Frank McDon­ald

Grow­ing up gay in 1960s Dublin – an ex­clu­sive ex­tract from his new book.

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Born in Dublin in 1950, Frank McDon­ald grew up in Cabra. A ground­break­ing Ir­ish jour­nal­ist who wrote sev­eral books on Dublin’s built en­vi­ron­ment, he was en­vi­ron­ment edi­tor of ‘The Ir­ish Times’ un­til his re­tire­ment in 2015. This is a per­sonal ac­count of his child­hood and life as a young gay man in Dublin.

There were al­ways books in our house, some bor­rowed for a cou­ple of weeks from Phib­s­boro Li­brary, where we were reg­u­lars. Our per­ma­nent col­lec­tion in­cluded a very use­ful set of books with ti­tles such as How to Write, Think and Speak Cor­rectly and The Won­der­ful Story

of the Hu­man Body (“by a well-known physi­cian”). It had a chap­ter at the end deal­ing with “Re­pro­duc­tion and Sex” and that’s how we must have learned about the me­chan­ics of it all, since our par­ents never re­ally talked to us about it.

Some­times, I think my par­ents de­spaired of me. I made my mother cry more than once, which is an aw­ful thing to ad­mit. She saw me as a dif­fi­cult, stub­born teenager, and I thought it was prob­a­bly her fault that I was gay, that she had made me that way. This was non­sense, of course.

As a child, I had al­ways imag­ined fol­low­ing the con­ven­tional route of get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing chil­dren of my own. But even as young as 10, I was get­ting crushes on other boys in my class, one of them in par­tic­u­lar; his name was David, and I wanted to be with him all the time. The mag­net pulling me to­wards him and other boys was some­thing in­nate, buried deep in my psy­che, and I had no con­trol over it.

I also no­ticed that I didn’t have much of an Adam’s ap­ple but did have knock­ing knees, like girls, and I as­sumed that some­thing had gone wrong, as most boys were bow-legged; maybe I was meant to be a girl af­ter all.

Around the same time, I started bit­ing my fin­ger­nails, which was prob­a­bly a sign of my un­der­ly­ing anx­i­ety about who or what I was; the only treat­ment avail­able was a bit­ter-tast­ing liq­uid “pol­ish” that had to be ap­plied ev­ery day.

Later on, when I was 14, I “messed around” with a school friend. We shared a desk and used to play with each other dur­ing class and reg­u­larly in cin­e­mas, usu­ally the Carl­ton. But it was a furtive thing that the two of us didn’t re­ally ac­knowl­edge to each other.

By then, I knew that I was tak­ing the road less trav­elled, and still re­mem­ber the first time it oc­curred to me, read­ing Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken in the li­brary in Phib­s­boro.

But as this re­al­i­sa­tion dawned, I didn’t like it one bit be­cause I feared that mine was go­ing to be a lonely jour­ney. There was a norm, and I was de­vi­at­ing from it. And with no role mod­els at the time, I was nav­i­gat­ing through un­charted ter­ri­tory, or so it seemed to me.

None of it was easy. Gripped by Catholic guilt, I hated the idea of be­ing “queer” and won­dered if there was a cure. It was my dark se­cret, some­thing that could never be ad­mit­ted to my fam­ily or friends.

Reg­u­larly, I would have to lis­ten to boys at school telling jokes about “queers” with­out let­ting on that I was one of them; my face would flush with em­bar­rass­ment as I feigned join­ing in the laugh­ter. It was aw­ful.

I be­gan to imag­ine my brain as a series of com­part­ments – rooms off a cen­tral cor­ri­dor, as it were. So I would put the “homo thing” in one of these rooms and open the door to it ev­ery so of­ten, but oth­er­wise pre­tended that it didn’t ex­ist. My brother Liam and I even­tu­ally shook off de­vo­tion to Catholi­cism in our late teens, giv­ing up go­ing to Mass on Sun­days. But there was no way we could tell our par­ents then. So we would leave the house and cy­cle up to the Botanic Gar­dens in Glas­nevin, armed with a packet of cig­a­rettes, some lemon­ade and a copy of The

Sun­day Times, which be­came an ab­so­lute must-read af­ter Harold Evans took over as edi­tor in 1967 and started pub­lish­ing cru­sad­ing in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism.

It was quite a while be­fore our par­ents twigged that we were mitch­ing from Mass. I had stopped go­ing to Con­fes­sion, be­cause I found it in­creas­ingly strange to have to kneel in a dark box and tell my sins to some (per­haps pervy) priest.

In all her years as an agony aunt on ra­dio, from 1963 to 1985, I don’t be­lieve that Frankie Byrne ever read out a let­ter from a guy say­ing he was hav­ing prob­lems with his boyfriend; it was all strictly het­ero­sex­ual. Had there been one, I like to think I would have used that op­por­tu­nity to talk to my mother about it. But there wasn’t, and I didn’t.

Just as there were no tapas bars or sushi coun­ters in Dublin then, there were no gay dis­cos ei­ther, which was a prob­lem for those of us who were ten­ta­tively ex­plor­ing al­ter­na­tives. Ho­mo­sex­ual acts were crim­i­nalised by the 1861 Of­fences Against the Per­son Act, and so the gay scene was largely un­der­ground, fo­cused on parks and pub­lic toi­lets.

I dis­cov­ered this nether­world af­ter go­ing into the “gents” on In­fir­mary Road, right be­side the Peo­ple’s Gar­dens, and a guy in the next cu­bi­cle inched his foot un­der the par­ti­tion un­til it touched mine; we ended up hav­ing it off. It seems quite sor­did in ret­ro­spect, but lots of gay guys were do­ing that sort of thing; “cot­tag­ing” was the Grindr of the era.

The gents on Burgh Quay and the un­der­ground fa­cil­ity on Col­lege Street were very busy, as was the last re­main­ing Parisian-style pis­soir at Capel Street bridge, erected for all the pi­ous men go­ing to the Eucharis­tic Con­gress in 1932.

All are long since gone. When the cot­tage-style loo in St Stephen’s Green closed down, one of its older habitués re­put­edly placed a bou­quet of flow­ers out­side it, on the rail­ings.

There were risks, of course. One guy I met early on plied me with gin, vodka and whiskey at the Mullingar House in Chapeli­zod, be­fore tak­ing me, al­most co­matose from all the hard liquor, to a rel­a­tively re­mote part of the Phoenix Park and hav­ing his way with me. He was what we called a “chicken butcher”, with a predilec­tion for firm young flesh.

They weren’t all like that. The more civilised “tricks” in­cluded a mid­dle-aged Dutch guy called Willem van Heer­den, who had a fab­u­lous flat on the west side of St Stephen’s Green in a build­ing long since de­mol­ished; a gor­geous Swedish air­line pilot called Jahn Wen­ner­holm, who had a mews in Lad Lane and a strong weak­ness for younger guys; a stu­dent from Ghana do­ing medicine at the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons who lived in Le­in­ster Road; and an el­derly man who had a bed­sit on Holles Street.

That was one of the good things about the “gay scene”, I sup­pose – it was both age­less and class­less; you could meet guys from any walk of life.

The trick I re­mem­ber most was a well-spo­ken aca­demic in his mid-30s who called him­self “Mar­tin” and was oth­er­wise known as “Minty” be­cause of his prac­tice of giv­ing Polo mints to the boys he picked up on Burgh Quay and other places, to freshen their mouths for French kiss­ing.

When I had just turned 17, I met him in the toi­lets on Col­lege Street, and he whisked me off in his car to the TCD botanic gar­dens on Lans­downe Road, where the Berke­ley Court Ho­tel was later built.

For some rea­son, he had the keys to this lit­tle king­dom and used it reg­u­larly for trysts in one of the glasshouses, ly­ing down with boys on a car rug be­tween the pot­ting racks. He took me there at least twice, and to one of the more pri­vate bath­rooms in Trin­ity Col­lege on an­other oc­ca­sion.

“Mar­tin” passed me on to “Alan”, a blond-haired English post­grad­u­ate stu­dent in Trin­ity, who was also kind and gen­tle. The names were all phoney – I didn’t use my real name ei­ther, call­ing my­self “Tom” – such was the fear of be­ing black­mailed by some­one or sim­ply ex­posed as a “queer”.

Fast-for­ward nearly 30 years, and there I was watch­ing a cur­rent-af­fairs pro­gramme on RTÉ when a strangely fa­mil­iar fig­ure ap­peared on the screen, be­ing in­ter­ro­gated about his role in re­la­tion to a mat­ter of se­ri­ous pub­lic con­tro­versy.

Al­though he was wear­ing thick-framed glasses, prob­a­bly as a par­tial dis­guise, I thought I knew him from some­where. Sud­denly, it hit me like a bolt from the blue: it was the man I had known as “Mar­tin” who had keys to the long-lost botanic gar­dens in Balls­bridge. “Je­sus, that’s Minty!” I re­mem­ber say­ing out loud, even though I was alone at the time. In 1972, Frank McDon­ald be­came a jour­nal­ist for “The Ir­ish Press”, work­ing first as a sub-edi­tor and then as a news re­porter In March 1978 I re­ported on the fu­neral of Micheál MacLi­ammóir, co-founder of the Gate Theatre with his part­ner Hilton Ed­wards. The pair of them were English, both born in Lon­don, but they had em­braced Ire­land with such en­thu­si­asm that MacLi­ammóir (orig­i­nally Al­fred Will­more) not only changed his name to a fic­ti­tious Ir­ish one, but also be­came flu­ent in the Ir­ish lan­guage.

I knew they were ho­mo­sex­u­als, of course, and had seen MacLi­ammóir’s marvel­lous one-man show The Im­por

tance of Be­ing Os­car at the Gate more than


I had also heard the amus­ing story about how, shortly af­ter the ac­tor (who wore stage make-up all the time) was con­ferred with an hon­orary doc­tor­ate by the Na­tional Univer­sity of Ire­land, a PhD stu­dent do­ing a the­sis on the Gate had tele­phoned their home on Har­court Ter­race, ask­ing to speak to “Dr MacLiam- móir”. Hilton Ed­wards, who hadn’t yet got his own hon­orary doc­tor­ate from Trin­ity, an­swered the phone.

“He’s not here,” the great pro­ducer told him. “Will Nurse Ed­wards do?”

MacLi­ammóir’s fu­neral, at Univer­sity Church on St Stephen’s Green, was at­tended by the then pres­i­dent, Patrick Hillery, and I wit­nessed a very touch­ing scene when he went over to com­mis­er­ate with Ed­wards as the sur­viv­ing mem­ber of Ire­land’s best- known gay cou­ple.

Here was the first cit­i­zen of our State, where ho­mo­sex­ual acts were still il­le­gal, do­ing the de­cent thing by pay­ing his re­spects to them on be­half of us all.

Prob­a­bly due to years of de­nial about my own sex­u­al­ity, I had none of that “Look at me!” con­fi­dence you’re meant to have go­ing into a gay bar. It made my palms sweat with worry that some­one I knew might see me in this com­pro­mis­ing sit­u­a­tion.

I felt so awk­ward about it that I never en­tered one of those bars alone; it was al­ways with a friend or two. And even then, I was not much good at it. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence of lead­ing a dou­ble life had left me emo­tion­ally, even psy­chi­cally, scarred and it took me years to ac­cept who and what I am. I’m still work­ing on that, to be frank.

Yes, that’s it. To be Frank, a more au­then­tic ver­sion of my­self. Some of my gay friends had started out as lovers, such as Alain Fi­cat, then deputy di­rec­tor of the Al­liance Française in Dublin; or Ger­ard Cleary, a cute and car­ing den­tal stu­dent from Co Mayo, who went on to be­come a den­tist in Lon­don.

Oth­ers were sim­ply good friends, like the ever-en­ter­tain­ing Gary Quin­lan, then first sec­re­tary of the Aus­tralian Em­bassy in Dublin and later his coun­try’s high com­mis­sioner in Sin­ga­pore and per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the United Na­tions; Paul Mur­phy, a young sur­geon from Gal­way, with a sense of hu­mour that goes with the ter­ri­tory; and Ted Brod­er­ick, a bitchy civil ser­vant in the Of­fice of Pub­lic Works, who reg­u­larly hosted amus­ing din­ner par­ties at his Oak­ley Court flat in Ranelagh. We would go to Dublin’s pre­mier “gay-friendly” bar, Bart­ley Dunne’s on St Stephen’s Street (where the Grafton Plaza Ho­tel was built), or Rice’s on the corner of St Stephen’s Green and South King Street (later swal­lowed up by that ghastly shop­ping cen­tre).

An­other haunt was Duke Street, home to Tobin’s, with its 1950s cock­tail-bar in­te­rior (now the Duke, with fake “snugs”), and the Bai­ley, which was a pop­u­lar gather­ing place for more af­flu­ent gay guys on Satur­day lunchtimes. In the sum­mer of 1975, I ran into a lovely French guy, Jean- Marc Gan­dit, who was in Dublin to brush up his English. At the time, he was work­ing as a stew­ard for Air In­ter, the French in­ter­nal air­line, but he re­ally wanted to be an opera tenor; I can still re­mem­ber him singing an aria in the court­yard of an apart­ment build­ing in Paris.

Al­ways seek­ing more mean­ing in his life, Jean-Marc turned to Ti­betan Bud­dhism, spent years in a prayer stall at the Dalai Lama’s re­treat in Dharamshala, in the north of In­dia, and is now lama (chief Bud­dhist monk) of Stras­bourg with the adopted name of Tsultrim Guelek.

Then there was Alain Boschetti, a lovely French-Mo­roc­can guy, who I met in Lon­don and con­tin­ued cor­re­spond­ing with even af­ter he had re­turned to Agadir to work as ly­cée teacher.

But my favourite was John, a tall trainee ac­coun­tant, who I imag­ined as “the one” even though we had only just met. He was bright, good-look­ing and fun to be with. We had gone to see Cabaret on our first date and were de­lighted by that scene in which Michael York, look­ing more beau­ti­ful than ever, loses it over Liza Min­nelli’s in­fat­u­a­tion with the rich amoral aris­to­crat played by Hel­mut Griem. “Oh, screw Max­i­m­il­ian!’ he says. “I do,” she replies, and then he darts back, with a know­ing smile on his face, “So do I”.

Three weeks later, John stood me up. I had got tick­ets for God­spell [the mu­si­cal] at the Olympia Theatre and was wait­ing for him to turn up. As the min­utes ticked away, with no sign of him, I went to a phone box to call his flat and the line went dead. I rang again and the same thing hap­pened. He had hung up on me, twice. I was dev­as­tated. No­body had ever done any­thing like that to me.

Maybe John just didn’t like me any more. In a long angst-rid­den let­ter I talked about how, in the “gay world”, it was hard to find peo­ple who might be­come re­ally close: “Most re­la­tion­ships tend to be quite frag­ile and one is left with the al­ter­na­tive of seek­ing ‘ca­sual’ as­so­ci­a­tions, usu­ally in squalid and re­volt­ing loos. But this is the sort of dilemma that goes with be­ing ‘gay’. In Ire­land, where one is forced to don a mask and pre­tend a lot, it is es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult. It is not an easy prospect and hardly makes for the most ful­fill­ing kind of life.”

I didn’t hear from John for months. Even­tu­ally, he wrote me a let­ter apol­o­gis­ing for “the rot­ten way in which I treated you dur­ing the sum­mer”. He ex­plained it by say­ing that “it was re­ally a ques­tion of con­fused iden­tity, which I hope I have sorted out since then,” and asked if I would like to go out for a drink some night, say­ing, “You can drop me a note. If not, I will un­der­stand.”

I can’t re­mem­ber whether or not I ac­cepted his be­lated in­vi­ta­tion. Ei­ther way, it was the end of our all-too-brief af­fair. By then, I had al­most given up vis­it­ing rel­a­tives, mainly be­cause some of them would keep ask­ing whether I had found a “nice girl­friend” yet, which was ir­ri­tat­ing, when what I re­ally wanted was a nice boyfriend, al­though I couldn’t bring my­self to ad­mit that to them.

Gay dis­cos were get­ting un­der way in Dublin, start­ing in a ware­house on Great Strand Street and mov­ing on to a base­ment on the west side of Par­nell Square, where a weekly event was run by the newly formed Ir­ish Gay Rights Move­ment, (IGRM) led by Trin­ity lec­turer David Nor­ris. He was the first self-de­scribed ho­mo­sex­ual to ap­pear on Ir­ish tele­vi­sion in 1975, when he was in­ter­viewed by Áine O’Con­nor.

One Satur­day night in Septem­ber 1976, I was chat­ting to a friend, the diplo­mat Michael Hoey, out­side the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons when a fresh-faced young fel­low he al­ready knew came along and joined in the con­ver­sa­tion. His name was Ea­mon Slater, a tele­coms tech­ni­cian then aged 22 (I was 26 at the time), and he was go­ing to the IGRM disco on Par­nell Square, so I said I might see him there later.

Which I did, and we have been to­gether ever since.

This is an edited ex­tract from Truly Frank: A Dublin Mem­oir, by Frank McDon­ald, pub­lished by Pen­guin

Gripped by Catholic guilt, I hated the idea of be­ing ‘queer’ and won­dered if there was a cure Ho­mo­sex­ual acts were crim­i­nalised by the 1861 Of­fences Against the Per­son Act, and so the gay scene was largely un­der­ground, in parks and pub­lic toi­lets With no role mod­els at the time, I was nav­i­gat­ing through un­charted ter­ri­tory, or so it seemed to me

Clock­wise from bot­tom left: Frank McDon­ald in his First Com­mu­nion suit at Glen­more Road in 1957; as a UCD del­e­gate (cen­tre) at the 1969 Union of Stu­dents in Ire­land Con­gress in Rosses Point, Co Sligo with Tom Hayes and Seán Fin­lay; with his hus­band Ea­mon Slater at the Na­tional Botanic Gar­dens on their wed­ding day in 2016; and on the beach at Cape Cod, sum­mer 1970

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