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

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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.

One of these standouts was a young man named Dara. He was the most handsome man I had seen in the town, with the build of an athlete. In every respect he was the kind of son parents would have dreamed of, except in one way -- he wanted to live by his own terms, not someone else’s. He completely refused to accept the narrow confines of our community or our country.

The first time I ever met him was in the local nightclub, where after a bit of old banter he asked me out on a date. This was daring stuff for Donegal in 1989. I said yes and soon discovered what a kind person he was, how deeply he cared for his family and his friends.

But love is only possible when it has a context. If you are prevented from finding that context there won’t be anything you can do. It was the hardest lesson I ever learned in my adult life. I had to leave home to learn it.  Dara stayed.

Later I would hear second hand how he endured the daily homophobic taunts of the local kids, expressing in public what many of their parents said in private. Over time they wore him down.

One day my brother called with news, “Your old friend (he called him friend) Dara is dead. It’s very sad. He left a note for his family.”

Hearing this news, I connected it instantly with the day years earlier that I threw my first punch.

That day I had gone for a walk after dinner down to the shore front, where I saw three lads about my own age on the foggy path in front of me. Strangers, I assumed they were from Derry, the way we do in my town.

They were drinking larger and it quickly became clear they were throwing stones at two swans on the
river.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next but I know that I hit one of them full on the mouth. They must have seen a weird light in my eyes because they didn’t fight back. Instead they ran off and I never saw them again. It took me ages to catch my breath or calm down.

Hearing about Dara’s death made me remember them. It also made me remember a Robert Frost poem that someone had written over the Discover Ireland poster at the bus station where I caught the connecting bus to Dublin and then the airport.

I don't know who wrote it there. But it was like they understood everything that had happened and was still happening. The poem read:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

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