Monday 23 July 2018

'I'm not a lobbyist, just an eejit comedian who had a crisis pregnancy'

Tara Flynn became a face of the Repeal the Eighth campaign, but being front and centre has come at a cost

Funny spin on a grim experience: Flynn's play revisits her own abortion abroad. Photo: Ruth Connolly
Funny spin on a grim experience: Flynn's play revisits her own abortion abroad. Photo: Ruth Connolly

Maggie Armstrong

'It's not funny," says Tara Flynn, comedian. "It's not a funny word. You can't joke about it. But the silence, the shaming - that is ripe for ridicule."

It's a crisp January morning and the writer, performer and - of late - abortion-rights campaign face is drinking tea. The café is quiet but for the murmur of, what else, abortion news on the radio (today the health minister is saying 3,265 women travelled to the UK for abortions in 2016.) Tara Flynn has chosen a corner table in this café in Smithfield. "I'm enjoying hiding right now," says the formidable Corkwoman. During an emotional interview, I get to understand why.

Flynn is here to talk about her new play Not a Funny Word, which comes to The Complex (here in this Dublin 7 neighbourhood) as a co-production with star-makers THISISPOPBABY (of Panti fame) and the Abbey.

Flynn's first play (not counting a screwball, standout piece in the Abbey's 24-Hour Plays a couple of years ago), Not a Funny Word is based on her own abortion, told with songs ('The State of Shame', 'Burn Her, She's a Witch' and 'Ride for Ireland'). An honest, hopelessly funny account of a painful journey, it may be her best work yet.

As her monologue describes, Flynn became pregnant in 2006. It was a shock because she had taken a morning-after pill. She had not wanted to become a mother and felt despair and panic. She was single. She travelled to Utrecht and had an abortion at nine weeks' gestation.

She quotes a line from her show: "You can't know until you know.

"When you're faced with it, you just know. Your whole body knows. It's not an intellectual decision. For me, anyway, it was a visceral knowing. This was not something I could continue and come out of it… myself."

She went by plane and train alone and was the only woman alone in the Dutch abortion clinic. She paid for the abortion in credit. In her play, Flynn re-imagines herself as a secret agent on a spy mission, which puts a funny spin on a grim experience. But how did she really feel that day she travelled?

"You feel like a criminal, you feel like you're hiding, you wonder if people know your secret. I was really scared.

"I felt abandoned by my country… I didn't tell my mum. When you need your nearest and dearest most, you can't be afraid of losing them."

But she is "one of the lucky ones". More vulnerable women, getting backstreet abortions, or "people who don't have a Visa because they're in direct provision."

In the past, Flynn has used satire to highlight things that are wrong and unjust or simply weird. From the Nualas comedy band she founded in the 1990s to her two books, You're Grand and Giving out Yards, her humour has been almost affectionate towards Ireland. But her critiques have become sharper and more politicised in recent years.

Flynn made her most viral YouTube sketch, 'Racist B&B', after her husband - the Fair City scriptwriter Carl Austin, who is African American - was racially abused in her hometown of Kinsale in 2013. But that satirical sketch was not about abortion. Nor did she do more than brush over the topic in her books.

It was after the Marriage Equality referendum that Flynn decided to tell her story, in September 2015, at the Amnesty International My Body My Rights event at Electric Picnic.

Many leading media and arts figures have since got behind the campaign to repeal the Irish abortion laws. The Eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution has, since 1983, given equal right to life to the "unborn child" or foetus, and the mother.

"I don't believe in personhood until late in a pregnancy," says Flynn, who says she "knew nothing" about abortion before 2006, when she had to find out everything.

She is advocating for safe, legal abortion in Ireland, after 12 weeks of pregnancy, if necessary.

"What I'm talking about is early stages, as much as possible, abortion pills, as much as possible, with your GP; safe."

Now that a referendum has been promised by the Government for May, Flynn admits to feeling more "accepted".

"If before I felt shunned or shut out, or not quite welcome, I feel like Ireland might be closer to being my home again. Like the shadow of some very old misogyny might finally be lifting. I know that there's usually political motivation in what politicians do, but I don't mind that one bit.

"My feeling is, whoever you are, if you're standing up for our rights, then welcome. We've been hoping you'd show up.

"I'm not part of a lobby group," she stresses. "I am just a fecking eejit actor comedian who had a crisis pregnancy."

In the past two years she has been receiving abuse from online trolls. She has been threatened and called a murderer, sent graphic imagery and regularly reminded of the "son or daughter" she didn't have. She has lost work and "social currency", she believes: "I don't get invited to stuff."

Of course, she says, "sometimes people come up and start crying and give me a hug, and I know their whole story just from that hug.

"Many people would say I can't see why you did it, but it must have been a very difficult decision for you to make - I'm really grateful for that".

But the trolls are what have her in hiding today. "Sometimes people will say incredibly hurtful or inaccurate things."

Before Christmas, Fine Gael's Barry Walsh resigned from the Executive Council of his party having tweeted something so absurdly off-the-rails about Flynn that it isn't worth printing. In December, Flynn (an 'influencer' of some reach, if you're counting 21,000-odd followers), decided to deactivate from Twitter. She is placidly heated in her attitude today. "It's a very cushy place to be, to say 'I'd never do that'. You don't know. Your daughter might have to. I hope she doesn't have to. If she has to, I hope it's safe."

She feels that "hard-line" attitudes have been fuelled by the "binary" thinking around abortion in Ireland as we head towards a referendum.

"The truth is, there is only nuance in this discussion. Most people are in the middle. I'm in the middle. I don't want anyone to have to have an abortion. I wish every pregnancy was wanted and that every pregnancy that was wanted went well, went healthily, and came to term. So I'm in the middle, but people will paint me as a hardliner. And that's upsetting, to be honest."

Her green eyes fill with tears.

"I don't think I can knock on doors, when the campaign starts. I have been very depleted by the last couple of years, in many ways. There has been a cost. It took an awful lot out of me. If they need someone to punch, I am pretty strong. I'm not invulnerable. I can take it to an extent, I just can't take it constantly."

She laughs, but it's a bitter, tearful laugh. "I've taken some nasty and pretty public knocks."

Flynn has had to "get creative" in how she reaches people, which brings us back to theatre and its troll-free possibilities. Making Not a Funny Word has been a "healing" and "cathartic" way for her to tell her story to the nation.

"A lot of this show is to take my humanity back. I'm me! And I'm a performer, that's how I process things.

"Laughter is the best medicine," she says. "That's my superpower."

There is "no proselytising" in the show. "But it's also got a lot of strength to it. Because the core of it is fire."

Approaching 50, Flynn would appear fabulously busy, prolific across many forms. A book of her devious Headstuff columns is coming out with Mercier Press, and she has finished the first draft of a novel. "The basic premise is what happens if your best friend is anti-choice?"

She has begun not one but three more books, about solo travel. She has been made the voice of Blind Date Ireland.

"I love to pepper everything with something gloriously silly," she muses. "[My abortion] is not the only story I have to tell. It's something very significant that happened to me but it's not all of me."

Maybe Not a Funny Word will reach people in the way a newspaper article or a flyer can't? She agrees. "There's something in that live magic. You're in the room with the performer. You can see the whites in their eyes, they know when you're telling the truth. There's an emotional context that the written word doesn't have.

"You know," she adds. "I find it interesting there hasn't been much anti-choice work. I just find that intriguing. I wish there were.

"Because people say oh, [Repeal] is this trendy liberal actor thing. Well why aren't people submitting work to places, why isn't there anti-choice street art, or poetry or spoken word?

"I see articles by the same people who write articles about everything else. But I haven't seen someone out of whose gut it is absolutely bubbling to express itself artistically."

This performer is bubbling to tell her story - even if it's not a funny word.

Not a Funny Word will be staged in The Complex in Smithfield, Dublin, on March 6-18 as part of Where We Live, presented by THISISPOPBABY and St Patrick's Festival, a two-week programme of theatre, music and live art. Tickets at thisispopbaby.com

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