Pulse (for the Irish Times)

On Saturday I woke to the horrible news that a young singer had been senselessly shot while signing autographs at a venue just 5 miles (8km) from our house. I shook my head and lamented the loss of this young life, and the fact that Orlando would now be synonymous with the violent act of one crazed man.

On Sunday I woke up to the sounds of helicopters hovering in the airspace over my house. Scrolling through my newsfeed minutes later I learned, with horror, about the shooting at Pulse Nightclub, less than a mile from our front door.

I pass Pulse every day on my drive to work. In its past incarnation as Dante’s Restaurant, my husband and I and a group of friends used to enjoy Thursday happy hours there every week. Since it became Pulse we’ve visited a few times, even held my sister Audrey’s hen night there a few years back.

Now, the early morning news said, 20 people were lying dead inside those walls. I tried to wrap my mind around that, and couldn’t.

I stepped out front and saw our neighbour Fred across the street, partially obscured by the large rainbow flag that flies in his yard. I put my hands up to the sky – what gives? Fred walked towards me with tears in his eyes. We hugged and he told me that he was frantically trying to get hold of his brother, who is often at Pulse on a Saturday night. He told me he was leaving for church. I told him I felt I needed to go too.

I hastily dressed and 10 minutes later was sitting in a pew at Christchurch Unity, a non-denominational church with about a 50 per cent gay congregation. People were hugging each other, sitting looking stunned, crying. Fred told me he’d been in touch with his brother and he was safe. I listened to the uplifting message of tolerance and love and, feeling somewhat better, headed home.

My husband was home from his shift at Winter Park Fire Department by then. He had been unaware of events at Pulse. His crew did run calls for Orange County overnight, but hadn’t known why. He told me the number of dead had been raised to 50 and that this shooting, a stone’s throw from our house, was now being labelled the worst mass shooting in American history. None of us could comprehend the magnitude of that. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando. How is that possible? Down the road. Madness.

Our 18-year-old, Ciara, suggested we go donate blood. My sister had already dropped her young children off so she could do so too. I called home to Cork to let our parents know we were well.

At 10.30am we arrived at the blood centre to see a long line of people reaching out to the street and wrapping back around again into the parking lot. We found my sister Audrey, standing with our friend Lu Hanbury from Dublin, and began our wait. The crowd, a mix of all the demographics, was sombre. People were crying, hugging and expressing pure disbelief that such hatred and violence had visited us in the City Beautiful.

Volunteers were distributing water, snacks and sunscreen to those of us in line. June in Orlando is brutally hot. As we waited the donations got more elaborate. Local restaurants sent employees laden with burritos, ice creams, pizza and subs. An ex-Orlando Magic player, very concerned with everyone’s hydration levels, handed out water bottles insistently. A bank of portable toilets was delivered.

News crews from all over interviewed the people in line. We saw crews from Norway, China, England and Vietnam. The sombre feeling of the morning lifted as the hours passed by, and a strangely muted festive atmosphere settled in. We felt we were part of something, part of a solution, and we were held up by each other.

The lines were amazing; one reporter speculated as many as 1,000 people were at our site alone. When officials from One Blood came to speak to us, about three hours into the wait, to tell us we were likely to be in line for as many as five more hours, hardly anyone left.

Audrey and I had our donation plans thwarted by a Mad Cow Disease restriction on those of us who lived in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 90s. We waited with Ciara, because she was still free to donate. When she got to the registration point we left her to go grab a drink and digest the happenings of the day.

Shortly after we arrived at Vanbarry’s, a restaurant owned by a friend of ours, we realised we had been carried along on a wave of altruism and unity to that point. Separated from the crowd we were left to consider the reality of the violence. The two helicopters still hovering in sight were a stark reminder.

Loud music played and a large group of drunk people seemed oblivious to the fact that the worst mass shooting in US history had just occurred just 3km away. It seemed bizarre. I felt oddly annoyed that the whole place wasn’t full of people hugging and crying. Audrey and I sipped our beers and barely spoke.

I saw him then. A young man intermittently sobbing and staring into space. Wanting to share some of the solidarity we felt at One Blood, and wanting to feel that connection again ourselves, we went and hugged him. His friends told me he worked at the restaurant and had lost multiple friends at Pulse. I asked how he was even vertical, and they told me he needed to be with his work family – he needed their support.

Other patrons followed suit and shared their condolences and hugs. A few minutes before 6pm, everyone gathered around a TV for a live news report and, though not observed on the news station we were tuned to, one of the bartenders announced there would be a minute’s silence. Our friend fell to the floor and his support dissolved around him. It was heartbreaking.

My husband called from One Blood, where he had gone to Ciara, and I went to join them. It had been almost 11 hours since we first joined the line. Inside were the people who had been around us in that line, sun burnt and exhausted but still managing smiles. Amazingly, the staff inside the centre were still smiling too, even as the TVs on the walls reminded us of the horrific reason we had all come together.

News crews were still interviewing donors; a persistent crew from Vietnam filmed needles going in to veins. A photographer shot multiple frames of bags of blood lying on a cart. I watched my daughter’s blood flow into a bag next to her gurney and thanked God she was one of the people able to help, rather than one of those in need of help.

My daughter’s first time donating blood was on the day that the worst mass shooting in US history occurred less than a mile from our home.

I reread that sentence and still can’t come to grips with it. It was a long and harrowing day.

Here’s the thing I take away from this; evil visited but love lives here. One man brought the hate but thousands replied with love. Psychological scars will remain, and I wonder how long it will take, passing Pulse on the way to work, before I won’t think of this day. But I feel more bonded to my community now than ever before. Orlando Proud.


Dear Ireland – Let’s Talk


Dear Ireland

Sometimes, while having pints here in Orlando with English friends, my husband will slap one of the lads on the shoulder and joke, “800 years of oppression – the next round’s yours!”  We have lots of wonderful English friends, who we don’t, of course, hold personally responsible for the 800 years of oppression that the Irish suffered, but that line gets a laugh, and occasionally even, a beer.

We grew up in Cork, at a point in history when most of the indignity and oppression was over with.  It was almost over because many brave souls (family members included) who came before us, stood up and spoke out, and fought hard for their rights. And their day (our day) did come.  Well, mostly; we didn’t get all of Ireland back, but we got 26 counties.

We had our (partial) victory over British rule where many other, much larger, countries failed.  We accomplished this because we couldn’t live under the tyranny of oppression and injustice.  As Irish people, we simply refused to accept that as a condition of our lives. We Irish are fighters for justice and equality. We work to make things even, no matter where we are. When we crossed the ocean to America, we were greeted with “No Irish Need Apply” signs.  Today we make up 10% of the American population.

So, Ireland, I have to ask; is it really a huge surprise that our Irish gay population are standing up and asking for equity in their lives? Is it a stretch to think that they feel they should have the same rights that the rest of their country enjoy, and are fighting for those rights? They are the subjugated now; they are the underdog when it comes to the legal recognition of their relationships. They are gay, but they are also Irish, and  It would be simply un-Irish of them not to stand up and fight for equal treatment.

The Irish, having suffered subjugation first hand, are world renowned champions of the underdog. We have provided the world with peace keeping forces in the Lebanon, Bob Geldof, Bono, and even Mother Teresa (totally inspired by her time in Ireland). We are the country of Concern, Trocaire, and Mary Robinson.  For a small country, we are pretty darn fabulous in our positive effect on the world. The World Giving Index (2014) ranks Ireland as number four in all the world for donating money to charitable causes. We are a generous bunch. So why is there even a thought of not voting yes in the marriage referendum in May? Can’t we be generous with our own?

Don’t tell me that gays and lesbians are different. Don’t tell me that they don’t deserve the same civil rights as the rest of us. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see marriage redefined (ahem, we’ve already redefined that rather seriously, by the way).  Don’t even begin to tell me that you are planning on voting against gay marriage because God isn’t keen on the gays.  In the Bible, God mentions his disapproval of shrimp far more than his disapproval of homosexuality, but should there be an Irish referendum on the sanctity of the prawn cocktail, I think we know what the outcome would be.

So what if the priests tell us gay marriage is wrong?  As a country we have evolved beyond the autocracy of the church – we do have free will, after all.  And even at that, this is a legal matter, not a religious one. But if you have to think religiously, I feel that God will not judge us for being loving, for being inclusive, for being accepting. Seriously, who do you think Jesus would want to be associated with – the people who shun and cast judgement on consenting, loving adults, or the people who say that everyone deserves to be treated equally?  Jesus was known for being a bit of an advocate for the underdog, if I remember correctly (I’m pretty sure he was bit Irish).

And so what if we don’t like the thought of two guys or two girls having sex?  You also probably don’t like the thought of the next door neighbors having sex –but that doesn’t exclude them from the right to the same civil liberties you enjoy.  And please don’t confuse the issue with that of having children. Being “straight married”, being “gay married”, or being unmarried – marriage is not actually a physical condition of parenthood one way or the other.

So let’s just say that 3% of the world’s population is attracted to the same gender.  Are we really happy, as a nation, to declare, by vote, that we don’t think those people should enjoy the same rights we do?  How would you feel if any 3% of the Irish population was told by another authority that they were not entitled to the same rights as the other 97%?  Sorry, no mass or class for you – go find a hedge, and be grateful.  Sorry, not your language – ours.  Does that get your back up?  How about, sorry, no marriage for you – take civil partnership, and be happy with it. Is that OK?   Could you be personally responsible for that?

Well, we are Irish.   Rebellion is practically genetic (especially if you are from Cork).  We are the country of the arts.  We are the country of writers, actors, film producers, singers and rabble rousers. We are the educated. We are the creative.  We are the inclusive. We have been the subjugated. We don’t stand for that anymore.  We stand for equality throughout the world.  We must certainly take a stand for it in our own country.

So my dear Ireland, let’s get it right the first time around here. Our gay brothers and sisters were given their 26 counties in 2010 in the form of civil partnership.  We understand too well the lingering hangover that comes from being granted almost what you want – given partially what you feel is your due.  In this instance, WE have the power.  Let’s get this done all the way for our countrymen – let’s make sure they get their other 6.  We do this by voting yes on gay marriage. Get out and mark your ballot. Equality is our thing. Now it’s our time. May 22nd – say yes.


Cathy Tobin