Life as a gay man was certainly easier in London than Dublin

With same-sex couples on Strictly Come Dancing, views have changed considerably, says Peter O’Hare

I emigrated in 1988 partly for work opportunities and also to find a better life as a gay man – all things gay were still illegal in Ireland at that time.

London was very exciting then and very multicultural compared to Dublin. I (literally) walked into a job straight away as an occupational therapist and have had an excellent career in the NHS since, training in Dance Movement therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Horticultural Therapy.

I have now done 34 years in the NHS and have been running the Occupational Therapy Department at the Bethlem Royal Hospital for many years, including establishing the Bethlem Gallery as a centre for the arts in mental health.

Life as a gay man was certainly easier in London than Dublin and it is where I met my life partner Aris, an opera singer who had fled persecution in Iran.

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Cultural life was really stimulating too. I had been a world champion Irish dancer and found many opportunities here to engage with dance at different levels. This took many forms from jazz and ballet to liturgical dancing (I once danced in Westminster Abbey).

I then discovered the emerging same-sex ballroom dancing scene, which opened up a whole new world.

When I got involved two men dancing together was still taboo, even in England, but I joined an all-male formation team that appeared on Sky’s Got to Dance TV show and that helped to change perceptions.

With the advent of same-sex couples on Strictly Come Dancing views have changed considerably.

I’ve represented both Ireland and the UK in many international competitions, most recently winning gold at the last Gay Games in Paris with my Italian dance partner Davide di Prete.

In spite of the excitement of London, I have always kept strong ties with my family in Ireland, and return regularly to Co Louth. My partner Aris is also a regular visitor to Carlingford and he has done a number of operatic concerts in the heritage centre there as well as contributing to the church music on Christmas Eve.

I have always felt 100 per cent Irish, and the changes that have happened in the UK in light of the Brexit referendum have only strengthened that Irish connection.

In recent times I’ve taken to writing poetry focusing on my Irish past and being brought up near the Border during the Troubles. Then when Brexit came I was so incensed that it became my focus. I have had a number of anti-Brexit poems published in the New European newspaper.

This stirred me to write more and now my first collection has just been published. The collection is called Learning to Sail on Carlingford Lough. I had it published in Ireland and had a launch in Carlingford recently. It has just been launched in London too and that definitely had an Irish feel with Aris, a baritone, singing old Irish songs.

I must confess, as I have got older I have felt more of a call back to Ireland.

After my parents died, I inherited some land on the mountain above Carlingford where I have now built a house and planted a native woodland as a way of giving back. The poetry also seems to be playing a role “reminding us of how we belong, not what is fleeting, is going or is gone….”.

I am spending more time in Ireland but I have so many friends here in London that I’m not ready to leave yet. However, I do feel for all those who have already decided to go and here’s a poem I wrote on that subject.

Brexodus

Beguiling glimmers of fortune drew us

to this island gifting a generous life.

Before brash nativism became rife

we felt accepted by those who knew us.

But some had patently reached their limit

turning their backs, though we had toiled so hard.

It wasn’t that casual disregard

but the cold condescension that did it.

So now we are leaving with heavy hearts

where is the fabled graciousness you claim,

all we were seeking was a bright new start

not to endure imperial disdain.

We leave this country much poorer for sure;

let the empire’s sons now heave the manure.

Peter O’Hare is from Carlingford, Co Louth. He left in October 1988 and went to London. He launched his book of poetry Learning to Sail on Carlingford Lough on November 23rd, 2022, in Westminster Music Library, London