From being 'The Queen of Ireland' to how Ireland can address its imperfections, Rory O'Neill spoke to our opinion editor, Elizabeth O'Malley.
EOM: So you’ve described yourself as an accidental activist. What was the accident that made you an activist?
RON: Well I say that but what I mean is I never chose to be an activist. I never joined Greenpeace or something, you know? And I’m often accused of being an activist. I always feel that’s a little unfair on people who spend their lives being activists.
What I really mean is just from the nature of what I do I occasionally find myself either in trouble, or I have to sort of become an activist to get out of trouble, or people hear what I say more than they might somebody else simply because I am something of a public person. I think there’s some responsibility with that.
And I get annoyed with things that I think are unfair. So what I mean is I’ve never chosen to be an activist, I just sometimes end up being an activist as a consequence of what I do for a living, so that’s what I mean when I say I’m an accidental activist.
EOM: Did you feel vindicated by the results of the marriage referendum?
RON: Well, I didn’t feel personally vindicated but I felt vindicated on behalf of the LGBTQ community and I felt vindicated on behalf of Ireland. I think what the result of the referendum did was… it didn’t change Ireland… well in a little way, I think it did.
But more importantly what it did was confirm a change that had already happened silently. I think Ireland had already changed. And we needed to have that conversation and have that vote to recognise that sort of change had definitely happened in Ireland and we had moved on.
EOM: And what do you think is next?
RON: I think there are a lot of things that annoy me *laughs*. There’s equality issues, there’s a lot of them. It’s not like I set out to choose issues or anything but at the moment the ones that are annoying me are, well, repealing the 8th (amendment) I think is very important. I think if we’re going to treat everybody equally we should treat women equally and they should be able to make their own choices about their own health and their own bodies and I think we should trust women to do that. That bothers me.
And also travellers’ rights really bother me. I grew up with traveller neighbours, went to school with lots of travellers, I had traveller classmates and traveller desk mates. So unlike, it turns out lots of people, I know that travellers are just people. And some of them are nice, and some of them are annoying, just exactly like everybody else.
So that’s an issue that bothers me at the moment, where they really are ‘othered’ by people in this country.
So those are two things that are particularly annoying me at the moment, but there might be something else annoying me next week *laughs*.
EOM: In ‘The Queen of Ireland’ and in your Noble Call speech at the Gaiety Theatre you describe Ireland as being oppressively homophobic. Obviously there were a lot of young people who voted yes in the marriage equality referendum. Do you think there’s still residual homophobia there with this generation?
RON: Yes. I mean, I think everybody sort of carries residual homophobia because we’ve grown up in a culture which teaches you homophobia in a sense. But actually when I said earlier that I didn’t think Ireland had changed in the referendum, I actually didn’t expect the referendum to change Ireland but I think it did in a small way in that it made us think really deeply about those things. I think it really has helped us overcome our homophobic tendencies.
The conversation sort of cleared the air.
I think that was always going to be an issue for all minorities. You were always going to have to sort of agitate a little to remind the majority that you exist and what your concerns are and to not get lost in a bigger culture in a sense.
So I think it’s natural that there will always be some sort of homophobia in a culture that is, you know, majority heterosexual. That’s life. But do I think that’s dramatically improved not only in the last 30 years or so but also in the recent past? Yeah, I think it’s improved greatly and I think the LGBT community here feel more comfortable and secure in their place in Irish society now.
EOM: What was it like having cameras following you around for years and having people combing through your childhood and obviously very painful experiences?
RON: It wasn’t that bad in the sense that it was going on for five years so what you see in the documentary was shot over a very long time. So it’s not like they were there every day and hanging out, they would just turn up every now and then. And also I’ve known the director, Conor, for a very long time so I never really felt like it was a stranger asking me personal questions, it was someone I’ve known for twenty years.
It was a little, from a practical point of view, annoying sometimes *laughs*. But no, I never felt it was intrusive or anything.
EOM: Are you happy to see that the film has gotten such a positive response from everybody?
RON: Of course I am, I’m thrilled about that. I mean obviously it’s not my project, it was Conor Horgan and Blinder Films. It was their project, I just happened to be in it. But I am in it so of course I wanted people to like it. Yeah, I was really delighted that it got such great reviews and people in general have really liked it and warmed to it.
EOM: Ok, final question. What would an ideal Ireland look like to you?
RON: In some ways it wouldn’t look an awful lot different. But I think it would be more equal and a fairer place. I think Ireland needs to be a little more open about certain things. I think we have a small tendency to look inward a bit. I think we need to be even more welcoming and open to people who are different, whether they are foreigners or people of different races or colour, refugees, travellers, and oddly women considering that they ain’t ‘other’.
I think we’ve made great strides in those directions and I think it’s a painful process to go through, looking critically at the past at the Magdalene Laundries and stuff. I think those things are good for us to do and make us better people in the end.
I think a perfect Ireland will look in some ways quite like it does already. There’s a lot of great things about Ireland and being Irish. But of course nowhere is perfect and there’s work to be done in a few areas.