In "A Day in May," veteran Irish journalist Charlie Bird's collection of the personal stories of 50 of the LGBT Irish people he met on the Irish marriage equality campaign trail, the author has created an instant classic, a snapshot of Ireland on the cusp of momentous social change, and a soon to be historic document describing their hopes and fears in the lead up to the vote. It's the perfect gift to celebrate the referendum’s first birthday.
“After all the scenes of joy at Dublin Castle on May 23 last year someone said to me, ‘Listen you should go back and talk to all the people you interviewed before the count,’” Bird tells the Irish Voice.
“So I did all the research myself before I went looking for a publisher. I realized early on that this would be an important story to put on record.”
With terrific timing Bird, who had retired from RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster, in 2013, had finally found himself free to campaign on any issue that interested him, so in the run up to the referendum he traveled through cities, towns and villages interviewing ordinary LGBT Irish people about their lives and their dreams for the future in the lead up to the vote.
He had, he freely admits, been in no hurry to wrap himself up in any idealistic crusade. After four decades of continuous work with RTE, including a stint as Washington, D.C. correspondent, his instinct to stay above the fray was hardwired. But something shocking happened in the lead up to the referendum that changed his approach to the issue.
Bride Rosney, a longtime friend and colleague at RTE, asked Bird to chair a meeting for a group being formed to campaign for a yes vote in the marriage equality referendum. When he said yes he was taken aback by the reaction of one of his close friends, a reaction that was shared with him soon after.
“Will people not think Charlie is gay?” the person asked another acquaintance, suggesting that merely by participating a cloud of suspicion would now hang over the heterosexual broadcaster in the public's mind (Bird married his long term partner Claire Mould in Dublin this week).
That kind of blinkered us vs. them thinking, where just to take a supportive position was to fall under suspicion yourself, made him realize that attitudes needed to change. He took to the road.
“In Ballinsloe, the heart of rural Ireland, I watched a 72-year-old man stand up at a campaign event and say that he had only come out a year earlier at 71. To be a gay man of his age in rural Ireland for over 71 years and never to tell anyone about it? I just found it so moving that the marriage referendum provided him with the inspiration to stand up and tell his story,” Bird said.
The stories in the book belong to people Bird met on the road, whom he met by word of mouth, since the vast majority of the 52 people in the book are not well known.
“The majority of them have never in their lives spoken publicly to anybody about their sexuality. It was a very tough journey both for me and for them sitting in a room with a tape recorder.”
Bird filmed many of the interviews because a play based on the book is planned. He wants the actors to see the people whose stories they would be telling.
“There they sat in the room with me telling the most intimate of details, things they may not have spoken to another person before,” Bird recalled.
“In at least half of them we laughed and we cried together and it became a really emotional journey for me. It was probably one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in my life doing this book.”
Bird knows that some will ask why he got so involved.
“Look, I'm straight, but here was I going on this journey, and I can't understand what it must be like to have to continually come out. As writer Colm Toibin says in the introduction, ‘These stories make it clear that being gay in Ireland is perhaps a more essential part of Irish history and Irish reality than anyone was aware.’”