‘Leaving Ireland allowed me to be the gay man I have always been’
I don’t know what kind of life I would have now if I had stayed at home
Paul Dowling: ‘Growing up gay in Ireland, I spent years being lonely in a very particular way. I was surrounded by friends and family but my shame and secrets kept us at arm’s length from one another.’
The 1980s and the rolling hills of rural Co Wexford provided the backdrop to my early childhood. I was the fifth of seven babies to be brought home to our damp little house.
In several very important ways, my childhood had much beauty to it. Imagination was our greatest asset; with it trees became castles, stones turned to gold, and siblings morphed into treacherous enemies to be shot on sight, no questions asked. The wide-open countryside offered ample opportunities for adventure and freedom.
Despite all this, I cannot claim to have been a happy child and certainly not one who ever felt free. I was somehow always at odds with the world and family around me, in a way that I wasn’t equipped to explain or even consider. I simply didn’t fit.
As the quiet child who liked to do things for himself, I either got lost in the shuffle or enlisted into the running of the house. I was shy and anxious. I had a designated spot where I would go to cry, often after a run-in with my father. I think he knew what I was long before I did.
At the age of seven I decided to grow my hair long. This earned me the name “Gollywog”. I didn’t like sports or tractors. Perhaps I was “too close” to my only sister whose shoes I wanted to wear.
I tried to keep my wayward tendencies in check. I’d make concerted efforts to learn the names of tools. I’d feign attractions to female class mates and memorise the names of the fast cars on Top Gear so I could recite them to the boys at school. But my efforts weren’t enough and although I battled desperately to betray my nature, it in fact routinely betrayed me.
At 16 my struggles shifted from trying to be like the other boys to trying not to be gay.
He was well-built and had beautiful brown eyes. He was what I considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity, and everything I had always wanted to be. Despite only speaking perhaps a half-dozen sentences to him over the course of the two years we worked together, he tore my world asunder. Before him I had never known the utter devastation of wanting to know what someone else smelled like. I was terrified by the feelings I had for him.
Growing up gay in Ireland, I spent years being lonely in a very particular way. I was surrounded by friends and family but my shame and secrets kept us at arm’s length from one another. I never felt connected to them or that they were seeing a true version of me.
After him, I suppressed any same-sex attractions with such ferocity that there were even long periods of time where I actually thought the nightmare was over; that I had somehow left that “phase” behind. I denied that I was attracted to men, and I denied that this made me lonely and depressed.
My feelings of isolation and despair grew more pronounced in my mid-20s. I still didn’t have the emotional framework to contemplate coming out, or even admitting to myself I was gay.
In 2010 at the age of 26 I had an opportunity to live and work in Chicago. Despite the recession I had decent job prospects at home. I was nervous about this kind of move but committed to the job for a year.
This is probably the point at which I felt the worst. I remember explaining to someone very close to me at the time that I thought that if I could go somewhere else I could be someone else.
It took another two years before I reached a breaking point; exhausted, desperate, and a little drunk, I broke down in a dive bar in Philadelphia to one of my best friends. I confessed. I sobbed. I collapsed onto a door step on the walk home, my legs unable to bear the enormity of what I had just done. The relief was immense and immediate.
After I came out I began to understand the source of my depression and loneliness, and how these things had sent me overseas in search of enough room to truly breathe for the first time.
Growing up gay in Ireland, I spent years being lonely in a very particular way. I was surrounded by friends and family but my shame and secrets kept us at arm’s length from one another. I never felt connected to them or that they were seeing a true version of me. I was a shadow - they could see me but they couldn’t touch me.
Boys like me had no one to look to to dispel some of the negativity loaded into the names we were called; names like “faggot” and “bender”. There wasn’t a single affirmative gay archetype strong enough to hang even the flimsiest of positive self-images on. There were only effeminate bachelors and your mother’s cousin in England who was the subject of family ridicule on account of his bottled tan and white jeans.
I don’t know what kind of life I would have now if I had stayed at home. Even in the seven years since I left, Ireland is a changed place. However, I still think of leaving as a profoundly positive event in my life that allowed me to become the gay man I have always been. Being away continues to afford me the space I need to develop and grow further.
This space is, however, far from free. I’m a long way from my ageing parents. I can’t contribute to the future of the country I still call “home”. It was agony being away during the marriage referendum and feeling removed from a debate that centred on you and those just like you; a debate that would decide what you deserved and how you get to live your life.
I still feel connected to Ireland and I think each time I visit home I become a little more comfortable being there. Earlier this year my husband and I got married in the small town I’m from. This was a surreal and healing experience for me but I don’t know if I will ever return to live in Ireland full time.
I wonder how much of my discomfort is the remnants of my experience of being gay at a discriminatory time in the history of an Ireland that no longer exists. Or perhaps, Ireland continues to stifle her LGBT community and we continue to leave or remain gone. I’m uncertain as to whether Ireland is still not ready for me, or if, despite all I have done to heal the wounds of the past, I’m still not ready for it.
At Home Abroad
Paul Dowling has created the At Home Abroad story project to capture the unique experiences of LGBT Irish emigrants.
In March 2015 the Irish Government published its first ever official policy statement on the diaspora. This document did not give any recognition to the many LGBT people who left Ireland or the challenges they faced as immigrants.
At Home Abroad is working to ensure that LGBT emigrants are recognised officially when the policy is reviewed in 2017. Learn more or submit your story at athomeabroad.ie