Colm O'Gorman: 'Being a dad is the most challenging thing I've ever done'
Colm O'Gorman and his husband Paul have always tried to shield their two children from the public gaze. But after his determined daughter read a letter about her amazing dads on radio in the lead-up to the same-sex marriage referendum, the schoolgirl was thrust into the limelight as a national hero. Now the ever-proud father opens up about his family life and what a privilege it is to be father to Safia and Sean. Photography by Naomi Gaffey
Colm O'Gorman, is no stranger to making media appearances. But sitting in an RTÉ radio studio one Friday afternoon last March, the Amnesty International Director was wracked with nerves. For once, O'Gorman was not the interviewee. Instead, his 15-year-old daughter Safia was about to go on The Ray D'Arcy Show to read an open letter she had written about her dads in the lead-up to the referendum on same-sex marriage.
"I've never been so nervous in my life," O'Gorman recalls, as he drinks a mug of coffee in his Amnesty office in Temple Bar. "I was bricking it. I just had to sit there and shut up, let her do her thing. I was wondering, 'Will she be able to read it? Will she get too anxious?' I was trying not to show her that I was feeling very nervous."
Safia isn't one to put herself forward or take centre stage, says O'Gorman. But the 'No' side's campaign on what constitutes an 'ideal family' outraged the Junior Cert student and prompted her to spend hours writing a four-page letter defending her family.
"My dads are like any other good parents," she wrote. "They want me to be happy; they're strict but only because they want the best for me. But most importantly, they really, really love me. So how can someone say that my family isn't ideal? And what does that even mean?"
Impressed by his daughter's work, O'Gorman sent a tweet about it before heading out for a run along the beach outside their family home in Gorey, Co Wexford. When he got back, he was surprised to find several messages from radio producers looking to speak to Safia.
O'Gorman and his husband Paul wrestled with the thought of letting her go on national radio. Since they moved to Wexford from London in 2003, the couple have worked hard to protect the privacy of Safia, now 16, and her 18-year-old brother Sean.
"Of late, we've been overly protective maybe," reflects O'Gorman. "But when they were younger we were quite rightly protective of their privacy. We didn't want them to be objects of curiosity, and at times they were. But also we just wanted to get on with it. We didn't want to be making a big deal out of anything."
Safia was certain she wanted to go on the show, however, and her fathers eventually agreed. "She's of an age where she absolutely knows what she wants to say and who am I to tell her that she can't?" says O'Gorman. "And she was fantastic."
O'Gorman speaks seriously, passionately and eloquently on many issues, but when he talks about his children, his entire face lights up. It's Friday afternoon and he's looking forward to driving home and having a quiet weekend chilling out with the family - the first weekend in months when he has absolutely nothing to do, he says.
His office is filled with Amnesty International images and a large Yes Equality poster. But on his laptop he proudly scrolls through dozens of family photos, including the latest addition to the family - a puppy called Oscar - and a beautiful one of him and Safia hugging tightly as they walk along the beach.
"As you can tell from the piece, she's very definite in her views," he says. "She knows what she thinks and she thinks things through and she has a strong sense of right and justice, just naturally. It's who she is. Sean is the same.
"What I loved about it afterwards was that she was just so pleased with how it had gone, because people had engaged and understood what she was saying and were responding to that."
It isn't hard to see where Sean and Safia get their strong sense of justice from. Born in Adamstown, Co Wexford in 1966, O'Gorman (49), became a leading advocate for sexual abuse victims in Ireland after he successfully sued the state for failing to protect him from one of Ireland's most notorious paedophile priests, Sean Fortune.
Nearly 20 years after he was repeatedly raped by Fortune as a teenager in the early 1980s, O'Gorman's decision to come forward and report the abuse led to a ground-breaking criminal case against Fortune, who killed himself early into the trial.
O'Gorman's pursuit for justice also led to the resignation of Bishop Comiskey and the Ferns inquiry into clerical sexual abuse. He went on to sue the Pope, who claimed diplomatic immunity.
O'Gorman was living in London at the time, where he founded the One In Four organisation to support victims of sexual abuse. It's also where he first met Paul, originally from Northern Ireland. The couple are together 16 years now.
O'Gorman always wanted to be a father, but says he let go of that dream in his mid-20s when it became clear to him that as a gay man, it was not an option. "That wasn't open to me," he says matter-of-factly. "I was shut out of that."
However, his life took a turn when his close friend, Susie, asked him to take on the role of father to her son Sean and later Safia.
"I had thought being a parent wasn't a possibility for me but the moment Susie asked me would I parent him, I knew that I would," he says. "It was an instant obvious thing. There was no way I wasn't going to do it."
When Susie was diagnosed with a terminal illness she appointed O'Gorman and Paul legal guardians of the children. Around that time, it was becoming clear that an organisation like One In Four was needed in Ireland and O'Gorman and Paul moved over from London. When Susie's health declined, Sean, then aged six, came to live with O'Gorman and Paul in their new home in Gorey, followed soon afterwards by Safia, then five.
"It was a precious, private time, a wonderful time surrounded by family and friends," recalls O'Gorman. "It was a happy arrival, but it was also tinged with sadness that they were leaving their mum. They were still in touch with her obviously. She died two years later.
"I feel very, very lucky and hugely privileged to be a dad. But for all the joy it's brought me, it did come about as a result of a tragedy for them." He pauses. "That's just a reality and that's tough."
Becoming a full-time father wasn't a big transition, he emphasises. "I've always been their dad. It's been wonderful, challenging, joyful, frustrating. Any parent will recognise what an extraordinary privilege it is to be a parent in all its complexities. I've learned so much from them. It's the most challenging thing I've ever done."
Bringing up the children in rural Ireland was somewhat daunting. They originally planned to settle in Dublin but house prices were too high and eventually they bought a home in Gorey.
"In many ways it's ironic we ended up in north Wexford. Sean Fortune was from Gorey; it's his home town," says O'Gorman. "It was a funny one that we ended up there. But we found a house we loved and even though the commute looked awful we knew it would get better. Then we just had to work out how to make that work from the kids' perspective.
"We didn't know how people were going to react - two men and their two mixed-race kids. And also because of what I was doing publicly at the time. School was one of the things we really worried about. Considering that I was in a reasonably challenging position with the Catholic Church at the time with the Diocese of Ferns, was I really going to send them to a Diocese of Ferns school?"
Instead, the couple threw themselves into establishing an Educate Together school in the town, which their children went on to attend. It's now the second biggest primary school in Gorey.
Media attention was inevitable. Within a few months of their arrival in Gorey, a newspaper headline claimed O'Gorman was in a 'gay adoption bid'.
"It was suggesting that we were travelling the world trying to adopt a child," says O'Gorman, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. "Sean, who I've known since birth - I was at his birth for Heaven's sake...
"That was the first time something like that happened and it felt very invasive. And that was very unsettling. But we just learned a lot from that and learned how to deal with it."
A few years later, a tabloid ran a front page story on 'Colm's little angels'. "That was a positive piece but it reached into family life," O'Gorman says. "For two weeks after that piece I didn't go to school with the kids. Paul dropped them to school because there was a photographer trying to get photos.
"People don't necessarily understand what that might feel like. When media focus comes into your life uninvited, it can be very intrusive. Particularly if it turns you into some object of curiosity or is actually cloaked in judgment."
O'Gorman has given plenty of media interviews over the years as part of his work for Amnesty International and One In Four, but when the children were younger he was fiercely protective of their privacy. For years, he made a conscious effort to avoid appearing in public with the kids when they might be photographed. Paul is equally privacy conscious - indeed, Colm declined to tell us even his husband's profession for this article.
In 2009, Sean wanted to accompany his dads to the launch of O'Gorman's book, Beyond Belief, but the couple decided against exposing him to the public gaze.
"Afterwards he said to me, 'I really wanted to go to that'," recalls O'Gorman. "He was still young then so I think it was the right call, but it was the first time we thought, 'OK, we need to listen to them now. They're not always happy to be hidden'."
The couple dealt with the public interest by always being extremely open with the children, he says.
"We've always made sure they knew exactly what was being written and what was being said. The one thing we would never want them doing is going out into the world where other people might know something about their lives or parents that they didn't know. So they were very robust.
"I think lots of the conversations we fear having with children are because we don't know how to do it, not because they won't know how to receive it. Maybe I'm able to say that because we've had to have lots of conversations with the kids.
"They lost their mum, we became their parents, there's all of those different pieces and from the very beginning, I've always felt that the most important thing from every child's perspective is that they know their own story and nothing is hidden from them.
"They have not had a negative comment made to them. Neither have I, in my own community. But we got lots of stuff in the post over the years. I remember one letter that said, 'Pity the child raised by two queers'. There was plenty of nasty stuff but we just protected them from that kind of crap obviously and just didn't buy into it.
"Most people recognised pretty quickly that we were just another family, doing exactly the same things that every other family was trying to do, with all the same kinds of struggles and issues."
Safia's radio appearance came at the beginning of a lengthy referendum campaign for same-sex marriage that many predicted would turn vitriolic. O'Gorman played a pivotal role in the Yes Equality campaign, including a memorable appearance on a Late Late Show debate in which he opened up about his family situation. It was a moving speech which was a huge success for the 'Yes' side.
As the campaigning gathered momentum, both Sean and Safia had become increasingly annoyed with some of the 'No' campaign's statements, in particular the posters that said 'Children deserve a mother and a father'.
"They were pissed off," says O'Gorman. "They were thinking, 'Hang on, enough already'. Those posters bothered them. They were affected by those posters."
Overall, O'Gorman doesn't believe it was a particularly vitriolic campaign.
"I think there were moments of unpleasantness and as is often the case, I think they got focused on it," he says. The incident in which the child of a 'No' campaigner had eggs thrown at her was "just hideous", he says.
"But equally on the other side of it, I was canvassing down in Waterford with a married man in his 60s. In that hour alone he had 'faggot' said to his face at least two or three times.
"There were lots of moments where people behaved badly. But in the main, I think it was one of the least vitriolic, divisive referendums that we've seen in a very long time. And actually the real story of the campaign was just how positive and joyful and uplifting and generous it was."
O'Gorman met people on the campaign trail he says he'll never forget, such as Winifred, an old lady in her 80s from Waterford. "I asked her if she had any questions or concerns and she said, 'No, I know what my religion is telling me'. And I thought, 'OK, that's the conversation we're going to have'. Then she said to me, 'Who am I to tell anybody they have to stay on the other side of any line?' I just thought she was amazing."
O'Gorman found the campaign emotionally exhausting at times, but exhilarating. "Every cell of my being was full of emotion for the whole three months and afterwards," he says.
On May 22, the whole family waited in the RDS for the result. When it arrived, it took some time to sink in. As O'Gorman stood on the podium at Dublin Castle a few hours later and looked down at thousands of cheering people and a sea of rainbow flags, he was lost for words.
"There are very few moments in my life I can't find words for," he says slowly. "But I think that day was one of them. The level of euphoria around the country that day, the sense of delight and joy and wonder. It was magical."
One memory that stands out is all the hugging, he says. "I've never hugged and been hugged by so many people in my life. And I'm a bit of a hugger."
He laughs. "Not in a creepy way. But there's nothing like a good big hug. I remember we were heading over to the Italian Quarter to grab a bite to eat and it took us an hour-and-a-half to get there because of the hugs."
It was some weeks later, when O'Gorman was driving to work one sunny morning through the scenic Glen of the Downs, when the enormity of what had happened really hit him.
"I remember just thinking, the world feels different," he says, gazing into the distance. "None of that matters any more. We can, in time, just get on with it and forget about it. I don't mean forget about who we are, or issues around identity or differences because they are very important things. But they are no longer defining. And they're no longer exclusionary.
"I think what happened for lots of us, for lots of LGBTI people, we suddenly felt that we'd been given permission to exist. It was like, it's OK to be us. It's OK to have the same dreams, hopes and aspirations as everybody else. That's wonderful. On one level of course, it shouldn't be. But it is. When you think about the journey we made as a society and how short a time period we made that journey in, it's really remarkable.
"I really think that day we manifested the best of who we are. And we didn't become something new. This is the truth of who we are as a country and who we have always been."
O'Gorman got married to Paul in New York in 2011 - a union that currently holds the status of a civil partnership in Ireland. They are unsure if they will need to renew their vows. "We eloped so it was just the two of us, which was wonderful, but that's probably one of the things we need to put right for the kids and others," he says.
"It was amazing, an extraordinary moment, I'll never forget it. We stood before this booming-voiced Texan in New York who was pronouncing us married and what blew me away was the intense meaning of it. We knew we wanted to get married to each other, for each other and for no other reason. There was no grand political statement in it. This was very much about who we were to each other. But in the moment that we said those words, the sheer wonderful, joyful enormity of it all was just quite the moment."
For O'Gorman, the referendum result is mostly an acknowledgement that his family "is of as much significance and has as much integrity as that of any other family".
"We contribute as much to each other's lives and to the lives of others in our community, in our society as anybody else does. Just being able to acknowledge that, enjoy that, celebrate that, recognise that, is of huge significance."
He believes that Ireland as a nation has to "keep the conversations going" and apply the same values of generosity, decency and humanity to other issues - including the ongoing refugee crisis.
Irish people are once again responding with "humanity and decency and dignity and generosity", he says. "It just hasn't always been reflected at the level of political leadership. Ireland needs to decide what kind of role it wants to play. I think what Irish people want is for Ireland to lead these kinds of conversations in Europe. As a country that particularly understands migration and forced migration, Ireland should be playing a leadership role."
The nation that said 'Yes' on May 22 was a "profoundly idealistic Ireland," he says.
"It manifested idealism and it made it real. I get really frustrated with people dismissing the idea of idealism as naivety. It's not. Only those who don't have the courage or the conviction to follow through on the delivery of the ideal will dismiss it as naïve.
"We're told that we shouldn't be getting ahead of ourselves by trying to do something that's too big. Actually, we should be trying to do it. And I think we'll always achieve something that's right if we focus enough effort on it.
"After all, everything I've learned in my life has shown me that's true."