Farmer and pop star (what a combination) Colm Conlan reflects on lockdowns past, and the current iteration, and the particular and unique toll they have taken, and continue to take, on the LGBTQ+ community…
Yes I’m a pop star, no I haven’t released any music.
I lead a dual life. I’m basically Hannah Montana, but if she were a beef farmer who happens to also be vegetarian and someone who threatens their twitter followers with impending pop-stardom. Think a little less Miley Cyrus and a little more Miley Byrne from Glenroe. A musician pal of mine has often remarked that I need to be more delusional and less cynical in terms of my artistic self-actualisation, and I agree with her.
It is 2016 and I am smug about still being in my early twenties – with the untimely death of my mother (straight in with the heavy stuff, sorry!) I found myself spiralling, as one would expect. I unceremoniously uprooted myself from my flat and a job I felt quite secure in, then tripped over myself rushing back home to the farm in Co Kildare. My tenure at home was only supposed to be for three weeks originally. Then I said I’d wait till after the Christmas to brave the return to Dublin. A time permeated with texts from a dear friend and flatmate; “are you… coming back?” until I eventually realised that actually; Dublin is terrifying, and the act of leaving the house made me incredibly anxious. With that, I decided to move home for a longer stint.
When my uncle was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 he became unable to manage his farm on his own, and I found myself landed with another series of decisions that I almost wished to have made for me, not unlike when Netflix asks “Are you still watching?”.
Yes, I am seeing what is in front of me, but am I really paying attention? I daydreamed in hope my mother would come to me in a vision and tell me exactly what to do, but I had begun to suspect she had decided to play the long-game in terms of a spiritual apparition; I dutifully took heed.
My uncle needed help, and although I felt unqualified to give it, I started running his farm day-to-day. A beef herd usually sympathetic to my learning curve but unruly enough to keep me on my toes. The cattle became used to seeing this nervous but well-meaning stranger and started to trust me rather quickly, which surprised me. At first I thought it was because I’m a vegetarian (I often think that cattle know, you know?).
A small jump forward to the beginning of 2020, I’m now in a farm partnership and actually know what I’m doing for the first time in my life, as we head into the start of calving season. I had met my wonderful boyfriend on a blind date at a festival in 2019, and he has proven himself an excellent co-parent for my dog Nina. I’ve also started to write music that I actually like (including two songs rejected in consecutive Irish Eurovision selections). At this point, when I hear the question “Are ya still at the music?”, I am finally saying “Yes!”, quite proudly, and without making excuses of it being fierce quiet at the moment.
Image from Colm @dubhsongs on Instagram
Then there are murmurs of this strange virus on the news trickling in to Europe, to Ireland. A time when I begin to wipe down the keys of the local hotel’s grand piano before my weekly lounge gig for fear of unfamiliar hands, amid tentative forewarnings from the entertainment manager of it “possibly quieting down for a few weeks”. In the vortex of COVID-19, the nation-wide lockdown seems to arrive in the blink of an eye. I am disappointed to learn I can no longer provide requiem music for families saying goodbye to their loved ones.
Wedding bookings are gone, and with that goes most of my income. I am no longer really at the music. I dive into the farm work, and become that person with a string of dots atop their Instagram story as I try and sing as many song requests as I can to distract an idle mind. I enshrine my last big night out with my boyfriend at a drag show in my memory and tell myself I’ll see him, my friends, and a queen performing some Róisín Murphy, in a few short weeks. To echo Cher’s immortal tweet from 2012; “What’s going on with my career”.
Feelings of loneliness frequently visit when living on a farm. Hoping my schedule can align with my two sisters’. Weekends and evening are sometimes sacrificed in favour of getting the necessary work done. Being in lockdown takes those fleeting feelings of isolation to unprecedented lows. Being a queer person, often away from our partners, queer-friendly physical spaces, and chosen families felt the toughest of all.
My original outline for this piece was to be a reflection on the ‘past-tense’ stringent lockdown measures, until localised concurrent Kildare and Dublin lockdowns become another strange new aspect to pandemic reality. I wanted to understand more of what the emergency restrictive measures meant for the wider LGBTQ+ community, and so I reached out to some of my pals, and my partner Brian for a chat about their journey through rural lockdown. We did not use Zoom, as I intend to never again use the cursed medium for as long as is possible. Blessed are the WhatsApp voice-notes.
The first person I reached out to was Niamh, who lives with her fiancé Helen in Wexford. For the most part, our Instagram DM conversations are us sending songs to each other and musings on our mutual adoration of Jessie Ware, but today the conversation is all about being gay and keeping it country in lockdown.
“Initially, I think like many people, I enjoyed the bit of down-time and felt pretty much at ease with the absence of FOMO I tend to have living away from Dublin. My social life almost entirely exists in Dublin as many of my nearest and dearest friends are there. I am also a rare breed where I do not know how to drive, and depend on my beautiful fiancé and public transport – so seeing these friends, even socially-distanced in a garden, wasn’t really an option”
We both readily acknowledge some of the more negative aspects of lockdown we shared “I found myself drinking midweek far more, and clung to the hope of a zoom call or quiz at the end of each week”, but as restrictions began to ease, and the novelty of a quiz became tiresome, our friends we have in the city were less reliant on Zoom, as they could see each other in person from a distance. I laugh, and I despair when Niamh says “I was still essentially stuck in the previous phase, and it nearly felt like being back in the closet”. Never a truer word spoken. “This was when I felt a pang of envy towards those who could bring back some sense of normalcy to their social life, and I was still unable to feel fully myself for a longer period”.
Niamh very kindly opens up to me about her relationship with her mental-health; “I suffer with anxiety, but I do feel much stronger in ways as a result of the lockdown, in that something so impossible to predict helps you to take and appreciate each day as it comes. Although I missed my friends, the health of loved-ones and my responsibilities with helping them stay safe kept me motivated to power through”
We reminisce about Pride celebrations, and wishing we could have celebrated Pride 2020 together in person, at a time when it was needed so much. “I haven’t missed a Dublin Pride in ten years, so it felt very strange to have such a quiet one! Some friends were meeting up to see each other from a distance and have a celebratory drink in parks or gardens, but living so far away, it wasn’t quite so easy for me as I would be risking potential exposure on public transport, and being around multiple larger groups. I had to make a judgement call, and made the decision on missing out for the most part”.
We speak about our relationships with our identity at length, and how we unwind in similar ways. We both lead our dual rural/city lives similarly – “Working Monday to Friday, and going to Dublin every other weekend to let loose, and flocking to our safe spaces. I believe the restrictions took a particular toll on country LGBTQ+ folk.”
BRIAN, DUBLIN (BY WAY OF WICKLOW)
“What happens when a malevolent virus keeps you from seeing the man of your dreams for months on end?” I ask Brian, without a shred of modesty. Brian and I had geared up for a period of it being tougher to see each other – Brian had moved from Dublin to Wicklow at the end of December in order to save towards his own place in the city, and thus began the long commute every day into work. When lockdown did arrive, Brian admits “It was a welcome reprieve from the madness, and a good chance to put the brakes on. It was my first time living at home since I was 17/18, and thankfully I managed to maintain that peace during such an intense timeline”. Would he do it again? “Hopefully not. We do not want to go back to episode one of Lockdown Lives. I very much missed the normalcy of seeing my friends and family, my boyfriend”.
“Although lockdown did give me a chance to switch off, walk through the fields at home, and spend quality time with my parents – I missed my regular day-to-day life. Not being able to be spontaneous, to be there for a friend if they needed it was particularly tough. Seeing the ones I miss most struggle in such a restrictive time was easily the hardest aspect for me.”
We chatted about our simulated nights out, the Zoom quizzes, the livestreams: “I hadn’t been going out to many specific queer spaces as I had been on that long commute for a few months prior to lockdown, but one staple of the pandemic was definitely Victoria & Davina’s weekly online drag show – where me and Colm got to guarantee a few hours to watch something together, have a drink, and have a laugh at the queens’ antics; almost like the real thing!”
“Eventually, I moved back to Dublin in June to my new place – which coincided with restrictions easing. Originally, I had meant to be moved in last March, but just as construction was about to finish, it halted. Seeing Colm again was like meeting for the first time all over. We met on a blind date – and three months apart gave a different kind of butterflies; wondering whether we should social-distance the first time we got to see each other in a post-lockdown scenario. Having realised we both hadn’t really seen anyone in the weeks prior, we realised we would be able to embrace, to have some sense of normalcy back in our relationship”
Asking how it feels to be back in Dublin Brian says; “ I missed the atmosphere, missed the spaces, missed the busyness – but it’s very much a different Dublin now”.
Naturally, in a post COVID-19 world, myself and Brian are now experiencing another relationship lockdown, as Dublin enters its own restrictive period, in what will be our third experience of such since March. Alexa, play Gotta Get Thru This by Daniel Bedingfield.
Fellow Kildare legend Aimee also very kindly hashed it out with me over voice-notes about where our experiences meet, the challenges of navigating isolation as a queer person, and as a Lilywhite. “At the beginning of national lockdown, a couple of weeks into it, I found myself saying; ‘I miss Dublin, and I miss the hubs we gravitate towards, queer communities, and spaces with an feeling of innate safety’”. Spaces where we would go to meet a friend, read a book on your own and have a coffee, somewhere with the pride flag hanging from a window; “These places don’t exist in Kildare, a space where you can almost sigh with relief once you pass through the door”. They told me they were missing those spaces, but as restrictions were gradually lifting, they (like myself), had a brief window to see their partner – in between Lockdown and aforementioned Lockdown 2.0 (the Kildare limited edition).
“Lately I’ve been reading a lot of queer memoirs, in which they speak about their journeys in activism, toward self-acceptance, and simply feeling valid… existing!” Aimee laughs, but they go on to note they have gotten to a point of “A sort jealousy or frustration towards the feeling I don’t have that sense of community anywhere other than larger cities like Dublin, Galway, Cork… I feel envious of the sense of community that everyone else gets to have in their local towns or cities, and not having to think twice about that conservative neighbour up the road who might shout at me when they see me wearing my pride badge”
“I miss the queer spaces, but not quite as much as I miss the sense of community”.
We both remarked in our chat about missing ‘The Nod’ – “like when you see two older people chatting in a post office queue who may not know each other that well – it’s that nod you exchange when you pass another queer person – nod of solidarity. When you live in a more rural setting, we tend to keep our head down that bit more. There’s very much a divide in my mentality of how I express myself, and how I feel within myself in Kildare, as opposed to how I feel in Dublin, as the community I have chosen doesn’t necessarily always extend out beyond urban areas”
Aimee acknowledges they feel lucky to live with a sibling who is LGBTQ+ – “I don’t feel completely isolated, like I’m sure some of the wider queer community outside of major cities must feel. I don’t enjoy feeling forced into a city just to attain a sense of community and security – ideally I’d love to always live in a small town, where you really know your neighbours and can ask for a cup of sugar, to throw an eye on your house while you’re away – but the ever present fear of encountering homophobia and transphobia can make that seem unattainable”.
Aimee and I share a laugh over our penchant for queer-hosted podcasts like ‘’m Grand Mam, where we liken it to two gas strangers at the next table in Street 66 including us in their conversation, free from judgement, and feeling safe and relaxed. The value of Irish and queer-led media during a global pandemic cannot be understated.
Kildare has been tentatively freed from lockdown, as Dublin enters its own, and that veil of uncertainty still looms over the next number of months, even years, about where we will find ourselves. Reader, I promise to soon deliver my threat of being the pop star farmer no one was aware they needed.