On a warm July evening in 2015, I was on stage at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry with two friends, the writer Paul Murray and the journalist Sue Leonard. I was there to discuss my most recent novel, A History of Loneliness, the first of my books to be set in Ireland, while Paul was reading from The Mark & The Void, his novel about the economic crash.
We were both in strange moods. We’d gone for a few drinks that afternoon and, while he was preparing for a busy month of promotional activities, I was fending off a series of increasingly unhinged messages from a writer who’d learned that I was not a fan of his second book.
Paul and I had been friends since the late 1990s, and I think we were both happy to raise a hand repeatedly in the direction of the barman.
A History of Loneliness is narrated by a priest, Fr Odran Yates, a teacher and librarian at Terenure College, who, following the release of a lifelong friend from prison, is forced to examine his complicity in the events that led that man from the altar to a jail cell.
During the Q&A session afterwards, an audience member asked why it had taken me 13 books to write something so personal and, perhaps because I was feeling quite rattled by the afternoon’s texts, I found myself speaking in a surprisingly confessional way.
I described my teenage years and told of how I had struggled to come to terms with being gay, and my ridiculous concern at that time, which I eventually shook off, that I was who I was because of events that had taken place when I was just a boy. The more I spoke, the more introspective I became, and by the time I exited the stage, I was visibly shaking.
This moment has been much on my mind in recent weeks as the trial of John McClean, a former teacher at Terenure College, reached its end. On Thursday I was in the court as he was sentenced to eight years in prison, having pleaded guilty to abusing 23 boys in his care during his two decades at the school from the early 1970s. McClean (76) was sentenced to 11 years, with three suspended, after pleading guilty to charges of indecently assaulting 23 pupils between 1973 and 1990.
I was a student there at the time.
In fact, McClean was my form master in first year, when I was 12, and my English teacher in the years leading up to my Leaving Certificate. He was the first person to encourage me in my writing, awarding me three gold medals for my creative abilities.
Sensing my growing interest in literature, he lent me a copy of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem that I have re-read regularly ever since. When my debut novel was published in 2000, he was one of only two people to whom I sent a copy. Now, this fills me with shame.
McClean, I should point out, never laid a hand on me, but I did not emerge from Terenure College unscathed. I was twice a victim of serious abuse in that school, once in my early years of secondary, when I was beaten so badly by a priest that I was house-bound for a week afterwards.
(The man in question liked to assault children with a stick that had a metal weight taped to one end – he called it Excalibur – and I can still see the excitement in his eyes as he repeatedly flung it down upon me, spittle spraying my face with each fresh lunge.)
The second came two years later when I was molested by another teacher, a lay man, who would lean over my shoulder to examine my work, then ease his hand into my trousers, and from there into my underwear, where he would comment on whatever work was before us while casually masturbating me.
Coming of age as a gay man in the early 1990s was not easy. Homosexuality was not decriminalised until my third year of university so, from the moment I became sexually active, all my adventures took place under cover of night, beneath the branches of trees and the indiscriminate eye of the moon. Sex, for me, was something to be ashamed of, and it needed to be sheathed in darkness.
His actions left me with a complicated, unhealthy relationship towards sex that continues to this day
In my book The Heart’s Invisible Furies, when Cyril Avery finally manages to lure a man back to his flat, he says: “I had never had sex in a bed before and the sensation of the sheets against my bare skin was incredibly arousing.”
I wrote this line because his experiences, like mine, had all taken place al fresco, and I can recall how unusual it felt to find myself under an actual duvet with another person at last, instead of sheltering in some lonely spot from the wind and rain.
That night in west Cork, I spoke of how I had spent years worrying whether my first experience of sex – a man some 35 years my senior thrusting his hands into my underwear – had turned me gay. His actions left me with a complicated, unhealthy relationship towards sex that continues to this day.
When I investigate why this is, it is always the beautiful stonework of Terenure College that appears in my mind.
In my 20s, the boyfriend I loved the most was someone who made a point of refusing sex whenever I wanted it but insisting upon it whenever I didn’t. And yet, I was crazy about him. After him, I chose men more experienced than me, who always grew frustrated by my anxieties.
Only once in my life has sex been a harmonious thing, and that was within the confines of a long and happy 11-year relationship that led to an all-too-short marriage. Only then did I feel safe, and loved, and valued, and yet despite the intimacy of that time I find myself revealing more in this essay than I ever did to him. (Perhaps I’m better at writing than I am at speaking.)
The truth is, I’ve failed in every romantic relationship I’ve ever pursued and now, when my one great love has become an increasingly distant memory, I find that I have come full circle, once again engaging in meaningless physical encounters that lack any real emotion when all I want is to love and to be loved.
I’m downstairs on my own, sick of my own company, as I write about events that took place decades ago but that I still think about all the time
A minor character in A History of Loneliness, Miles Donlan, is based on John McClean. Donlan, like McClean, coaches the rugby team at Terenure College, giving him access to teenage boys at a very physical level.
“You never heard any whispers, did you, Odran?” the Archbishop asks when the narrator has been summoned to Drumcondra in the wake of Donlan’s sentencing.
I swallowed. Of course I had heard whispers. Donlan and I had worked side by side in Terenure for years. I’d never liked him, to be honest; he had a bitter air about him and spoke about the boys as if they both fascinated and disgusted him at the same time. But yes, I had heard whispers.
“I didn’t know him very well,” I said, avoiding his question.
Silence. Denial. Looking away. During my years in that school, there was not a boy among us who did not know what John McClean was up to. He was the subject of endless gossip, and we ruthlessly mocked any classmate who became one of his pets. We were just children, of course, and did not understand the seriousness of what was going on.
However, there was a group of adults also present in that building every day, perhaps 40 or 50 of them, who did not share our naivety. I wonder, when they search their consciences, can they so easily absolve themselves of blame?
I hope the 23 men who had the courage to bring McClean to justice find some peace in their lives now that he has been held to account. One of the victims, who has overcome his abuse to build a successful and happy life, told me how grateful he is to the gardaí, not just for taking this case seriously but for involving him at every step of the process and always treating him with respect.
The bravery of the 23 helps every victim of abuse in this country for it tells us that if you speak up, you will be heard and you will be believed.
And yet, as I write these lines late at night, preparing to make my way upstairs to an empty bed in an empty house, I find myself wondering whether, if the first person to touch me had not been a middle-aged man in a position of authority but a boy of my own age, would I have evolved differently, my mind less discomfited by intimacy, and would there be someone waiting up there for me now, snoring softly, but ready to wrap his arms around me as I slipped between the sheets?
Because it’s quiet here tonight, and I’m downstairs on my own, sick of my own company, as I write about events that took place decades ago but that I still think about all the time.
But, unfortunately, that’s what our abusers leave us with. A history of self-loathing. A history of failed relationships.
A history of loneliness.