‘Everyone had girls’ names in the seminary’

Writer Phillip McMahon and director Rachel O’Riordan on making a play inspired by a hidden community of gay priests

Phillip McMahon and Rachel O’Riordan’s new play, ‘Come on Home’, runs in the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage from July 13th to August 4th.

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Almost 20 years ago, the writer and director Phillip McMahon took a year out to travel, to discover and to party. For a young gay man of 20, it was a liberating, heedless and, by the sounds of it, curiously blessed time.

“I really wasn’t sure if I would tell this story,” he says, sitting under the shade of a tree with director Rachel O’Riordan, in the grounds of a Methodist church where his new play is being rehearsed. “But it’s a fascinating and important story.”

Such is the sensitivity of the story, he would prefer not to name the city where it took place, and where a friend of a friend owned a beautiful, unoccupied apartment on the waterfront. Would McMahon like to live in it, he was asked, rent free, for six months? He decided that he would. There was one stipulation, though. Every Monday, two middle-aged friends of the apartment’s owner would stay overnight, keeping to themselves in the spare bedroom. It seemed like a small price to pay.

In the end, though, the visitors treated McMahon like their guest. “I was 20,” he remembers. “I had just left Ireland. I was discovering all sorts of things. But mainly I was living my best life and wasting away from the epic party I was on.” To sustain him, each Monday the men shared a good meal and red wine with him at the table. Eventually McMahon asked what they did. “Oh, we’re Catholic priests,” they told him. They were also a committed couple. Monday nights were their nights together. McMahon was stunned.

“For a yet-to-start-recovering Catholic, that was very confronting,” he says. At the time, he was still a believer and they talked about the seemingly irreconcilable forces of faith and sexuality.

“They really felt that they could change the Catholic Church from the inside,” he says. “That their belief was so strong. They also said the education was not to be underestimated and the job itself was fabulous. And they were part of a much wider circle, a community of gay priests.”

Far-flung community

Over the years, McMahon discovered just how wide and far-flung that community is: the drag act Fanny and Pearl, whom he once directed, got their names while training to become priests. “Everyone had girls’ names in the seminary,” they told him.

When stories about gay priests emerge in the media, they tend to erupt with voltage of either religious hypocrisy, farcical comedy or quiet tragedy. Take the Vatican male prostitution scandal of 2010, or the Grindr scandal at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 2016. (“I hadn’t heard that,” says McMahon of a more recent story, “and I’ve got ‘Gay Seminarians’ on my Google alerts.”)

They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it

In interviews, McMahon learned that the truth was usually less salacious. “They came to my small town, where I thought there was no way out,” he was told of religious recruitments. “There was a Marian parade through town, and it was the only glamour I’ve ever seen here. They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it.”

At seminaries, no less than any given college, people quietly discovered their sexuality in private, often with each other. “Then, when it became too much – and what was too much could be decided on a whim – they were often asked to leave.”
Trove of stories

Here, McMahon considered, was a trove of stories about faith, repression, identity and sexuality – in short, about Ireland. “So, I was like, do I write the drama first, or the musical first?”

If you know McMahon’s work, as a playwright, director and one half of the uproarious Thisispopbaby, this is not an unimportant question.

His most recent works, such as Tara Flynn’s affecting Not a Funny Word, Thisispopbaby’s world-conquering cabaret Riot, the delicate lament of Town is Dead, and the stage production of Emmet Kirwan’s Dublin Oldschool all addressed matter with music.

“When we did Alice in Funderland,” he says, of the 2012 Abbey Theatre musical, its first in more than 20 years, “the reason music was so important was to allow Irish people to sing out, it felt, for the first time in a long time”.

When he came to write Come On Home, though, inspired by the secret world behind holy orders, the form couldn’t have been more traditional. It is a two-act play, set in the family home of three grieving brothers in rural Ireland, reunited for the funeral of their mother. Here, bitter arguments, long-held shames and painful secrets flare over Aristotelian unities of time and space, against the sturdy details of stage realism. “It came out as a living room drama,” McMahon nods. “I was as surprised as anybody.”

The idea that something was being outed interested me

When Rachel O’Riordan first read the play, in Wales where she now leads the acclaimed Sherman Theatre, she did so in a single sitting and agreed to direct it the next morning. “I like making work that has bite,” she tells me. “Which looks at the tough corners of our social interactions, things spoken and unspoken. The idea that something was being outed interested me.”

Both collaborators can relate personally to other concerns of the play: exile, homecoming and the death of a parent. McMahon’s protagonist is Michael, a one-time seminarian who lived most of his adulthood in London, leaving behind a punishing father, a resentful brother, a besotted woman who married his feckless younger brother, and, poignantly, his former lover, Aidan, who remained in the priesthood.

Complexity

The complexity of home has long occupied McMahon, who was born in London to Irish parents and moved back when he was 10. O’Riordan’s upbringing was even more peripatetic: born in Cork and educated in England, she established herself professionally in Belfast, with the celebrated new writing company Ransom, before leaving to run the Perth Theatre in Scotland and now the Sherman in Wales. Remarkably, Come on Home counts as her Abbey theatre debut.

“We talked about how Irish we feel or not,” O’Riordan says, “and how difficult that can be sometimes.” She admits to “a strange sense of loss even when I’m here. Because the Republic isn’t where I’ve made my career. I think there’s an instinct in Irish people to go away.”

Coming back carries its own tensions. McMahon recalls of his childhood, “There was this sense that we were too Irish for England and not Irish enough for Ireland. There’s a sense of never being at home. Then, of course, when you discover in your early teens that you’re a queer, you’re suddenly not at home again. You watch how easily other boys walk through life, and wonder, how are you doing that?”

Inherited commission

Come On Home was commissioned some years ago, under director Fiach MacConghail, and comes to the stage under his successors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. That makes it a rare inherited commission, but also a play emerging into an Ireland that no one could have imagined 20, 10 even five years ago; one in which the church has vastly diminished influence, and progressive sexual and gender rights have been enshrined by landslide public vote.

The characters in Come On Home seem to straddle the fault line of such a tectonic shift, caught between staying and going, in a new nation where many struggle to catch up. “I look around and I see the kids,” says the young priest, Aidan. “The boys – holding hands. And it tortures me. The freedom.”

Madness of grief

If this is a time of celebration, it is still riven with grief, in which long-buried traumas await their reckoning. “We talked a lot about how grief makes you feel,” says O’Riordan. “Bereavement and the madness that descends, and the damage to the whole family. That heartbreak,” says O’Riordan.

“But there’s also licence to say so much in that space,” adds McMahon. “Emotions are high. Drink is taken. In reality, a lot of shit goes down.” That recalls similar situations in the plays of Tom Murphy, riven with grief, exile, mourning and alcohol, and O’Riordan isn’t slow to claim a dramatic kinship. “But it’s also ‘queered’,” says McMahon, “and I hope that there’s something of today, or of my Ireland in there.”

That’s especially true of a family, however fractious, automatically performing funeral rituals together, where authority figures are tellingly absent. At one point, for instance, someone downloads the rosary.

Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” McMahon tells me. “Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other. That leaves you a little bit at sea about how we can plug into a communal spirituality. I feel the absence of that: a connection.”

Some people find that connection in other ways, whether blissed out on a dancefloor or moved in a theatre, or in the overwhelming results of historic referendums. McMahon may worry still about making drama from private stories. “You can’t treat gay priests as a joke. When you shine a light in these corners, you have to do so sensitively.” But the play is neither an exposé, nor a confession. In bringing people together, whatever the circumstances, it comes closer to a communion.

Complete Article HERE!

My Son Might Be Gay. What Should I Say to Him?

There’s a reason he hasn’t come out to you yet.

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Making your way through this cruel, confounding, ever-changing world is difficult. Something make you anxious this week, or any week? Lay it on me at askdaveholmes@gmail.com. I’m here to help you minimize the damage you will necessarily inflict on the world just by being alive.

So, what’s your problem?

Dave,

I have a 17-year-old son, and I am fairly sure he is gay. He is not out, although I don’t know if he might be to any close friends. What’s hardest for me as his dad is that I know that this time of life can be confusing and frustrating to any kid, and I only know the experience of a straight guy. I can’t imagine how much harder or more complicated it must be for him. I would love to be able to be more supportive of him, but I certainly am not going to confront him.
Since your column a couple of weeks ago was advice for coming out to your family, my related question is: What advice do you have for the family of someone who hasn’t yet come out?
Many thanks,

Mark

Mark, you are one hell of a father, so first and foremost: thank you. You’re attuned to your kid’s developing identity, you’re not trying to change him, and you’re considering how your words and behavior will affect him down the road. I’m not a parent, but I know these are all difficult and necessary things. You are actively improving your son’s quality of life just by thinking about them. Well done.

Here’s a story to illustrate what you should definitely not do. Years ago, when I was not much older than your son, I was at home on a Sunday night flipping through the TV channels with my mother. Not much was on: a Murder She Wrote we’d already seen; a Parker Lewis Can’t Lose she wouldn’t have understood; probably an actual opera in Italian on A&E or Bravo, because that’s actually what those networks used to give you. I paused on our local PBS affiliate, where a huge choir was singing, and after a few seconds I realized it was the Gay Men’s Chorus of some city or another doing a fundraising concert.

I stopped there, just to see what would happen. At this time in my life, I was 99 percent certain I was gay, though nowhere near ready to spring it on my parents. We had no gay people in our lives back then, no way to gauge my family’s level of tolerance. And here it was: the most passive, least courageous way I could drag the topic into the family room, kicking and singing.

We had no gay people in our lives back then, no way to gauge my family’s level of tolerance.

 
We watched as they delivered a rendition of what I remember as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” because either they or my memory are unforgivably basic. But it was gorgeous. Stirring and brave and subversive, coming as it did in a time before marriage equality was on the map, a time when you only saw gay people on the news. I got chills.

Then they finished, and my mom turned to me and said, “I really pity them.”

I switched it to Parker Lewis and left the room.

Now, I am comfortable telling you this story now because it was ages ago, she has come a long way since then, and also there’s a zero percent chance she’s ever going to read this because it’s on the computer. But it stands as evidence that sometimes saying nothing is the stronger choice

Good on you for not point-blank asking your son whether he’s gay. You are probably going to be the last person he tells. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t trust you or that you didn’t make it an easy enough process for him. It means one simple, inescapable thing: Once you have told your dad you’re gay, there is no going back. You have given your final answer, and you are locking it in. And what if it all just lifts one day, and you wake up straight, and then you get married and have to spend your whole wedding day wondering whether your dad is thinking about what you told him that one time?

Right now, if your instinct is correct, your son is sorting through all of his competing urges and trying to determine which are his and which belong to society. Right now, everything is possible. You are probably correct that the confusion and frustration he’s experiencing is different than what you and all teenagers have gone through. But as to whether it’s harder, it’s all relative. This is the only adolescence he’s ever going to have. And as you know from personal experience, it’s not like straight teenagers are dying for their parents’ involvement in their relationships and identity development. Right now, he has to be secretive, not because he’s gay, but because he’s 17. And if his personal experience is indeed tougher than his peers’, then he will end up tougher than his peers.

I’d love to say that you should do a big, showy “Hey, I sure do like those gay people” at the dinner table. I want to tell you to find out when Brokeback Mountain is on HBO and then accidentally turn it on right at the beginning when he’s in the room. I wish it were as simple and CBS-sitcommy as invite the gay guy from work to family bowling night. But it isn’t. Don’t do any of these things. At this age, kids are not only wildly self-conscious, they are also you-conscious. They know what you’re trying to do and what you’re asking without asking. Any well-meaning attempt to raise The Topic is only going to make him more nervous.

At this age, kids are not only wildly self-conscious, they are also you-conscious.

 
The one thing you can do, which I suspect you’re already doing, is to make him feel like a secure and separate person. To chisel away at the shame our culture hangs on all of us. To make him strong in his opinions and choices, even when they wouldn’t be yours. Discuss the news of the day with him, and when he makes a point that differs from yours, thank him for giving you a fresh perspective. Do what you can to make him feel like he can stand on his two feet, even when he’s standing apart from you. It’s a skill he’ll need, no matter which side of the fence he eventually lands on.

No matter what you do, know one important thing: He’s 17, and he’s probably going to react by rolling his eyes and going to his room. That’s what I did when my own father subtly tried to engage with me long ago. Teens can’t help it. It is their job. But trust me: Your son is listening, and he won’t forget it. (And Dad, wherever you are: I see now what you were doing playing so much Wham! in your car, and I appreciate it.)

But again, by simply being the kind of person who asks a question like this, you are doing more than most fathers. This kid is lucky to have you. We all are

Complete Article HERE!