Giving Out Yards: An Interview with Tara Flynn

Eoghan Scott talks funny and feminism with everybody’s favourite Tara Flynn.

Over the course of her 46 years, UCC alum Tara Flynn has had more than a few things happen to her. Actress, comedian, author, and, most recently, human rights campaigner to repeal the 8th Amendment, Tara has never been one to shy away from adding strings to her bow. Having studied English and French during her time in UCC, she began her career as an actor in Dublin. “I went up to Dublin with no money in the bank whatsoever. I just took my bike and cassette player, and went to Dublin doing any stage management or acting roles I could get.”

“Growing up, it was all actors I looked up to. I’d been to London while still in UCC over the summer. I went to see actors like Juliet Stevenson and Vanessa Redgrave onstage, as well as Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis. Those would have been my idols at the time. I just thought “wow, they’re such incredible stage actors” and I was totally in awe of them. There wasn’t so much of a comedy scene in Cork at the time; the first live comedy that I watched was in Dublin. My mind was blown that people were doing this sort of thing live, I had just no idea.”

She stresses that her move into comedy grew purely out of chance. “I went to RTÉ and did some voice work in a puppet show, I did lots of voiceovers after that and then just fell into comedy, purely by chance! I went to an improv theatre so often that the let me do the door and so I didn’t have to pay in, and I’m now a member of the improv. Then around 1995, I was at a party and I started to do some funny songs with some other very funny women, and we went on to form The Nualas, a musical comedy trio; they’re still going strong to this day. I left about a year later to go back to acting, fell back into comedy again when I joined the improv – for real this time, onstage with them now. A bit of stand-up after that and a lot of plate-spinning, you know? I do whatever I can to keep working.” image

Having released her second book, Giving Out Yards: The Art of Complaint, Irish Style, back in October, Tara notes that she is keen to branch out more into this area. Acting, though, she insists will always be where her heart truly lies. “Acting is my first love; I’m loving the writing now, writing the longer-form kind of stuff. That’s been interesting. So much so that sometimes I don’t even miss being onstage, but I do miss being onstage a lot. That’s my main passion, that’s where I came in; I was in Dramat here [in UCC], did a lot of plays in the Granary – the old Granary. I’ve always loved acting. It’s something I’ll always need to do, communicating with an audience. I find that the YouTube videos are another way to do that.”

Recently, Tara’s own YouTube channel has proven to be another effective outlet for which to express herself; a little while back, she created a comedy sketch entitled ‘Racist B&B’ in response to an incident in which her husband was racially abused in her hometown of Kinsale. From her own blog, she says that the sketch is about “how racism is lurking even in the most welcoming of places. About how we talk about it and minimise it with words because we don’t like to believe it’s there. “They’re only young fellas” or “they probably had drink taken” just won’t do.”

She stresses, however, that not every video she puts out has a social message to it. “The videos are a great way to deal with my anger. It’s funny that I have to get people to help me to make them. Diarmuid O’Brien (Irish Pictorial Weekly) usually helps me to make them, but we have to both be fired up so much because we’ve no budget. I’ve a few out with no particular issue though, there’s ‘The Fog from the film The Fog’, which is about the fog from the film The Fog – as you can imagine. And then there’s ‘Custard’, which is a parody about all those songs about jelly, you know? “I don’t think you’re ready for my jelly”… or milkshake bringing all the boys to the yard; I decided that the Irish version of that was custard. It’s very sexy. Custard goes across me at various points… Okay, I’m not saying it’s sexy, more disturbing maybe… So I wanted to parody those videos. It does have a message, but it’s not like a social issue; maybe sexism in music videos? The more I dig at it, it’s like “oh yeah, it does have a message at it’s core”, oh god I’m pathetic! But I love the silly, silly comedy of that. It’s why I love the improv, ‘cos I get to exercise a bit of my brain that I’ve no control over. People will think it’s weird. The thing with it is that some of it will hit, some of it won’t; the beauty is that people can see the internal workings of your brain! Comedy is subjective, you can’t please all of the people all of the time; just try and say whatever makes you yourself laugh. The difference with improv is that you try not to make yourself laugh… Sometimes though, you can’t help it, you’re just like “I’ve no idea out of what dark recess that popped, but it did”. I just try not to laugh with shock in those cases!”

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Though not simply concerned with using her art as an outlet for her own complaints, Tara Flynn is keenly aware of the Irish predilection for protest, going so far as to even write an entire book on the subject. The aforementioned Giving Out Yards: The Art of Complaint, Irish Style is an affectionate look at something the Irish do best. “The whole point is that irish people are brilliant at giving out, brilliant at it! We’ve raised it to an art form. I wanted to look at the fact that we will treat incredibly serious issues like homelessness or reproductive rights with the same gravitas that we’ll treat something like…like how we’ll spend as much time talking to Ger or whoever on the talk radio about the fecking seagulls as we will about those genuinely serious issues, and with just as much passion. I wanted to look at the fact that every subject is as serious as that and everything is worth giving out about.”

The inspiration for the book, according to Tara, came when writing her first book in 2014. “My first book was called ‘You’re Grand: An Irish Woman’s Guide to Life’, and in that I looked at all the reasons why we don’t protest, we don’t give out and we just say “you’re grand!” about everything, but while I was looking at that I was also thinking “oh, well there are things we’re not actually grand about at all”, and we’re happy to go on the radio and talk about it. We never do it privately! It’s a cultural phenomenon, an Irish thing! That’s why the cover of Giving Out Yards is a phone on a cord and a wireless… Since we’ve had somebody on the wireless to talk and complain to, we’ve never stopped!”

Though being primarily concerned with the everyday petty grievances of the average irishman, Giving Out Yards refuses to shy away from more serious topics. Beginning the book with A for Abortion and ending with Z for Zygote, the subject of bodily autonomy is obviously one close to Tara’s own heart. “I try to keep my own personal issues out of that; however my attitudes towards certain ones that are big issues come out of course like with any other writer.”
In 2006, Tara travelled to the Netherlands to have an abortion, and ever since telling her story at Amnesty International’s ‘My Body My Rights’ event at Electric Picnic 2015, she has been a prominent voice in the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann, in order to change Ireland’s abortion laws. On Tuesday 24th November, the students of UCC voted for the UCC Student’s Union to campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment; the sheer support among students of such a stance is positive, yet surprising, and a far cry from Tara’s time in collefe. “Back when I was in UCC, there was no chance of the topic of abortion being discusses openly and fairly, or hearing women’s real experiences. It was all very hush hush, it wasn’t a fair and open discussion like it is now. There were only ever bishops on RTÉ.”

She is keen to highlight the importance of the Student’s Union in any such movement. “The Student’s Union in any college is so importatn in terms of affecting social change. We’ve seen it happen this very year (the Marriage Equality referendum), but here’s the other thing that’s important for students to not forget: you have a vested interest – it’s your future. I’m sure that a lot of students who have graduated and gone into careers or whatever have said, and it probably sounds glib or patronising, but it’s a very exciting thing, that your future is to come and you yourself can change it; and a Student’s Union is a great way to do that, we are all like minds and we can affect change. We may not all agree politically, but it’s not necessarily just about consensus, it’s that we can find a collective voice to affect social change that see what the voice of the college says, what the Union says, and we can move forward with that. I think with Marriage Equality that was very clear, and USI (Union of Students in Ireland) did an incredible job with that.”

“Nobody is asked to take a stance on abortion, nobody is being asked that. It’s about choice. If you have a strongly held belief and you are anti-abortion and you believe that you would never have an abortion under any circumstances, then never have one. Never have one. Choice means freedom for women, bodily autonomy for women, even if they never choose to have one either – and let me get this clear, they will only choose it if they are in crisis – do you think they should be helped or do you think…you know, you’re not preventing it. If you are for criminalising abortion here, you are for women harming themselves if they can’t afford to travel, and later term abortions because people have to organise to travel. You’re not preventing them. Being pro-choice isn’t the same as pro-abortion; it wouldn’t be the college taking a stance on abortion, it’s taking the stance on a woman’s right to choose.”

Having lived through the experience herself, Tara is all too aware of the importance of consent in any and all circumstances. “Consent is vastly important in any procedure and there will always be consent; even if it’s a blood test, there has to be consent. It almost feels like having to justify yourself, to the point where you can’t say anymore that you’re in crisis; you’re in crisis and you need help. Nobody’s going to be forced to have an abortion, no one is going to be asked to have an abortion, but if you need it it should be safe and it should be legal; but that is only for people for whom it’s necessary. Someone could be pro-life and it could be medically necessary for them to have an abortion. So I don’t want to stigmatise that person or any other person, i say pick the right to choose, where you choose never to have an abortion and I choose to support women who need them.”

In the same manner in which Flynn managed to subvert her husband’s experience of racism for the purpose of comedy with ‘Racist B&B’, she also draws on her own experiences in this area for her comedy today. “Most people just don’t want to talk about it, and it’s not a funny subject. I want to take the tone back and be able to tell my story any way I want to tell it. I don’t find most aspects of it funny, I really don’t, because it happened to me and it’s raw, but there are funny aspects of it. You can mine humour from the ridiculous aspects fo the situation, of the stigma of having to travel, or for me when I was coming out of an anaesthetic I was talking about drugs because my head was so addled. There are funny things that happen in any situation and laughter is a good way to deal with trauma and reclaim your own life; but it’s not a funny subject in general.”

Does she find that people often take offense to this time of humour? “The things I joke about are things that happened to me. If someone gets offended, they’re looking to take offense. I don’t make jokes about the thing in general because it’s not funny. I make jokes about what happened to me on my journey, so if someone takes offense and tries to undermine me by saying i’m being glib, well I’m being as far from glib as you can imagine. I’m raging about this, i don’t take this lightly at all, but if I want to tell this story, my story, with humorous aspects to it, I will.”

Looking to the future, Tara has no intention of leaving this topic behind. “I think I want to write something about this, it feels like it’s time. I’m not quite sure what form it will take yet, but… Just watch this space.”

Never one to rest on her laurels, she has no shortage of work ahead of her. “I have three different kinds of book idea, depending on publishing interest, and an idea for a TV show…and half a documentary idea; they would all take time to develop, of course. I recently went to England to film an episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. I was in an episode last year and I’m so excited to go back, I love that show.”

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Of the entertainment industry today, Tara is very much aware for the massive sea of change which has occurred over the years, where the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler exist as the biggest names in American comedy and Jennifer Lawrence dominates the box-office. “Sometimes the arts reflect and sometimes they drive. At the moment, I really feel like they are driving, because for ages women have been producing comedy, or else they’ve been promoters or agents and they’ve been stepping up a bit more. I love Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and I love her improv; there’s people like that who are amazing. I think that Waking the Feminists, that happened at the Abbey, that was female writers and actors stepping up and saying “we’re not gonna stay in the shadows anymore, we’ve had enough”, and that’s something I’ve said myself. Don’t accept that your career is over at 25, keep asking questions and say “I choose not to do that!”. I actually hate the question “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy?” This is one of the first times I haven’t been asked that! What’s it like not to be a woman in comedy!? Now though, it seems like we’ve moved on into a new generation of questions being asked, and that’s so exciting! It’s great, because Female Comedy is not a genre. It’s women who do a job. You either find them funny or you don’t. You may be predisposed to thinking they do a certain kind of comedy, because you haven’t seen enough; but guess what, that’s about to change.”

Tara Flynn’s latest book Giving Out Yards is available in all good bookshops now.