Does Ireland deliberately time its referendums to coincide with the Hay Festival? Three years ago we listened to Colm Tóibín rejoice at the outcome of the vote on same-sex marriage, and on Saturday we shared Roddy Doyle’s euphoria at the victory on access to abortion, even though its true proportions were as yet unknown.
On both occasions there was genuine delight from British members of the audience at the steps Ireland was taking, as Doyle put it, to move from the nineteenth century to the twenty first. And at the same time a degree of envy as well. To see our near neighbours awash with the optimism uncorked by progressive change cast a doleful shadow over the situation here. In 2015 we were still reflecting on the sense of national renewal which characterised the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum and wishing the same spirit could somehow be discovered here. This time round we had the even more depressing comparison with Brexit, which seems (to the defeated side in that poll) so insular, backward-looking and mean-spirited.
There was talk of a reverse exodus, with the Irish diaspora flooding home; and reference was made to the number of British people applying to Dublin for passports. ‘Including civil servants,’ Doyle told us with a mischievous twinkle. ‘You should be worried.’