Tomás’s story cuts through the coolly clinical language around ‘clerical sexual abuse’

Like Humpty-Dumpty, Tomás Hardiman just wanted to put himself back together again, writes Alan Gilsenan, who helps the survivor tell his story in a new film

Everyone has a story. A secret. A buried trauma. A hidden shame. This belief is something of an article of faith for me. A film-maker’s creed. Just open your eyes and ears. Look and listen. Even in the most unlikely places.

But, sometimes, you think you know someone. And I’d known Tomás for a long time. He was – in the very best sense – an ordinary Irish man. Archetypal even. He grew up on a street called Church View in Tuam, Co Galway, a town not unfamiliar with unspoken darknesses. We met while working at the Abbey Theatre. I was directing a play by Tom Murphy (coincidently a childhood neighbour of Tomás’s on Church View) while he was the marketing/publicity manager. He was a dashing playboy sort of fella, easy charm, bit of a drinker, a man who would stay up until dawn singing light opera and old hymns with Tom Murphy. These are happy memories for us both.

Previously, he had received a business degree from UCG and headed off on migrant adventures to Canada, where he got the theatre bug. Returning to Dublin, he landed his dream job at the Abbey. They were halcyon days and Tomás was close to the centre of it. all Friel on Broadway, Daniel Day-Lewis winning his first Oscar and Tom Murphy premiering his masterpiece The Gigli Concert. Great days and wild nights.

Later he became the managing director of the Galway Arts Centre and the Cúirt Festival of Literature. He moved back west and married a fine woman and, together, they had a bonny baby boy. He produced a few films too and even charmed me into making documentaries about our mutual friends, Tom Murphy and Ivor Browne, the visionary psychiatrist. It was while making Meetings with Ivor that I began to realise that the wheels were coming off for Tomás. Not that he wasn’t capable and outwardly upbeat. Just a bit astray. By now he had given up the drink and began looking increasingly inward into his heart and soul. It was there – with the firm but gentle assistance of psychotherapist Mike Frawley and Ivor Browne – that he began to face his lurking demons.


Phrases such as “child abuse” and “clerical sexual abuse” seem to be bandied about so much now that they have almost become commonplace, even meaningless. They seem journalistic, legalistic. Coolly clinical. Somehow, they have lost their ability to shock, to appal, to capture the heart-rending horror of it all although many – too many – brave souls continue to tell their story. And Tomás had a story to tell too and, gradually, he began to share his with me.

He was falling apart, though: blown open by the memories hidden within, by his fractured life, by a grief for the man that he might have been. He wrote and read furiously, filled his many journals and copybooks with scribbles and quotes, new thoughts and fevered dreams. He wrote letters, too. One long open letter, published in this newspaper in November 2016, to Br Hugh O’Neill, superior general of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Two other important ones also – subtle, gracious and unthreatening – to his abuser. No one replied.

Tomás wasn’t seeking vengeance or compensation or even justice, although he deserves all three. He was only in search of healing. Like Humpty-Dumpty, he just wanted to put himself back together again. Sometimes, I seemed more angry than he. I would happily have driven him to the nearest Garda station but he didn’t want that – to enter the never-ending abyss of legal cut-and-thrust seemed like another form of abuse to him. That endless questioning, the doubting, the inevitable postponements. But he wanted to tell his story. He wanted to be heard.

So we made a film. And, after considering many different fictional approaches without featuring Tomás, we finally just set off together with our wise and brilliant sound recordist John “Bob” Brennan. We went on retreat, really – although we were all aware of the irony of this – to the tranquil setting of Glenstal Abbey. During those dark, stormy November days, Tomás slowly pieced his life together. We attended matins at dawn, we walked and talked among the trees, we cried and even, more frequently than you might imagine, we laughed. Above all, we tried to be honest. He grew stronger as the days passed. Clear-eyed and powerful. He was tentatively coming back to himself, right before my eyes.

Like so many other survivors of abuse, he can hold his head up proudly. Which is more than can be said for others

It is a complex, unfolding and surprising tale, which I will leave to this strange and intimate film to unveil. Throughout, Tomás protected the identity of his abuser. He remains an anonymous spectre in our story. Not just for all those necessary legal reasons, but, perhaps, out of a strange sense of mercy. Recently Tomás told me that abuse was all about losing our “capacity to love” and that this applied as much to his abuser as to him.

The Days of Trees has been our secret for so long that it seems strange now to write about it in such a public way. I feel tentative on Tomás’s behalf. But the film will screen tonight – for the first time – at the Cork International Film Festival so the time for secrecy is over. As we filmed it, I felt honoured to be a witness. With profound admiration, I listened carefully, astounded by his courage.

This is the story of an ordinary Irish man. But for the grace of God, it could be any one of us. But it is Tomás Hardiman’s story and he has a right to tell it. Like so many other survivors of abuse, he can hold his head up proudly.

Which is more than can be said for others.

The Days of Trees will have its premiere this evening, Saturday, November 18th, at the Everyman Theatre as part of the Cork International Film Festival. Afterwards, Tommy Tiernan will host a Q&A with director Alan Gilsenan