The comedian on dialling down public activism after Repeal, her podcast with Marian Keyes and the healing power of writing her new stage show
In 2018, there was a GoFundMe appeal called “Tara Flynn deserves a holiday”. It seemed a facetious title, but in many ways it wasn’t. The campaign was started by well-wishers after the actress/writer/comedian/podcaster became one of the figureheads of the Repeal referendum.
After telling her story about travelling abroad for an abortion, Flynn was soon in the thick of often divisive and fraught debates. After she spoke about her experience, everyone wanted a piece of her, and the online abuse that she received was vicious. Deserving a holiday was the very least of it.
“I had a pertinent story to tell, and in a way, I couldn’t avoid telling it — even if I didn’t want to,” Flynn says. “I feel really strongly that women should have the right to choose, and I often went no further than [saying] that, which felt slightly cowardly for a long time when I knew I had a story to tell myself. And then it became that not telling it became its own lie, in a way.”
Four years after the country voted overwhelmingly on favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, Flynn recalls how all-consuming the campaign was for its activists.
We speak against a backdrop of highly charged conversations about the National Maternity Hospital and threats to abortion rights in the US, so it’s tempting to ask her for her take. But she is moving herself away from the gravitational centre of debates about reproductive rights and bodily autonomy.
“I was asked to go on a current affairs show on TV just last weekend and I said, ‘I’m just not doing these things any more. I’m not a talking head,” she says. “I want to make people feel good. I want to do theatre or make something funny.
“For a long time, the stuff I was doing wasn’t my own work, wasn’t comedy, or wasn’t acting,” she adds. “Even though you’re telling a deeply personal story, you get slid into the politics sphere, and people then tend to forget that you do other things. It ended up that I wasn’t doing other things because [activism] became a full-time job, even if it was voluntary. All the while, I just wanted to be creative, or wanted to be funny. And then that work was gone, mainly because it was like, ‘Oh, she’s too political now’.”
That’s not to say that Flynn doesn’t still care deeply about these issues. She regularly attends pro-choice rallies and protests, although she prefers being just a number among the crowd.
“There’s a great value in showing up [into the wider conversation] if you have something vital to share,” she says. “These days, I’m not on social media, only Instagram, and I have no real interest in sharing every opinion that I have. There’s a lot to be said for that, if you aren’t a piece of the jigsaw that needs to be added.”
The “dogpiling” on Twitter during Repeal, Flynn recalls, was constant, and “from all sides”.
“People kept asking me, ‘Did the support not reach you?’, and it really didn’t, because there was such a cacophony. There was so much noise,” she says.
After dialling down her public activism, she says that it’s “so amazing” to be channelling her energies back into writing and performing.
“I was on the floor. I was mentally burned out. Completely broken after the [Repeal] campaign,” she says. “But usually, that’s fertile soil for creativity. That journey back to finding yourself is interesting, especially when it comes to exploring it creatively.”
Her new stage show, Haunted, developed in with Dublin theatre firebrands ThisIsPopBaby and hopefully heading to the Dublin stage in November, is a show about “grief and losing my marbles”. Flynn’s father died in 2015, shortly before she went public with her story about travelling for a termination.
“It’s been really healing, but I also hope it will be funny,” she says. “I want to give people a bit of a laugh, but also go, ‘I’ve been there too’. I’ve needed to go towards the pain a lot while writing it, and I’m at the stage where I’m finding the ways to let the cracks open and write more jokes into it.”
We talk a little about the idea of telling one’s truth as a woman, and how that often involves excavating the deeply personal and offering it up for wider consumption, with no idea what the outcome will be.
“I think we’re sick of stigma, so part of this is reclaiming our own stories,” she says. “But there’s also a slight, ‘Who does she think she is? Does she think she’s the only one?’”
For now, she is sinking her attentions into her creative endeavours, of which there are many. She is co-hosting a BBC Sounds podcast, Now You’re Asking, with fellow author Marian Keyes. With the fluidity and joyous energy of old pals, the pair use a light touch to tackle modern conundrums, from dysfunctional flatmates to narky mothers-in-law.
There’s more than a touch of the wise sage to the pair of them. “Part of that is just age,” she says. “You go around the around the sun enough times, and you realise that the thing that has happened to you has happened to everyone else.”
Flynn knows that she is lucky to have the support of the BBC, and we get to talk about how increasingly populous and vibrant Ireland’s podcasting scene is right now.
“Some of the podcasts are great and some are very, very niche,” she says. “They all have to find their own way, which is why having someone like the BBC behind us is such a massive boon. We have an unfair advantage, and sometimes I do feel for the more independent podcasts. Sometimes they find their audience, but sometimes they don’t.”
There are other gigs, public events and interests coming down the chute for Flynn in the coming months. All the while, she writes creatively every day.
“You’re always going to be hustling as a freelancer,” she says. “People say, ‘you do so many different things’ and I’m going, ‘Well, I say yes to jobs’. Would I love three book offers on deck and seven other podcasts on the go that other people are producing? Of course. It’s very frustrating to be 53 and still hustling for gigs.”
Flynn would love to do more acting. Already, her acting CV is broad, including credits such as Finding Joy, Dating Amber and Moone Boy. Oh, and a stint as a barrister on the TV juggernaut Line of Duty.
“It feels like it’s very hard for this age group, unless you are super established,” Flynn says of finding a steady stream of roles. “Your next audition could be for something amazing, or there might not be auditions for another six months.
“I get asked sometimes to speak on panels about things like success in business, and I’m as honest and frank as I can be about that. I still consider myself a success because I’m still doing what I love to do. Resilience, I guess, is success.”
Tara Flynn appears at the Dalkey Book Festival (June 16-19) on Saturday, June 18 at the Tramyard at midday for an episode of ‘Now You’re Asking’ with Marian Keyes; and in conversation with Annie Mac on Thursday, June 16 at 8pm in St Patrick’s Church. For more information, see DalkeyBookFestival.org.