Tara Flynn on trolls and post-referendum life: 'There is a 'little beacon of hope in the world, and it’s Ireland'

Before Tara Flynn shared her story of travelling to have an abortion and became one of the most prominent faces of the Repeal the Eighth movement, her job was to make people laugh, writes Ciara McDonnell

Before she was scorned and shamed and bullied and vilified, she was a comedian and writer and an actor with a lovely career, a lovely husband and things were… lovely.

Today we call her a trailblazer and a tastemaker and The Woman Who Helped Change Ireland, but what Tara Flynn really wants is some time and space to heal and recover from what have been some of the most tumultuous years of her life.

Her new book Rage-In is a collection of essays written by Flynn for Headstuff over the last few years. It’s a searingly honest observation about Ireland and the world in its current state. It’s also a time capsule of sorts, as we experienced a series of ‘what ifs’ like the Trump presidency actually coming to pass, and an examination of trolling and the dark side of social media.

I call Flynn the morning after she published a blog post addressing her decision to delete her Twitter account. It’s clear that the tsunami of hate that has rolled her way over the past number of years has played its part in the subdued woman I speak with, her voice cracking as she talks about the effects it has had on her husband and circle of family and friends.

My husband is very upset, he is incredibly angry and I just want a little bit of time with him, now just to get back to who we are. He has had to pick up the puddle on the floor so many times.

It’s hard to comprehend that in the wake of such an overwhelming yes vote, there are casualties among the campaigners who worked tirelessly to bring it about.

“It’s a win for women,” Tara points out. “We have autonomy now, we have equality in the Constitution. I think that because some people are still grappling with the misogyny that is so deeply engrained in our culture that it was in the constitution, that in a woman’s win, they need someone to take down. I was that person. I was put at the centre of something that actually I was a bystander in.”

Throughout the campaign and in the weeks after the vote, Tara has been the target of online abuse centred on attacking her character.

It’s not the words that people say,” she explains. “It’s that people are wasting their precious energy, their precious day, their precious time with that level of pure hate. Life is so short and these people are wasting their time with having a go at me for sport. That’s all it is. I look back and I don’t know what I did wrong.

She is scared all the time, and the people who are trolling her for fun have affected her mental and physical health.

“The people who were swarming me most recently were local and that’s why I feel so frightened,” she says. “Their anger is so disproportionate to what I have actually done that I’m worried that one or two of them might actually want to hurt me.

The abuse has not necessarily been as a result of the Repeal campaign, she believes. “It’s because of the way that certain people want to drag women over the coals. I know that they’ll move onto someone else — I’m also of that perspective. I’ve stood on stage. I’ve had everything from my looks to my capabilities pulled apart — I’m able to take a heckle. I’ve been in public life for 30 years to a lesser and greater degree. This is targeted harassment and we have to draw that distinction.”

I write to Flynn’s friend, author Louise O’Neill, a woman who has endured her own trial via social media, and ask her to tell me about the Tara she knows.

Tara is made up of kindness,” she replies. “She is famous for being hilariously funny and a razor-sharp comic, but the Tara I know is sincere, gentle, and compassionate. She is also one of the bravest women I’ve ever met.

"The vitriolic abuse that she had to endure during the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was horrifying, and yet she kept fighting. I believe that Tara Flynn’s name will be remembered kindly by history, and I am so proud to call her my friend.”

Activist and writer Gloria Steinem with Louise O'Neill, Aoife Murray, Tara Flynn and Sasha Buyl-Pisco

Out of the deepest of sorrow and despair often comes creative brilliance, and Rage-In is a living commentary on the world, as experienced by Tara Flynn.

She wants people to read it to experience one thing: “Hope. I want people to know that people power works, and if you see injustice, then stand up now — quick! They are essays about privilege and examining our own. It’s about examining discomfort and wondering are we in some way complicit. It’s about not feeling powerless.”

Embracing our own power and telling our truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be; is something that Flynn is passionate about. “Don’t believe the narrative in the press and from stupid boys who enjoy debate so much that they reduce everything to the binary,” she says.

“The world is not binary — the only thing I believe is binary is that everyone deserves their rights, no one should say who can and can’t have them.”

We should be proud of the steps that we are taking as a country, says Flynn. “We are saying, you can have your horrible, racist, homophobic misogynist beliefs, but keep them to yourself. I think that Repeal is a really great example of this. Many, many practising Catholics voted yes because they didn’t want to impose their beliefs. There is a little beacon of hope in the world, and it’s Ireland.”

And what is the beacon of hope for Flynn as she redefines herself after this life-altering experience? She is starting with herself. “I’ve got a lot of work to do on myself and I’ve seen my GP and a psychologist.

“All through the campaign Andrew and Emma from Psychologists For Choice were very kind to campaigners because we really did need support and they are part of one of the many stories of the unsung heroes from the campaign.”

Flynn wants to make people laugh again.

I hope I can do it again. I have a joyous, silly book in my head and I’d love to write it. I want to go back to what I got into the comedy business in the first place which is to give people a break and a laugh. I want to come back to that skill. The goal of my work has always been to lampoon unfairness or create joy.

It’s time for Flynn to put down her warrior shield and find her way back to the joy and fun that she so loves to bring out in others. Her book is funny and thought-provoking, honest, and completely Tara, and that’s all she ever wants to be. Maybe it’s time we let her.

“I’ve hidden nothing and have never pretended to be someone I’m not. Other people may have this fantasy of me, but that’s their problem, not mine. One of my big things is to buck shame and I will not let people shame me with their false view of me. I’ll try to be fair and try to be truthful. I’ll try to be fun and I’ll try to be kind. I’ll stick to those principles until this goes away. That’s all I can do.”

- Rage-In: The Trolls And Tribulations Of Modern Life by Tara Flynn is published by Mercier Press.

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