Eamon O’Keeffe and his terminally ill bride Marie were married in a small room at the former Limerick Regional Hospital, by the priest who was appointed the new Bishop of Waterford last week – but 16 years on he is still fighting to have the state recognise the validity of the marriage.
The County Limerick couple, who met late at night at the grotto in Lourdes in 1995, were married four years later as Marie lay dying in her hospital bed. They had planned to be wed in September 1999 but brought their big day forward to April 19, when it became clear that Marie’s life was about to end. Within six days of the ceremony, she passed away.
This Wednesday, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, Eamon told the Limerick Leader of his heartbreak that, after 16 years of trying, he has been unable to get the state to accept the validity of their marriage, even though they were man and wife in the eyes of the Catholic Church, with the ceremony performed by Fr Phonsie Cullinan, then the hospital chaplain and soon to be Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.
When he collected Marie’s death certificate, Eamon was “deeply upset” to see that she had been listed as a “spinster”. Mr O’Keeffe – from Ballysteen, Askeaton – says the reason given to him was because not enough notice was provided of their wedding. “But,” he says, “Marie couldn’t wait three months. We knew she wasn’t going to make it until the September. She didn’t even last a week.
“I made a promise to Marie that I would fight until the day I die to get our marriage recognised by our country. I will never give up.”
Mr O’Keeffe said he wrote to three former Justice Ministers pleading his case, “but none of them could do anything for me”. Now, he writes in this week’s Leader, “all the politicians are tripping over each other telling us to vote Yes in the same-sex marriage bill ... For my own reasons I will be voting No. I feel upset that none of the politicians lobbying for the Yes vote could do anything for me and Marie.”
Eamon says the stress of trying to fulfil to his promise to Marie – who hailed from Athea – has impacted severely on his health. He was diagnosed with cancer in October 2012 and had 39 sessions of radiotherapy treatment.
He has been given the all-clear and is continuing to fight for his marriage to be recognised, in the hope that somebody will take up his cause.
“The really sad part of all this,” he adds, “is that both of my parents and both of Marie’s have since passed away, as well as Marie’s grandmother, Bridget, at 96.
She reared seven boys and and six girls, the same as Marie’s mam and dad. Numerous aunts and uncles have also died from both families. They were all saddened that they did not live to see Marie’s and my marriage recognised by the state.
Anybody would honestly think we committed some terrible crime. None of us had been married previously. We were never even in a previous relationship.”
- Our very special marriage: see the Leader 2 cover story by Eamon O’Keeffe in the print edition of the Limerick Leader