Anthony O’Connell, 54: ‘I could never tell my father I was gay’

Photograph:  Brian Gavin Press 22

Photograph: Brian Gavin Press 22

 

Anthony O’Connell lives in Limerick city

I grew up in Donaghmore in Co Limerick, a townland three miles from the city. The city has gone out to meet it since. It was rural, very Catholic and very traditional. The big things were the church, the GAA and Fianna Fáil. Limerick was very Catholic, very conservative and very provincial.

My father, Patrick, was a builder. My mother, Alice, was a housewife. I was the eldest of four.

A major aspect of my childhood was my father’s drinking, and how it affected me. He drank in the pub. He’d go about 2pm and come back at 6pm. We never knew when he came home if we should jump to attention or not. Whatever we did, it was never right. We were walking on eggshells with him.

I tended to feel it was my responsibility to solve the problem. I became a surrogate partner for my mother. My father was a builder and worked with his hands; his world was very physical. Mine was all books, and very interior.

I was 19 or 20 when I stopped going to Mass. It was a big thing to dare to be different. Around the same time I rang the gay helpline in Dublin. I put the phone down when someone answered. I called again a few months later, and this time I did talk to someone.

Even to entertain the fact that I might find another man attractive was alien, and to say it to someone else was so hard. That helpline was a lifeline for me.

To a certain extent there is a path laid out for straight people: you meet someone, you get married, you have children. I had a problem myself accepting my orientation, because I wanted to be like everyone else.

I did my Leaving Cert in 1977, and in 1978 I started working with CRH [Cement Roadstone Holdings], as a clerical administrator.

I was constantly terrified people would find out I was gay. I was always censoring what I was saying.

Right through my 20s I was suffering from depression. I was terrified to be myself. Thank God I had a job, somewhere to go every day. In the evenings I came home and lay on the couch and watched television. I think people knew anyway.

]]] My father died in 1994. I was 34, and his death was cathartic. I could never have envisaged telling my father I was gay.

In 2004 I was given the opportunity to leave CRH via redundancy. I had been there 25 years. That was almost as cathartic as my father’s death. I had always said: if I had my life over again, I’d love to go to university. I hadn’t had much confidence in myself when I left school. I decided I would give it a go, and applied to study liberal arts in Limerick.

I found a home at university. I found my community. I loved the idea that my whole day could be about reading and studying. I graduated in 2009, with a first-class honours degree.

I’m now studying for a PhD in history, and am doing tutoring. I don’t have as much money as before, but I’m fulfilled.

One of the first things I did when I got the redundancy payment was pay off my mortgage, so at least I don’t have that debt. I have one more year to finish my PhD – and who knows what is after that?

I do voluntary work, at a hospice and in a homework club, and I’m involved in a project that provides free Sunday lunches for people who need them.

 I chose to leave the Catholic Church a long time ago. I’m not a Catholic, but I consider myself to be a Christian. For 25 years I was with the Methodist Presbyterian church, and now I’m a member of the Church of Ireland.

I do believe there is an afterlife. If I meet my father there I would like to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing to us.

At this stage of my life I’m not afraid in the slightest any more of what people think of me. Life is about being contented. My friends are my family.

I think the fact that I don’t have children alienates me from some sectors of the community. But I know an amount of guys who are married, and if they were honest with themselves they would admit their orientation is gay.

Ireland has changed so much since I was growing up: we actually have a gay community now. But I don’t think we are at the point yet where I can say to someone with a son or a daughter who is dating: is it a girlfriend or boyfriend they have? We will only have arrived as a society then.

 

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