Article By Kathryn Johnston - Photography by BRUCE WANG
Taryn de Vere in her own words
Interviewed by Kathryn Johnston, photographed by Bruce Wang.
Letterkenny, Co Donegal
‘Possibly the most colourful person in Ireland’.
Isn’t that what they say about you, Taryn, I asked her once.
Her reply was: ‘I’m open to the idea that there is someone more colourful out there and - if there is - I want to meet them and be their friend.’
Hot Press, the Irish music and political publication, described her in 2019 as ‘an artist, writer and fashion activist living in Donegal’.
And she is.
But they missed out on the big picture.
Taryn de Vere is a working journalist, a trade unionist, a performance artist, an LGBTQ+ activist, a designer of jewellery, clothes and head dresses, a public speaker, and a mother of five children, with a strong social media presence - she has just under 50,000 followers on the five platforms she uses.
She is also a pro-choice activist who once accidentally admitted in writing to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that she had taken abortion pills, which at the time were illegal in Northern Ireland.
Taryn, who is originally from Bondi Junction in Australia where there is a large settled Irish population, moved to Belfast in 1998 just before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which followed the historic ceasefires of the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries in 1994.
The vote was taken on 22 May 1998, with over 71% of the people of Northern Ireland voting in support of the Agreement. As the 25th anniversary of the GFA approaches in 2023, some are already calling for the Agreement to be renegotiated.
Of her early years in Belfast, Taryn de Vere said:
‘I always feel like Belfast is my home on this island because that’s the place I first lived and got to know. I lived in the Holy Land area. It was interesting to be here before the GFA. I worked in a bar in Belfast, at that time they told me it was the most bombed bar in Europe.
‘I didn’t realise the significance of one event just after I moved to Belfast until many years later. While I was working in the bar, my younger brother died of cancer. I had just arrived in Northern Ireland when that happened, and my workplace organised a service at a Catholic church.
‘All the people I worked with went to the service, regardless of whether they were Protestant or Catholic.
‘When you live here for a while, you know what religion people are from their names, you know from where they live. But back then, I only knew who was Protestant and who was Catholic by who knew when to sit down!
‘The narrative of the late 90s was that Belfast was very divided, with widespread segregation between the unionist and republican communities. Yet my experience was very different. Everyone from my workplace – and that was a mixed, cross community workforce – came to the service for my brother in a Catholic church, for me, because my brother died.
‘So I have always had some doubt that the narrative was really accurate for the time, because before the Good Friday Agreement, that workforce was all willing to walk into a Catholic church to support me.
Not long after that, she moved to Donegal in the Republic of Ireland with her now ex-husband.
‘This is where I’ll be till my youngest finishes school, I think. I have five kids. My youngest is 11, and the others are 13, 16, 19 and 21.
‘I’ve applied for my Irish citizenship, and if I get that, it will mean that I can move back to Northern Ireland which has always been a thing for me. I love Derry, I think people there are a bit more open to my brand of weirdness than people in Donegal.’
At the start of January this year, de Vere decided to take the month off work. Ireland was still under the covid lockdown and fears of rising omicron cases meant that she would be housebound. So she challenged herself to dress as a different household object every day.
‘From the 1st of January this year, I did the #ObjectDressChallenge, which accidentally became a worldwide phenomenon – according to an Australian newspaper anyway.’
She was interviewed by Kay Burley on Sky News - as well as other interviews broadcast in Germany, the US and Australia - wearing outfits ranging from sink and pipe unblocker, and a box of Quality Street to a can of Guinness and a litre of milk. Her only rule was that the outfits all had to be sustainable, so she restricted herself to materials she already had.
‘When I go to Derry, I get strangers coming up to me and telling me they love my outfits and being really open and friendly with me, whereas in Donegal you get a little bit of that, but you also get a lot of suspicious and dark looks.
‘When I moved to Donegal at first, I was a florist. I think I’ve had a total of 29 occupations at the last count - I don’t tend to do a job for very long because I get bored.
‘Then I worked for Her.ie [an online Irish magazine which has a monthly audience of 1.4 million]. That was during the Referendum. It was a great time to be working as a journalist.’
She is referring to the Irish abortion referendum, held in May 2018, where the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to overturn the abortion ban by 66.4% to 33.6%.
Prior to that, abortion was only allowed when a woman's life is at risk, but not in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
The Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, which granted an equal right to life to the mother and unborn, was replaced.
The only constituency to vote against repealing the Eighth amendment was Taryn’s home county of Donegal, with 51.9% voting against the change.
‘The day of the Referendum was an amazing day – that night when the exit poll came out…that was so joyful. I had gone to Dublin because I had done a performance art piece as the Pro-Choice Princess at the Repeal the 8th marches and protests and rallies.
‘As part of the performance I had printed up all these cards, which said “By order of the Pro-Choice Princess, this card entitles the bearer to bodily autonomy”. They were all done up, all fancy and beautiful.
‘So I handed them out to people, and I had a little wand, so I would wave this and say, ‘I grant you bodily autonomy’.
‘On the day of the vote, the 26th of May, I brought the Pro-Choice Princess down to Dublin. I walked around the streets of Dublin - the Sunday Times wrote about it in a piece about fashion activism and the referendum.’
Full reproductive rights remain restricted in Northern Ireland.
Access to abortion has been available in Northern Ireland since April 2020 when new laws came into force, but is largely limited to early medical terminations up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Those seeking abortion services not yet provided by NI Health Trusts can access services in Great Britain through arrangements that are funded by the Department of Health.
Last year, the NI Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, ordered the Department of Health to get approval from the executive to establish services by no later than March 2022. Since this month’s Assembly election, Lewis has ordered the Minister of Health to start the immediate commissioning of abortion services.
This month’s elections saw Sinn Fein overtake the Democratic Unionist Party as the largest party in Stormont and there is currently complete deadlock on the formation of an Assembly Executive and the stalemate means that the commissioning of services has been indefinitely held up.
Up until April 2020 there was a complete ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, with women being criminalised under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 for attempting to seek an abortion. In Northern Ireland, the 1861 Act was the basis for a ban on abortion until 2019 when it was amended by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
As a pro-choice activist on both sides of the Irish border, Taryn de Vere was very engaged in protest rallies and remembers clearly the punitive actions against women and girls at that time.
‘A young woman was charged under the Offences Ageist the State Act as recently as 2016. She hadn’t been able to raise enough money to travel to England for a termination and was eventually given a suspended sentence for buying drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage.’
‘At that time, as part of the public protests against her court case, I accidentally admitted in writing to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to committing a crime that I didn’t actually commit, which was a very me story.
‘Obviously I am in abortion rights groups on both sides of the border, because I’m very active in Derry as well. And fighting for abortion rights in Northern Ireland is just as important as fighting for abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland.
‘So I was in this pro-choice group in Northern Ireland at the same time as that young girl had been arrested. One of the other women in the group had put up a post saying we’re going to write a letter of complaint about this, so read the letter and if you want to sign it, sign it.
‘Now the letter was really long, and I just read some of it, like the first few paragraphs. And I was like, yeah, it’s outrageous that this young woman has been arrested, this is outrageous and of course put my name down.
‘About a week later, there were a whole series of stories talking about the Northern Irish women who wanted to be arrested over illegal abortion pills.
‘And I was like, oh what’s happened? So I read the articles, they were all about how these activists had admitted taking abortion pills in Northern Ireland illegally and inviting the PSNI to arrest them. And one paper published all the names on the letter.
‘So I’m reading through them - I knew a lot of the names on the list. And suddenly I saw my own name on the list!
‘I wouldn’t have minded if I’d done it, but the thing that frightened me was the fact that at the time I didn’t have citizenship in Ireland. When you make your citizenship application you must declare whether you have committed any crimes. I did worry a lot about my residency situation and that did freak me out, for example, what if I was arrested?
‘Only I could admit to a crime in writing and invite the PSNI to arrest me.
‘A typical Taryn story, I am afraid.’
Living so close to the Irish border, Taryn frequently participates in events in Derry.
‘I did my Ted Talk in Derry. It was about fashion policing and the double standards of gender expression.
‘I have a kind of a policy of agreeing to do things that sound scary, but in a good way. So I said yes, but only if I could talk about something that was going to be helpful…I didn’t want to go and talk about me. Since I had been given this platform, I wanted to use the opportunity to talk about a situation or a group that was more oppressed than me.
‘So I decided to talk about my daughter, who is trans, and her experience.’
In the talk, she tells the audience about the time ‘when my daughter first told me, aged five, that she wasn’t the boy I thought she was, but she was in fact a girl.’
‘Since having a trans child I’ve obviously become very involved with the trans community. I’m a trans activist and I’m very supportive of trans rights, trans healthcare and children’s experience…It’s difficult in Donegal, because there are no groups for young trans people, and she was five when she told me.
‘There wasn’t any support, so we are just really muddling along. The school didn’t really know what to do, so they asked us how they could help, - they’ve been great, they’ve been really supportive.
‘My daughter’s fine, she’s flying. She’s so lucky, because I know of a lot of groups on both sides of the border where parents have trans kids, and there are a lot of difficulties and a lot of trauma and a lot of bullying and a lot of unsupportive people in those children’s lives.
‘I used to go over the border to the Rainbow Centre, to their group for parents and families of trans kids but it was nearly all people who had adult children, there wasn’t really anyone there at that time who had a child as young as mine.
‘When you’re in that type of situation, you go online, and you find support there. I already knew a lot of trans activists through LGBTQ+ groups – I am bisexual myself – so I had already been involved in lots of those communities.
‘Parenting a trans child hasn’t really been that different than parenting my other children, except for the fact that loads of people online like to call me a child abuser. So you do get that, and I have got a lot of hate and a lot of abusive messages.
‘I’ve had messages from people saying they’re reporting me to social services to get my kids taken off me. I’ve had messages telling me you should be shot, threatening violence against me.
‘What I do now is I just don’t open unsolicited messages anymore. But I have to say that my experience of social media has in general been incredibly positive – it works so well for people who are neurodivergent, which I am, and I have autism – it’s a great space for people like me.
‘I do much better writing my own words, creating my own words online, than I would do talking to people.
‘Social media is great for me because I’m able to have a community – I’m in Donegal with a bunch of kids, I couldn’t go to Dublin to everything that’s happening there, all the meetings. As an activist, I felt properly connected with the activist community in both Northern Ireland and in Ireland.’
De Vere has kept up her freelance journalism since the Referendum and has written for the Irish Independent, The Journal and The Irish Times, among others.
She also started managing social media accounts.
When asked if that makes her an influencer, she laughed, before saying:
‘I’m not so sure about that…But I’ve got just under 50,000 followers across all my platforms. That’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium and TikTok.’
One of her higher profile followers is novelist, Marian Keyes, originally from Ireland, who has sold more than 35 million copies of her books on themes which include alcoholism, depression, addiction, cancer, bereavement, and domestic violence.
Taryn de Vere acknowledges the boost that Keyes’ support has given her.
‘I’m a big fan of Marian Keyes. She is such a fantastic person for supporting other women writers. She always takes the time to read the work of women writers and to share their work and I’ve been very lucky that she’s shared mine. Marian really is a lovely person - I’m very, very lucky to know so many very supportive people.
On her Twitter profile, she describes herself as ‘Joy Bringer, Writer, Artist.’
‘At the moment I’m doing a campaign #365DaysOfJoy, so I am focusing on joy every day as a practice.
‘The first month of the campaign, I did little videos illustrating joyful practices every day. In this second month I want to spend time in appreciation, so I’m being appreciative of something every day. At least one thing.
‘Obviously everybody has situations and people in their lives that they find difficult, that are challenging. These are the issues that prompt me to say, ok, what do I need to move on from here, how can I remove that feeling to move to a slightly better place.
‘I’ve found that the whole project so far has made me a lot more conscious of how I’m feeling in the moment. I notice when I’m not feeling good. And sometimes I just stop people in the middle of a conversation and say that this is really not making me feel good, can we stop talking about this? Or I’m just going to move over here. I don’t really know what purpose feeling bad serves.
‘But do you know what is fascinating about this? It’s just amazing how resistant some people are to this and how angry it makes some people – the idea that you would spend a few minutes each day prioritising joy. That blows my mind.
‘I was on the radio the other day talking about #365DaysOfJoy and somebody rang in and said, like, that is ridiculous, who has time for that? EVERY DAY? The woman who was interviewing me asked me, what would you say to that, Taryn? And I said, what does that person think the point of life is? Is the point of life not to try and get as much joy as we can? Because we don’t know are we going to die today, we have no idea. That’s rough, that’s a rough place to be in.’
Taryn de Vere’s first marriage ended after around three years and since then, she has married the same person seven times.
‘My partner Andrew and I, we talked about getting married - but I had already been married before and I didn’t want to get married again. I was like, I tried marriage, and no thank you, it wasn’t for me.
‘And then we talked about maybe we could completely reimagine the idea of marriage and the idea of a wedding and what it would be like with a feminist ethos if equality was at the heart of it. And if it was something that reflected our will, rather than the will of the state or the will of the church.
‘So we sat down, and we wrote a ceremony that reflected what the two of us were interested in about each other and about our relationship. And one of the things that we both agreed on was that we were both really committed to growing as people, growing and changing and learning. We understand that the nature of life is that you do that. You are not always the same person as you were five years ago.
‘That was the start of our repeated marriages. The first one for strangers was when a friend of ours, Kerry Doherty, was supposed to come to our wedding but she had to move back to Edinburgh. So we said, we’ll come there, and we’ll get married for you.
‘So we went, and we walked around dressed as bride and groom and we just invited people that we met to come to our wedding. Otherwise it would just have been us and Kerry. We had this lovely little intimate wedding in a park in Edinburgh, with a guy from New York and a woman from Sri Lanka, a couple from Edinburgh and our friend Kerry.
‘It was beautiful and really moving. We could tell that we had really touched these people, these strangers. And that got us into the idea of getting married in front of strangers.
‘We get married again every few years when we feel we’ve changed enough as people. So we discuss how we’ve both grown a lot since the last time we got married, do we still choose this relationship, and do we still choose to be married. And if we do, then we have another wedding. So far, we have had seven.
‘They always follow the same pattern.
‘The new Taryn marries the new Andrew.
‘And then we walk around the streets of wherever we get married and invite strangers to the wedding, which is always somewhere in public. We invite one of the guests to be the celebrant and we give them a sheet with the order of service. People cry, they really cry and tell us how they could feel the love and how emotional it was for them.
‘Although they are real weddings – because you can’t fake the feeling of love - in a way we see them as a piece of performance art as well.
‘We’re due another wedding so we’re scouting for a venue. We don’t live together, so we’re just waiting to see when we’re going to be in the same city at the same time.
‘Our weddings are always free, they don’t cost us anything, I usually find a bouquet along the way, I pick some flowers or something. Sometimes we go to the pub afterwards for a drink and ask the guests if they would like to join us. Some of them have become friends. It’s all very casual, the only real signifiers are that we are dressed as a bride and a groom. I tend to wear something understated, a vintage or second-hand wedding gown, sometimes a veil, and a bouquet. They’re not massively fairy-tale wedding dresses. One of them was a 1930s nightie, it was beautiful.’
We had met Taryn at a café in Letterkenny, where we sat under an awning drinking coffee as the rain drummed down above us, and the traffic rumbled in the background. It was time to think about moving on. But we wanted to find out what Taryn was planning for the future.
‘As I say, I get bored quite easily, so I’m always looking for new opportunities. I’d love to do a little afternoon or early evening radio show. I think we need a bit more joy in the world, and I’d like to promote the diversity that is all around us.
‘I’ve lost count of the people who contact me saying how much joy I’ve brought into their day and that’s a beautiful feeling. I’d love to do a radio show because I know how many people listen to the radio every day and I’d like to be able to reach out to them. So if Radio Ulster or Radio Foyle see this, they know how to get in touch with me on social media!’
At the end of the interview, a woman opening her car door comes over to our table.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to interrupt you, but I just had to tell you how much you’ve brightened my day, so thank you for that.’
It kind of copper fastened the case for a Taryn de Vere radio show.
Taryn de Vere is on Twitter @TarynDeVere.