I grew up in an Ireland where it was still possible for frightened girls to give birth alone and unaided in a grotto, where forgotten women worked as unpaid servants in Magdalene laundries, where industrial schools brutalized a generation of working class boys, where to be gay was a sin as well as a crime and where divorce and contraception were illegal.

I grew up in a country where - for a significant donation - Irish babies were handed over freely to wealthy American couples, and all without a word of protest or alarm. 

I really do not want to see those days return. Too many of those horrors only ended in the last two decades. I have deliberately and intentionally placed many miles - and years - between myself and those times. 

It wasn’t easy, if you’re wondering. I only reluctantly left Ireland after it became clear to me in my teenage years in County Donegal in the 1980s that gay people were being cruelly written out of the national story. 

We were given a stark choice - invisibility or exile. Some chose death.

Back then you were someone's child until they realized you were gay. Then you became someone's embarrassment. Your home could be as hostile as the streets. Brothers could turn on you without a word, parents could too, more concerned by what the priest or the neighbors thought than what they thought themselves.

I saw mothers and fathers disown their own sons and daughters. I saw kids who weren't ready for the big world tossed out of their homes and left to fend for themselves. They weren’t expected to survive the rejection. I'm haunted by it to this day.

Growing up in those years, every word I heard used to describe a gay person was intended to strip them of their dignity. That meant that each day in your little town or village you had to choose between shame or silence. It was like living in a police state or a war.

For years - years - I watched the fragile little stories of every gay kid I knew being sunk by the iceberg that was our theocratic state. We were pushed out to the margins or the edge of town. We were not expected to return. 

Now the conservative forces in Ireland, having learned nothing from the needless human suffering their philosophies created over the last 100 years, are still writing Irish gay kids out of the national story. It's a tragedy seemingly without end.

Ireland is a small country and like every other Irish person, I know these people. I grew up around them and I learned this much: the people who loudly tell you that they love you but that you will never be equal to them, do not love you. At all. 

As Irish voters prepare to have their say on same sex marriage in Ireland on May 22, an increasingly desperate Vote No organization has released a national poster campaign this week suggesting that it’s not gay couples getting married that the country will be voting on, its children!

“A child needs a mother and father,” the campaign’s hard hitting posters read, in an echo of the 1990s divorce referendum campaign. Exactly what this has to do with consenting gay adults marrying each other they have not explained.

But since they have taken the country down this intentionally misleading track let’s recall what Ireland and the Catholic Church had in store for children without a traditional mother and father family structure in the 20th century.

“We will cherish the children of the nation equally,” reads the 1916 proclamation of independence, but the countless unmarked and un-named graves of our poor and luckless illegitimate children give the lie to that long forgotten egalitarian promise. 

Just one 1944 Irish government report on the the now notorious Tuam Co. Galway mother and baby home noted the “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” and “fragile” appearances of the child residents, with their “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” 

The conditions of the Great Hunger were being reproduced in gloomy 19 century institutions, far from the eyes of the respectable public. Long term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly by the inspectors. Children died there at the rate of one a fortnight in Tuam for almost 40 years. 

Does a child needs a mother and father to protect them from an Ireland like this?

This week Breda O’Brien of the conservative Catholic Iona Institute took a hard line on gay Irish couples. They should not be allowed to get married, she counseled, and since they can’t get married they should abstain from sex. A perfect Catch 22. The only thing that gay couples can be, in the theocratic Republic that she and her fellow travelers would like to march us back to, is untouchable unmarried eunuchs.

Oh she knows it will be hard for them at first: "It will be excruciatingly difficult - I think you will need huge support, huge help, lots of very strong, loving relationships."

But chaste loving relationships, naturally. Just hoist yourself on her holy petard. It’s what God wants. "Knowing that you are loved by God and that you are valued. Sometimes giving something up can lead to other kinds of happiness. You would have to be a very unselfish person to do that and I think very good people have great capacity for joy and happiness."

Not that she herself will be joining you in your “great joy and happiness” of course. She gets the goldmine, you get the shaft. "I always hoped and dreamed that one day I would be married,” she told the Irish Independent this week. To wit, that’s decades of marital bliss for her and a hair shirt and an empty bed for the gays. Who could have a problem with that?

In Breda O’Brien’s view only certain children and certain families seem to matter - the ones that act, think and pray like hers, of course. Everyone else - single parents, gays, assorted ungodly outcasts - should ideally live alone and not call attention to themselves.

But we saw how that worked out for tens of thousands of the luckless and the loveless in the 20th century, so why should the 21st be any different?

Who could argue with the No campaign’s claim that children need a mother and father to thrive? Well quite a few people, including single parents could, it turned out this week.

If you don’t have a matching set of heterosexual mammy’s and daddies is there something suspect about you, deserving of national shame or scorn, they demanded to know? By tilting at gays the No side may have awoken a sleeping giant.

On May 22 we can prolong all this limitless hypocrisy or we can finally draw a line under it. Ireland's disasterous era of masters and pastors has ended. I hope the country will vote Yes to its future and No to its past at last. It’s time. 

Breda O’Brien