As a gay person, Brian O’Flynn left Ireland aged 18 in search of a new life and a more accepting society, but after the yes vote in May 2015, he says home has finally become home
National identity is defined simply as “one’s sense of belonging to one state or nation”, but it means very different things to different people. In its most potent incarnations, it packs all the gravity of an atomic bomb. National identity is embedded so deeply in some psyches that it can fuel rebellion, war, and even genocide.
In its more dilute forms, national identity is a phantom — intersecting our daily lives but never leaving much of an impression. In privileged countries, we never have to defend ourselves against racial attack, and what we don’t have to fight for, we have the luxury of ignoring.
As an Irish gay person, I never had a strong national identity. How could any of us, in a country where we were written out of existence by our own Constitution? I never had to fight for my national identity so much as fight against it.
Growing up here, the schoolyard bullies, the passers-by hurling slurs in the street, and the “respectable” conservatives sniffing their disapproval in national newspaper columns all blurred together into one damning, definitive vision of “Irishness” — an Irishness I wanted no part of.
My sense of alienation cemented over adolescence, culminating with my emigration to Edinburgh to study at the age of 18. I fell readily and eagerly in love with Scotland. It was a clean slate, free of toxic associations, and it only served to intensify the internalised loathing of my home.
Every time I confidently walked down the street without fear of abuse, it was another counterpoint to the countless times I had winced at the word “faggot” screamed at me by a passing teenager back in Cork.
It is hard to convey through words the utterly dehumanising effect of continuous verbal assaults like this. Panti Bliss said it best in her Noble Call: oppression means constantly “checking yourself”.
I was never at peace in Ireland. As a feminine gay teenager, I was always a target. I felt intensely uncomfortable even being in public places throughout my teens. I couldn’t be on a school corridor or a high street without my skin prickling, my eyes darting, and my hands sweating.
I remember distinctly one occasion on St Patrick St when I was 15, when a man slowed down to quietly spit “faggot” at me as he passed. We were both alone. What was so chilling was that it was not a raucous display of bravado, or an attempt to show off. It was a private, intimate expression of unadulterated hatred, from a grown man to a child, and it made my blood run cold.
Can you imagine being that age, and feeling like there was a contingent of adult society who wished to inflict bodily retribution on you for no apparent reason? Can you imagine the paranoia and dysphoria? Imagine then, if the portion of so-called civilised adults who were supposed to be your protectors from such vitriol spent more time denouncing your “lifestyle” and debating your equality on Prime Time than they did tackling this sort of violent homophobia?
It sounds like a dystopia, but that was where I and countless other LGBT teenagers in this country lived. That’s the environment in which I was supposed to mature to a healthy adult.
That’s the level of trauma that Ireland inflicted on me as a young LGBT person. I felt unsafe, simply by existing. Surely, readers can understand why that was hard to let go of? We all need someone to blame.
Of course, Ireland is not unique in its patriarchal, homophobic culture. Now I realise that had it been the other way around — had I grown up in Scotland and moved to Ireland for university — I would have felt exactly the same way in reverse.
The schoolyard bullying and homophobic passers-by would have been relics of my Scottish heritage, and Ireland would have been the fresh, clean landscape of redemption. But I didn’t — and it wasn’t.
When I returned intermittently to Ireland for holidays, I was disdainful of my old home and defensive of my new one. Ireland was drifting into a haze of antipathy, becoming more and more foreign to me.
Suddenly, as the marriage equality referendum began to dawn as a real prospect on the horizon of 2015, everything shifted. Debates raged and distinct battlelines began to solidify amid the chaos.
As a young person, I felt like a lone, vulnerable child cowering in secret against a wall of misunderstanding and hate, but the platform that the referendum debates provided to our LGBT figureheads made me realise I had been ignoring my fellows in arms. I was not alone, simply one of many Irish people who had a complicated relationship with Ireland’s maternal shores. For the first time, I felt invested in the action — like something might be done to right past wrongs.
As war was waged on TV and radio, martyrs and heroes were born and rallied around. Work began on the ground, with Yes Equality canvassers marching the length and breadth of the country every evening to win over hearts and minds.
As these events unfolded, my heart ached from afar to join the fight and stand toe-to-toe against our oppressors. Finally, it was no longer me vs Ireland, but Yes vs No. The referendum finally revealed to me the true nature of Irish homophobia, and what I saw was profoundly healing — it was not endemic and deep-rooted, as I had once feared, but distinctly localised, misguided, and in-bred.
The Yes Equality campaign itself did much of the work mending my broken heart. However, May 22 and 23, 2015, brought reparations on a whole other level. I don’t think I can adequately convey the transcendental redemption that those two days wrought upon us as gay people.
To walk to my local polling station, which happened to be the very school building where gay slurs were first levelled at me, with my whole family in tow, and to vote in unison with them for my rights, was a pseudo-religious experience.
To stand the following morning in the count centre with my long-term partner, ticking off one-by-one the votes, and slowly realising we had won — that we were loved and valued by the nation that sired us — was nothing short of rapturous.
I will never forget the moment that we came to the end of that first box of folded papers. It was from a rural constituency that was predicted to vote conservatively, and even there, yes outnumbered no two to one.
As I made the final tick and stared at my clipboard, the whole mass of my body seemed to float away. In that moment I knew we had won. I knew that all my fears about the people of my country and my place with them were wonderfully, gloriously unfounded. Nesting demons in the shadowy, forgotten corners of my mind unfurled their wings and finally heaved themselves out of me of their own accord.
Unacknowledged weights clicked out of place in the pit of my stomach and rolled away effortlessly. In that moment, a cleansing light radiated through every dark corridor of my being, and my blood ran not red, but pure gold.
The summer that followed was a time of triumph. It was also when I decided to leave my university degree, which I wasn’t enjoying, and return to Ireland — glad to be home, in a way I’d never been before.
Now a returned emigrant, I have reconciled with the warm bosom of my motherland, and feel a wholeness that I never knew I was missing. It feels like a black and white filter I didn’t know I was wearing has been lifted.
Suddenly everything is allowed to be colourful. I find myself behaving like a tourist, Instagramming scenes from around my home city that before I would have considered banal. I am reacquainting myself with an estranged parent, whose neglect has been transfigured to love.
National identity was always a sore spot for me — fraught with paradox and rejection. The referendum finally redefined Ireland to encompass who I was and to enfold me in the motherly embrace of nationhood that we, as Irish people, should all be able to enjoy.
May 22 will live forever in my mind as the date when I finally stopped feeling fragmented, and home finally became home.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved