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.
“Newstalk were very open to my ideas. I told them I want to be able to talk about social justice issues – another station might have said ‘You’re a migrant, we want you to talk about migrant issues’. In the last two years I have introduced a weekly slot about mental health.”
Wickremasinghe will early this year be honoured by Lord Mayor of Dublin Oisín Quinn with the Frederick Douglass Award for outstanding contribution to civic life in Dublin by an immigrant. The new civic honour commemorates the African-American anti-slavery campaigner who visited Ireland in 1845 and wrote of how he was treated as an equal.
“It is amazing to be recognised and I hope it will inspire others who feel they are outsiders. I really do feel Irish first and foremost, then I might feel a little bit Sri Lankan, but I’ve spent more time in Ireland than anywhere else in the world and it’s the one country which has accepted me for who I am.”
In addition to her work at Newstalk, Wickremasinghe is an ambassador for abuse charity One in Four, mental health charity See Change and SOS (Suicide or Survive).
“This is the one country that you can’t live in if you’re an abuse victim who hasn’t dealt with the trauma of it, because any time you turn the telly on or open the newspaper there are other abuse stories. It is only when I accessed therapy I was able to see who I wanted to be.”
In 2010, she received Irish citizenship. Her love of the country is unquestionable but it is not unquestioning, she says.
“I always felt as a migrant I had to work that bit harder to be recognised. I’m not looking at this country through rose- tinted glasses.”
She has received abusive messages during the show, which Newstalk has referred to the Garda.
“Of course there is racism, it hasn’t been all wonderful, but the pros completely outweigh the cons. There is so much potential in this country.
“I think of Frederick Douglass saying how he could go into a restaurant and get served: it is that acceptance, that welcome I feel in Ireland.”