The anti-fascist rally I attended consisted of about 100-200 masked attendees. It spread out from the Spire to the Jim Larkin statue on O’Connell Street, in the plaza between the lanes of traffic. More watched from footpaths on either side. It was organised by 23 different groups, including United Against Racism, Trans And Intersex Pride and USI.
The speakers were a mixture of frontline workers, left-wing politicians and advocates for anti-racism and LGBT+ groups. They spoke of the threat of the Irish alt-right that had been emboldened by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to protect the rights of vulnerable communities.
While it was sobering to reflect on the many flaws in Irish society, I left the rally hopeful that liberal groups were mobilising to combat fascist ideology. It felt good to be able to protest in person again, and I was relieved to see how consistently social distancing measures had been adhered to throughout.
Cycling home that afternoon, I heard a roaring crowd the next street over, and spotted a road blocked off by Gardaí. I decided to investigate and to my shock, saw an enormous gathering. It was impossible to count but it seemed like there must have been several thousand people. The only people wearing masks seemed to be journalists like me, and there was certainly no social distancing as the attendees packed in tight around speakers at the centre.
It was almost like a twisted St Patrick’s Day parade, with Irish flags draped on shoulders or held high above the crowds, though the banners had unsettling slogans like “This isn’t about the virus, this is about control”, or “I will not be masked”. The speeches I heard seemed to tie the pandemic (or “plandemic” as some called it, implying it was an orchestrated hoax) to a wide range of seemingly unconnected issues, from criticising the EU to the “fake news media”. It was like a hybrid of a Trump rally and Brexit rhetoric, but for an Irish audience - one of the speeches was even given as Gaeilge.
As a man wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat walked past, I suddenly became aware that I was still wearing my Pride jumper, and quickly took it off, turning it inside out to hide the rainbow sleeves. I put back on my helmet to cover my short hair, and used the jumper to cover the contents of my bike basket, which included a DVD boxset of The L Word – of all things to bring to an alt-right rally.
I wondered if I was being paranoid by covering up these obvious indicators of my queerness. After all, wasn’t this the same country that just marked five years since the Marriage Equality referendum? But then the speaker shouted “ten thousand unborn Irish children were murdered this year… Are we going to take it anymore?” Hearing the deafening “NO” in response made me decide that this group may not be big fans of referendum results.
The speeches ended and the crowd then began to move towards South Great George’s Street, obstructing the traffic. I tried to follow with my bike, but the crowds were too thick to cycle through. Eventually I had to dismount and walk through the crowds. I wasn’t quite brave enough to ask attendees to stand two metres away from me.
Along the route, the thousands cheerfully sang “Olé Olé Olé” in unison – without context, you’d think they’d just been to a match. Eventually the anti-maskers’ chanting became more political, which was like a warped echo of the calls and responses I’d heard at the anti-fascist rally earlier that day. Instead of “Defend worker’s rights! Anti-mask is anti-worker!”, the anti-mask marchers were shouting phrases like “Take off the mask!”, or “Stick your poxy vaccine up your hole!” Ironically, the most popular chant “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” could have worked at either demonstration, though with polar opposite meanings.
Any illusion that I was “undercover” amongst the crowd was quickly corrected as I was among the only people wearing a mask, which drew a lot of suspicious glances. Several people directed their roars of “Take off the mask!” at me, with some telling me that I was cutting off my oxygen supply, or would get sick from breathing in my own germs.
Despite the obvious lack of social distancing, as well as the huge numbers that unquestionably exceeded the limit of 50 for outdoor gatherings, the Gardaí lining the streets did nothing to stop the march. I spoke to four or five individual Gardaí along the route. Rather than introducing myself as a journalist or trying to get a formal quote, I simply asked each of them the same question: isn’t this against the rules? All gave some version of “there’s not much we can do.”
Finally the march reached the Taoiseach’s office, where the crowds broke into vitriolic roars of “Get them out! Get them out!” at the government buildings. Again, I could see the parallels between the anti-maskers and the antifascists – both groups were frustrated by the hypocrisy of politicians, by scandals like “Golfgate”, by a system that they felt had let them down. But while the attendees of the earlier rally were trying to channel this anger into ending Direct Provision or protecting workers, the anti-maskers were using it to fuel hatred and bigotry.
The massive tricolours overhead, normally a comforting symbol of my home and culture, felt insidious in this context. There were some shouts of “Ireland for the Irish”. At one point along the route, I saw the staff of an Indian restaurant gather by the windows to sombrely watch the march go past. As horrible as the march was for me, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to witness as a person of colour.
The march ended with a rendition of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’, and yet again I was unsettled to see the Irish language and culture that I love being weaponised to promote an ideology I hate. The crowds began to disperse, and I began to make out the conversations of some attendees, even standing over a metre away.
Up until this point, I had still felt a bit ridiculous for hiding any signs of my queerness in my basket. I was even beginning to doubt whether this march was even relevant enough to the LGBT+ community to be included in GCN. To my disappointment, I soon learned that homophobia and transphobia are shockingly prevalent in the anti-mask movement.
A group of four that I happened to stand near began a tirade against Sinn Féin for encouraging LGBT+ inclusive sex education in schools. One direct quote that I was able to discreetly take down was “They’re trying to make this transgendering kids normal”, to which the response was “How many kids are going to be confused by social media?”
A man walked past with a t-shirt which read: “I identify as a medical doctor”, an obvious dig at trans identities. I was disturbed to overhear another group claim that the LGBT+ community is trying to add a “P for paedophilia” to the acronym, which again is feeding into the dangerous narrative that our community is a threat to children.
Again, these are just the comments of a few individuals and the ‘official’ speeches did not contain this rhetoric as far as I could tell. However, it was still really upsetting to see that the anti-mask movement has created an environment where blatantly homophobic and transphobic sentiment is not only voiced, but supported.
Any optimism I had felt at the anti-fascism rally, surrounded by LGBT+ activists and vocal allies, had vanished. As much as it had pained me to hear about the persecution of my community in Poland and Hungary, I don’t think it had sunk in how close to home the threat of the far-right was until now.
I’m normally proud to be bisexual, gender non-conforming and Irish. But despite the autumn chill that was settling in, I kept my rainbow jumper hidden in my basket for the whole cycle home.
Editor’s note: On Saturday September 12, stalwart queer activist Izzy Kamikaze was seriously assaulted outside Leinster House by far-right activists brandishing a wooden plank wrapped in a tri colour flag. There is currently an open letter being hosted on the GCN website calling on the LGBT+ community to add their names and make a stand against the rise of far-right behaviour.