2020 - 2029
Louise O'Neill Honorary Doctorate Speech
Chancellor and Registrar of the National University of Ireland, Dr Maurice Manning and Dr Attracta Halpin, President of University College Cork, Professor John O’Halloran, my introducer and friend, Professor Louise Crowley, Faculty of the School of Law, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. I am very grateful to be awarded this Honorary Doctorate from the National University of Ireland through University College Cork, who have been so accommodating to me and my family in the lead up to this event, a testament to a university which truly values relationships.
I am particularly honoured to receive this in UCC because my mother, my sister, and my aunt all attended, and my cousin Ciara is currently a student here, so I’ve always been the odd one out. But none of them have a doctorate, so...!
I started writing my first novel when I was 27, in my parents’ spare bedroom because I couldn’t afford to rent a room of my own, and during those early days, when I had no idea if what I was writing was any good or if it would ever see the light of day, I could never have imagined a moment like this.
My partner kept asking me if I was excited about today. And I realised I wasn’t excited; I was very anxious. And I know why. When I was trying to decide what I would say in this speech, I wanted to reference a column I had written a few years ago about failure. I couldn’t find the piece I was looking for on my laptop so I googled “Louise O’Neill Irish Examiner Failure”. And I was scrolling through the results when I saw a message board with my name as the title and there were hundreds of pages dedicated to tearing me apart. I didn’t look at it –although I was tempted by another thread with the title “Lads, should I date a girl who’s a fan of Louise O’Neill?” – but I got such a fright my hands were shaking. The online hatred had been intense in 2016 after Asking For It came out – I was labelled a man-hater and an extremist, just for talking openly about how prevalent sexual violence was in our society. In the years following, I took a step back in order to protect myself. I took an extended break from social media, I said no to radio and television requests. I thought I would be safer if I disappeared for a while. But seeing those threads, seeing how recent some of the entries were, made me realise that my efforts had been in vain. So, when I thought about coming here today to be honoured in this way, I worried that I would be giving these people more ammunition but then I stopped myself. Attempting to shrink hadn’t made them hate me any less. I may as well take up more space. I remembered something my father told me when the abuse first began. “If your work isn’t making these people angry, then you’re not doing your job properly.”
But it’s scary, putting your head above the parapet. It’s difficult for everyone but it’s especially difficult if you’re a woman or queer or Trans or a person of colour or a Traveller or working class or fat or if you have a disability. There a million ways in which your identity can be weaponised against you, or how your deepest fears and insecurities can be amplified in order to keep you small. To keep you silent. That way, nothing changes. The status quo will be protected. Our society will continue to safeguard the most privileged amongst us, leaving the others to fight for scraps.
It cannot continue. We live in a world which is deeply, systemically unjust and I look around this room and I see hundreds of young people who chose to study law. Who chose to study justice. I know there are those in this room who are not only capable of changing this country for the better but who are hungry to do that work. I want you to know that it will take courage. That as your light burns brighter there will be moths drawn to your flame. You might make people uncomfortable. You might make them angry. It might be lonely at times because standing up for what is right isn’t always easy, but it is always necessary. And whenever you feel fearful, whenever thoughts of – why do they hate me so much? – arise, I want you to ask yourself one question. Would you want them to like you? Is being liked by those doing the most to maintain a culture that is actively hurting people more important than enacting real change? Who will history remember kindly? I think you know the answer.
I am here today to tell you this – Keep fighting. Keep pushing forward. Keep speaking up. We need your voices now more than ever.
Thank you again to UCC and the School of Law for this incredible honour."