Wednesday 14 November 2018

Tonie Walsh: Diaries of a roguish idealist

Tonie Walsh tells Tony Clayton-Lea how his new play, drawn from his personal journals, not only charts his own voyage from innocence but also shows Irish society coming of age

Emboldened: Tonie Walsh hopes his play will leave people energised for change. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Emboldened: Tonie Walsh hopes his play will leave people energised for change. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

This time last year, the play I Am Tonie Walsh appeared as a "work in progress" at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Just over 12 months later, no longer in development but complete, the play receives its premiere in Dublin's Project Arts Centre at the end of November. There is an integrated sense of excitement and nervousness seeping from the play's writer, the man who is, without quibble, question or doubt, Tonie Walsh.

Walsh is 58 in December but doesn't look his age. Slim, trim, and with earlobes imperceptibly pierced, he has a wit as sharply defined as his haircut. The play, which will be staged "in the round" and set-designed as if it's taking place in his "gaff", will see him sharing intimate, personalised stories. Despite it being his theatrical debut, he doesn't seem at all uneasy about the prospect.

"For nearly two decades I have used my DJ-ing and club work to essentially leverage my activism and other non-paying gigs. I worked at weekends in clubs, so I have spent a long time, effectively, entertaining people." There's an element of showing off and speechifying, says Tonie. "I love nothing better than to talk to large groups of people, rather than to walk into a bar and start chatting with some randomer. It's a paradox, I agree, but there you go."

It helps, presumably, that Walsh knows the personalised stories inside out. It also strengthened the shaping of the play that he was able to draw from almost 40 years of diary/journal writing. The scribbling began during his Inter Cert year (1976). The imperative, he admits, was the navel-gazing, self-absorbed vanity of the teenager. As time passed, however, the writing matured into a "more focused exercise". As more time went by, the entries became "a desire to record and document some of the wildness not only of my life but also of some of my friends, who were so busy having a fabulous time they didn't make any effort to do the same. I couldn't let the moments pass without recording them."

By the time he was in his 30s, Walsh began to notice what he terms the unreliability and the "elasticity" of memory. A natural historian and documentarian adept at joining the dots from here to there and making sense of the resulting squiggly lines, he is enthralled by "how we remember, the way we remember. With distance, age, experience, and changing emotions, the way and the context in which we remember, how we reframe the memories in conversation with other people - all of that changes."

When you're living your life, he muses, certain memories just disappear, so he was always driven to maintaining a record of events. "Some of those memories," he grants, "have been given purpose in the sculpting of the show."

It isn't an exaggeration to say that Walsh has lived a life less ordinary: living in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, he came out as gay in his teenage years, moved to Dublin in 1979, and gravitated towards the Hirschfeld Centre, at that time the base of the country's National Gay Federation. Within six months, he was appointed to the board. The dynamism he experienced during his tenure there, he says, was "like a drug", and helped define his attitudes toward civil rights, social justice and political activism - areas he has been intrinsically aligned with ever since.

His family nurtured his political activism "from a very early age by conversations over the dinner table." His great-grandfather was Scottish Labour Party politician Hector Hughes; his great-grandmother was a suffragette and founding manager of the Gate Theatre, Isa Hughes.

What advanced his socio-political activism further, however, was what he describes as the privilege in coming from a family that didn't question his sexual orientation, his dropping out of college, and becoming, in essence, an unpaid activist for some years.

"That doesn't always happen," he allows of his family's dignified reactions. Such response, he recognised, had to be used to being a voice for people, and perhaps more crucially, for those that hadn't yet found their own.

Whether it's as a writer, a journalist, a performer, or a politician, posits Walsh, "we use the tools at our disposal to give some sense to certain abstract notions. If I'm able to look back at what is effectively a lifetime of activism, then that has been the defining quality of it. That, and just getting annoyed at certain things!"

Pioneering work as an LGBT activist through the decades has surely been rewarded in recent years, but he is aware that - as in many areas of society - there remain residual levels of narrow-mindedness and intolerance. Irish society, notes Walsh, had boundaries imposed on it by successive political and religious hierarchies. A number of these controls, he declares, were "sometimes willingly allowed". A societal shift in relaxing such limits has occurred, however. As a country, Ireland is discovering and reconnecting with a collective humanity, Walsh remarks, "as well as some profound cultural mindset that is geared towards social justice, fairness, empathy - qualities that aren't unique to Irish people but which have been suppressed. Every now and then, Irish society needs big moments such as Marriage Equality and Repeal. They remind us of our collective big heart, as well as puncture perceptions that some countries might have of us."

As much emboldened activist as a roguish idealist, there is within Tonie Walsh a focused perspective formed by friends lost and true. What did he see when he first began, quite literally, to flick through his back pages?

"Innocence turned into sophistication, and a lot of sadness," he reveals gently, after a pause of at least 10 seconds. "That is something the show is keen to mine - the longer we live, the more friends we lose, although of course losing lots of friends to the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s isn't exclusive to gay people.

"I see someone who grew up and found his voice," he continues. "Someone who got the measure of himself. Beyond that, I see the society I was living in grow up, and Dublin - my birth city - evolve from what I visualised as a spotty teenager on the batter into something more."

And what about I Am Tonie Walsh itself? With a title that has a combined ring of the oratorical and the self-defining, what does he want the play to achieve?

He answers instantly. "To share, amplify and personalise some salient moments of socio-cultural history that people might be either ignorant of or have a lingering memory of. There's always some polemic behind my posturing, so I would love that people leave the show feeling energised for change."

He is forever mindful, he remarks, during 2015's Marriage Equality Referendum of the awareness that there was more to it than simply "gays getting married".

"Yes, it was about that, of course," he accedes, "but it was also a much bigger question of what type of society we all wanted to grow older in, what type of society we wanted our children to grow up in. Even people who might have had objections to gay men and women getting married - because of cultural or religious reasons - bought into it. Believed it. That was quite profound to me, and I wanted to take that sensibility and apply it, continuously, to the place we find ourselves in right now - which is an area of unfinished business."

'I Am Tonie Walsh' at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin runs from November 27-December 1. projectartscentre.ie

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