Irish Lives: Dil Wickremasinghe
Broadcaster and social justice campaigner to receive new Dublin civic award
Dil Wickremasinghe: Newstalk presenter and social activist is set to be the first person to get the Frederick Douglass Award for outstanding contribution to civic life in Dublin by an immigrant. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Born in Italy and raised in Sri Lanka, broadcaster and social justice activist Dil Wickremasinghe feels thoroughly Irish.
Her story doesn’t match with the immigrant tales we have come to expect. She began life in the “lap of luxury”, she says, in an affluent neighbourhood in Rome, with a nanny and a private education. But the breakdown of her parents’ marriage changed everything.
“I was shipped to Sri Lanka to live with my grandparents. I didn’t speak the language, which made it quite hard to adapt, and I was bullied something rotten in school. I was the victim of sexual abuse . . . and at 16 I found out I was gay.”
This led to the next major upheaval of her life. Her parents, who were living between Italy and Sri Lanka, were unable to accept her sexuality.
She became homeless, “going from pillar to post.”
Her luck changed when a girlfriend got her a job in a radio station but the upswing in her fortunes was short-lived.
“After about a year my boss found out I was gay and he fired me. It wasn’t so much that I was gay but that I wanted to talk about it. It was part of my identity and, as a broadcaster, I wanted to speak about it.”
She felt she couldn’t continue living in Sri Lanka and have “an authentic life”. A job with Gulf Air as a flight attendant based in Bahrain came up and this is where Ireland starts to drift into view. “It was an international airline and there was something about the Irish workers I always gravitated towards.”
In June 2000, she moved to Ireland, colliding fortuitously with gay pride week. “Within the first week of moving to Ireland, I was dancing down O’Connell Street as part of the parade. It was like Dublin took me under her arm and said ‘Never mind what happened in Rome or Sri Lanka or Bahrain, you’re here now and we want you just as you are’.”
The welcome she felt created an impulse to contribute to Irish life and she began campaigning for gay and migrant rights. “After a point I realised it seemed pretty selfish if I just campaigned for rights that impact on me. I realised I wanted to be an equality activist. I wanted to talk about Traveller issues, about single parents, about unmarried fathers.”
After working jobs from kitchen porter to HR consultant, she began as a volunteer in community radio and was noticed by Newstalk. She now presents the station’s weekly and award-winning Global Village every Saturday from 7-9 pm.