‘Nothing gold can stay’ - throwing the first punch and being forced to leave small-town Ireland


The only punch I have ever thrown was at Christmas. I'm not sure what it says about me. I'm certainly not proud of the fact.

No drink was involved. There was no long festering family dispute. I hadn't stepped out to settle some old score. It just occurred.

The day had begun without error. It was the day after Christmas Day, which we in Ireland call Boxing Day, or St. Stephen's Day, depending on who you are asking.

I was in Ireland that day, in Co. Donegal in fact. It was December 26, 1989, a Tuesday. I was going out for an after dinner walk.

It was also one of the very last days of the eighties, which was something I didn't have mixed feelings about. The decade had begun with New Wave but it had ended with Wet Wet Wet. It had exhausted itself, creatively and spiritually, it seemed. Young as I was, I already understood this.

In Donegal that year there were no jobs, there were no prospects, everyone I knew had gone to college or emigrated. It was the same all over the country.

Ireland in 1989, if you were under 30, felt like a particularly scenic airport. It became a place that you had passed through on your way to your real life. There was no question of staying there at all.

But unlike many of my friends, I had already seen a fair bit of the outside world and I had some strong misgivings.

A few trips to San Francisco at the height of the AIDS crisis had made me anxious about what the future might hold. Catching some memorable glimpses of what the outbreak was doing to the gay community there made me concerned about my own future.

So Ireland wasn't such a bad old place, I told myself, if I could just find a way to make a living.

But the truth is that it wasn't just the economic hardships that were driving young people out though, were they?  There were other, deeper privations too.

We don't like to talk about it because it's sensitive, or because we're sensitive, or because we find we simply can't now, but Ireland in 1989 was a very unwelcoming place for the young.

Growing up, I had learned about all the available roles for a young Irish male. It was a short list -- student, civil servant, husband, policeman, or the professions.

Ideally you should also be a good hurler. If you were a good hurler then almost everything else could fall into place.

The one thing you should never do was make people uncomfortable. God forbid. Keep your more controversial opinions to yourself. 

There was always booze of course, if you found that a challenge. Ideally you should have some polite meaningless banter on reserve for all occasions. 

That was pretty much the blueprint. Venture a foot outside of that narrative, that narrow checklist, and you'd find yourself escorted off the premises, sometimes literally.

I watched it all happen. Boys I had known well at school just a few years earlier, with their big dreams and their bluster, were suddenly nodding gravely at me in the pubs, grown men.
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They put on weight too, many of them, sprouting overnight, like mushrooms. Quite a few married.

Others brought home wives from the countries they were already making their lives in.

Girls I knew were getting hitched too. Most were barely into their twenties but they were suddenly parents themselves. It was disconcerting to me. Others had had children without marrying and seemed to disappear off the face of the earth.

I didn’t disappear myself. In fact I stood out. It wasn't as if I had decided to be a rebel. I would never have made such a foolish decision. Like a lot of my closest friends, I just found that I didn't fit the mold. There was just no place for the likes of me in the little story of my town. I was a head scratcher, a challenge, a misfit.

But there were always bigger challenges than I was. The ones who really stood out really suffered. Those, in the main, were the very poor, or the socially awkward, or the too obviously effeminate, or the obese, or the eccentric, or the too shy. People avoided them as though they were radioactive. Many of them, I later learned, had found the experiences of their teenage years so bitter that they left my town and never returned.