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Learning about gays in the bad old days in Ireland ahead of the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival

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Learning about gays in the bad old days in Ireland ahead of the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival
Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

I said I would head for the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, where the mighty and the literati enjoyably meet each August, and indeed I drove up there for the school opening but was stopped in my meandering tracks by two shocks delivered to me in rapid succession by a man I met in the roadside tavern on the edge of town, one of my long time watering holes.

The first shock was that the opening lecture on changing societies in the North was being delivered by the Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, who is a decent gentleman in charge of the rump of the old Fianna Fail party I supported devoutly until the Haughey era.

Martin is also from Cork, and I decided instantly that I know more about northern realities than he will ever know -- being born there -- and I would not attend the lecture.

I'd thought it was being delivered by the mighty poet Seamus Heaney, a fellow Ulsterman, but Seamus was not in action until later in the week. So I decided I would spend some serene time in the roadside tavern where many years ago, in truth, many of the matchmaking episodes which have made Lisdoonvarna world famous were both begun, with matchmakers present, or roundly celebrated when the business was done.

And the second shock came when I learned that, incredibly, the opening of this year's matchmaking festival in September, after 150 years, is being devoted to a welcome for gay men and lesbian women and all the related genders.

I nearly fell off my stool atop my plate of smoked salmon because, ritually, the town they call the spa locally was always the most rawly macho town of all each September, men in hot pursuit of wives, ladies in only slightly less apparent pursuit of suitable husbands.  It is factual to suggest that gay or lesbian persons would have felt badly out of place as recently as 15 or 20 years ago.

Let it be said that I welcome the change and the modernizing of the old festival which is always great craic for the whole month.

Let it also be said that I was very surprised at the development and hope it goes very well for all concerned.

Let it further be said, as I supped a tot in the roadside tavern after hearing the news, that a very old and true yarn came into my head which I just have to tell ye about because it is how I almost lost my virginity in a different Ireland a few months before I turned 16 in the north of Ireland I know more about than Micheal Martin.

I'd been lucky enough to be offered a job as a cub reporter in the Fermanagh Herald in my native Enniskillen. To me it was a job from heaven.

And my very first interview outside the office was set up by my editor, Senator PJ
O'Hare, with one of the best known stage and screen stars of his day, then visiting the town. I was so very excited. I donned my new camel duffle and filled one pocket with a new jotter and three ballpoints.

This star, you see, was better known in Ireland then than Seamus Heaney is today, largely through frequent witty appearances with Gay Byrne on the popular Late Late Show. Dammit he was better known than Micheal Martin is today and infinitely more popular.

He is dead now for years.  It is not necessary to name him.
We met in the commercial room of a town hotel. I was put at my ease immediately by a very charming, powerfully built middle-aged man with a smiling face. We were great buddies inside five minutes.

He gave me a great interview, and I was so delighted when he put his arm around my shoulders several times as we talked. Sometimes he even emphasized a point by tapping on my knee.

A Catholic boy in Fermanagh in the late fifties could not but be delighted to be chatting on equal terms with a national star.

At the close of the interview he said he had splendid publicity shots of himself above in his bedroom, and I followed him up there to receive one. Once inside the door he rummaged in his briefcase and produced the first nude photograph of a woman I had ever seen, and simultaneously lunged across the room at me with no smile at all on his face.

I had a split second to react. I was a good footballer at the time with a good right foot.

I kicked him accurately into the groin just before he reached me, dropped my jotter with its precious interview within and fled for my life down the stairs and away.

I did not sleep a wink that night considering the enormity of my crime.

I had no story the Herald could use, I had kicked a great star in the balls and was fairly certain I would lose my precious job when I confessed to my editor the next morning.
I had no idea then there were men who preferred young virgin boys to women you see. It was a different and innocent era.

I confessed fully to Paddy O'Hare. I did not weep but I came close. I told the whole truth.

Instead of sacking me he gave me a clap on the back, told me that I was learning about life and would make a good reporter yet and, dramatically, he gave me an extra one pound note along with my two pound wage that Friday.

And the visiting star did not get any mention at all in theFermanagh Herald that week. His behavior, of course, was not common or typical but, for many years, it tainted my perception of homosexuality.  I suppose that is understandable enough.

I have long since recovered fully from the shock and, hopefully, have a more mature and tolerantly understanding head upon me today than the one that sallied forth for that first interview.

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