said Gavin Keaveney,

"it's started debate in a lot of houses where it wouldn't usually be talked about. People have come out as a result. If in the end the result is a no, at least that has happened."

"One of the most amazing things for me is people are sharing personal stories – what it means to them to get a Yes vote," said Eimear O'Reilly. "Grandparents sharing why they want their grandchildren to grow up in a fair and inclusive Ireland and parents sharing why they want their children to be treated equality.

"We're standing on the doorstep of equality today, waiting for a warm embrace from the Irish public."

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