KIERAN SHANNON: Two brave sons of Cloyne showed us the way

You leave in the morning

With everything you own in a little black case

Alone on the platform

The wind and the rain

On a sad and lonely face

- Smalltown Boy, Bronski Beat (1984)

This match is not over. The opposing side are making a late run, taking advantage of confusion and fear in the ranks and have momentum on their side.

However, should the Yes side ultimately prevail, it cannot be underestimated the role a couple of sporting figures played in that victory.

As recently as 2007, the late Brian Lenihan as the Minister for Justice told the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network that gay marriage was a non-runner. “Gay marriage would require constitutional change and, in my view, a referendum on this issue would be divisive and unsuccessful,” he said. “Furthermore, it would jeopardise the progress we have made over the last 15 years.”

Read that again. Not only did he think it would be “unsuccessful”, but “divisive” too. The country wasn’t even ready for a debate.

What changed? Well, one particularly significant milestone was when two years later Donal Óg Cusack fearlessly, matter-of-factly, declared his sexuality.

A couple of months ago, this column was reminded of the importance of the man and the moment.

I was watching an interview with John Amaechi, the first NBA player to publicly come out. Significantly, Amaechi had waited until three years after his retirement. When asked why he didn’t come out during his own playing career, Amaechi painted a picture.

It’s 2007. Amaechi is passing through a terminal in Los Angeles International Airport on his way to a press conference in New York as part of the promotion of his autobiography. At that press conference, in that book, he’s going to announce that he’s gay. In LAX, though, no one yet knows that. Men in bars and restaurants yell out “’Meech!” They want his autograph, want to buy him a beer. A woman thrusts her baby into his arms for a photograph.

A few days later, Amaechi is passing by the same bars and restaurants. This time men point and giggle, others shift uncomfortably in their seat, their eyes glaring disapprovingly. A woman grabs a staring toddler looking at the 6’10” giant in front of him and she pulls the kid behind her, as if, says Amaechi, “just him looking at me could make him gay”.

“In that context,” Amaechi tells the interviewer, “can you see why it’s a big decision to come out to the world?”

We can, which is where your respect for Cusack only grows. He also availed of public transport the day he came out to the world. It was a Sunday, the evening before he had a meeting in Dublin. Almost any other person under the circumstances — even Amaechi — would have taken a car to make the three-hour commute from Cork. Instead with every newspaper stand in the country openly declaring his sexuality, Cusack walked past the one in Kent Station and all the moving eyes to take his place in the queue for a train ticket. What happened next tells you even more about the man and his country, the place it once was and the place he’s helped to make.

As Cusack waited in line, a man approached him and spoke of how he’d a son who had to leave the country — or, as Cusack would correct himself, “felt he had to leave the country” — for the same reason Jimmy Somerville and so many more sad and lonely generations of smalltown boys have bolted for the big city.

This father wanted to thank Cusack. With a role model like him announcing he’d nothing to be ashamed about, his son and others would increasingly feel more comfortable in their own skin and this society.

Prior to Cusack, most Irish public gay figures seemed to be particularly camp, flamboyant, non-sporting, from David Norris to Graham Norton to Panti Bliss. But what about your average Joe who happens to be gay, working jobs like anyone else in rural Ireland: carpenters, farmers, electricians, the kind that make up every GAA dressing room in the country? The example of Cusack — hurler, engineer — spoke to and for that Ireland.

Two brave sons of Cloyne showed us the way

It’s still not easy being part of that Ireland. No one has been a more eloquent spokesperson on emotional wellbeing in Irish public discourse the past 18 months than Conor Cusack, Donal Óg’s brother. In that time he has highlighted that someone who is gay – as he himself is – is seven times more likely than a straight person to attempt suicide. Over the last 18 months, he has inspired countless people in how to deal with depression.

However, much to his anguish some he has been unable to save. A 19-year-old gay man took his own life with Cusack on the other end of the phone. Cusack would be so tormented it would trigger his first panic attack in 10 years. The young man still occupies his thoughts, like when he sees straight GAA players like Aidan O’Shea, Rory O’Carroll, Denis Bastick and Eamonn McGee campaigning for a Yes vote next Friday.

“I was just saying to myself: My God, I’d love if he had been [around to see]... and know, ‘hey, you know what, it’s okay. It’s okay to be gay. This country and world is going to change and it’s going to be a better place for you’.”

One of the finer achievements of Conor, the GPA and GAA in the last while has been to highlight the extraordinary potential the sport has to improve the emotional well being of people. It has moved on from the cultural nationalism of another era to a social movement that is more self-assured, sensitive, caring. You don’t just represent communities; you can enhance them.

“Yet”, he observed in a passionate interview with this paper last week, “the strongest symbol within that community is the prospect of marriage and two people declaring their love and commitment to each other for all that community to see... Civil partnership is legalities. Marriage is about love. Equality. That young man when he took his life wasn’t thinking about f***ing’ legalities!”

Whether people opposed to the referendum realise it or not, he argued, depriving gay people marriage sends out a subliminal message: That somehow you’re less of a human being. That your love isn’t the real thing.

There’s an analogy he sometimes tells in explaining the influence society can have. A man buys a goldfish. He’s told to put the tank temperature at 10 degrees. The following morning the fish is dead. He thinks it’s a once off, goes back, is given another goldfish. Next morning that fish is dead. That’s unusual, says the shopkeeper: Did you feed him? He did, just as he feeds the next one. But he too dies. Next thing he spots a sign: the temperature was supposed to have been just five degrees. The environment wasn’t conducive to that fish being able to survive and thrive.

Next Friday is an opportunity to create a better environment for smalltown boys, such as that deceased 19-year-old, to survive and thrive. Should it be taken, hats off to how two sons of Cloyne helped adjust the temperature.


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