Tag Archives: Interview

From Criminal To Campaigner: An Interview With Senator David Norris

This article was originally published in the University Observer in March 2017. It was later published online.

 

David Monaghan speaks to Senator David Norris as he receives UCD LGBTQ+’s Foy-Zappone Award.

 

IN JUNE 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised within Irish law as a result of the Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill. A century-old law that saw LGBTQ+ people thrown into prisons, beaten, tortured and analysed as sexual pariahs had finally been overruled, and many felt they could now begin the long journey to feeling like they were welcomed in Irish society.

The progenitor from which the momentum for decriminalisation came was David Norris, a former Joycean academic-cum-Senator, who kick-started the movement in the late 1970s. It is because of his efforts that many are no longer considered criminals in their home country, and why successive generations of LGBTQ+ individuals are now unaware of the threat those handcuffs held.

In February 2017, nearly 24 years since his efforts to increase the rights of sexual minorities in the country resulted in decriminalisation, David Norris has been honoured by UCD’s LGBTQ+ society. He recently received the annual ‘Foy-Zappone Award’, a prize reserved for anyone seen to do remarkable work within the field of LGBTQ+ rights advancement. It is named for Dr. Lydia Foy and Katherine Zappone TD, the inaugural recipients of the prestigious award, and Norris is the fourth person to be honoured since its inception in 2014.

 

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Source: senatordavidnorris.ie

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Photo credit: senatordavidnorris.ie

Known for his jovial attitude, before the prize-giving began, Norris joked with society members and recounted various anecdotes from his career as a political activist: “I was once approached by a man who was worried his dog was gay,” he quipped.

The event began with a short screening of an RTÉ recording from 1975, featuring Norris being interviewed by the late Áine O’Connor – possibly the first time an openly gay man had been seen on Irish television – as the somewhat younger but still recognisable activist is asked upfront if he is sick. “When they approached me,” says Norris, addressing the audience that had formed to hear him speak, “they said, ‘well, we’ll have your back to the camera and disguise your voice,’ and I said, ‘well then I’m not doing it,’ because the whole point in being on television […] was to disprove the idea that we’re monsters.”

“If they had me sat there like the Elephant Man, back to the camera, in shadow, using a disguised voice, of course people would think I’m a fucking monster.”

Of course, RTÉ suggesting something like this was symptomatic of the time: many gay people were simply too afraid to be vocal about their sexuality in public for fear of violent backlash, or in extreme cases, incarceration. Norris, however, never shied away from discussing his sexuality, and he took his first baby steps towards campaigning for equal rights in 1969, as he informed the audience: “There was an advertisement on the back page of the Observer newspaper and it said ‘Homosexual? […] Send address on envelope to The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, 28-something street, Manchester.’ And I sent off my ten bob […] and became a member.”

“IF THEY HAD ME SAT THERE LIKE THE ELEPHANT MAN, BACK TO THE CAMERA, IN SHADOW, USING A DISGUISED VOICE, OF COURSE PEOPLE WOULD THINK I’M A FUCKING MONSTER.”

In the very early 1970s, Norris’s activism became more overt, shifting from the personal sphere to the public. Seeing the Troubles unfold in Northern Ireland, Norris was involved in the formation of the ‘Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association’, which was established to show solidarity with oppressed Catholics north of the border.

Although a member of the Church of Ireland, he felt Roman Catholics were being treated with contempt, but he became incensed when fellow campaigners suggested Presbyterians were more tolerant in the Republic, prompting Norris to stand up and say, as he recalls now: “‘You think you don’t discriminate but you do. I am ‘homosexual’’ – that’s the way we said it in those days, as if we were a species of rare butterfly – and I eventually persuaded them to include reform of the criminal law as part of their agenda, and that was the first time in Ireland that any group had committed itself to law reform.”

 

Aine

David Norris speaking to Áine O’Connor on RTÉ television in 1975, as chairman of the Irish Gay Rights Movement.

Despite this initial success there soon followed a brief hiatus in Norris’s overt campaigning until 1973. He explained to the audience that a conference was held in Trinity College at this time on the broad topic of sexuality, but as the event progressed it became increasingly apparent that most of the attendees were interested in the more specific and much more taboo subject of homosexuality. Norris continues: “Then they started another conference in 1973 that I went to, and they had various people from England coming over, [such as] the editor of Sappho, a lesbian magazine, and we had our own people, like Hugo McManus.”

Out of this sprung the Sexual Liberation Movement, of which David Norris was a member. Disappointed with the direction the group was taking, he led the first split and formed what became known as the Irish Gay Rights Movement. The first event was held by IGRM on the grounds of Trinity College. Norris, expecting a meagre 20 or so interested patrons, was shocked to find that, in fact, 250 people had shown up. “That set my little nose wriggling,” Norris jokes, “and I thought, ‘oh, there’s money to be made in this’.”

“I AM ‘HOMOSEXUAL’’ – THAT’S THE WAY WE SAID IT IN THOSE DAYS, AS IF WE WERE A SPECIES OF RARE BUTTERFLY”

The IGRM then began regularly holding discotheques. Later, Norris helped found the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, which became a social hub for an oppressed and overlooked minority for many years after its inception. Norris recalls: “On the night it opened – St. Patrick’s Day, 1979 […] 450 people turned up! This surging, seething mob outside [was] trying to push the doors in […] I noticed that the floorboards were deflected, because of people dancing […] So I stopped the music and made the announcement […] and got hissed and booed, and then somebody said, ‘c’mon now lads, at least somebody gives a shit about our welfare.’”

Norris and company began work on fixing the issue and the Hirschfeld Centre was up and running again weeks later. Although he enjoyed working at the Centre, Norris admits that he knew little of the music that was played at the venue: “This led to me interrogating Freddie Mercury over his membership card and whether it was up to date – and I did the same to Elton John! I hadn’t a clue who they were!”

The Hirschfeld Centre, although successful, was targeted numerous times. Norris informed the audience of one such occasion: “I was in the office on the top floor […] and I could see sparks [coming from the roof]. When I got up I found a bomb […] Someone had put […] two milk churns full of explosives, one on each side of a barrel of petrol, and they had poured petrol on the roof and thrown up firelighters […] the idea was to heat up the roof, and that would explode the milk churns, blow the lid off the barrel of petrol, blow the roof off, and send flaming streaks of petrol down to the discotheque, where about 300 people would have been burnt to death.”

“THIS LED TO ME INTERROGATING FREDDIE MERCURY OVER HIS MEMBERSHIP CARD AND WHETHER IT WAS UP TO DATE – AND I DID THE SAME TO ELTON JOHN! I HADN’T A CLUE WHO THEY WERE!”

Horrified, Norris entered fight or flight mode and used fire extinguishers he had carried with him to put out the firelighters. It was a narrow escape. The Hirschfeld Centre eventually burned down in 1987: “I was in bed about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning,” Norris recalls, “and I was called down as a key holder […] and I ascertained that nobody had been injured, the archive was rescued, and the insurance was in place [and] I sat back to enjoy the fire.”

The Irish Gay Rights Movement, which had been founded by Norris, was about to experience another major split, as he explained to the audience at the award ceremony: “I was pushing for political change and public agitation – and this was a very, very frightened community at this stage, we really were threatened by the criminal law […] and a lot of people didn’t want [public agitation]. They wanted [us] to keep our heads down, and to be quiet, and to have discos, and meet somebody to go to bed with […] all these perfectly natural human things, but they wanted to cut out the political things.”

 

iqa

Image via The Irish Queer Archive.

David Norris then moved on to form the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which aimed to change the status of male same-sex activity in Irish law, then illegal. In 1983, Norris took this challenge to the High Court, and later the Supreme Court – where he was represented by former President Mary Robinson – and it was rejected both times.

The case was then brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Norris and Robinson, the latter of whom had made the submission, where it was found that Ireland’s anti-gay law breached the European Convention on Human Rights. “We won by one vote,” Norris reflects. “And there were about twenty judges, so it was very narrow. The Irish judge, of course, [voted] against us.” This ruling paved the way for decriminalisation by the Irish government in June 1993.

With such a vast, long-standing and notable career in campaigning for the advancement of gay rights, it is unsurprising that Norris would be selected as the next recipient of the Foy-Zappone award. Speaking to OTwo after a long talk, and a round of questions, he is quick to inform that receiving such accolades always comes as a surprise: “I’m surprised people remember these things, because my policy is to go straight on to the next thing and keep forging ahead, and I don’t look back very much, so it’s lovely.”

“I NOTICED THAT THE FLOORBOARDS WERE DEFLECTED, BECAUSE OF PEOPLE DANCING […] SO I STOPPED THE MUSIC AND MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT […] AND GOT HISSED AND BOOED, AND THEN SOMEBODY SAID, ‘C’MON NOW LADS, AT LEAST SOMEBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT OUR WELFARE.’”

The audience that had come to hear Norris speak and receive the award was comprised mostly of people in their twenties. “A lot of young people don’t realise it was a criminal offense, which surprises me,” Norris admits.

Senator Norris made headlines in 2013 when it was announced that he had developed cancer on his liver, and he had to undergo a transplant in late 2014 as a result. A month before receiving the Foy-Zappone Award, he signed off from his duties at Leinster House for a time, citing a chest infection. “I couldn’t breathe,” Norris explains, “I couldn’t do anything, and I was put straight into hospital […] Then they found I had a very severe form of diabetes […] But my energy levels, physically, are not what they used to be.”

Has Norris’s physical health impacted on his work in the Seanad? “I used to speak on absolutely everything,” he says. “But now I’m much more targeted. I select the issues on which I could make an impact, and I speak on those. For example: Alice Mary Higgins [Senator for the Civil Engagement group] put down a thing on the Canadian Trade Agreement, and I did my research on it and made a really passionate speech, and my speech led to Fianna Fáil abstaining, and the government were defeated […] which was good, but some of the other issues that are going around I just leave them.”

 

lets

Image via LetsMakeHistory.ie.

One issue that Norris has spoken about is the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which currently prohibits women from attaining legal abortions in Ireland. “I think [the eighth amendment] is dreadful,” he says. “I don’t understand how somebody outside a relationship, with no connection to the people involved, can presume in their arrogance to tell a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped by a neighbour, that she has to keep the child. I think there should be choice: if women keep the child in those situations, or in terms of fatal foetal abnormality, or rape, or incest, then that’s wonderful and I admire them for it, but I definitely think they should have the choice.”

In 2011, Senator Norris entered the race to become the ninth President of Ireland, a position hotly contested by six other candidates. Support initially fell in his favour, with Stephen Fry even tweeting that Ireland “couldn’t have a more intelligent, passionate, knowledgeable, witty or committed President” than the famed Senator.

However, it was revealed in July of that year that Norris, over a decade previously, had used notepaper with the Oireachtas letterhead to send a letter to the Israeli High Court. He asked for clemency in the trial of his former partner, left-wing activist Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of statutory rape. Norris withdrew from the race later that same month, but re-entered in September when it seemed support was moving in his favour again. Norris eventually lost to Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN FAIRLY LOQUACIOUS, SO THAT DIDN’T REALLY CONCERN ME AT ALL, AND I NEVER FELT IT WAS A BURDEN. THERE WAS OFTEN QUITE A LOT OF FUN INVOLVED IN IT, AND I WAS QUITE IRREVERENT IN THE INTERVIEWS I GAVE.”

Reflecting on this period, Norris calls it a “destructive and homophobic experience.” He elaborates: “RTÉ put out jokes that [said] ‘David Norris would like it up the Áras’ […] If they had said that kind of thing about women, they would have been burnt to the ground. They said I advocated parents having sex with their own children – I mean, crazy, crazy stuff […] And then also the Israeli Government were involved in releasing information which only they had about the case Ezra [Nawi] was involved in, which was actually a honey-trap by the Israeli police.”

Norris continues: “my whole campaign team — bar three people — buggered off and left me. Not one of them officially resigned. I learned it on the Nine O’Clock News […] that the principle PR woman […] no longer worked for Norris campaign. It was devastating – the utter scandalous disloyalty.” Despite losing after an embittering and dramatic race, Norris feels that our current President, Michael D. Higgins has done a stellar job. “I do think we have an excellent President […] He’s a little academic [and] if you tune into his speeches, if you’re tuned into his wave-length, they are brilliant.”

 

flikkers

Flikkers Dance Club in the Hirschfeld Centre 1985/6. (Photo: Tonie Walsh).

The Senator has seen huge political and social changes in his lifetime, particularly in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. Having been born into a state in which he was considered a criminal, Norris now lives in a country where he need not live in fear of incarceration simply because of who he is, where anti-discrimination laws exist in LGBTQ+ individuals’ favour in areas of employment, the provision of goods and services, and speech, and where he can not only adopt children, but also marry the partner of his choice. And this is to say nothing of the Gender Recognition Bill, which allows Ireland’s trans citizens to change gender on legal forms without interference from doctors or psychologists.

“I rarely thought about [the changes that were possible],” Norris explains. “I had a series of defined targets at each stage. The first one was knocking out the criminal law, and then building on the social and human rights legislations. So I was usually targeting an immediate object, and planning and strategizing for that, rather than looking beyond that, at the next thing, because that would have been a waste of time.”

When asked if he ever felt a burden of responsibility in being one of the first openly-gay public figures in Ireland, Norris responds with a firm and decisive “no,” adding: “I’ve always been fairly loquacious, so that didn’t really concern me at all, and I never felt it was a burden. There was often quite a lot of fun involved in it, and I was quite irreverent in the interviews I gave.”

How To Be Gay and Happy: An Interview with Matthew Todd

This interview was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, Issue II in October 2016. It was later published online.

David Monaghan sits down with author Matthew Todd, whose book Straight Jacket examines why disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ+ people suffer from mental illness.

IN 2005, Matthew Todd debuted his play Blowing Whistles to captive audiences in London, and later Sydney. The play, which deals with contemporary LGBTQ+ culture, became a sort of therapy for Todd. “I was in turmoil when I wrote it,” he informs OTwo. “I’d come out of a relationship and I’d been cheated on and I was really angry, and I was blaming it all on him.”

The play depicts a gay couple who, on the tenth anniversary of the eve of their first meeting, decide to make their relationship more interesting by inviting a young man around for a threesome. “I’m all three characters in the play,” says Todd. “The first half is an adult comedy about these two crazy guys having an open relationship. The second half is much darker and it becomes a critique of gay culture.”

Unbeknownst to him at the time, the themes and ideas considered in the play – social media, sex, and monogamy – would be facets of life that would later reoccur in Todd’s writing. Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy, Todd’s new book, is the result of such ruminations about modern LGBTQ+ culture: it explores why a disproportionate amount of gay men suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts and behaviour. Using his own experience as a backdrop for research – the book is ‘part memoir, part polemic’ – Todd lifts the mask on contemporary gay culture to see what lurks beneath, and does so with poise and insight.

The title of his book refers to the restrictive, heteronormative culture that LGBTQ+ people are born into, a ‘cultural straightjacket’ of sorts. “This society presumes everybody is heterosexual and cisgender when they are born and there’s kind of very little room to grow or to evolve or exist if you are not that way,” he states. “Everyone presumes that you are heterosexual and that a boy will be attracted to a girl or a girl will be attracted to a boy. There just doesn’t seem to be very many parts of society…that are adaptable or ready to accept that people are different.”

Although Ireland has made significant strides in recent years on LGBTQ+ social issues – in 2015 we saw the introduction of both Marriage Equality and Gender Recognition legislation – there are still lingering threads of homophobia left within the country. On July 30th 2016, a gay man was assaulted in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. He was set upon by teenagers who yelled ‘you fucking whore. How much? We’ll kill you, fucking fag.’ Todd asserts: “And I think just growing up like that, being shamed by family, sometimes by friends, by other people’s parents, by wider family, by religion, by schools…and then we have all the religious institutions who spout what they say about gayness, it can be tremendously stressful.”

LGBTQ+ people deal with this ‘cultural straightjacket’ in a plethora of ways. The majority are, thankfully, able to move on and establish healthy lives and careers. Others, however, turn to drugs, dangerous sex and various other forms of destructive behaviour. International research suggests that LGBTQ+ people are two-to-three times more likely to be become addicted to alcohol than their straight contemporaries.

“I certainly wanted to get out of my head, and I did,” Todd says. “First by eating, because it made me feel better temporarily – I think compulsive eating is a massive thing for a lot of people – and then by fantasy, by pop music…and then getting lost in alcohol, and [others get lost in] drugs and some people sex, and it can easily spiral out of control and become a huge mess. And some people don’t come out of it.”

matt

Straight Jacket author Matthew Todd speaking on ITV.

One way in which the worldwide community has been able to deal with this has been in putting on a ‘brave face,’ which Todd suggests has been necessary: “Even the term ‘gay pride,’ [which suggests] ‘we’re gay and happy,’ and to be almost obsessively waving a banner and saying ‘everything’s fine’ – and that’s been needed in some ways, to tell each other and to tell young people that it’s okay to be gay and that you can have a happy and successful life, which you absolutely can, and many people do, but that’s kind of… We’ve just rejected all of [the negativity] and not wanted to look at some of the problems in case it plays to a narrative of ‘oh look, you’re absolutely right, we are really unhappy.”

The fear of conforming to the negative and reductive perception of ‘gay-equals-unhappy’ could explain why a book like Todd’s has taken so long to be written. “It didn’t feel like I could have a conversation about any of these problems when I came out” Todd explains. “There was never any room to have any discussion, certainly not in gay press…it was just constantly, rabidly, going on about how wonderful it was [to be gay], and never looking at any of the problems…I remember going a few times to sexual health clinics and seeing therapists and they didn’t have anything to say about it either. I remember one time, and I talk about it in the book, where I went to see somebody and I went, ‘listen, I’m not in control of the amount of sexual behaviour I’m having,’ and they looked at me like I’d said something sacrilegious.”

Dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, which are used by people within straight and LGBTQ+ communities, have made access to sex and hook-ups easier than before; at a press of a button people can meet others and, after a brief exchange of words, can find themselves in the rough and tumble of a fleeting sexual encounter. Considering that sex is used as a coping mechanism by some, does Todd feel online hook-up culture exacerbates problems within LGBTQ+ communities?

“Absolutely, totally, 100%. I know lots of people use them, and I use them, and will probably use them in the future, and lots of people will say that they’re really great because you certainly see you’re not completely isolated…but it feels like a way of behaving where we objectify each other to an extreme extent…when you get onto to Grindr where people are describing themselves as a ‘penis’ or a ‘hole,’ I do think that’s problematic. And I know that’s a controversial thing to say, but I do think that’s problematic because we’re literally talking to each other like we don’t mean anything.”

In recent years, on social media and beyond, there has been a drive to promote positive attitudes to sex. This movement has been spearheaded by left-leaning feminists to eradicate the social stigma attached to women who transgress socially-constructed sexual boundaries. In many cases the word ‘slut,’ which has been used in the past to shame and demean women, has been adapted and transformed into a positive term; sex is now a thing to celebrate.

Gay men too have faced a similar stigma in the past, mostly through right-wing media during the AIDS epidemic. In the book Todd refers to a 1980s’ Mail on Sunday article that claims the ‘awful genesis’ of AIDS lay in homosexual sex itself. By highlighting the problems with promiscuous sexual encounters, does Todd fear he may fall into slut-shaming, or that he will undo the work of sex-positive campaigning?

“There’s nothing wrong with having casual sex, if that’s what you really want, and you’re in control of it,” Todd explains. “When I was writing the book and I was talking to friends that was something I was really worried about…[In the book] I’m doing the absolute opposite of shaming. I don’t shame people for the amount of sex they have or don’t have whatsoever because I’m not in a position to – I have had sex with quite a lot of people. I just want to open a discussion about it so we are able to talk about it if someone feels that they have lost control of their sex life…we can talk about why that may be, what may cause that, if you want to do something about it, what you can do about it.”

Of course, the media plays an important role in shaping the outlook of LGBTQ+ people. In the book Todd explains how right-wing media perpetuated social stigma in the eighties using flashy, homophobic tabloid headlines like one from the Sun which read: ‘I’d Shoot My Son If He Had AIDS Claims Vicar.’

the-sun

        The Sun, Oct. 1985. Source

Even today mainstream news outlets will neglect LGBTQ+ stories and issues. The assault in Phoenix Park, as has been described, was not covered by the press outside of theoutmost.com and GCN, Ireland’s premiere LGBTQ+ news outlets. “[Media] plays a really damaging role. I mean, maybe things are a little bit better, but essentially they are only interested in showing LGBTQ+ lives through a straight lens…For instance: the issue of why there aren’t many openly-gay professional footballers comes up and the media takes a lot of interest in that because it’s something that they care about because football is something they are interested in. It’s very hard to get the mainstream media to do coverage of my book about mental health and I consider this a really, really important issue. From my experience of gay people I’ve had from working at Attitude [a magazine edited by Todd] that it is the most important issue we face at the moment, specific to us, yet most of the media are just not interested. They think it’s niche…Like I say, it’s just through a very specific heterosexual lens that they see us and I think that’s really damaging.”

Later in the book Todd makes a clarion call to LGBTQ+ writers and creatives to create more positive LGBTQ+ narratives. Often in fiction that features queer characters we are left with unhappy endings, broken hearts, and more often than not, death: A Single Man, Lilting, Cloud Atlas, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour are recent examples that spring to mind. Praise for 2015’s Carol, a film with lesbian characters that also features a somewhat positive conclusion, is a welcome exception. Repeated negativity can be a drain on LGBTQ+ youth who are looking for positivity when coming out.

He continues: “We all need to see ourselves reflected in the world. We all need to understand ourselves through culture, and I think even more so for LGBT people because we do feel different and maybe we don’t have role models when we’re younger and maybe we don’t feel we can speak to our parents, and then not to see a very broad range of experience in film and TV… it’s really, really damaging…where are the nice gentle rom-coms, where are the big films with two big, famous Hollywood actors that is about a nice, gay love story?”

In 2015, while Todd was in the process of completing his book, the documentary Chemsex was released. The film, which is co-directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty, explores the subculture of ‘chemsex’ – that is, the dangerous practice of engaging in recreational drug use and sexual behaviour simultaneously – among gay men in London. It was an illuminating piece that shocked and bewildered viewers.

“I was very aware of them making it [while I wrote the book], but they were specifically looking at the whole chemsex thing. When I started writing the book I didn’t really know about crystal meth or methadone or G [shorthand for GHB, a psychoactive substance], what I really knew about was guys who were having problems with cocaine, and I was really shocked at how bad the situation was with crystal meth. Certainly I was surprised watching that film and it’s certainly a hard film to watch.”

Matthew Todd interviewed people for Attitude upon the film’s release: “[They] were talking about injecting blood into each other, fetishizing body fluids, which I think is tied up to our experience of HIV. There’s a real mess out there with a lot of people. It’s not just one or two, it’s a very small minority of people, but it’s too many, and enough for it to be a really serious problem, and I think it’s really important we talk about it, as painful as it is for people to look at it.”

In 2016, it was revealed that 498 people were diagnosed with HIV in Ireland within the last year, a 25% increase from 2014’s figure of 377. Half of the people affected were gay or bisexual men. Although we live in an age where information on HIV is readily available online and in print, rates of HIV transmission appear to be going up, particularly among young LGBTQ+ people.

“Young people are young and think they are invincible – who wants to sit there and wade through pages of information about safe sex? But I think they’re just not getting sex education, and they’re certainly not getting information about HIV. I think there was a whole thing in the early days of the AIDS epidemic where, because the right wing media were constantly saying ‘this is a gay disease,’ HIV organisations rightfully said, ‘well anyone can catch HIV, and across the world there are more straight people who have it,’ but they did this thing called the ‘de-gaying’ of AIDS, which I think has done us a disservice because I have met many young men, gay and bisexual men, who don’t understand or don’t accept or believe that we are more at risk in Europe and the West from HIV, and how we have higher rates of it…ultimately, this is the fault of the education system.” Those who do speak out about their diagnosis are often neglected, and there is an erasure outside and within LGBTQ+ communities.

Matthew Todd, who is currently setting his sights on filmmaking for his next project, hopes that this book will help start a dialogue about mental health within LGBTQ+ circles, and he reminds readers that mental health, gay or straight, is something that we should always be sure to keep in check: “If any of these problems do come up later, and they can come up later – I thought when I was younger that I’d dealt with all of the issues I had, and I hadn’t – there are places you can go to, be it therapy or gay groups, drug and alcohol supports…I’m saying these things as much to myself as I am to anyone else.”

Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy is available to purchase in all good book stores. If you are affected by any of the issues outlined in this article you can find help by reaching out to the following:

LGBT Helpline
T: 
1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie

TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)                                                                                                       
T: 
085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie

Samaritans
T: 
1850 60 90 90 W: www.samaritans.ie 

Aware (Depression) 

T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: wecanhelp@aware.ie

Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)
T: 
01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: mary@pieta.ie

Alcoholics Anonymous
W: 
www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie

Mental Health Ireland
W: 
www.mentalhealthireland.ie

BeLonG To Youth Services
T: 
01 670 6223 | E: info@belongto.org

Gay Men’s Health Service
T: 
01 873 4952 | E: gmhpoutreach@eircom.net

 

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Small Print? | Changes in Irish Publishing

This article was originally published on the HeadStuff website on August 16, 2016.

It is well-documented that Irish writer James Joyce once said, “No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.” Although the automatic and unthinking response of many to such a claim would be dismissal, the long, broad narrative of Irish history only reaffirms the well-known Dubliner’s witticism: our island has long been tinged by accounts of emigration, from the days of the Great Hunger up until the present.

This inescapable and unfortunate truth has also not eluded the nation’s writers, many of whom in the past sought to publish their works abroad. Joyce himself published his works in Paris after lengthy battles with conservative publishers in Ireland and Britain, and Samuel Beckett lived in the French capital for most of his life, writing in both French and English. Women writers, in decades past, have also had their works suffocated by a male-dominated printing scene and, up until recent years, did not have access to popular outlets through which they could publish their works. Although writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien enjoyed some success, it was limited when compared to their male counterparts.

“I suppose one of the key things in the twentieth century was censorship – ‘unsuitable’ literature just wasn’t going to be published in Ireland,” says Claire Hennessy, co-editor of the literary journalBanshee. Indeed, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board was established in 1929 in order to monitor literature in various forms, effectively banning any writing deemed ‘obscene’ or ‘inappropriate.’ Its power and influence has dwindled greatly in recent decades however, and very few works are blocked in the country. Although restrictions on what can be printed are now minimal, many Irish writers still look to the UK and beyond in order to publish their major works. “I think it’s a desire to reach a larger readership,” says Eimear Ryan, one-third of the Banshee team. “Ireland has had a lively literary journal and small press scene for the last few decades – there’s no shortage of outlets – and Irish people are great readers, but it’s still a relatively small market.”

In the last six years, however, indigenous publishing has undergone a transformation, with new literary journals appearing across the country. Irish writers, too, are beginning to win more and more prizes on the international front. Many Irish writers use small quality presses and journals, such asLilliput, The Stinging Fly, and Tramp, as a springboard before moving to bigger deals in the US and UK. She continues: “the likes of Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume published first in Ireland to great acclaim, and then got picked up internationally. I think small Irish presses have gained this reputation for being brilliant talent scouts and I think that the bigger publishers are keeping a close eye on what’s coming out of the Irish publishing scene.” So what has triggered such an incredible turn around? And how has this affected the quality and themes of Irish writing?

Poetry On The Fringes

Although novelists and prose writers have enjoyed success in Ireland, the poetry scene has been met with some minor difficulties: many older presses have shut down. Jessica Traynor, poet and Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre, believes this is indicative of an emerging new wave in poetry publishing. She says: “we’re seeing a little bit of a recovery […] I think these things go in cycles: while we’ve lost older poetry presses like Doghouse, other presses […] like Arlen House tend to be outwardly going from strength to strength.” A huge concern for Irish publishers is funding, and this is intensified for poets; when budgets are tight, poetry is somewhat impaired by its smaller audience relative to prose writing.

Michael Naghten Shanks was the editor of The Bohemyth, a former quarterly journal publishing short fiction, poetry, essays and photography. A fervent poet, Shanks has also felt the figurative pinch of tightened budgets: “when it comes to the next stage of a writer’s career […] I do think that prose writers are in a much better position. Ultimately, one has to acknowledge the economic argument for why this is the case, but I still believe more could be done to correct the balance. It is not that the talent is lacking when it comes to Irish poetry, it is more to do with how the majority of poetry publishers in Ireland are lacking the funding they need in order to be able to take the necessary risks on finding and supporting new poets. Make no mistake it is the same case for fiction publishers, but they do seem to be less reticent when it comes to the crunch.”

Internet Influence

Before its closure on August 8th 2016, The Bohemyth operated exclusively online. The role the internet has played in the recent resurgence of Irish writing cannot be understated: writers can publish their works online without fear of interference from middlemen, network with others on Twitter and Facebook, and experience greater, worldwide exposure, the levels of which might not have been attained otherwise. “If I were to think of a reason for why things seem, outwardly at least, vibrant, I think a lot of this has to do with the new lease of life the internet has given to poets” Traynor claims. “I recognise that the internet has been instrumental in building connections for Irish poets overseas. For poets, short story writers and novelists, the internet is a wonderful thing […] and I think having the internet there as a buffer has allowed some of the smaller publishers to think, ‘I can take a risk on this person.’” The internet has also influenced the writing of those working in literature in Ireland, leading many to discover artists and works they may not have happened upon in other circumstances.

The internet cannot be credited exclusively with shaping the character of contemporary writing. It is also worth noting that the new wave of Irish talent materialised in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, so one would not be mistaken in assuming that the economic, personal and political impact of such an event permeates the very pages of the writers most affected. “Sara Baume is really interesting on this,” Eimear Ryan notes. “She points out that the lack of jobs post-2008 sort of gave young artists permission to be broke and on the dole and writing, whereas during the Celtic Tiger years, there would have been much more social pressure to be earning big money, or to at least be in a job related to your degree.” Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, published in 2012, deals with the personal fallout of the economic crash; people are left stuck in unfinished ghost estates, contemplate emigration, and attempt to make sense of what is perceived as an unprecedented catastrophe. Such a book describes accurately the environment from which modern writers have emerged.

Break From Tradition

 

Kevin Barry with Alan Bennett on The HeadStuff Podcast, Beatlebone, City of Bohane - HeadStuff.org

Kevin Barry (right) is one writer moving away from traditional subject matter in his writing. Source – HeadStuff.org

 

There is a sense in modern literature that Irish writers no longer subscribe to a mandate to write ‘in tradition,’ as Eimear Ryan elaborates: “In the work of Kevin Barry, Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray and others, the settings and characters are often Irish, but the influences aren’t. Contemporary Irish writers are being inspired by European and American fiction, comic books, video games, HBO shows, the internet.” Irish writing has traditionally been unified by overlapping themes and ideas: James Joyce wrote about Catholicism and sexual repression in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artistdecades before Patrick Kavanagh touched on similar subjects in his poetry, and the pastiche of staunch republicanism in Ulysses’ ‘Cyclops’ chapter is not entirely dissimilar to Martin McDonagh’s caricature of militant nationalism in plays likeThe Lieutenant of Inishmore. Joseph O’Connor, in Star of the Sea, reminds us of our history of emigration, while Kate O’Brien and Jamie O’Neill both deal with gay characters living in a new but wholly-suffocating Ireland, despite writing decades apart. As has been described previously, in recent years indigenous publishing has undergone a plethora of changes, but has this altered the common signifiers of what makes an ‘Irish’ text? “There are still some very traditional stories,” states Hennessy. “Disapproving mothers! Dead fathers! Abusive priests! The nuns! Funerals! Emigration! […] Often these appeal to an international audience, tying in to a certain notion of ‘Irishness’. But there are fresh themes and topics too – in Young Adult, for example, we’ve had a number of dystopias recently [such as]Eilis Barrett’s Oasis, Cecelia Ahern’s Flawed, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which was not something many Irish writers did previously.”

Young Adult fiction has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many adults now reading from the genre. Claire Hennessy has recently published Nothing Tastes as Good, a young adult novel that pushes the important issue of eating disorders to the fore. The writer states: “Annabel [one of the novel’s primary voices]came very much from reading several Young Adult novels which featured the same trope about the protagonist losing a friend to an eating disorder while in hospital, and this serving as the catalyst for their own recovery – how angry would you be, to be just a catalyst in someone else’s story?”

Readjusted Balance

 

Irish Publishing

Sinéad Gleeson, editor of The Long Gaze Back. Source – Independent.ie

 

As such, the established canon of Irish writing has been altered and, in select cases, challenged, and so have the inherent biases of a male-centred publishing scene. The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing, was published last year to mass acclaim. The anthology’s editor, Sinéad Gleeson, aimed to fill a gap within the large narrative of Irish writing left by the exclusion of prominent female voices. The women writers that feature in the collection are wide-ranging and span decades – the gap between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection is 218 years. “There’s always been Irish women’s writing but it’s about what gets paid attention to,” states Hennessy. “Anne Enright published her first short story collection in 1991 and got critical acclaim […] but it wasn’t until winning the Booker sixteen years later that she became a household name. Emma Donoghue’s debut was in 1993, long before Room exploded onto the literary scene […] Irish women’s writing has always been there. It’s about what we take seriously – and what we dismiss.”

Hennessy, alongside Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy, established Banshee, a literary journal whose output is evenly split down the gender divide, an unusual occurrence in the Irish literary scene. “We’ve tended to publish more female writers than male” Hennessy explains, “but it’s not our intention to have the journal as a women-only publication that somehow provides a ‘safe space’ for female writers. The women writers we’re publishing don’t need that – they deserve to be read widely, as indeed do the men we’re publishing.” Eimear Ryan adds: “[alongside women writers]we’ve also published really brilliant work by the likes of Dylan Brennan, Dean Browne and Andrew Meehan. Issue #3 is shaping up really well and should hopefully be out in early September.”

Despite emerging liberal views regarding female voices within the male-dominated environment of fiction and poetry writing, women writers still experience certain gender-influenced difficulties in their line of work, as Hennessy explains: “Rob Doyle is lauded for writing about angry violent men, but when Louise O’Neill writes about the impact of male violence on women she gets hate mail […] Men are praised for subject matter that is more typically undertaken by women – Colm Tóibín’s Brooklynis basically a Maeve Binchy novel, in so many ways – not a criticism, I love her work – and it’s gotten infinitely more respect than anything she ever wrote.”

Gender bias is not the only issue contemporary writers must overcome: although externally the new Irish writing scene seems a safe haven for new talent, many minority writers – those within the LGBTQ+, travelling or immigrant communities, for example – will be quick to find that certain social biases still pervade the indigenous publishing scene. There is also a blatant lack of narratives that deal with issues of disability and mental illness. Michael Naghten Shanks discusses how to address such erasure: “As a straight, white male, my position in the literary community is undoubtedly one of privilege, whether desired for or not, and the least I, and others in my position, can do is to be conscious of that privilege, so that we can, whenever possible, readdress the balance.”

All scenes, movements and trends come and go – they enjoy their time in the spotlight before fading into memory. With little government support for literature, it’s uncertain how long the literary boom will last, or what shape Irish writing will take in the future. There are precautions, however, we can take to help ensure that there is a future for our literature: “It’s lovely that there’s a perception that there’s a groundswell of new work,” Jessica Traynor states, “it’s something that we need to try and protect, even in terms of buying books. If there’s an imprint you like, buy their books, go to their launches, get to know the people involved.”

Short and Sweet: The Firehouse Film Contest

The following article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXII, Issue VII. It appears in print and online.

David Monaghan speaks to content creators at the 18th Firehouse Film Contest in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

Short films are often overlooked. Despite being arguably the most accessible and immediate form of film-making, audiences tend to focus more on the short’s longer, star-studded cousin: the feature film. With the Oscars airing at the end of the month, ardent viewers will undoubtedly be making the journey to their local picture houses to catch most of what’s been nominated at the prestigious ceremony, without considering too much the potential of short films. The Firehouse Film Contest is an event that highlights this potential, with much of its content exhibiting creativity, humour and talent.

Developed by former OTwo stalwarts Conor O’Toole and Conor Barry, alongside their friend Simon Mulholland, Firehouse is an “almost monthly” contest in which creators are encouraged to make short films that are five minutes or less. This appears to be the event’s one restriction, as each and every film produced for it varies in tone and production quality. “We started the Firehouse Film Contest because we had loads of friends who were great film-makers but had no deadlines to encourage them to make things,” says O’Toole. “And so we set an arbitrary one once a month, with the hopes that they would make more films.” Although the contest is open to all genres, Conor Barry notes that the submissions they receive are geared more towards comedy, due to the short film format. “But we’re always very happy when we have dramas, and experimental films,” O’Toole chimes in.

Although normally located in A4 Sounds off Dorset Street, the 18th and most recent contest took place in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. One of the contest’s most frequently featured directors is Séamus Hanly, whose frantically-edited, ‘Tim and Eric-style’ videos have made him a recognisable creator at the monthly event. For its 18th iteration he produced an intentionally clumsy video which lampoons the style of bad video bloggers. Titled ‘2016 (So Far),’ it is indicative of his self-aware, parodic style, featuring awkward cutaways, poor sound quality, and a stilted delivery. “What they said from the beginning was any variety of production quality [is welcome],” he says. “You get some very nicely shot, very nicely sound recorded stuff. Then you get videos by me.” Though he creates content for a film festival, he is hesitant to say he makes short films. “I wouldn’t call them short films, and that’s a complete technicality. I see them as videos; YouTube videos or sketches… When you don’t see it as a short film but as a video, there’s a lot of freedom, and you can mess around and stuff. When it’s called a short film it’s almost as limited as a feature.”

As has been said, there is a great freedom in creating content for Firehouse. Counter to Hanly’s humorous videos are items like ‘White Fluffs,’ a short film that intermittently follows tiny bits of fluff as they blow in the wind, or ‘Creep,’ a music video. “You do get the odd artsy short, and the audience goes quiet, doesn’t laugh, and takes it for what it is.” He also credits part of contest’s draw to its welcoming environment. “It’s genuinely friendly. A lot of people don’t want to say this, but for Dublin that’s kind of special. There are a lot of good, niche things in Dublin, but it really means something when it’s not commercial. There’s no surface level ‘oh, we welcome all kinds of films,’ then you realise they don’t. Here, they really do.”

Each month, special prizes are handed out to certain videos at the contest. The categories are Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Production/Technical Prize, and a Judges’ Prize, which in the past has been decided by the likes of Tara Flynn, director Mark Doherty, andRepublic of Telly host Kevin McGahern. The winner of the most recent Best Picture award was ‘Bigger Cats’ by Donnacha and Diarmuid O’Brien of Dangerfarm, the latter of whom has worked on RTÉ productions in the past and has produced Tara Flynn’s videos. A comedy writer like many others at Firehouse, he edits videos as a day job. He is critical of ‘mainstream’ Irish film-making for stifling creativity. “To make any sort of feature, it’s still someone else’s money. So you always have to answer to all these people and you have to deliver on what they’re investing in, with little freedom to do what you want.”
He continues: “For an actual ‘Irish new wave’ to come about, there needs to be major changes, especially in the dismissive attitude towards screen-writing… New writers need to be properly developed and paid for their apprenticeship by the industry.”

He praises the monthly contest as an outlet for up-and-coming creatives who may be struggling against such a system: “‘Official’ Irish film-making takes itself very seriously. Festivals, academia and funding are focused on arty [and] important endeavours. The Firehouse is a godsend for frustrated comedy-makers like myself. RTÉ’s remit is kind of broad stuff, so here you can pursue quirky odd things.” O’Brien gives particular praise to the people behind Dreamgun whose short feature, titled ‘The Crush List,’ won the Technical Prize at the 18th Firehouse. “They normally make really high production stuff. They didn’t have time this month so they took out a phone and they did it through Snapchat. That shows how good they are because it was a stylistic choice and it was really funny… I think they make the finest videos in the country.”

Running a little over two years, the Firehouse Film Contest has, in that time, drawn a large following. Its 18th contest was filled to audience capacity and drew a record total of thirty short films. Despite not proving as popular with wider audiences as the feature film, events like Firehouse, with its abundance of talent, show that there is life in the short film yet.

The next Firehouse Film Contest is on March 6th in A4 Sounds.

Filming a Queer Revolution: Conor Horgan

This work was originally printed in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

David Monaghan sits down with Conor Horgan to discuss his upcoming documentary about drag queen activist Panti Bliss, The Queen of Ireland.

Conor Horgan is the director of the moment. The man behind the woman of the biggest LGBT documentary to come out of Ireland this year, he has no doubt found himself inundated with interview requests and press junkets. Tapping away on his phone he breaks intermittently to apologise. “Sorry,” he says. “This week has been manic.” No doubt. One cannot make a documentary about the country’s most outspoken drag queen and the biggest social revolution we have experienced in the 21st century without experiencing some attention.

The Queen of Ireland maps the journey of Rory O’Neill from his childhood in the market town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to his accidental activism as Dublin’s charismatic Panti Bliss. Filmed over a number of years, it captures notable events in O’Neill’s life such as the infamous ‘Pantigate’ fiasco, as well as the viral sensation that was the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre, where Panti Bliss made a rousing speech about the RTÉ controversy. The speech went viral on YouTube, amassing over seven hundred thousand views. And finally, he captures the historic marriage referendum in May 2015, which saw the Irish people vote overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. “I always knew that interesting things would happen,” says Horgan. “We had no idea how interesting or what things indeed, but we started filming because I knew Rory and I knew Panti and I knew that we had this really interesting central character who’s very politically astute, extremely articulate, and wildly entertaining… Then when the actual story arrived, it arrived in spades,” he laughs.

“And another thing about Rory is that Panti is always camera-ready. Panti is always very sassy and very quick and very smart and very funny. There’s such a disparity between them as characters.” So at what point does this disparity become noticeable? “All of the front of house stuff happens through Panti, and Rory is really quite shy. If they were both exactly the same kind of character, just one wore a dress and the other one didn’t, I don’t think it would have been interesting.”

Production on this film began immediately after Horgan’s last feature film had been released, and was born of a meeting between him and his producer, Katie Holly. “She knew I knew Rory. I’ve known Rory since the mid-90s, when I started doing pictures of Panti for the Alternative Miss Ireland posters.” The Alternative Miss Ireland was an annual drag queen beauty pageant organised to raise funds for Irish AIDS charities. The very last one, held in 2012, is depicted in the film. “Rory, when we first approached him, said he’d been approached a number of times before but he never really felt like it, but he trusted me enough to say yes. I knew it was a big deal for him, not least because he comes from a small country town… He has a horror about being seen to have notions about oneself, which is a very Irish thing.”

The film ends, rather surprisingly, with Rory returning to do a show as Panti in his native Ballinrobe. Why was this ending chosen over the more obvious passing of marriage equality? “It was our decision [to do that]. When we first approached Rory, he said, ‘you’re not going to ask me to walk down the street in Ballinrobe wearing a dress, right?’ It was quite a big deal for him to agree to that… The film is about the intersection between the personal and the political, so you have a political climax, which is May 23rd, but then the personal. As Rory actually says himself in the film, the personal always trumps the political.”

In the film, O’Neill describes the secrecy that came with being gay in Dublin in the 1980s. As they danced in underground nightclubs, straight people went about their everyday lives, totally oblivious to what was happening. Gay people had to hide away and there are huge gaps in Irish LGBTQ+ history as a result. By featuring footage and interviews from this time, does Conor hope to fill this gap? “Basically, almost everything of that, that exists, is in the film. All a minute and a half of it. RTÉ would have gone in there with a camera crew maybe twice. We looked elsewhere to see what else there was, and there really wasn’t anything else. Does it fill a gap? I suppose any documentary, especially when it’s about, ultimately, how a country is changing is going to become part of the historical record of that country.”

The passing of marriage equality on May 23rd marked a significant turning point in Ireland. With overwhelming support for the ‘yes’ campaign, it signified to many that the country had finally moved on from a repressive past, 22 years after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Irish law. “I think the entire country was gobsmacked by just how big a deal this was,” Horgan says. “Everybody I knew had this emotional investment and really felt it when the thing went through, because it was about the country becoming a better place for everybody.” Conor had the privilege of being at the centre of events. “There was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been for that day, other than chasing Panti around with a camera.”

The Queen of Ireland is the director’s second feature film, following One Hundred Mornings in 2009. A post-apocalyptic drama filmed in the Wicklow Mountains, it details the breakdown of society and the loneliness that would ensue from such an event. “Of all the lies we tell ourselves,” he says, “the greatest is that there’s any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society. A lot of people, especially younger people, just go, ‘well great, it’ll be like Spring Break forever, except with guns, and we can do whatever the hell we want and go tearing around the place and shoot people and all bets will be off,’ and it wouldn’t be like that. It would be boring, and cold, and lonely, and scary, and I just wanted to make a realistic film saying, ‘is this what you want?’”One Hundred Mornings won an IFTA for Best Cinematography and a Special Jury Award at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival.

So what can we expect to see next from the filmmaker? “Nothing. I’m retiring now, that’s it,” he laughs, before his phone starts buzzing once more. “No, I’m working on a science-fiction love story with another writer called Pierce Ryan and we’re having a lot of fun doing that, so that might very well be my next film.” Quite a departure from following a drag queen around Ireland.

The marriage referendum created reverberations all over the world, as did the story of Panti Bliss and her noble call. This film captures that story and acts as a time capsule for this unique period in Irish history, and it is thanks to director Conor Horgan that it is on record. Whether he is detailing the breakdown of society, or following a man in drag, he undoubtedly has interesting things to say about the changing social landscape in Ireland.

The Queen of Ireland is in theatres now.

The Man of Many Voices: Mario Rosenstock

This work was originally published by the University Observer in October 2015.

Mario Rosenstock sits down with David Monaghan to discuss his work in TV and radio as a comedian and impressionist

Mario Rosenstock is known to many as the voice (or voices) of the satirical breakfast show Gift Grub, in which he lampoons various political and sports figures throughout Ireland. On television, he is known for The Mario Rosenstock Show, a sketch show featuring his repertoire of characters in unusual situations; like Joan Burton riding a wrecking ball, or Donal Skehan breaking his nice guy act to beat up some local scumbags. Taking a well-deserved break from satirising the country’s elite, Rosenstock speaks about working in television and radio, his friendship with Ian Dempsey, and the pressure he feels when creating content.

Spawning numerous albums and singles since its inception in 1999, Gift Grub is the first port of call for many people when seeking Irish political satire. However, its success came as a surprise to Rosenstock. “When I started, everything I did was depending on the radio station I was working in being successful,” he says. “[It was] called Radio Ireland, and it just didn’t know what it was at the beginning. It was known in the papers, mockingly, as Radio 0%, and Radio Direland.” Radio Ireland eventually changed its name to Today FM. After recruiting Ian Dempsey to host the morning show, it began to grow in popularity. “It started to really, really appeal to people. I started working with Ian on the breakfast show [and] it was in tandem with this Bertie Ahern thing that was happening. I was the only one in Ireland doing sketches about him every day and that kind of caught the imagination.”

Rosenstock has collaborated with Ian Dempsey ever since. “We have a very special relationship. Some people describe it as a husband and wife; I don’t know who’s the man and who’s the woman. No one knows his audience better than Ian [and] he’s also a really great judge of an audience in relation to me. He’d look at stuff I do and go, ‘what would people love to see Mario doing?’ And he’d know better than I would. He often points me in the right direction.”

Having worked almost exclusively in radio over the years, The Mario Rosenstock Show was a slight departure for the performer. “In radio you can go, ‘Imagine if Joan Burton suddenly became Alexander the Great back in 20 BC, and there’s an army of 50,000 people with elephants.’ You could do that on the radio that day, and peoples’ minds will see [it].” Rosenstock, who often plays multiple characters at once on radio, simply cannot mimic this approach on television. “Radio is good for getting the ideas out there tomorrow. Television takes weeks.”

Mario Rosenstock’s sketches often veer into the absurd. Since breaking out onto the scene, we have borne witness to Alan Shatter as a 1970s TV cop, Gerry Adams as a starship captain, and Bertie Ahern as a culinary chef. This surreal approach will draw comparisons to the style of British comedy troupe Monty Python. “I was exposed to the absurdity of Monty Python. I would have been very impressed with Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, [that was] the stuff I really enjoyed.” Rosenstock also speaks of his love for American sketch showSaturday Night Live. “I love idea that you do sketches which are topical each week in front of a live audience. I love that up-to-date topical comedy.”

SNL features sketches written over the course of a week, to be performed live in front of a studio audience on the Saturday. As a result, actors can sometimes break character, forget lines, and crack up. Rosenstock is no stranger to this type of pressure. “Yes, [but] there’s pressure and there’s stress,” he explains. “Pressure is really good. [It’s] bringing the best out of yourself, rising to the occasion. I [feel] a lot of pressure doing things that I have, but I now realise that feeling is a good feeling. Stress is not a good feeling. Stress is when something is preventing you from working. You’re sick, you’re run down, you can’t think straight – that’s stress. Pressure is when you’re a bit worried, but feel of creative intent and energy.”

In 2005, Mario Rosenstock surprised many by topping the Irish Christmas charts with a parody of Will Young’s ‘Leave Right Now.’ “I’ve always loved music. I can actually hold a note really well when I’m in character – not so much as myself! I think music is a beautiful, glorious thing. You can also write stuff in music that is like poetry – rhymes and stuff – and put them into characters mouths, like politicians, or people like Paul O’Connell, and it makes them funny for a minute.” Indeed, seeing Joan Burton perform Wrecking Ball à la Miley Cyrus is not a sight many people can take seriously.

Three years ago, Rosenstock created minor controversy when the Catholic Communications Office took offence to a sketch depicting a character spitting into a bucket before receiving Holy Communion. Has the writer-performer stirred any other note-worthy controversies? “I’m careful to observe the law of defamation,” he says. “I’m also careful to observe a natural law, which is [not to] go off on somebody in a poisonous, malicious way. Satire has to be funny first. Otherwise you’re just a taxi driver giving out: ‘Them fuckin’ government, that fuckin’ bunch o’ clowns!’ So my thing would be, I don’t want to say that unless I can make it funny.”

Rosenstock’s comments bring to mind the recent developments surrounding the Denis O’Brien/Waterford Whispers News conflict; the media mogul threatened to sue the satirical news source over its depiction of him. “Waterford Whispers News published something, he threatened to sue them, which he’s entitled to do as a person,” says Rosenstock, whose radio station is owned by O’Brien. “Should he be allowed to do that? Well, he is. It’s the law. Is it right for him to do that? Maybe not, but he can. Say you live in a house, and I want to build a gigantic railway and a shopping centre right next to your house. You can object, but if I win the objection, I can build my railway and shopping centre near your house. It’s legal. It’s not nice, but it’s legal. So, we have to deal with those parameters as well.”

After a succession of albums, live performances, and a television show, what can Mario Rosenstock do next to surprise us? “[I have a] new TV show coming in November and December. It’s Saturday Night Live-based idea, so some studio based sketches, pre-recorded sketches, music, and hopefully live guests. There’s a lot going on; possibly an election – it’ll be pre-election time anyway – the 1916 anniversary, and also lots of rugby and soccer things coming to a climax. So, it’s going to be a very, very interesting time.”

While Ireland is undergoing many social and political changes, it is comforting to know that one thing will remain consistent; Mario Rosenstock will be there to point the finger and laugh. Just don’t ask him to sing out of character.

Spoilers, Barbarians, and the Circus: Ian Beattie

This work was originally published by the University Observer in September 2015.

Fans of Game of Thrones will be readily familiar with Ser Meryn Trant, member of the Kingsguard under King Joffrey. He is a sadistic, brutal and all-round vile character, appeasing those he serves through nefarious means. So it was lucky that Ian Beattie, the actor behind Ser Meryn, could not be more different. Bouncing around in his seat at MCM Comic-Con, he enthusiastically shared how the show has impacted his life, how he attempted, rather unsuccessfully, to avoid spoilers on set, and all that he has in store now that his time on the show has come to an end.

“It has made a huge difference to my career, certainly,” says Beattie, looking very relaxed now that he has ditched the Iron Throne for a seat in the RDS. “Before Game of Thrones, I got occasionally very prestigious jobs, but they were also not as regular. Game of Thrones just took me up to a whole different level and got me into many, many more rooms than I previously would have gotten into.” He has showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss to thank for that. The pair have overseen the show since its inception in 2011 and have developed its memorable storylines. “Anyone who has seen season five will know that I was given a ridiculously good send-off,” Beattie says.

As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that, despite becoming an integral part of one of the biggest fantasy shows of all time, Beattie remains a fan at heart. Speaking about conventions, he says, “I absolutely love them! I love interacting with people and finding out what their theories are, because I’m a huge fan of the show as well.”

In order to avoid spoilers, Beattie did not read full scripts. Instead, he only read passages that contaed his scenes. “One of the funniest stories I experienced in Game of Thrones [was when] we were in season four, and it was the last day of filming in Belfast. I was filming with Jack Gleeson and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [King Joffrey and Jaime Lannister, respectively]. We finished the scene and Charles Dance was there and he said, ‘well, the little bastards have finally killed me,’ and I said, ‘No, you’ve just given me the end of the season!’”

With the rise of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, spoilers for popular TV shows like Game of Thrones are becoming harder and harder to avoid. Beattie notes that it’s not just social media that causes such a common problem; BBC News, one of the biggest news outlets in the United Kingdom, posted an article on the ending of season five shortly before the episode was due to air. “Many people want to know what happens next, but most people don’t,” says Beattie. “And the reason I think Game of Thrones has been so incredibly successful is, no matter how invested you are in a character, nobody is safe, and that makes for the most compelling television.

The figures for the last season averaged approximately 8 million viewers per episode, and the season’s debut alone was downloaded illegally 13 million times. Game of Thrones is showing no signs of slowing down. Beattie feels another reason for the show’s continued success is its filmic quality. “It’s a game-changer for television. It is film quality. And the attention to detail! You don’t even see it all, you have to pause the TV [and say], ‘look at that, look at that, look at that.’ They have created a world, and they have created it so well.”

Beattie’s start in acting began at an early age, when he used to tour Northern Ireland in a circus with his father. “From that age I always wanted to act, there was never any question.” Speaking directly to anyone with an interest in entering the business, Beattie says, “if they know that that’s what they want to be, then that’s what they’re going to be. Simple as that.”

Now that he has now left the show, Beattie can finally appreciate it without fear of encountering spoilers (unless he has a Facebook page). Speaking about where he thinks the series is going in the future, he notes that there are many characters alive in the books who have died in the show. “I’ve got a funny feeling their days are numbered. The genius that is George RR Martin knows what happens in the shows. He and David and Dan obviously spend a lot of time following storylines. I strongly suspect that anyone who didn’t make it to the end of season five will not be making it to the end of book six.”

Now that Beattie’s time in Westoros is at an end, what has the Northern Irish actor got in store for the future? “Quite a few things actually,” he assures. “The first thing [is] a series I’ve just finished for the History Channel called Barbarians Rising. It’s the Roman Empire versus different Barbarian tribes that went against them. It’s an eight part series that’s coming out early next year. Very excited about that.” Exciting indeed, but it’s what Beattie says next is what will intrigue most. “Next month, I start filming a film in Belfast with Timothy Spall as Ian Paisley, Colm Meaney as Martin McGuiness, and I will be playing Gerry Adams.” With the glasses, the beard, and a mimicry of Adams’ recognisable Belfast accent, you only have to close your eyes to imagine that it is not the enthusiastic Game of Thrones actor before you, but the Sinn Féin leader himself.

From the circus tent, to one of the biggest fantasy franchises of all time, Beattie’s career has gone from strength to strength. And with a plethora of projects in the works, this trend seems set to continue.