IMP HOUR (Empower): the voices of feminism in Ireland

This interview has been edited and condensed.

It’s 11 January, and I find myself outside The Sugar Club, a multi-purpose arts venue in Dublin, waiting to be ushered in to the first ever IMP HOUR. The event series, hosted by Faye O’Rourke (of alt-rock band Little Green Cars) and Dublin-based activist Susannah Appleby, is in support of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Repeal the 8th movement. IMP HOUR boasts a panel of incredible Irish artists and activists. The discussion topic: feminism and gender equality. On our panel is host Stephen Byrne, national women’s boxing champion Kellie Harrington, front woman and lyricist of BARQ Jess Kavanagh, prominent activist in the Free the Nipple campaign Carina Fitzpatrick, founder of the Repeal Project Anna Cosgrave and Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling singer/songwriter Andrew Hozier-Byrne. One of the many reasons we are gathering tonight is to discuss the fact that abortion in Ireland is illegal, and Irish women still lack the right to make decisions regarding their own bodies. Over the next hour, Stephen Byrne leads the panel through a truly beautiful conversation on gender equality, intersectional feminism, women’s reproductive rights and the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Following the event, I have the immense privilege of reviewing the evening and conducting a conversation with Susannah and Faye, regarding plans for IMP HOUR and their own personal experiences growing up in Ireland.

I wanted to start by asking you both to talk about your respective journeys into feminism – was there a particular moment or incident that broke the camel’s back, so to speak?
FAYE O’ROURKE (FO): I was on tour at the time I started to think about putting something together, and Susannah was just always someone I had in mind because she was a filter of information for me and an activist in her own right. [Susannah] has always had a lot of knowledge about politics. Before this, I suppose it wasn’t that I rejected the idea of feminism, but I didn’t understand it. And I work with men all the time. I am always surrounded by men, so I always associated [feminism] with somebody going: “Stop looking at [me]; I’m on a night out.” I also felt like it placed a divide between the men that are in my life and the women. It’s not that I didn’t have time for it. I was just in my own world. I was dealing with what I thought were my own kind of problems. And how I was feeling about myself at the time – especially when I got into the music industry – was constantly being self-conscious of my appearance and thinking that my appearance was the most important thing.

I had a really harrowing conversation with the guitarist in my band – I was talking about feeling insecure and he turned to me and said “do you not have any value for your talent? I think you’re beautiful, but do you not think your talent exceeds your physical appearance?” And I said I wish I felt like it did, but at that time, it didn’t. I was like, “I’m so embarrassed to be me and I don’t want to look like this anymore.” That’s kind of how the music industry makes you feel, a lot of the time, because it’s patriarchal and it’s driven by sex. When I got signed, the first couple of things anyone said to me were: “do you like to play dress up?” “Do you like Lady Gaga? It’s nothing personal against those guys; they’re just doing their job, which is to try to make you successful. It was my manager who actually said to someone “I’ll throw you through the window if you speak to her like that again.”

Even people I had great relationships with within the business would tell me I looked really good that day. It was just exhausting and really boring. Even if you look at pictures or videos of me from our first album, I’m a dishevelled mess because there’s no enjoyment in doing your makeup in the dingy toilets of a bar in America, with no proper light and you’re like, “why do I have to do this? None of the guys have to do this.” Eventually I decided I was really sick of it, and I wanted to examine what was going on, and I wanted to feel better about myself too. So when I started to embrace the true ideals of what feminism was, that was when I decided I wanted to do something about this, and I wanted other women to feel better about themselves.

SUSANNAH APPLEBY (SA): I actually don’t know how I got into feminism, because my family wouldn’t be particularly outspoken in their views regarding feminism. It wasn’t in school, because we aren’t taught feminism in history. I think it was just my own research really, on the Internet at 18 or 19. I think I knew that I subscribed to most of the ideals anyway, but it was just putting a name to it, more so than anything else. I knew what I believed. And then going to college, I tended to take a feminist approach to all of my assignments. There’s a lot you can say about feminism in art and of artists, and political movements. That just honed in my passion for it. I just want to keep learning.

It’s not having the right opinion or the wrong opinion; it’s just about having an open discussion. That’s really the important thing

In this vein then, what are your responses to women who are currently, in today’s climate, claiming indifference to the feminist movement – or to anyone who equates feminism to misandry?
SA: I think they’re misinformed – because you read a Buzzfeed article about feminism doesn’t mean you know anything about it. I think it’s also coming from a sense of insecurity for the people who don’t know. It’s all misunderstanding. It would take ten minutes of research to know that [feminism] isn’t about that at all. I’m not really offended by girls like that. I just think, “Poor you. You’re not woke.”

FO: But I have had so many debates with people over it – and good discussions!

SA: I would always invite discussion with girls who have that opinion, because it’s so easy to change someone’s views, in a matter of minutes, when they don’t really know much about it.

FO:I can totally have those conversations because I felt that way – not that I would have said it’s misandry – but I just had the wrong opinion and I was misinformed. I wasn’t saying “I’m not a feminist,” but I wasn’t saying I was either, because I thought it was a different ball game altogether. That goes the other way as well. I’ve had conversations with guys who have said “I’m afraid to say the wrong thing now.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s not having the right opinion or the wrong opinion; it’s just about having an open discussion. That’s really the important thing.

Andrew Hozier-Byrne said something that was very poignant for me. He said, “You can’t talk about being an Irish person without talking about the legacy of the Church.” That being said, did growing up in a society with such clear-cut religious values create any obstacles for you, with regards to embracing feminism?
FO: A huge, massive obstacle! Even in terms of sex, we don’t have proper sex education here.

SA: Sex education here is scare tactics.

FO: It’s not about emotional consequences or what a good relationship is, or consent. And that goes both ways: men feel pressured that they have to do these things with women in order to feel masculine and impress their peers. As a young woman all I thought for years, up until probably age 23, was that I wanted to be desirable. Especially being a performer. In terms of your own ideas of sexual pleasure – even saying it now, I’m like, “Oh god, we’re in public” – but I remember with my parents, that was just something we could not discuss. I didn’t know how to figure out what it was that was going to please me, because it was something laden with guilt. We just don’t even get into that.

That was going to be my next question – discussing this stuff at home and with families and friends’ families.
FO: None of it was discussed. I only started having conversations with my mum in the last year and a half. And it’s great, and she’s really up for it, and she’s really feeling free from [the lack of discussion]. There’s just a huge stigma around all of these things for women.

SA: The only conversation I had with my parents about sex at all was when I was 16 and they found my birth control, and I even lied and told them I hadn’t had sex yet. It was just a precaution. I would never have a discussion about sex, even now, with my mum.

FO: I would, because I feel like I want to.

SA: Last night I was talking to [my boyfriend] about what [Faye and I] wanted to do for our next event. I was talking about it at dinner – and we want it to be a very sex positive, sex education oriented conversation – and at the dinner table was my dad, my three brothers and [my boyfriend] and there was just complete silence.

FO: My dad – who is the most amazing positive male role model: a total feminist, worked in women’s fashion for years, and we have the kind of relationship where I can ask him “does this look good” and I can talk to him about stuff. Do you remember the video for Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know The Better?” My band had covered the song, and he was looking up the original and saw the video, and he was like, “what the –?” And I thought, “Here’s a woman receiving sexual pleasure, which is something that couples do, it’s a really normal, healthy, positive thing.” But you see people on stripper poles throwing money around, barely clothed, in a degrading situation, being visibly objectified, and that’s fine. We’re so accustomed to that in media, but we’re not okay with seeing any kind of healthy female pleasure.

SA: It’s scary to people.

Do you think Ireland’s ever going to be able to separate religion from the way they think women should act?
SA: I think as long as the 8th Amendment is in our constitution, we won’t be able to separate women from the Church.

FO: We need to tackle that now; that needs to be addressed.

SA: We’re not going to have a possible referendum on that until at least 2018, and we think it’s going to be postponed because the Pope is coming to Ireland in 2018. If we had an active referendum at the time, he would have to comment. In a country like Ireland, with so much Catholic guilt, that would definitely have consequences.

FO: It’s hard; I respect anyone’s religious views. I really do.

This is more about archaic notions of the female purpose than religious views.
FO: Yeah, it’s archaic and it’s in the constitution that our bodily autonomy isn’t respected. It’s the child, or I should say child in question, who is more valuable than the woman before we’ve decided whether it’s a child or not.

SA: [to Faye] You’re religious, or you’re kind of religious.

FO: I was, yeah, because nobody questioned it. It was just there.

SA: See I questioned it from when I was really small.

FO: I just wanted to believe that people went up, not down. That’s fine with me; that is absolutely cool and I didn’t feel restricted as a tiny child going into primary school.

SA: I always had an attitude that God was like Santa.

FO: Oh yeah, that’s the thing: once you get older you start to realise what the concept actually is. The idea that someone is watching your every movement is such a toxic thing. To feel like you don’t have privacy in your own thoughts is really destructive to a person.

SA: Why do you have to create shame to keep people in place?

FO: I totally agree, and I don’t have faith at all in the Catholic Church anymore. It was just something I associated with because I associated with my family. My dad’s an atheist, but my grandmother was incredibly Catholic. The country back then was in a really different place though. [Back then] people were in Mass every day, and like, six o’clock comes and you hear the Angelus told, and you just get on your knees. You don’t think about it. You just do what you have to do. And young kids were getting up at four o’clock on a Sunday morning to go to Mass, go back to bed, get up for breakfast and go to Mass again – it totally ruled the structure of your life.

Sex education is so heteronormative here. I think we need to be able to talk about boys and boys, girls and girls, trans and non-binary genders

Let’s talk about IMP HOUR. You’re planning to host more events. What are the next steps for that?
FO: Like we said, one thing we talked about in that meeting was the idea of sex education and how there really isn’t much of it. People are misinformed with regard to that so that’s something we wanted to pursue.

SA: There’s already a bit of momentum on this topic because colleges in Ireland have started to offer consent workshops for freshmen. There’s a whole debate on whether or not it should be mandatory.

FO: That happened to a lot of backlash as well.

SA: I thought I really could have used that as a teenager, to learn how to navigate a situation where you might just go along with something because it’s almost too awkward to not.

FO: And that perpetuates the whole “I did it to myself/it’s my fault” narrative.

SA: It’s good they’re starting workshops like that for college freshmen, because that’s when drinking and drugs really get introduced into the mix. The lines become a hell of a lot more blurry, and I think it’s so important to discuss that. I think that has to be our next one. This also makes it more accessible to younger crowds. Sex education is so heteronormative here. I think we need to be able to talk about boys and boys, girls and girls, trans and non-binary genders. I think introducing [the issues in a way] that lets people know it’s okay, and people are able to be more fluid with their sexuality. I think that’s important here because of the shame attached to all of it.

Sometimes in the rest of the Western world, we take for granted the idea that we have several organisations/crises centres/Planned Parenthoods per city.
SA: What we have here are clinics that give you false information.

Yikes. How important is it for women in Ireland to have the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre [DRCC] available to them?
SA: Hugely important. And men too. They have women and men of all ages calling. They’re amazing. They work tirelessly to create a safe space for victims to feel supported. They have a phone line that’s 24/7, 365 days a year, with trained counsellors all over Ireland; they aren’t just based in Dublin. And that resource isn’t enough. They need more support. I went and spoke to the head of the Rape Crisis Centre and she told me that there are virtually no businesses that want to sponsor them because of the word “rape”. [The companies] just don’t want the little sticker that says they sponsor the DRCC. There’s [that much] stigma. They were saying to me, on the night of the event, that they were so unbelievably thrilled they could come to a function in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and they didn’t have to do any work.

FO: It was really touching and we were really shocked by their reaction.

SA: They were like, bowing their heads to us. It was almost a bit embarrassing, because they are the ones who do all the work, all the time.

But not to diminish what you guys did the other night, because what happened was truly wonderful: how did you feel when you saw the response to the event?
FO: We were beaming. We were totally in shock.

SA: At seven o’clock when doors were opening, there was already a crowd of people outside. And then to go outside and see a queue of people all the way down the street was amazing. Right up until ten past eight! We had to actually close the doors and usher people through the green room and up through the back into the bar. When we walked on stage, at the start. I don’t even remember what happened.

FO: Susannah was like, “Stop freaking out because you’re freaking me out and you’re the one who’s supposed to do this all the time.”

SA: To see all the people crowding down the sides and everything was just unbelievable.

FO: And to have that happen at something for the DRCC was so amazing. The heads of the DRCC made the point that we’ve started to talk about abortion now. People are getting into that conversation now, whereas rape still has such a “get-it-away-from-me” stigma attached to it.

SA: And people are really misinformed about rape as well. But that is also why people don’t bring it to police or the court; if there’s no proof, then nothing will be done and the victim is humiliated.

FO: When someone comes forward with a claim like that it’s almost like there’s this idea that they’re upsetting the ones they love as well. Your circle of friends, all that stuff. There’s so much that needs to be done about that.

SA: There’s a whole immediate “innocent-until-proven-guilty” thing for the guy and “she’s lying” for the girl.

One of the most refreshing things about the panel was the discussion on intersectional feminism with Jess Kavanagh and the conversation including Hozier. I wonder if either of you can speak about how necessary it is for Irish people to have the conversation about non-binary genders, trans folks, people of colour, and how the patriarchy affects men as well?
FO: Any time we’ve spoken to Andrew Hozier-Byrne and Stephen Byrne, feminism comes up.

SA: Hozier has done some amazing things for domestic violence and Safe Ireland. He told me he had women coming up to him when he went to the Safe Ireland summit to say thank you to him for going through and listening to other women talk, and believing them.

FO: He said something amazing where he was like, “Why is it so hard to just believe someone?”

SA:Because women are historically vilified! The male side of the conversation is really important. We didn’t really have time because the discussion just took off, but we did want to touch on how stereotypical gender norms can be so damaging for men as well. Because it’s okay to feel feelings, it’s okay to like pink; it’s okay to like a guy.

It’s okay to express those stereotypically feminine emotions.
SA: Exactly. And feminine qualities shouldn’t be seen as bad qualities to have. And I think that’s a big issue with guys. The association with femininity is weak, bad, undesirable.

What can people do to keep the conversation going? What is your advice to women who are really tired of talking about this with people who aren’t interested?
SA: First and foremost, if you reach an impasse with someone and they are just not getting it. I do really feel that it’s not your job. If someone is a brick wall, what are we doing pandering to them? So I am open for discussing and trying to change opinions, but it’s also frustrating if they aren’t going to listen.

FO: We need more women in politics. We need to get young people, young women of colour especially, into politics. It’s all very well and good to talk about feminism in our own realms, being middle class and white, but we need advocates for people who are being marginalised out of that. We need to cross that idea over different groups. We need to do something accessible for people of every race, every gender.

And what about women who are unsure of what approach to take?
SA: I think the way to bring feminism to the forefront and perhaps sway the people that don’t subscribe to the same ideals is empathy. Everyone has the ability to be empathetic. And you can explain things to people instead of just telling them “you’re wrong.” Explaining why you think what they have to say is offensive; it invites healthy discussion.

FO: It’s patience as well. I think patience is a huge virtue. I think some people don’t know that they can understand. Getting frustrated when someone says, “I don’t get it” isn’t helpful. I mean – that’s the way I felt. It used to be very black and white to me, but it so isn’t that way. It’s like Susannah said, you can’t just tell someone they’re wrong. You have to explain why it might offend [others] and pose questions. Ask “why did you say that to me?” Open up the conversation.

SA: I had a really interesting experience trying to explain cultural appropriation to someone around Halloween. This is a topic that really isn’t widely discussed in Ireland. People wear Native American headdresses to music festivals here all the time. It’s terrible that it happens, but here nobody is going to call anyone out because it’s just not on people’s radar. It took me such a long time to be able to explain why it would be really bad to wear an Indian headdress on Halloween. But eventually he got it, and that’s great.

FO: I have so many guy friends who – I love them to bits – but they’re so threatened by all of these ideas. They’re afraid they’re going to lose something.

They feel like in order for women to be equal they’re giving up some of their privilege.
FO: But also in order to get through to a lot of people it has to be this damsel in distress story that makes them take it on board, and it shouldn’t be that way. They should just be sound! And you can make a mistake. You can make a mistake and if someone says, “why did you do that?” you can then have a discussion. I’m not going to eternally judge people for making mistakes. We’re not branding people misogynists; we’re just opening conversation and trying to create safe spaces.

And what a safe space the night turns out to be. IMP HOUR has raised €5,000 for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre through the profits from this single event. I have never seen so many different kinds of Irish people gathered in one room, nor have I ever felt so much kinship toward a group of people. At IMP HOUR, we are all united over common threads of compassion and the will to change a country whose governmental decisions are still somewhat steeped in outdated religious rhetoric. Of all I’ve learned this evening, however, the thing that strikes me the most is that Irish people of all genders, races and religions are desperate for their government and their country to see and hear them. And while it’s important to acknowledge the strides Ireland has made in the last few years, Susannah and Faye’s work with IMP HOUR should serve as a reminder to the country and the government that there is still much work to be done for its marginalised people.

You can follow updates from IMP HOUR here: @IMP_HOUR

First image shows a drawn blue cat. Credit for the image goes to Keelin Coyle

Second image shows a sign at a protest with the words “I am not a walking womb”. Credit for the image goes to Sandra

Third image shows women at a protest with signs which say “abortion rights now”. Credit for the image goes to William Murphy