Losing my religions

Every second summer or so, the Pope proclaims World Youth Day. He chooses a city and Catholic youth from all over the world come together and meet him. When I was a child, my parents and brothers went to Santiago in Spain, to Czestochowa in Poland and to Denver, Colorado on pilgrimage.

The meeting with the Pope would happen on a Saturday night. Then the millions of assembled young people and their minders would spend the night sleeping in the outdoors, and it really is millions. When the Pope had World Youth Day in Manila in the Phillipines, over 5 million people were in attendance. I may never have been to a music festival, but I have spent nights on continental hillsides with millions of other young people – my Woodstock. On the Sunday morning, the Pope would say mass, while we all listened to the translation on FM radio walkmen. A day or two later, a smaller group of people, a few hundred thousand, who are members of the religious community I grew up in, would meet with Kiko, the charismatic Spanish founder of the group. He makes a speech (with an even more unreliable translation on FM radios) and then makes “the call”, and if you’re a young person and you feel “the call”, you stand up and walk to the stage, and this is the first step in you entering the priesthood or the convent.

When I was fourteen, I finally got to go on one of these pilgrimages, to Loreto in Italy. We raised funds by bagging groceries in Dunnes’ Stores, and I learned valuable lessons about the bagging of extreme purchases like ice-cream, bleach, yoghurts and fire-lighters, all things which need extra special care in their bagging.

I had a truly spiritual experience in Loreto. I remember walking back from the meeting with Kiko, talking to one of the adults who had travelled with us from Ballincollig. He is a kind and jolly rugby man and when I started bawling crying while talking to him about what a beautiful experience I’d had listening to Kiko, he had no idea what to do. I have since made crying at straight men in inappropriate situations my speciality. I remember deeply regretting not standing up to be a priest, and yet being perfectly sure that I had felt no call at all and not being sure what that meant, but I was sure that I was full of God’s boundless love. I came back from Italy with a cross on a leather cord that I wore for weeks over my school uniform, like I wanted to be a bully magnet.

I was a believer. I knocked on doors telling people about Jesus. I stood on Paul Street and sang songs about God. I tried to talk the priests who taught in our school into joining our Community. I prayed. I read the bible. I fasted. I gave alms. I sold all my board games and my stereo and gave the money to charity. My older brother was a rebel, and I remember staying up late one night arguing with him. I remember arguing that gay sex was sinful, adulterous and unnatural. He argued that it was the natural expression of people’s love for each other.

At the end of Transition Year, when I was sixteen, my faith was not as strong as it had been. I was going on the World Youth Day pilgrimage to Paris. I have no idea whether or not my parents could afford the money for me to go to Paris, but a decision was announced that I was to find a summer job to save the money to pay for the pilgrimage. My mother had a tendency to do that. She would announce that I really should invite some friends to the house because it was what other young people did, or that I should really play a sport because that’s what other boys did, and this summer she announced that I was to get a job to pay for the pilgrimage because that’s what the other young people in the Community did.

The job I got changed my life, but more of that in  a moment.

I went to Paris and did not have a spiritual experience. It was fine, but mainly boring. It was hot, and I spent much of my time on the pilgrimage ogling the boys from the Community who played football with no shirts on. The one really memorable moment was when I was sitting in a hotel and I saw my older brother appear. He had apparently come back to Jesus, embraced the Way and was no longer a rebel. He had come to France without warning anyone, which is so typical of my family and their unnecessary and amazing sense of Drama. I came back from the pilgrimage and went straight back to the summer job.

The job was in a restaurant called Paddy Garibaldi’s. It got this name because it was an “Irish-Italian fusion restaurant”, meaning that you could order a baked potato with your lasagne or your pizza. I was a dish washer. I was not a kitchen porter. I was a dish washer. There was no dish washing machine. My kingdom was two huge sinks where I washed every single pot, plate and spoon by hand. I had a kitchen more or less to myself as the meals were served from a kitchen on a different floor. I got to know the job inside out, and I continued doing it full-time for the summer and part-time while I was in school.

Garibaldi’s was a wonderland, and I met the kind of people I’d never met before. And I got to be cool. Ish.

  • There was J___, a grumpy older chef who used to literally throw big iron saucepans at his colleagues when he was in a bad mood and who had so few teeth that he was almost impossible to understand.
  • There was D____, a trainee 15-year-old chef who somehow managed to convince herself she was second in charge in the kitchen.
  • There was R______, a funky and beautiful young waiter who was obsessed with Oasis. He had his hair cut like a Gallagher and would never listen to any other music. He called me “dude” and every time he spoke to me, it was like I was having sex standing up.
  • There was D____, who had a past that involved young offenders’ institutions and who used to stride around the staffroom in his underpants.
  • There was T_____, a manager who shared a love of the Beatles with me, and who I convinced myself was my soulmate. Nearly sixteen years have passed since we worked together and I still feel guilty occasionally that I didn’t stay in touch with her.
  • There was J_______, who was a musician and artist and had seventeen piercings on his body, including four bars through his scrotum. He was going to use a photograph of his scrotum as his album cover. Rumour had it that if you asked him why he had piercings, he would answer “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand the answer.”
  • There was C______,  an actual Portuguese woman, at a time when everyone in Cork was from Cork.
  • There was E_______, a woman who lived with the father of her son, but they weren’t married.
  • There was L_____, who was my age but who got pregnant by one of the supervisors in another branch of the restaurant.
  • There was A_____, an actual gay man, who had a lisp and limp wrists, and colourful clothes and moved like bitchy magic through the world.
  • There was K___, an older manager who used to drink wine continuously throughout her shifts and had a wonderfully warm manner with customers, possibly as a result.
  • There was S_____, who became one of my best friends, and who was in the habit of roaring uncomfortable truths and half-baked fantasies at the top of his lungs. He was a friendly ball of high-pitched energy and was absolutely exhausting.
  • There was R______, an overly-serious supervisor who was the first person who wasn’t a priest that I ever told I was gay.
  • There was T_____, a waitress who turned around to me while changing one day and told me that of course I should leave the religious community my family were in if that’s what I wanted. She was the first person to tell me that.

These people opened up a whole new world for me. The owner of the restaurant was the first ever real-life gay person I ever met. I remember the night one of the chefs told me that J_____ was gay. I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t happen in Cork. An actual gay man? How did he survive? Did he have actual sex with men? And then A_____ started as a waiter. That was two gays. And they didn’t hide it. And they didn’t appear to fight it. And they didn’t appear to want to be straight. And they were swishy and fabulous and real.

There is a lot of music that I associate with that time. The waiters would come  in to my kitchen and turn up the radio and we’d all bop around the kitchen to Wyclef Jean. And T______ introduced me to the music of the 1960s. And I spent my first pay cheque on a Beatles CD. And of course R_____ would sing Oasis song after Oasis song, and everyone knew the words because it was 1997.

And many of my first times getting drunk were with the Garibaldi’s crowd. I remember trying to drink wine at the speed you drink water and getting very, very sick. Legendarily, I got drunk at the Christmas party when I was 16 and I ended up going to midnight mass while drunk. I still don’t know if my parents noticed, but my sister sure did.

In November 1997, I had been working there for six months. And I’d become more and more disillusioned with the religious community I was in. And I was more and more sure that I was gay. And that it maybe might be possibly OK to be gay.  On the 11th November, Mary McAleese was being inaugurated President of Ireland. We had a day off school and I went into town. I sat in Garibaldi’s, eating a muffin and drinking a cup of coffee (I thought drinking coffee was supremely adult. I hated the taste of coffee, but had it fairly regularly when I was 16/17). I had decided it was time to tell someone. R_____ was serving downstairs and it was clear to her that something was wrong. I still remember the feeling. I told her I was gay. It was like confessing to a murder. I felt like such a villain. A relieved villain, but a villain. Ever since then I’ve called the 11th November “Rest-of-my-life day”.

R______ was absolutely delighted. She told me she had great gaydar and she’d always had a feeling about me and we could have such fun! It was my first experience of being treated as a novelty toy by straight women. She sent me upstairs to the office to speak to T______, the manager I loved who shared my love of the Beatles. And I told her too. She was surprised, as she’d never thought of me as gay, though she did say that she had thought that I held my cigarette in a gay way. For the next three months, every time I smoked, I waved my cigarette around like I was Bette Davis, delighting in my secret homosexual smoking.

R______ and T______ decided that I should meet G______, a lesbian chef who had worked in Garibaldi’s before. Her job was to teach me how to be gay. She met me the next week, and she was completely unsure what to say to me. We talked and she told me to wear condoms and where Cork’s gay club was. She told me to watch out for myself. I eventually went to Cork’s gay resource centre. They had a youth group, where myself, a 17-year-old lesbian couple and a long-haired lanky 16-year-old gay boy went every Wednesday afternoon for about two months. It was a taste of another universe. On Wednesday nights, two hours after hanging with the gays, I would go to my community meeting and we’d read from the Bible and speak about how this resonated in our lives. The youth group was great. One afternoon, we watched “Beautiful Thing” and we were so moved by the story of a young gay couple and a loving mother that we all hugged and squeezed after. That was the day I realised I loved lesbians. The long-haired gay, who talked a lot about masturbation, decided we should go to Loafer’s, Cork’s oldest gay bar, one afternoon and so my first experience of a gay bar was in my school uniform on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, drinking coffee that I didn’t like, trying to shush a boy talking about his favourite types of porn while the only other patrons of the pub were a group of lesbians playing pool. I never took the opportunities offered by this youth group, and ended up without a gay social group, and I haven’t really had one since.

Garibaldi’s became my life. I told everyone there I was gay. It was like going somewhere that I had a new identity. I would arrive at work hours before I was due to work. I would stay until after the restaurant closed. I got a job there for one of my school friends. School was a distraction from my real, dishwashing, life. And so was the Community.

With the new friends and role models I had at Garibaldi’s, I found the courage to see a life without Jesus. I agonised about leaving the community. Agonised. I remember doing a scrutatio, which was a type of biblical study we did where you allowed yourself to be led from one verse of the bible to another and you reflected and prayed on what you read. I did a scrutatio before leaving the Community when I went from one verse to another and they all said the same thing, something along the lines of “If you don’t follow the Lord, your defences will break and you will die”. There was only one way to read this. My understanding was that God was threatening me. He was saying that if I turned away from him, and lived life as a gay man, then my condom would break and I would die of AIDS. And yet, after discussing it with a variety of colleagues in Garibaldi’s, I put my middle finger up to God and I stopped going to the Community in Advent of 1997.

If I hadn’t had the “new community” provided by Garibaldi’s, I couldn’t have left the religious community. That restaurant was my religion.

Even though getting a job in the restaurant had originally been my mother’s idea, my parents soon began to disapprove of Garibaldi’s. My geography teacher ( a man who died tragically young in a car accident, but was incredibly racist and would refer to the “Dirty Arabs” and the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in Africa in our geography lessons) told my dad, his colleague, that J_____, the owner of the restaurant was a “known homosexual”.  My mother would ask why I spent so much time in the restaurant and what its attraction was. When I started sixth year of school, they made me quit. I was devastated.

I asked my parents’ permission to work in Garibaldi’s for the October bank holiday. They reluctantly agreed. Things exploded when I went to work on the Friday of that weekend for a 9:00-6:00 shift instead of going to school. At 4:00, when my dad was finished at school he came to the restaurant and sat at a table on the ground floor of the restaurant. It was like one of my lives invading the other. And I had clearly disappointed my parents so much. I have never felt so deflated as when my dad sat there and asked why I was doing this to them.

I was struggling in school and I was struggling with my weight and I had a few other issues and with the oncoming Leaving Cert. I was getting very stressed and I had lost the support system I had had in Garibaldi’s. I didn’t have the Community and I had no idea where my life was going. One morning in November 1998 I walked out of school and never went back. My parents persuaded me to go to a doctor. She prescribed me anti-depressants. I asked her if I could stay away from school, and she said I could if it was causing me stress, but that I should have some routine in my life so I should get a job. My heart lifted. I was allowed to go back to Garibaldi’s.

I went back. And everything was different. There was a new general manager, who had hired a new head chef, written a new menu and undertaken a rebranding. He’d also bought a dishwasher and moved things around. I could no longer listen to the radio while working. None of the old chefs stayed. I had known and loved the plates in Old Garibaldi’s – there were side plates, soup plates, tag plates, 10-inch roundies and ovals. Now there were new plates, with new names, and they got washed in a dishwasher. I used to wash a pile of plates by hand in seconds. It was an art form. Now I was just a machine operative. And I didn’t know what the plates were called. I left New Garibaldi’s that Christmas, having completely got over my obsession with the restaurant.

I did my Leaving Cert from home, with a few grinds in some subjects, and I went to university where I found a new “community” – the debating society that I wrapped my life around for the next three years. I found another in various workplaces over the next few years, feeling a particular wrench when I left/was asked to leave a school where I’d worked for three years in 2009. I searched around for a new community, and eventually found one here in Hall.

Hall has been my home, it’s been my community, my Garibaldi’s. I inflated its importance in my life and I’ve loved living here and being part of this world.

Other than the first week when students arrive in September, and the last week when they leave in May, the most exciting time of year to be in Hall is March. March is the time of the JCR elections (when the students who will come back as second years next year and run the lives of the first years who make up the majority of this odd corner of Dublin 6 are chosen) and of the Hall Ball.

The year before last, I made a massive deal out of the JCR election. And I’ve written more than enough about that already.

And then last year, I was proud of myself for rising above the JCR election. Except I didn’t rise above it. I knew everyone running. I read all the manifestos. I watched all the campaign videos. I stalked certain campaign’s Facebook pages. I went to the “strip auction” that is unbelievably part of the election process. I interrogated people as to their voting intentions. But I didn’t go to the election count and I didn’t cry, so I called that rising above.

This year, I just about bothered to find out who the candidates were. I knew about half of them, and didn’t bother trying to find out who the other half were. I only watched two campaign videos. And I went to neither the strip auction (from whence I’ve heard rumours of Mediterranean penis on display) nor the count, and I haven’t sent a congratulations message to any of the winners.

The last main social event in Hall before the end of the year is Hall Ball. At last year’s Hall Ball, I got polluted drunk. I stayed for hours after all the other assistant wardens left and I basked in the drunken love of the various 19 and 20-year-olds who spoke to me. I treasured moments and got emotional and Felt All Of The Feelings.

This year, I went again. I wore a giant sparkly bow-tie because I’m that guy. The Warden (a married middle-aged lecturer with two children) and I had a chat about Liam from One Direction doing shirtless pull-ups. There was a general debate at the warden’s table as to whether I was politically incorrect or just had no boundaries. I’m not sure what the result of that conversation was.

I didn’t speak to very many students that night. One student I did speak to was a member of the current JCR committee, who told me one of my favourite Hall stories ever. This student had foolishly invited 700 people to his birthday party in Hall on Facebook. Word of this had unsurprisingly made it to the Warden, who phoned the student and told him to cancel the party. The morning after his birthday, this student was recovering in the sauna in the college sports centre, when who should walk in, but the Warden. I cannot imagine a more exquisitely, tragically, beautifully awkward conversation than the naked, sweaty, intergenerational, power-imbalanced, hungover chat that must have taken place.

I left the Ball before midnight, because I was working the next day and the atmosphere at this year’s Ball was slightly rougher feeling than last year, and I really wasn’t sure what would happen. Part of me really wanted to stay. There are some students that I really like, and there are others that I think I probably would like after a pint or two. But I was happy to leave. It was time.

It’s not that I hate Hall the way I grew to hate Garibaldi’s at the very end. I genuinely still love life here. I’m just not as invested as I was last year. The students don’t know me as well, partly because there aren’t 400 of them reading my blog every day, but also because I haven’t been making the same effort I did last year. I still do my job. And I still think Hall is made of 83% magic, but I’m ready to leave. I’ve handed in my notice. It’s time. I’m ready to find a new community.


There are a few times in life when you’re so embarrassed that you squirm and cringe for weeks on end.

Once, I was in my cousin’s flat. He had a flatmate I found particularly annoying. I sent my sister a text, saying “Please ring me to give me an excuse to get out of C______’s flat.” Except I didn’t send the message to my sister. I sent it to C______.

This happened twelve years ago and it still kills me.

This week, we got an email with names and photos of the newly-elected JCR committee. One of them is Spanish. Let’s say his name is Juan Garcia Lopez. The email we got said his name is Juan Lopez Parody. That is the name on his Facebook account, which I’ve visited more than once because I have.

I scoffed at the email we got. I sent an email to the Warden and all the assistant wardens saying that this student obviously just used “Parody” in his Facebook name as a joke and that couldn’t possibly be his real name, and we should really amend the list to say “Juan Garcia Lopez”. I signed the email I sent around “Connor (Cultural Awareness Officer)” just to twist the knife and underline the point that no one could possibly be called “Parody” and none of my colleagues had a clue. My arrogance knows no bounds.

Twenty minutes later, I happened to be at reception in Hall where the official list of student residents was open. I had a look, just to check what name he was registered in college under. His name is Juan Garcia Lopez Parody. It’s his actual name. There is a Spanish surname “Parody”. And I had mocked everyone else for their cultural insensitivity, including my boss, for even thinking that someone could have that name. And I’d signed myself “Cultural Awareness Officer”. Like the total and utter cock that I am. The email I sent around saying to ignore my previous email was jokey and light-hearted, but deep down I know that on my death-bed, I could still be muttering, “I can’t believe “Parody” is his real name. Why did I have to send that email? And why, oh why did I have to sign myself “Cultural Awareness Officer”?

Oh, Connor.



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4 Responses to Losing my religions

  1. quinntracey says:

    Xxxxxx beautifully written xxxxxx

  2. lauracfrey says:

    great post! if it’s any consolation, i also assumed parody was fb only and did not notice how you had signed ithe email off, though i am now chuckling about it xx

  3. Pingback: Flotsam and Jetsam | Project Connor

  4. Pingback: Shane Long, the big push and the rest of my life | Project Connor

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