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He had loved this man in secret for years. Now it fell to her to find him

She knew there was someone to be told. Someone no one else knew about. Another man

The last time she spoke to him was on a Friday evening. Normally, they would talk on the phone every Saturday night but this time, she said, why didn’t they leave it until Monday?

She got worried on Monday when she noticed that he hadn’t been active on WhatsApp. He was mad for WhatsApp, she said. When his “last seen” status didn’t update, she knew something had to be wrong.

“I started ringing his mobile and his flat and I couldn’t get an answer from him,” she said. So she called one of his sisters who lived a little bit away from his flat in London and the sister went around.

And that’s how she found out he was dead, her best friend of 34 years. It was a heart attack.


Her own heart was broken and her head was busted, she said. Because in the grief and the flurry of arrangements that followed, she knew there was someone else who had to be told. Someone no one else knew about. Another man.

He only spoke to my husband and myself about it. He never told anybody else

She knew very little about this man, except that her buddy had been in love with him and that he loved her buddy back. He had trusted her enough to tell her, but no one else knew. “He only spoke to my husband and myself about it. He never told anybody else,” she said.

They were two men in their 70s and they had grown up in an Ireland that criminalised relationships like theirs. So they kept it secret. They saw each other just a few times a year; the last time was during the summer.

He had loved this man in secret for years and years. And now it fell to her to find him. “A month might go sometimes before they’d talk,” she said. “But the love was there anyway.”

She had a name, and she knew roughly the area where he lived. She rang the local undertaker. She rang a post office where she guessed he might collect his pension. She phoned the local radio station, but she didn’t want to go on air, and wasn’t sure what she’d be able to say about it all if she did. She didn’t want to cause difficulties for anyone. She placed a discreet advert in the local paper with the few details she had, and a phone number. She’s had no luck yet, but she’s still hoping something will come up. It’s breaking her heart, the idea that he is out there somewhere, going about his day, not knowing yet that the love of his life is gone.

Stories of shame and secret hopes and resilience. Of finding a kind of happiness in a cold place

It is the most Irish of love stories, really. Our history is full of people hiding and pretending and wishing it were otherwise, and loving one another in spite of it all. Stories of shame and secret hopes and resilience. Of finding a kind of happiness in a cold place. And sometimes, of having to leave the cold place for a chance at happiness.

Ireland, of course, is no longer that cold place. It has become a kinder, more accepting society, somewhere that cares more about people than it does about labelling them. Even so, a lifetime of judgement – of being told you’re ill or immoral or criminal because of whom you love – isn’t easily pushed aside.

Visible Lives, a landmark study published by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) in 2011 found that older Irish LGBT people grew up in a place where their identity “was characterised as unacceptable, abnormal and sinful, and where concealment was often considered necessary to avoid bringing shame on families”. Employment discrimination, disempowerment and marginalisation from their family and community were common.

This is one of the great wrongs in Irish society that we haven’t fully acknowledged. Generations of LGBT+ people were – and sometimes continue to be – bullied and marginalised, their existence denied.

“I was born 70 years ago and that means that acknowledging my orientation wasn’t even a possibility . . . In the family and the circumstances in which I was born, it would have meant that I would be ostracised,” one man of 70 said. He would have “been beheaded” if he’d come out, he said.

Many were still experiencing some of those feelings of not belonging as they grew older, worrying that they wouldn’t fit into mainstream ageing programmes, and or into the youth-oriented culture of LGBT+ organisations. They described feeling cut adrift in their grief when their partner died. One woman said her family didn’t acknowledge the death of her former partner of 28 years. “Nobody ever said to me, ‘are you okay?’ . . . it was never actually mentioned after I split up with her and when she died nobody ever mentioned it again.” By not acknowledging her partner, she said, becoming emotional, “it’s not acknowledging me”.

The woman I spoke to has told her buddy’s family the truth; that he was gay, and that there was someone he had loved. The thing is, in the end, her friend’s sister “was fine about it”. As families so often do, she acknowledged who he was and accepted who he was. If only he had known.