10 years of sobriety: what I’ve learned about Irish male emotions

In Ireland it's hard to be an emotionally open man. Wherever the key lies, it's not in drink

My father’s family were farmers from the parish of Kilmurry McMahon, in west Co Clare, and my mother’s family are from Kildysart, not far away along the Shannon estuary. My grandfather, who was born there in 1916, still lives on the family farm in Kilmurry.

I mention this because the emotional lives of those who came before us can help to explain our own, including, perhaps, why the emotional and sexual development of the Irish male is inextricably linked to alcohol.

Thanks to the digital revolution I can sit with my grandfather in his cottage and show him PDFs on my laptop from the 1901 and 1911 censuses. Looking at them, he recognises the handwriting of the people who were in the house the night each census was taken; some of them lived through the Famine. I find that proximity to so much emotional darkness fascinating – and I found it especially so in periods of my own life when I was working through certain mental and emotional issues.

Some years ago I wrote a book, Wasted, about my difficulties with alcohol in my later teens and early 20s and about my subsequent efforts to re-engage with society as a late-twentysomething man. It was a very strange place to be, particularly when I was uncomfortable with the "alcoholic" tag.

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I had very little idea what to expect. There was, and still is for many young Irish men, a slightly pathetic acceptance of the role of alcohol in their emotional development.

I wasn’t prepared for the feeling that I needed to go through adolescence again to emotionally connect with myself and others. And I didn’t realise how uncomfortable people would become around me while I reframed my relationship with alcohol.

Time and again young men who call me wanting to address their relationship with alcohol say they don’t feel society wants them to get better. Many from small towns and villages ask how they will ever find a girlfriend again or go on holiday if they don’t drink. Some men tell me they cannot imagine having sex without alcohol.

The link in this country between men's emotional and sexual development and alcohol can manifest itself in disturbing ways. Seventy per cent of victims of rape, and 84 per cent of those accused of rape, had been drinking when the assault, or alleged assault, took place, according to the Rape & Justice in Ireland study.

I am not saying that alcohol causes sexual violence. But alcohol is involved in a substantial number of sexual assaults in Ireland, and there is a link in my view between the expectation on men to be successful in sex and the role alcohol is perceived to play in this.

We need to encourage frank dialogue around men’s emotions and sexual behaviour. Having spent a lot of time in secondary schools, speaking to students, I believe that the inhibitions we’ve inherited about opening up are causing a vacuum – one that is being filled by damaging behaviour, particularly in the case of male adolescents.

There is as little dialogue in most secondary schools today about sexuality, mental health and addiction as there was when I was at secondary school, in the 1990s. There is meant to be space in the curriculum, but staff feel uncomfortable teaching this material, often contracting out the topics to religious or vested-interest groups. I sympathise with the teachers, but it’s inexcusable that adults promote so little open dialogue about these issues.

Emotional articulation

In my later teens and early 20s I came to rely on alcohol for emotional articulation far more than I realised. This was not challenged then, and it wouldn’t be challenged now. My generation lapped up the myth that alcohol heightened emotional responses, whether during sex or in allowing us to speak freely in a way that Irish men find difficult.

Now, as the father of a teenage boy, I see that emotional reluctance in my own son. I find it puzzling, as I've made a point of being emotionally open with him – I'm basically like the dad from The Cosby Show – yet he still internalises. I can only assume that he is absorbing societal norms from his peers.

My job is to ensure I begin a dialogue with him about how difficult it is to be an emotionally open male in Irish society and how he needs to be careful not to rely on certain things to access those emotions.

One extreme example of the way Irish men struggle, particularly when left to their own devices, is the lives of the generation of Irishmen who became muscle for hire in Britain from the 1940s onwards, rebuilding cities damaged in the second World War. There are a few of them left, men from Mayo or Clare who went out as 15- or 16-year-olds and got a start and a bed in Kilburn or Cricklewood.

I’ve returned several times in the past decade to interview these men, some of whom live now in hovels without bathrooms or kitchens. Each time I’ve met them I’ve been struck by how so many of them are almost paralysed by shyness – which, in conjunction with alcoholism, played a big part in their never marrying.

That shyness, or emotional stunting, was sometimes a result of being catapulted into a hard-drinking environment in their teens, with very little schooling, and having to grow up too quickly.

When I decided to write about my experiences with alcohol I didn’t think too much about the impression it would leave on people around me. On a selfish level I saw the book I wrote as a cheap counselling session with myself.

You have to be prepared for the fact that you need to feel very secure to avoid a sense of being judged by Irish society as a result of publicly acknowledging emotional or mental-health issues.

There is, even now, after 10 years of sobriety, a feeling that I shouldn't be doing this, that I should just keep things suppressed, quiet, hidden. Our social conditioning, particularly around men's emotions, makes it difficult at times not to feel that you are damaged goods, that you are somehow abnormal, that you have failed to "man up", or that you are not a "real man", whatever a real man is. (I always imagine he's a mix of Humphrey Bogart and Miley from Glenroe.)

My hope is that my son’s generation will realise that real men don’t man up but do open up.

This is an edited extract from an address Brian O’Connell made to this year’s Merriman Summer School, whose theme was emotional life in Ireland