Sunday 19 January 2020

Barry Egan: A day to remember... stories of those who changed our nation

Panti Bliss and the crowd in Dublin Castle after the result of the marriage equality referendum was announced
Panti Bliss and the crowd in Dublin Castle after the result of the marriage equality referendum was announced
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

In the mid 1970s, fire-breathing Catholic campaigner Mina Bean Ui Chroibin told David Norris that he "won't be satisfied with decriminalisation - the next thing you will be after is homosexual marriage".

"Thank you, madam," Norris replied, "if you have any further ideas, please let me know!" If you think this exchange is even remotely funny, then you would have enjoyed A Day In May, which ran to packed houses last Sunday and Monday night at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin.

Written by Colin Murphy from the book by Charlie Bird, A Day In May is a powerful play about a triumph of civil and human rights, about the run-up to the day - May 22, 2015 - that arguably changed Ireland forever.

As Brian Finnegan wrote in Gay Community News in his review of A Day In May, one of the strategies of the 2015 Yes Equality campaign was the telling of personal stories to get the so-called ''million in the middle'' to connect to gay humanity: "It was a tactic that worked brilliantly and did so again with the recent referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and it works well in this show too."

What makes A Day In May work isn't the politics - important though those politics are - but the heartbreaking stories of fellow human beings who were bullied, attacked and sometimes murdered because of their sexuality in this country of ours. The men and women of all ages who - as Leo Varadkar pointed out - "tried to live and love and be themselves in a society where their identity was feared and despised". As such, A Day In May was a play that everyone in Ireland should have gone to see.

Legendary Riverdance founder John McColgan, who worked with Charlie Bird on the book, told me that he "suggested to Bird that it would make a great play. Pat Moylan came on board as a producer and Colin Murphy was commissioned to write the script. Gerry Stembridge came on board as director and I encouraged and supported the project from the beginning.

"I am really proud of A Day In May - it is an historical and theatrically important production," McColgan said, adding that the talented cast play multiple characters with "verve and imagination. It is very funny with human stories of coming out. Tracing the LGBT story in Ireland and the long journey to the famous day in May when the Irish people voted for marriage equality by a landslide. The audience gave a full standing ovation and rousing cheers. Some crying, some laughing. It was the best evening in the theatre I have seen in a long time".

As one of the million in the middle, I went along last Monday to see A Day In May. My fears that it was going to be a spittle-flying, vein-popping pious panel discussion/lecture on the history of LGBT politics in Ireland proved very much unfounded, thank God.

I laughed at the bits that were pure light entertainment worthy of Father Ted... the reactions of mammies and daddies when their sons and daughters came out to them.

And I felt depressed at the bits that were traumatic to hear - the loneliness that came with having to hide that sexuality during a time when their orientation was against the law, and the hate and the violence inflicted on men and women because of their sexuality.

I met Eamon Farrell, director of the National Performing Arts School, at the play. How did Eamon feel hearing the stories of bullying and violence in A Day In May, given his own experience of homophobic violence as a teenager in Dublin?

"I find watching bullying of any kind very disturbing, especially when it is recreated so powerfully from the stage in a theatre," said Eamon, who attended with his husband, the artist Steven Mannion (Eamon's brother Colin Farrell was best man at the wedding in Vancouver in 2009).

"The physical nature of the bullying in the play, the shocking death of Declan Flynn and the internalised self-hatred of so many people brought me back so clearly to those days. When Declan Flynn was brutally murdered, and his murderers set free, Steven was not even born, and I was 15. His death was an event in my life which changed everything," added Eamon, referring to 31-year-old Declan Flynn, who was attacked and murdered in Fairview Park in Dublin on September 9, 1982.

"I think, as I've said, that it is so important to remember our past in Ireland, our struggles, our fights, and all the battles which we have won," Eamon said.

I thought the play was brilliant. But with one slight quibble. The music. Or the lack of. I asked Eamon was I being homophobic to suggest A Day In May could be a huge hit worldwide with a bit of Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and show tunes mixed with the hugely inspirational stories of the bravery and courage of those who fought against injustice?

"Yes - you are a homophobic ginger!" Eamon roared with laughter. "Diana Ross? I was thinking more Twink!"

So was I.

Sunday Independent

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