Looking back on love

Our first relationships often fall prey to naivety and end in tears. For Valentine’s Day, Sue Leonard asks five writers to reflect on their own teen experiences.

WE never forget our first love — but those fledgling romances are often laced with anxiety and pain. If we could live those teen years again, with the hindsight of greater experience, there is much we would like to change.

Five leading Irish writers look back on that first step towards maturity.


Sheila O’Flanagan started going out with boys in her early teens.

“If you could call it, ‘going out’. We’d hang around sitting on a wall, until just the two of you were left. It would be intense, and everyone would talk about you and say you were going out with this guy. You’d maybe go to the shops with them.

“My first real experience was at the Gaeltacht at 14. We’d do this rubbish Irish dancing at the céilís, and then nip out the back afterwards. It was two weeks of fun, but I knew it was going nowhere. The guy was from Wexford, and it was impossible to imagine a girl from Dublin going out with a country guy.

“When I started going out with boys from Dublin, I didn’t expect to be treated well. I believed that boys were in charge of a relationship. They made the phone calls and did all the running. I spent hours by the phone because someone said they would call, and you didn’t ask them, ‘at what time?’

“I always waited for boys to make the decisions and suggestions. And if they were late, or failed to show up, I never said, ‘Where the hell were you?’

“My first big break-up came when I was 20. We’d been together for two years. He was a nice guy, but we were always doing the things he wanted to do. I realised I was falling in with his wishes and wasn’t really enjoying it. We had big break ups, then got back together, but finally we drifted apart and he started seeing someone else.” ¦ What Shelia would change: “I wish I’d been more assertive. And I wish I had been more myself instead of trying to be a particular person. I met my partner Colm in my early 20s. We’re equal and we share interests. That, I think, is important.”


Michael Harding first kissed a girl at the Gaeltacht when he was 15.

“It was a beautiful night. I asked her to go outside. We walked up this hill to where the sun was setting over the Atlantic, and I put my face close to hers. It was difficult finding her mouth — like docking a spaceship. That kiss was exquisite. I can still see her lips and her dark hair flowing around them.

“I was a great one for the carnivals. I’d borrow my father’s car, and drive miles to a dance. You’d dance a set, then ask the girl, ‘will you stay on?’ Those were always one-night stands.

“I first fell in love at college in Maynooth. The girl was in Ireland for a year, and we had a wonderful, wonderful time. We had our own flats, but mostly lived together. It was fun, and utterly romantic. We fell in love in the way students do, as young innocent lovers, but I never saw the relationship being permanent. She was going home, back to her university; our lives would clearly not connect.

“When it came time for her to leave I do know that she was wounded. She had fallen in love with Ireland, too — she loved the whole package.

“I had a job teaching the following September, so I was in a whole new world. But she had to go back to her old world. I see now that I displayed a lack of sensitivity.” ¦ What Michael would change: “My mistake was that I was lacking in vulnerability. I didn’t give myself openly. When you really give your heart you leave yourself open to wounds. But you need to be vulnerable. I learned that when I met my life partner.”


Catherine Dunne first fell in love at 16.

“I fell for this lovely guy and we went out for a short time. Then I burnt a hole in the shirt I’d offered to iron for him. I waited weeks for him to call after that. I’ve made a point of not ironing shirts since.

“I first fell in love seriously when I was 17. He was 21 — already a glamorous university student. He was well-read and funny and fun to be with. It was an idyllic summer. We worked together, spent all our free time together. It was that heedless, all-or-nothing, allconsuming feeling that is typical of first love — we were perfect, stars in our eyes, feet not touching the ground, the works.

“I don’t think I was consciously planning a ‘future’, but I couldn’t imagine ever being without him. It felt right and natural that we were together.

“Until we weren’t. At the end of that summer, we had to go back to our other lives. With astonishing speed, he met someone else. My first love was also my first experience of heartbreak — it’s probably best that we don’t know at the outset that the two often go together.” ¦ What Catherine would change: “To have had the knowledge that anguish does lessen over time. Falling in love is always young. It is no respecter of age — and for that we can be forever grateful. No matter how much experience we have in love, it often doesn’t amount to a whole lot of wisdom. And no amount of wisdom can make someone want to be with you when they don’t.”


Brian Finnegan was a late starter.

“My teens were a chaste time. I spent most of them reading in my bedroom. I was badly bullied at school and I was sexually confused. I couldn’t imagine myself being with anyone; I had such negative thoughts about being with men, I didn’t even go there. “I kissed a girl at 16, and I had friends who were girls. They would be talking about boys and I couldn’t. I never said I was gay to anyone because I couldn’t say it to myself.

“My first love was a woman. We met in art college and were friends at first. At a party we started chatting and we were together for six years after that. I thought ‘Hurrah I am heterosexual!’ We had an amazing four years; a long honeymoon period, but after a while I decided I was bisexual.

“We were so close, so enmeshed, that we thought we were together forever. We found it hard to leave one another so we went to counselling and the counsellor, a gay man, talked us through lots of stuff. We struggled on and we had a child. But we split when he was one.” ¦ What Brian would change: “I wouldn’t change anything. It was one of the best things that happened in my life. We are incredibly close still. She understands me in a way nobody else does. We have a wonderful son whom we are both very proud of.”


Emma Hannigan was raised to believe that there was no point in having a boyfriend unless he enhanced her life.

“My mother always said that if somebody is not there for you emotionally, you are better off on your own. I was at a mixed school from the age of three. I had an elder brother, and a male cousin, so I never thought that boys were gods from another planet. My first experience would have been at a school disco, where the whole class snogged each other. It was like a conveyor belt.

“Boys did give me the run around in my late teens and early 20s. My heart was broken several times. I gave an awful lot of myself to those relationships, and I expected the guys to treat me the same way as I treated them.

“I was usually the one to walk away. I don’t think they cared. I haven’t stayed friends with any of my exes. I think that says something. I decided to forget about men and have fun with girlfriends for a few months but then I met my husband, Cian. It felt right.

“We moved in together after less than two months together, he proposed on our first New Year’s Eve; we married the following June and our first child Sasha was born ten months later. We’ve been married for 15 years.”

¦ What Emma would change: “I used to think I would never meet anyone who it would work with. I think you have to love each other equally. Cian and I do. I wouldn’t worry now. I’d tell myself to enjoy my freedom while I was young. It’s a great time in your life.

¦ Sheila O’Flanagan is the author of 21 bestselling books. Her latest, is Things We Never Say.

¦ Michael Harding is a columnist, novelist and playwright. His memoir, Staring at Lakes, (Hachette Ireland),won the non-fiction category at the BGE Irish book awards, and the best book of the year.

¦ Catherine Dunne is the author of eight novels. Her latest, The Things we Know Now, (Macmillan), won the Giovanni Boccaccio International prize for fiction, and was shortlisted for the BGE Irish novel of the year.

¦ Brian Finnegan is the editor of Gay Community News. His second novel, Knowing Me, Knowing You, (Hachette Ireland), is out in paperback soon.

¦ Emma Hannigan is the author of six novels and a memoir, based on her experience with cancer. Her latest is Driving Home for Christmas, (Hachette Ireland).


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