Ahead of Cork Pride, Colm O’Gorman reflects on family and a changed Ireland

As he takes his place as Grand Marshall at Cork Pride, Colm O’Gorman, the calm, considered voice in the months leading up to this year’s vote on marriage equality, talks to John Meagher.

Ahead of Cork Pride, Colm O’Gorman reflects on family and a changed Ireland

COLM O’Gorman bounds into the cafe just up the road from Leinster House, where he had spent the previous few hours, and, on spotting him, a gentleman at a table near the door seeks a handshake and a snatched conversation.

A lot of people feel a debt of gratitude to this softly-spoken Wexford native.

His was a calm, considered voice in the chaos in the months leading up to the vote for marriage equality, and almost certainly a factor in influencing the undecided to tick Yes at the ballot box.

He has little interest in claiming any credit though, and there’s nothing contrived about his modesty.

“While obviously I felt passionately about the issue, the question we were being asked to answer, I felt much more passionate about the bigger questions,” he says.

“Who are we? What do we believe? What do we stand for? How do we want to treat each other? What are the kind of principles on which we should be building our republic and our society?

"What matters? What does family mean? What’s inherent to our concept of family?

My God, we answered those questions — emphatically and powerfully and, I think, really beautifully.

It spoke of who we are — our capacity to be generous, decent, compassionate, human, loving in ways that run deep through our psyche, tradition, and culture.”

If O’Gorman’s words run the risk of seeming a little po-faced in print, there’s no fear of that in person. The passion and excitement he feels is writ large in his eyes, especially when he talks about that May weekend when 62% of the population helped Ireland change.

“What that national conversation — a phrase we use a bit too often, but it was the most incredible national engagement — managed to realise was the best of who we are as a people.

"And all that weekend, that’s what I was thinking: ‘My God, look at us -—look at our capacity to be true to the best of who we are.’”

He says there was no single highlight, more a series of great moments, especially on the campaign trail.

“I’d go deep into the country and meet older people who absolutely believed in equality, who wanted change for Ireland so much,” he says.

“If the marriage referendum taught us one thing, it’s that anyone with lazy assumptions about what any Irish person thinks based on a demographic like age, or rural/urban divide, or gender, or class is on a hiding to nothing.

"Those generalisations and assumptions are lazy and ill-informed — and old-hat.”

On August 2, O’Gorman will act as grand marshall at the Cork Pride parade, and says he relishes the opportunity.

“I actually haven’t been to as many Pride events as I would like,” he says, alluding to the busy itinerary his role as head of Amnesty International Ireland entails. He rejects the notion that true equality will only be evident when there is no need for such parades.

“They’re about celebrating diversity,” he says.

“You had 60,000 people for Pride Dublin a couple of weeks back and not all of those were gay. There was a sense of celebrating a more tolerant and open Ireland.”

This will be the 10th year of Cork Pride, which runs from July 27 to August 3 and is set to be comfortably the biggest to date.

It offers a reminder that while so much media attention focused on Dublin — especially on that momentous May weekend when a veritable party took place in the courtyard of Dublin Castle — the vote was a truly a nationwide one.

Now that the dust has settled, O’Gorman is well placed to ponder a bruising campaign, not least all those radio and TV interviews when brickbats were thrown about his own personal situation.

He and his husband Paul are adoptive parents to two children, Safia and Sean, becoming their legal guardians after their mother Susie, a close friend, died from a long illness in 2007. How did he keep his cool despite the provocation?

There’s no hesitation: “Because they were wrong — and I don’t mean that from an arrogant perspective. I knew what my position was and what it was based on and I had an ability to articulate it.

When people say outrageous things, why would I get upset unless I believe what they’re saying too? I never took any of it personally.

I understand and know and believe in the integrity of my family life, my capacity to love the people that I love, the normal, ordinary, everyday, deep integrity of that relationship.”

HIS most treasured relationships have been picked through in the past.

“In 2007 the Irish Mail on Sunday felt fit to publish a one-page opinion piece by the former editor of the Irish Catholic, a guy called Hermann Kelly, in which he suggested that it was not a good thing that I, as someone who was homosexual and had been raped as a child, was raising a kid.

"At the time, I was at one level disgusted by it. I thought it was incredibly offensive, but I have confidence in the integrity of how I approach my relationship to my husband and my children.

“We had to navigate our way through a social and legal framework that disapproved or didn’t provide for the integrity of that relationship.

"So when someone starts spouting crap, maybe offensive crap, it’s still crap and the concern for me is no longer ‘What do I think of it?’ It’s ‘what do my kids think of it, or what do other people raising kids in our situation think of it?’”

Memory of the No-side posters still irritates. “They really did stigmatise and judge a lot of families in this country,” he says.

“They infuriated me, not because I was personally offended, but because of all those families who were judged and dismissed and diminished by the depth of prejudice that underpinned those posters. It dismissed huge swathes of families and the truths of human relationships.”

His daughter Safia certainly didn’t think much of the way her family’s situation was being questioned and she went on Ray D’Arcy’s Radio 1 show to read a letter in support of her two dads.

“I was just so incredibly proud of her,” O’Gorman says, beaming.

“There was so much conviction there. Yeah, it meant an awful lot.”

Even without his significant contribution to the marriage equality campaign, O’Gorman has done the country much service.

He was one of the first people willing to go public about the abuse he suffered at the hands of the clergy — in his case the notorious priest, Seán Fortune — and in the process lifted the lid on one of the country’s most shameful secrets.

“Seán Fortune raped and abused me but what robbed me of that time was the fact that I was living within a society within which I could never name what was happening in a way that would have prevented it or in a way that would have helped me recover from it.”

O’Gorman’s memoir Beyond Belief describes, in unflinching detail, the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of Fortune, including one occasion when the priest felt emboldened to abuse him in the O’Gorman family home. The inhumane episodes threatened to tear him apart as he left his teen years behind.

“I couldn’t even engage with how awful I thought I was,” he says today.

“I had a view of myself that was so dark and so black that I couldn’t even engage with myself until I was in my late 20s.

"I left Wexford because I had to. I left with a suitcase and hitched to Dublin. If I hadn’t done that I would have ended up in the river.

“Things got better pretty quickly but it took 10 years where it got to the point where I stopped running — that was 1994. Then there was an awareness of stuff that I needed to deal with.

"Then it took another five years after that before I truly got a sense of my own dignity and own humanity.”

He says Ireland has changed beyond recognition in the 30-odd years since a young man, Declan Flynn, was murdered in a Dublin park because he was gay.

“That happened the year I did my Leaving Cert, but it didn’t register in Wexford or many other places, I’d imagine. But that awful killing was one of the things that galvanised the gay movement in this country and the fruits of it are being felt today.”

Returning from London in 2003, he and Paul found themselves priced out of Celtic Tiger Dublin and ended up in Gorey, Co Wexford, where they continue to live today.

“We had reservations about school and how the kids would be treated, but our fears were groundless. It was a sign that this country is very different to the one I grew up in.”

Colm O’Gorman turns 50 next year and life, he says, is as good as it’s ever been.

“I feel very lucky to be the age I am in the time I’m living in now. I look at my father’s generation and sense how difficult it was for them to be demonstrative about their feelings. I’ve got Paul and two wonderful children. I can tell the world I love them.”

Cork Pride runs from Monday July 27 to Monday August 2, with the parade on Sunday August 2.


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