Big boys don't cry

Men are expected to keep their feelings in check but this can get in the way of developing an emotional literacy, says Dave Kenny.

Big boys don't cry

THERE is a sound few men want to hear. It’s the sound of the alpha male cracking. The deep rumbling of a freight-train-load of sorrow emerging from the darkness of a man’s soul.

Think of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List and the scene where his massive shoulders collapse under the weight of his guilt at not saving more Jews. The sound of his bass voice trembling is heart-shattering.

Think of Michael Fassbender. The man who played Bobby Sands is not the kind of actor who plays weepy wimps. He’s ‘all-man’ in ways that most males only dream of being. In his new movie, The Counsellor, he breaks down after a drugs shipment goes missing. Drug deals gone awry may not be as sympathy-inducing as saving Jews, yet Fassbender’s thespian tears are deeply affecting. (It’s not often you get to see a Kerryman cry. Unless it’s over a disputed field. Or the All-Ireland.)

Think also of Bertie Ahern welling up while talking to Dobbo on Six-One News in 2006. Despite my aversion, I felt sympathy for the man who blew the bubble.

Eamon Dunphy frequently cycles past the onion-peeling factory on his way to work. Last week, he broke down on Ireland AM while talking about his father. The Dunph was Eamotional. Again, I found myself with a globus sensation (lump in throat).

Why does a man crying elicit such a strong emotional response from other men? To understand our reaction, we need to examine where ‘crying’ comes from. Theories range from response to pain, to trying to elicit kindness from others.

One evolutionary study has found that crying causes blurred vision which can handicap violent behaviour. So, when we see an alpha male weep, we sense that he is momentarily disabled and not a threat. Therefore, we can be generous with our reaction.

Sounds plausible — but only if male crying is infrequent. The ‘tears card’ needs to be used sparingly, it can be overplayed.

According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, women cry between 30 and 64 times a year. Men weep between six and 17 times. That annual average is almost exceeded every week on X Factor.

The competition is teaching young men to turn on the waterworks to gain an advantage over their competitors. It’s all very 21st century and shows how attitudes to The Man Cry has changed over the millennia.

In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Odysseus bawls constantly for the loss of companions and home. Yet he never cries for himself.

In Irish mythology, Cuchulainn weeps for his slain buddy, Ferdia. Irishmen weren’t always as anal as we are now.

In the Bible, Our Lord’s biographers weren’t afraid to show him crying and recorded that ‘Jesus wept’.

During the stiff-upper-lipped Victorian era, weeping became seen as an exclusively female preserve. You can’t build an empire with tearful men, the logic went. And so, the 20th century arrived, and with it the ideal of the dry-eyed Real Man.

Modern men have a horror of becoming a snot-bedraggled mess, sobbing and gulping like a grounded flounder in public. Of looking like Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars.

At my dad’s funeral, I bore the coffin with some members of the gardaí who were family friends. I kept telling myself to be emotionally strong. No man wants to cry before alpha males when he is supposed to be ‘strong’ for his family.

The acceptable times to weep are at the graveside, after viewing the body, or while struggling with a reading. I cried on each of these occasions.

Singer-songwriter and composer, Eamon Keane, believes The Strong Silent Rule has caused misery for generations of Irish men.

“One of the most destructive phrases ever spoken to Irish men is ‘be strong now for the family’,” he says. “This has condemned many to silent, torturous years of unexpressed grief. And men go on to perpetuate this with their wives and children.

Things are changing. And it is coming from the most unlikely quarters. Rugby player Alan Quinlan has spoken openly about his depression. Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn, in his play James X, shows us that the only way out of the institutional and societal abuse is to express and feel your true story.

Unfortunately, some men will go to violent extremes rather than show that vulnerable side. UCD sociologist Anne Cleary published a study in Social Science & Medicine last year that found a common theme among 52 young men who survived suicide. Each had been reluctant to talk about the “significant, long-lasting” emotional pain they were suffering.

According to Cleary, the men “used alcohol and drugs to cope — which exacerbated and prolonged their distress.

“Over time this led to a situation where they felt their options had narrowed, and suicidal action represented a way out of their difficulties. They opted for suicide rather than disclose distress and seek help.”

“Men don’t really like the psychotherapy approach, the talking,” she says. “Maybe it is true that psychotherapy, counselling, and talking suits women more at this time.”

Addiction counsellor Christy Murray has seen the effect that emotional ‘isolation’ can have on men. He believes the Irish male needs to be encouraged to open up more.

“We’re taught that ‘boys don’t cry’ from an early age and this, naturally, impacts on us at times of crisis. That said, men are more emotionally aware than they used to be. I think the various suicide awareness campaigns have helped.

“It’s good for men to cry,” he says. “Many, though, still believe tears are a sign of weakness. There’s an interesting paradox here. Strong men will cry at sporting events. Look at Clare manager, Davy Fitzgerald. He’s not afraid to shed tears in public. Those tears of joy are equally cathartic and important for men as the tears of sorrow.”

Why is it that the sight of a man crying can sometimes be more affecting than a woman or a child in distress?

“Women and children are expected to cry, to some extent,” explains Murray. “It’s the societal norm. Men are not. The tears of an alpha male are perceived to come from a deeper place. We believe that, as it takes more effort for a man to cry, the pain he is experiencing is immense.”

RTÉ’s Joe Duffy knows more about the Irish psyche than a drift of shrinks.

“I have conflicting views on emotion,” he says. “Firstly, I have a reluctant view on men crying in public. For example, should politicians get emotional? I think it’s not helpful. It somehow excludes and discomfits the audience.

“I remember being asked to do a speech in Letterfrack, when the school was transformed into a thriving college. I made the mistake of visiting the communal grave in the former industrial school — as I always do when I am in Connemara — and had that communal grave, and the names and ages of the young boys, in my head.

“When I began to talk, I mentioned this and the sluice gates of Ardnacrusha opened. I couldn’t speak and it excluded the audience and made them uncomfortable. So, in truth it wasn’t helpful.

“I should have done what I always do now: take deep breaths through my nose.

“This is a rule I still have. You can show empathy on air in other ways, rather than breaking down.

“There’s hardly a day goes by on Liveline — especially in the last five years — that a caller’s story would not reduce me to tears. I have to stay empathetic, but calm and helpful.

“A good cry is cathartic, but men are very reluctant to go there. Women find it easier — and easier to recover. Men, simply, don’t.”

According to the Samaritans’ report Men, Suicide and Society, men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide. One of the reasons cited for this is a lack of ‘emotional literacy’. Samaritans belive that society’s attitude to ‘masculinity’ needs to change.

“Men compare themselves against a masculine ‘gold standard’ which prizes power and control. This ideal requires that men should never be depressed, anxious or unable to cope, and if they are, they should never admit it.”

Today’s middle-aged Irishman is part of the ‘buffer’ generation. According to the director of Dublin Samaritans, Brendan Gallagher, “The ‘buffer generation’ male is caught between his traditional, silent father, and the more progressive, open generation of his son. He doesn’t know which of these two masculine ‘ideals’ to aspire to.”

Gallagher believes the sexes are fundamentally the same. “As a ‘Sam’ volunteer, I have found that men and women express themselves in different ways. Women can generally find the words quicker than men, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t articulate how we feel. Maybe we are a lot closer in our make-up than we think.”

The Samaritans are taking preventative steps. “Volunteers are going into schools to educate boys to talk about how they are feeling — to change the culture of the alpha male,” says Gallagher.

That culture change may lead to more men being able to open up — and cry — in public. Is this good or bad? As a relatively normal man, I believe the positives outweigh the irritation.

One of those positives is that a tearful response to male pain makes me feel good about myself. Strong empathy with another man reaffirms my basic, caring humanity. With the emphasis squarely on ‘manity’. Pass the Kleenex, please.


¦ Gazza at the World Cup: While the pundits on the Beeb were sympathising with Gazza, the rest of us snorted “tosser” at our TVs. Judge for yourself.

¦ Enda Kenny on Magdalene Laundries: a genuine, moving display of emotion.

¦ John Hayes during the anthem at Croke Park: Enough said.

¦ Tom Hanks at the Oscars: No Thanks.

¦ Shane Filan and/or everybody on X Factor: Shane worked the eye pumps on a recent show. You would have had to have a heart of stone… not to laugh.


¦ Sports: It’s fine to cry when winning, but not permissible when losing or taking a knock. Hurling and rugby players understand this. Soccer players do not. Ronaldo holding his ankle with tears running down his moisturised face should not elicit a Man Tear.

¦ TV: It’s not acceptable to cry while watching Down-ton Abbey with your wife. It is to cry at the death of Victor Meldrew or Darren getting whacked in Love/Hate.

¦ Movies to cry during: Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia Here I Come, The Remains of the Day (where heart-broken Anthony Hopkins raises his hat to Emma Thompson).

¦ Not to cry during: The Devil Wears Prada or anything you wouldn’t watch with your mates.

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