Ireland's first male ballet dancer Roy Galvin talks growing up gay in a very different time

The TG4 series Finné (Witness) concludes with a stunning look at a life lived to the full.

Close up of Roy Galvin looking out against a sky backdrop

The extraordinary life of Roy Galvin, a gay man from Limerick who became the first male ballet dancer in Ireland, is the focus of a particularly amazing episode of the TG4 series Finné tonight.

The multi award-winning Finné (Witness) explores the personal stories of those who have lived through trying times and Roy Galvin has certainly lived through difficult moments. Growing up with a father who was an unpredictable alcoholic, Roy and his seven siblings never brought friends home. One day when he was very young, his mother told the children they had five minutes to grab what they could, and they moved to the countryside, hiding from his father for years, constantly looking over their shoulders. 

While Roy was happy in primary school, his mother managed to get him into St Munchin’s – a private secondary school on a scholarship – where he was bullied for being different. This was a rugby school, and Roy also hadn’t come from a very well-to-do background, so he very much stood out.

As it was here he began to realise he was gay, Roy described what his younger self would have made of the leaps forward the LGBTQ+ community has made since then. “Absolutely unimaginable,” he shared. “Growing up as a gay boy in Limerick, I was confronted by three institutions; the laws of the land with the State telling me that I’m criminal; the second is the World Health Organisation telling me that it is a mental disease, and then, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, telling me that it’s intrinsic evil. So I have three pillars around me. And they’re all sort of saying to me that I should not be here, that I don’t have the right to be here.

“And that’s what every boy and girl grew up with […] What does it say of a society that allows a young boy to grow up to the age of maybe 16, or 17 and thinking they are the only person on the planet that thinks like this? What does it say of a society that says it’s okay for a child to be totally ignorant of themselves, and their history and the world that they are a part of?”

Despite having a successful career in music, Roy gave it all up at 20 to pursue his dream of being a ballet dancer upon seeing a ballet at the Abbey Theatre. At 25 he moved back to Dublin and set up the Pas de Deux ballet company, which was a huge success. 

Roy described what it was about ballet that made him so passionate about the art form: “If you look at it from a naturalistic point of view, the physicality is great. The expressiveness of ballet, of moving your body. Language only covers so much, but you can say so much more with a movement or some music or a piece of art, where language is redundant.”

A particularly striking moment in the episode is when Roy discusses the Marriage Equality referendum. As many in the community and their allies got out on the streets to knock on doors and have important conversations, Roy described his own method of campaigning, “I knocked on a thousand doors. I had a wonderful question for everybody. My question was, ‘Can I have your permission to marry my same sex partner?’ To which they all respond the same, they said, ‘You don’t need my permission’. I said, ‘Well, actually, I do. So vote Yes.’ And handed them a leaflet. At that point it was the best question ever.”

Despite Galvin having a civil partnership ceremony with his husband Tom, Roy described how it wasn’t until they were able to marry when he was 60 that he finally felt he was equal to everyone else in the country.

“We had our civil partnership as soon as that became available to us,” Roy shared. “We had a lovely day at my house, and the registrar came and it was her first time ever doing the full ceremony in Irish without any English whatsoever. In fact, some of my friends who don’t speak Irish are convinced that we were never civilly partnered, because they couldn’t understand a word that was going on!

Roy continued, “We had our civil partnership, and I felt okay. But I didn’t feel equal by any means. And I wasn’t overly happy, you know, in the sense that I didn’t feel like the job was done. But then when marriage equality was passed […] we decided to sit down in the registrar’s office and sign a few papers. As opposed to having 100 people at our civil partnership, we only had nine people with us.

“But what I never realised was how different I would feel after the civil marriage ceremony. I felt not only equal to my married brothers and sisters, I felt equal to everyone.”

Watch Roy Galvin on Finné at 9.30pm on TG4. The rest of the series is available to watch on the TG4 Player.

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