Irishmen shied away from any touching beyond a handshake for fear of homophobia, until politicians and Continentals normalised the man hug, says Dave Kenny.
A MAN hug saved me from being shot by the IRA. Sixteen years ago, a huge friend of mine man hugged me while we were out drinking.
He was wearing a diving watch, which caught me under the solar plexus and cracked two of my ribs.
I was in agony for six weeks, unable to climb out of cars and bed without assistance. I got zero sympathy from family and friends.
‘If it hurts, go to the hospital’ was the universal response to my groans.
Eventually, I did go ... and spent 12 hours in A&E and X-Ray, being prodded and poked. The ribs hurt so much that I asked for a pain killer.
Within 10 minutes, I had had a potentially life-threatening anaphalactic reaction to the Difene. My head swelled up so badly that I looked like the lovechild of the Elephant Man and ET.
I was bundled onto a trolley and a nurse stabbed me in the gut with a needle full of adrenalin...
Now this is a long story — let’s come back to the IRA later.
Man-hugging (mugging) is a new concept. It’s the ultimate demonstration of heterosexual male affection.
It says, ‘I love you, man — and I’m so comfortable about my sexuality that I’m not afraid to hug you. Just don’t rub your crotch against me’.
Movie stars are constantly at it on the red carpet, sports people have it down to an art form, Dermot O’Leary makes a living from it on X Factor.
Carl Fogarty and Jimmy Bullard hugged each other to death on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. There’s even a new app, Cuddlr, by which you meet strangers to hug them. How sad is that?
I’m an unashamed hugger, but I’m a big softie. I was at a 30-year school reunion recently and hugged every one of my former classmates.
I wasn’t drinking and I’m not gay, I was just glad to see them.
Not one person pulled away from my hug, which may say something about my generation (we’re in our mid-40s).
Homosexuality was decriminalised in our youth. We’re post- homophobic.
But there was a time when hugging a man was permissible only if he was choking and you were administering the Heimlich manoeuvre.
I grew up in the 1970s, watching Starsky and Hutch, and never once saw ‘Huggy Bear’ hug anyone. It just wasn’t done.
My dad and his friends weren’t huggers. There might have been a pint bought and a hand shaken when a horse came in, or a child was born, but that was it. No hugs.
Irishmen of his generation didn’t touch other men, unless they were doctors or professional footballers.
The latter are, arguably, the huggiest of men, almost dry-humping each other after scoring a match-clinching goal.
Their fans are huggy, too — sometime too huggy. In 2010, a Limerick soccer fan ran onto the pitch at Ibrox to hug Wayne Rooney during a Champions League match. He was fined £400 and banned from attending British games for two years.
Solicitor Raphoe Collins (44) is a soccer fan who has never hugged Wayne Rooney.
He is, however, used to being hugged by ‘randomers’.
“I have no problem hugging, or being hugged, by another man. I was at the Champions League final in 2014, and was hugged by loads of Real Madrid fans, because I was wearing their jersey. It was good fun.
“That’s the thing about sporting events. You end up being hugged by strangers — even on the street afterwards. It’s a lot different to a few years back, when you might have got a pat on the back when your team won. I don’t mind it at all.”
Veteran seniors rugby player, Rory Hickey (52), is not of the same opinion.
“I’m not a man-hug fan. We never do it during matches. We might do a modest high-five, but that’s about it. We leave the hugging to soccer players. If I have to hug, it’s always very strong, with a few pats on the back.”
Financial consultant, Daragh Redmond (43), is firmly against ‘mugging’.
“It’s just about okay after a few pints on New Year’s Eve, but, as a rule, I don’t like it. I prefer a handshake with eye contact. I feel my personal space is being compromised. It’s like a woman hugging you who isn’t your wife. It doesn’t feel right.”
Civil servant, Andrew Flood (48), is not overly-comfortable with man-hugs, but says they are a good thing.
“It’s better for men to hug each other and display emotion, rather than bottle it up. Our dads’ generation weren’t great at showing physical affection. Nowadays, everyone seems to be hugging.
“I’m okay with group hugs, but I’m not mad about my personal space being invaded. That said, I don’t have a huge problem with it.”
Broadcaster Joe Duffy ‘hugs’ the nation daily on his radio show, Liveline. And he is not averse tobeing man-hugged.
“Having just finished reading Simon Fitzmaurice’s uplifting memoir of living with motor neuron disease — Not Yet Dark — I can honestly say I do hug. Why? Because I can.
“There’s a group of people that I know who are great huggers: Brendan O’Carroll and his wife, Jenny, Brush Shiels, Sil Fox, Red Hurley, Noel V Ginnity, Doc Savage, Bob Carley, Sonny Knowles and Gaybo. Every time we meet, we hug — no ifs or buts.
“Have you noticed that they are all showbiz people? Hugging is a great showbiz greeting. And these are genuine, Paddington Bear hugs: warm, embracing and, more often than not, fragrant.
“I am also a compulsive shaker of hands. I also air-kiss most women — though I do draw the line at Mrs Agnes Brown, especially when Brendan is still wearing his moustache.”
Musician, producer and hippy, Shea Fitzgerald (52), agrees with Joe’s observation about showbiz folk. “Music people are always hugging each other. It’s a rock-and- roll thing: we tend to be less inhibited. It comes with the territory.
“I think male attitudes have changed here, thanks to our experiences on foreign holidays. Irish blokes saw macho French, Italian or Spanish men hugging each other and thought ‘that’s OK. I can do that’.”
So, when did attitudes change? Personally, I’m inclined to point the finger at Joey and Chandler, from the 1990s series, Friends. They were always hugging each other and still retained their quirky masculinity.
Eric Anderson is professor of masculinities, sexualities, and sport at the University of Winchester.
He believe that Western homophobia began to decline in 1993 — after the Aids epidemic had brought homosexuality out into the open in the 1980s.
“The question is not what allows men to hug, but what prevents them from hugging. For that, you need a culture that is aware homosexuality exists and doesn’t like it.”
Anderson says this is why apparently homosexual behaviour can be practised in ostensibly hostile environments.
“I was in an Islamic country and I couldn’t believe that you saw all these guys walking around holding hands. They could be arrested for that kind of behaviour. But it’s because, in their country, homosexuality ‘doesn’t exist’.”
Man-hugging in Western society is often designed to show liberalism and tolerance. This is why politicians love to man-squeeze. It literally says ‘I’m all-embracing’.”
Bill Clinton led the way in the 1990s. He was hands-on with males and females (ask Monica Lewinsky). Today, Barack Obama is octopus-like in embracing. He recently hugged his departing press secretary ... who couldn’t get away fast enough.
Tony Blair hugged Libyan leader Mad Dog Gaddafi in 2007. It was a brave move, as the ‘Colonel’ was renowned for being an inveterate farter.
Irish politicians are still behind the curve, though. Enda tries, God love him.
He approaches his mark with an apparent handshake that turns into a half-hug (he lays his free hand on the huggee’s shoulder and gets in close). He then winks at the camera.
Psychotherapist and counsellor, Sinéad Lynch, of Silverlinings.ie, was bemused when asked her professional opinion about man-hugging.
“Isn’t the ‘notion’ of a man-hug a societal thing? Would we be questioning it if we lived in the double-kissing French culture? There’s nothing strange about Francois Hollande hugging a government official but, let’s face it, when Enda tries it, it’s just weird.
“Why? Because its not our societal norm. I discussed the topic with a group of girls I’ve known from primary school and realised that we don’t hug when we meet up. That’s because it wasn’t the norm, back then, to do so and would seem strange now if we were to start the tradition.
“In comparison, I regularly hug the friends I’ve made in my 30s. It doesn’t mean I love them more. We just got swept up in this ritual of embrace,” Lynch says.
“And that’s what I think man hugs are now — a new ritual. One that wasn’t originally part of Irish life. Maybe not even part of the Irish psyche. Did Dev deliver hugs to his men? Did dads around the countryside dote on their sons with bear hugs? No. It wasn’t the ‘done’ thing.
“It’s changing, though, and that’s because culture is changing. People are learning that showing affection matters... that boys need affection just as much as girls.
“I believe it’s often the men who weren’t hugged as boys making those cultural changes today, as fathers themselves. They want to give their sons the type of paternal relationship they didn’t get to experience as a child.
“Hugging is an intimate act. We need to respect people’s boundaries. Boundaries are there to help make us feel safe. So man or woman, straight or gay, respecting another person’s preference to hug, or not hug, should always be the question.”
In other words, you should never ‘ambush’ someone with a hug.
Speaking of ambushes, let’s get back to the IRA and the man hug...
After half a day of almost dying in hospital, I got home and switched on the news. I was shocked to hear that the IRA had tried to hold up a Securicor van in my hometown of Dalkey, that day.
I was even more shocked to hear that they had lain in wait in front of my old house and had started shooting at 3.30pm — exactly the time I arrived home from work every day. I would have been caught in the crossfire.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that a man hug saved my life. My mate’s arms saved me from the men-at-arms.
Anyone for a hug?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved