[This post took me a long time to write. Five months. But it’s Project Connor, not Project Everyone Else, so I don’t care.]
I started my PhD without any scholarship or funding of any sort. I was working practically full-time in DCU to survive and not really surviving. In the freezing cold winter of 2010/2011, I was behind on my rent for my lovely cottage in Dublin 8, and my phone, TV, internet and gas were all cut off because I wasn’t paying my bills, and I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day that I couldn’t afford. I was faced with a choice. I could change my standard of living and continue with the PhD, or I could maintain my standard of living, get a full-time job and quit the PhD. I made the decision, while sitting on the toilet holding an ashtray fashioned from Tesco tin foil and a Marlboro Light. I decided to change my standard of living, and I applied for the cheapest type of student housing available from the university – an old-style student accommodation block with a single bedroom and a shared toilet and kitchen with thirteen other people.
At around the same time, I applied for accommodation in the Irish-speaking apartments on campus and was refused. More on that later.
It didn’t take me long to hear that the Warden had decided I should get a room in Hall. “The Warden”? What type of place was this? In the email from the Accommodation Office where I was told that I was being offered a room in Cunningham House, I was also told that I shouldn’t move in there, that everyone else there would be a first year undergraduate and I should move into a more expensive modern apartment on the same site with other postgraduate and “mature” students. The woman in the Accommodation Office was quite dogmatic about this and invited me out to see Hall (about 4.5 km away from the university in leafy Dublin 6) to see why I wouldn’t want to live in Cunningham House. She showed me around the flat I would eventually move into. It was grim and industrial feeling and the shared space seemed quite small, but the bedroom looked solid and the place felt “masculine” and I felt like a young man signing up for the army being shown around his barracks. The Accommodation Office worker told me that the last postgrads who had taken rooms in Cunningham House had left after two weeks and she didn’t want to be stuck with an empty room to fill in the middle of a term. She tried again to get me to move into one of the more modern, smaller flats with a group of postgrads. Even if I could have afforded the extra thousands of euros to live in them, I didn’t want to share with boring postgrads. I was going to be a student, and live the student life and turn back time and be young again. We parted. Her final words to me were that I wouldn’t last in Cunningham House and it was only going to cause more work for her.
I didn’t change my mind.
The Friday before Freshers’ Week my sister drove me, a suitcase and a pile of books to my new home. I was 30 years old. A thousand students live in Hall, over 700 of whom are first years, over 900 of whom are undergraduates. The average resident’s age was about nineteen. At least 600 people there had never lived outside home before. My sister laughed at me, for two reasons. I was hyper on the drive to Hall. It was clear I was very excited and she thought this was hilarious. She also laughed when she pulled the car up in Hall. There was pop music blaring out across the site. To make the Young People feel at home. I didn’t mind her laughing. I thought it was funny too. But more than that, I was nervous and I was excited.
I was Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. I was Matthew Perry in 17 Again. I was Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday. I was 30 and someone was giving me a chance to be a teenager again. It was Magic. With a capital M. It was lightning striking twice.
I got my key and my sister and I went exploring. Cunningham House is at the back of Trinity Hall and is an L-shaped block that looks a bit like a 1970s secondary school from the outside. The stairwell has a very disinfectant-y smell that’s reminiscent of a nursing home and the bedroom and kitchen doors are bright orange and would fit right in in a 70s community centre. They’re the kind of doors that Alcoholics Anonymous meet behind. My room was at the end of a corridor. Against one wall was a single bed, with a sink at its foot. There was a solid wardrobe against another wall, a solid desk and some shelves on another wall and a window on the last. The room felt sturdy. The flat had two storeys, with seven bedrooms on each. There was a shower and a toilet on each floor, and a bath with a large blue stain on my floor. At the other end of the corridor was the only room that all fourteen of us would share. It had two long tables, lots of chairs, two standing fridges, one standing freezer and a wall of fourteen little cupboards, one for each of us, each one padlockable. In an alcove at the end of the room was a kitchen area with two cookers, a sink, toasters, kettles, a microwave and a few cupboards.
There were two guys already in the kitchen. They greeted me, clearly excited by all the new people. I had got through the first test. They hadn’t told me I was too old to be there. And I got the exact same vibe from them that I remember feeling in my first year of university: So many people! So many potential friends! Anything could happen! And there were two more guys being moved in to their rooms by their mothers across the corridor from my room. As my sister and I moved my belongings in one of the mothers commented that all my books were intimidating her, as her son hadn’t brought any. Had I been sent a reading list? I told her not to worry. I was a PhD student.
Once my sister had helped me move in and had left, I unpacked and looked around my solid little room, excited by the possibilities. That evening I went to the induction for my flat with 500 first years in a sports hall. We sat in silence while the Warden, in his academic gown, told us not to make too much noise at night and told us how to stay safe in Dublin and student reps shouted at us about where to get free condoms and all the 18-year-olds blushed together. I then went to the postgraduate reception upstairs, where the seventy or so postgrads in Hall were given wine and snacks and told where to get the bus to the university from. I was the only one straddling both worlds and I loved it. After the meeting, I sat on the wall outside the Sports Hall and rang my mother to tell her I was moved in safe and sound and I tried to explain that I was delighted, but she just didn’t understand and thought I was making the best of things.
Most student activities in Hall are run by the JCR, a group of second years who were elected the previous year. Second years are a rarity in Hall, and staying in Hall past first year is looked down on by many. The JCR tried to sell me a wristband for all the parties and entertainment they had organised for the weekend. Unfortunately, it was a Friday night, I was working that weekend, and I didn’t go out with my flatmates. In fact, I didn’t even see any of them again until Monday.
By Monday morning, the kitchen floor was very, very sticky and the table was overflowing with glasses. Overflowing. There were also a lot of toast crumbs. And flyers for club promotions and the wrappers from six packs of beer and boxes of corn flakes. That morning, as I made my breakfast, one of my flatmates came into the kitchen to get his insulin from between the beer cans and sausages in the fridge and to inject himself. He clearly had a sore throat and he croakily apologised for the mess. I shrugged. This was college life. This was what I’d dreamed of.
At the time, I was on the Tony Ferguson diet, a regime of “milkshakes”. By the end of that week, I had moved my milkshake powders and fibre supplements and whatnot out of the kitchen. I could use the water from my sink in my bedroom to mix the milkshakes. And I wouldn’t have to deal with sticky surfaces and bins that possibly contained vomit. From then on, I didn’t eat again in the kitchen until April.
I popped into the kitchen occasionally that week. Various other boys introduced themselves to me. Until by the end of the week I had met them all. Who were they?
Room 1 was a Japanese Business student in Dublin on an exchange programme. He got on with everyone, but was always slightly separate. He wore an Adidas tracksuit that matched on the top and bottom and carried what can only be described as a large ladies’ handbag. He used to cook in the kitchen every evening, with a large yellow cloth hanging out of his pocket. As he cooked, he would clean his dishes and his little area with the yellow cloth until he retreated into his room with his food.
Room 2 was the other person who used to often cook in the kitchen and then bring the food to his room. He was a geography and maths student from Kilkenny and England and he reminded me a lot of me. His natural inclination was to smile and laugh a lot, and whenever I saw him around campus he was bouncy and bubbly. In the house, however, he was often in the position of being an opposition of one, fighting to keep the kitchen clean and usable, and he was never part of the core group in the flat. His bedroom was opposite the toilet, and one of my main memories of the year is being able to hear his phone conversations perfectly as I sat on the loo and wondering what he could hear coming in the other direction.
Room 3 was a half-Irish, half-German physics student who had grown up in the Netherlands. There aren’t many people who make me feel maternal, but Room 3 is definitely one of them. I always just want him to be OK. He used to tell the worst jokes I’ve ever heard, and would arrive home drunk and alone from nights out, having been thrown out of night clubs, or not been allowed in. He seemed to be about as skilled with girls as I was with guys and he would look balefully at the pretty girls who used to visit out kitchen and sit drunkenly under the table. He had a truly kind soul, and was always willing to include everyone in the conversation and when he heard me crying one night, he knocked on the door of my bedroom to see if I was alright, when he could easily have ignored the sobs. When I arrived home after my first date with that man from Donegal, my first date in five years and it had gone well, I walked into the kitchen and Room 3 was the person standing just inside the door. Perfect. While everyone else looked on, I gave him a big hug, jumping up and down excitedly, while announcing to the gathered assembly of boys from our flat and the one next door that my date had been a success. I don’t think I could have done that if it had been another boy standing where he was.
Room 4 was me.
Room 5 was across the corridor from me. He was a Law and German student from Cork. He spoke very precisely, like he was already a solicitor, and was one of the first people I got an impression of in the house. Apparently, he had pulled a lot of girls in his first weeks in Hall and the other guys looked up to him. He was certainly good-looking and he probably had the nicest clothes of anyone in the flat. As the year went on, his character became bigger. He got involved in shouting matches in the kitchen with the other boys and in an infamous incident a classmate of his visited our flat one night and punched him. Towards the end of the year, his girlfriend more or less moved into his bedroom and the two of them were a constant presence in the final weeks in the flat, studying together and testing each other. Although he was central to many of the things that happened in the flat, many of his dramas were his own and I don’t think I’d say he was part of the core group of Boys by the end of the year.
Room 6 was a German Erasmus law student. He was big and strong and clearly spent an awful lot of time in the gym. He used to go on runs for hours and would play a lot of football. When I picture him, he’s always sweating. His was the only bedroom I ever spent much time in, proofreading his essays. He tried hard to get on with the core group of Boys in the house, but wasn’t sufficiently alcoholic. He would still play football with them. He was often in the kitchen, grating carrots. I think he avoided carbs in the evenings and his dinner would have grated carrots instead of rice, pasta or potatoes. I have never seen anyone go through so many carrots. He would grate a whole bag for dinner.
Room 7 was a law student from Kerry. Sometimes hungover, but never grumpy, Room 7 was one of the most easygoing people I have ever met in my life. Nothing seemed to bother him. He thrived in whatever chaos was happening around him, completely unstressed by essays or exams, by missed lectures or girl drama or fights in the flat. He was like a Zen master. He wore nice aftershave. He played every sport known to man, mainly golf, squash and football, but was open to anything that involved movement or scoring. He always had nice clothes, and would buy new clothes more often than people I know who have jobs and earn actual money.
Room 8 is one of those quietly funny people who it’s impossible to dislike. He is a computer science student from Galway. He had a kind of indie air about him and wore hipster glasses and when I was told he was in a band at home, it was like I already knew it. He was charming, kind to everyone, with a weirdly excitable streak that made him sometimes appear ten years younger than he was. I never fell in love with any of the Boys (I was too in love with them as a collective to fall in love with any of them individually), but I have to admit that I occasionally imagined what it would be like to be married to Room 8. He was exactly the kind of guy I was attracted to when I was a teenager, edgy, a little bit dangerous, interested in weird drugs and music, but also open and loving. I was always happy if I went into the kitchen and saw him there. He was skinny and would often sit in a corner, being inconspicuous, but he could also be ridiculously expressive, rubbing his tummy in big circles when he was looking forward to his dinner and laughing until he cried if something was funny.
Room 9 was a total mystery to me. He was a Malaysian medical student, and from what I could gather he rarely said anything to anyone in the flat, besides shouting at them to turn down their music. He was famously unfriendly and I’m not sure if I would recognise him if I met him today. We only talked once. I returned from a run, having dropped my key card somewhere in Dartry. I asked him if he’d let me into the flat, and he said “Why should I? You’ll have to go to reception to get a new key cut anyway so you might as well go now.” Eventually, he let me in.
Room 10 is probably The Boy in many ways. You’ll find lots of references to Room 3 and Room 8 and Room 13 scattered through my blog, but I’m betting if you counted up the references I make to different Boys (and if you knew who was who), Room 10 will probably come out on top. Room 10 was a social work student from Donegal who drank and joked and laughed a lot and was often at the centre of whatever was going on in the kitchen. He was one of the only one of the Boys who wasn’t afraid to mock me, which I loved, and he had no time for the arguments about the mess in the kitchen. He was in college to have the college experience and he did. He went out a lot, he joined in a lot and he fooled around a lot. Later in the year, he came out as gay. Room 10 is big and strong and generous spirited and I always just feel the world is a better place with him in it, and even though he hates hugs, he occasionally lets me give him a squeeze.
Room 11 was the other Malaysian medical student, but he couldn’t be more different from Room 9. He was at every party. He made lots of noise and he was never afraid to take part. He was often in the kitchen, cooking various concoctions of e-numbers and sugar that looked vile and tempting at the same time. While in the flat he read the Hunger Games, the first book he had ever read, and he enjoyed it lots. He was jolly and chatty, even though his accent meant that he would often have to repeat himself three times and that never seemed to bother him. He was at the centre of a few arguments in the house, which I never really understood, as he always seemed like such a happy presence. He was generous with hugs and disastrously experimental with his hair.
Room 12 was another mystery. I saw him in the kitchen once in the whole year. He was a tall and beautiful homosexual from Carlow with floppy hair, who had glamorous and interesting friends outside the flat and never spent any time there. He won Trinity’s Next Top Model and that’s about all I know about him. (Until ages after we all moved out of Cunningham House when I started following him on Twitter and now I basically know everything about him.)
When I first met Room 13, I was scared of him. He was tall and loud and seemed so masculine that I didn’t quite know how to behave. He was the centre of whatever room he was in, with a booming laugh and even though I might never have seen him do it, I always imagine him slapping his thighs. He was that kind of person. As the year went on I started to realise that he was actually one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He was an Erasmus geography student from England and was a year or two older than most of the other Boys, and I think he was a bit like me, in that he relished the chance to “do first year again”, but that’s just a guess. He was passionate and this meant that he could get angry, whether in abstract debates about politics, or with someone else if they pissed him off, or even with himself. I remember seeing Room 3 trying to calm him down because he was so angry with himself for having played badly in a football match. Room 13 was the daddy of the core group of Boys in the house. He was the one who made sure I had someone to talk to on the one occasion I went out to the pub with them (for the JCR election night) and he always wanted the best for everyone, pushing everyone to be the best they could and welcoming confidences. When I drunkenly broke down crying for a whole hour on someone’s shoulder the summer after they all moved out, it was of course his shoulder.
Room 14 was another leader in the house. If Room 13 was the father, then Room 14 was the oldest son. He was English, had blindingly blonde hair and had been in a boarding school so didn’t find life in Cunningham House in any way strange. He would lead discussions on many topics at the kitchen table and was one of the least afraid people I’ve ever met. He would say whatever he felt and didn’t care who he pissed off. He was capable of being really interested in you and asking you a hundred questions, or being entirely bored by you and completely ignoring you. I found myself simultaneously drawn to him and a little afraid of him. He did absolutely no work, disappeared on a skiing holiday (or possibly a surfing holiday) for the last two months of term and still sailed through his summer exams.
So those were my Boys.
Some of them were in the core group and some weren’t, but they were all my Boys and I loved them all (other than Rooms 9 and 12, who I didn’t ever know). There were other people that contributed to life in our flat as well. At one stage or another during the year, Rooms 2, 5, 6 and 7 all had girlfriends who made regular appearances in our kitchen. There were two boys from the flat next to ours who were always there, a curmudgeonly and laddish Tipperary boy who muttered inaudibly and an incredibly suave, cosmopolitan and old-before-his-time tall young man from Sligo, Belgium and Australia, or something like that, who discovered that I liked hugs and would unhesitatingly embrace me whenever and wherever we met. And there were three girls, who I thought of as my Boys’ Girls. They were always in our kitchen. One was a rugby player with a cutting sense of humour, another a sprite who had an air of magic about her and the third was a bubbly Mayo woman who was irrepressible and adorable. These and many more 18, 19 and 20-year-olds from all parts of the world and all corners of Ireland (except Dublin – no one from Dublin lives in Hall) were the cast of characters with whom my home life was played out for that first year in Hall.
My first few weeks in Hall were a gradual retreat. I moved my food and kitchen stuff into my bedroom, although a scissors, a sharp knife and a frying pan that I brought with me disappeared into communal pit of the kitchen cupboards and were never seen again. I stopped eating in the kitchen, and I realised that I wasn’t ever going to go clubbing with the Boys and I wasn’t going to be that sort of flatmate. I also spent about three of my first four weeks there in Cork, as my dad was having heart surgery. I tried to be friendly, but I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, sometimes with the lights off and always with my door locked. It’s not that I never ventured out. I made a conscious effort to appear in the kitchen at least once a week, but sometimes, I would go into the kitchen and find 20 Malaysians, invited over by Room 9 and Room 11, or there would be a group of unfamiliar and drunk young people and I would turn around and go back to my room.
There were times I would sit with them though. Often on Sunday evenings. Room 10 and Room 14 would question me and I’d get involved in whatever the conversation was. Sometimes, though, I would just sit and enjoy. Enjoy the Boys throwing tennis balls at each other, burning and/or undercooking chickens, explaining who Margaret Thatcher was to each other, discussing the price of oil, or the size of their last poo (there was someone in one of the upstairs bedrooms who left giant unflushable poos in the toilet and was known as the Phantom Poo Bandit). I felt like a privileged observer of a isolated Amazonian tribe.
And that was the charm: the youth, the chance to go back in time, the chance to live in a different world. I know some of my friends thought there was something grubby and sexual about my love for the Boys, but it genuinely was innocent. Obviously, I’m not blind, and I totally noticed when Room 14 was sunbathing outside in nothing but short shorts in our first week in Cunningham House. I was living with a group of young and handsome men. And there were two moments that have stood out in my memory. Early in the year, everyone was getting ready for a night out and coming in and out of the shower. Room 5 was in the kitchen with no shirt on looking at something on his computer, when Room 3 leaned over to show him something on the screen. Room 3 was also topless and there was skin-on-skin contact and I felt weak. To be honest, the Boys rarely hung out topless, thank God. My other memory like that is of a night soon after Christmas when I was talking to Room 6 in the hallways. He was just out of the shower and was wearing nothing but a pair of boxers. As you’ll remember, Room 6 ate nothing but carrots and spent all his time working out. As the drops of water that he hadn’t fully dried off after his shower rolled down his perfect chest, he stroked his belly, playing with the hairs between his belly button and his boxers, his treasure trail. As his hand played with the treasure trail, his bicep flexed and I tried not to cry. I needed a stiff drink after that conversation.
That Christmas, I committed to being part of the little family we had in Cunningham House and I bought an oversized Christmas tree and decorations for our kitchen. I used it as an excuse to spend more time in the kitchen.
Every Sunday evening that year, I used to drive to a friend’s house in Bray. She was a well-off suburban university lecturer and it was lovely to feel like an adult once a week. There were napkins and evidence of furniture polish and regularly emptied bins and no one ever mentioned their poos.
I wish I knew the recipe for what happened in the early months of 2012, halfway through my year with the Boys, so I could repeat it again and again. I’ve written about it here before, more than once, but here’s a quick recap: I moved into a new office in college and started making friends in my PhD group and also actually started writing some of my thesis. I started working again in the school I’d left in bitter circumstances from three years previously. As a result of both of these, my social life got better. I joined the university boxing club. I went to swimming lessons. I started a Couch-to-5K running challenge. I started the data generation phase of my PhD, which involved doing in-depth interviews with four of the Boys. And I started feeling happy. Very happy.
All of these factors fed into my decision to come out as gay to my insanely holy family at the age of 31 a few weeks into the interviews I was doing with my Boys. It’s pointless to say the interviews and the coming out were unrelated, but as I’ve also always said living with the Boys just reminded me that I had unfinished business in my adolescence. And I was so happy at the time, it just all made sense. And I came home from the coming out awfulness to hugs from Room 13, Room 3 and Room 11.
At this stage, all the Boys were friends with me on Facebook, and they’d discovered the blog. Along with the interviews, during which I got to know some of them, the blog, where they got to know me, started building a link between us. I was spending more and more time in the kitchen. There had been election campaigns for the JCR and I’d spent even more time with the Boys, discussing election plans. Room 10 and Room 7 had been elected, and Room 8 hadn’t. During that election campaign, and the night of the election, I spent a lot of time with the Boys. And when Room 10 was elected against the odds, I was jubilant. I knew it had been a difficult election and I knew he deserved it and I felt that anyone could do anything.
Then, after I came out, everything started happen really fast. Room 13 nair-ed the hair off my back in the kitchen one evening and then I went on three dates with a very good-looking man, and was kissed for the first time since 2007. After the first date, I came home excited and loved having the Boys waiting to hear how it had gone. I still remember coming back from the second date and the first kiss, my nose bleeding with excitement, and meeting Room 8, Room 10 and Room 13 walking across the grounds of Hall. I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to tell more.
And then there was the 5K. I ran 5 kilometres around Dartry and came back to Hall to see Room 3, Room 7, Room 8, Room 11, Room 13 and Room 14 standing at the gate with a toilet roll stretched out for me to break. I still count that as one of the two or three best moments of my life. Realising that these young men knew how much this meant to me, and how much they meant to me. I’m crying as I write this paragraph.
It was a time when I felt so alive. And my blogging changed completely. I started sharing a lot more than I had. People didn’t know how to feel about this. People disapproved. But it felt incredibly cathartic. And so many people were responding. In April and May of 2012, I was getting daily messages and emails from people telling me how much my writing meant to them. My Boys weren’t the only people in Hall reading the blog. Word had spread, and I had a following of more and more 19-year-olds.
I didn’t know what to do with myself when the Boys were leaving. I have said enough goodbyes in my life to know that it would never be the same. But they were good goodbyes. Three days before everyone else, Room 3 left. He drew a picture of Cunningham House and hung it up in the kitchen to say goodbye. On our last day, when we were cleaning up the kitchen, Room 10 turned to me and said, “You should probably keep this Connor. You have a soft spot for Room 3.” That was what started me crying and I didn’t really stop all day. I still have that picture. It was probably right that Room 8, Room 10 and Room 13 were the last three left, and there were tears and hugs on a beautifully sunny day on the lawn outside our flat.
The Boys all said that our flat was famous for how well everyone in it got on with each other and said that they’d be friends forever. The next year, Room 10 and Room 7 were on the JCR, so they stayed together in a flat in Hall. Room 8 and Room 3 got a house together with some other people in Rathmines and Room 5 and Room 11 got a flat together somewhere else. And the group splintered. There are still friendships between one or two of them, but now the Boys are in 4th year, and – as far as I know – none of them are living together. I’m still in touch with some of them, and I’m glad, but I’m also glad they’re growing up. I will write to each of them on their 30th birthday to ask them to imagine moving into Cunningham House at that age.
The summer the Boys left started well for me. I applied to be an Assistant Warden and got the job. I could stay in Hall and have a flat all of my own for free, in exchange for working on the pastoral and disciplinary team for residents of Hall. I finished two complete PhD chapters and passed my continuation exam. I entered an 8K race and completed it.
But I didn’t feel right inside. I hadn’t been allowed to move into my Assistant Warden flat just yet. I was put in a modern flat with 5 postgraduates. A lovely clean flat, where I had my own bathroom and everyone was friendly and peaceful. I let my eating issues get to me. I tried to eat in the kitchen. I succeeded in having two bowls of porridge there in four months and spent the rest of the time hiding in my room. In this flat, there was no redemptive arc, as there had been in the last one. I met most of my flatmates once, and one of them twice. I imagine they thought I was a really weird loner, probably in my bedroom reading Catcher in the Rye and plotting to kill John Lennon. But I wasn’t. I’m not sure what was going on with me, but it wasn’t good.
My iPhone was stolen early in that summer too. I no longer had Grindr. No more dates. And my running app was gone too. My mood that summer was awful. I felt so afraid of my future. I had hours of interviews with my Boys to transcribe for my PhD and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I was in a lot of pain and I had no idea what was causing it. I have vivid memories of sitting in my room and turning the shower on at full power so no one would hear me crying.
I got spectacularly drunk twice that summer, once at a wedding in Poland in July and once on a night out with my Boys in August – Room 7, Room 8, Room 13 and one of their Girls. On both occasions, I started crying, hard. I cried all over my school friends at the wedding, and all over Room 13, crying so hard that I burst a blood vessel in my nose, on the other night. Both times, I heard myself saying that I was worried that I was a woman. My coming out, accompanied by my exploration of identity through the interviews with my Boys had snapped something within me and I felt my whole identity was on shaky ground. I now know that I’m not a woman, but the gender instability that made me panic then, excites me now.
The summer ended, and I was excited.I moved into my Assistant Warden flat – a complete one-bedroom apartment, with a huge bedroom and a balcony, just for me. I filled it with cushions and throws and teddy bears and fairy lights and made a home. I started getting adventurous again. I went speed dating. I started chatting to men online. And I started a series of dreadful and wonderful experiments with my looks. I grew my hair. I tried to convince a barber to give me a Jedward. He wouldn’t. I tried to convince another to shave a honeycomb pattern in the side of my head, and he wouldn’t.That said, I did get a few stars shaved into my head, as well as a number of weird hairstyles. I dyed my hair red and pink and orange and gelled it up and gelled it back and gelled it to the side. I started buying a preposterous number of colourful bracelets and necklaces and accessories and wore some of them and never had the courage to wear others. I started trying out make-up but never let anyone see me wear it. I dumped a pile of clothes that depressed me with their greyness and as a result haven’t had a winter coat or jacket in the last three winters. I bought two pairs of giant hipster glasses. I had my back, sack and crack waxed. And that was amazing.
In a way though, it was hard to get excited about my looks. One of the standout features of this year was the way I got heavier and heavier. I went from 21 stone to 27 stone. Gaining 70 pounds made me feel sick and ugly and pink hair might look awesome on a skinny drug-addled punk in London, but on an obese Irish man it doesn’t work quite as well. I always had the vague feeling that I was dressing a sow up in a pearl necklace ( I know I’ve got the metaphor wrong, but it works). I enjoyed the experimenting nonetheless.
Food was a dominating factor for me that year. I have had a problem relationship with food for 20 years, but in 2012-2013 it exploded. My bingeing and my food guilt were constant. This was the year I went to Overeaters Anonymous. And to so many doctors. I wasn’t feeling good physically or emotionally. I might have stopped the constant crying that marked that summer, but I wasn’t feeling good. I was clearly suffering from an eating disorder. And I didn’t do anything, anything at all, for my PhD that year. My supervisor tried to convince me to go “off books” i.e. take a year off sick from my studies. I knew if I did that I’d never go back. And I went to the doctors. And they referred me to the psychiatrist. The doctors all said the same thing: lose more weight. The psychiatric consultant said stop worrying about your weight and stop trying to lose it. The only thing that the ordinary doctors and the psychiatrist agreed on was that I should probably take anti-depressants, but they didn’t push them on me when I refused. I had already had two spells on them and they had made absolutely no difference. I have never really liked doctors, but I strongly believe that there is no such thing as mental health care in Ireland unless you are actively suicidal. Doctors didn’t book repeat appointments. No one looked into getting treatment for my eating issues.
So in one sense I was falling apart. In others I wasn’t. Work was going well. And so was college. Everything except the PhD. I surprised my supervisor. Instead of going off books, I became the class rep for the PhDs. I organised social events. I started a communication network. I organised trips. I organised conferences. I pushed people to apply for scholarships. I organised IT training. I went to meetings. I was one of a small number of people who built a community.And even though I didn’t do any work for my PhD, I still presented at about seven conferences about my research. I was an active researcher. I just didn’t do any research, and my interviews sat untranscribed, taunting me.
And of course, there was Hall. My favourite part of my life was the bit where I got to be Assistant Warden. Other Assistant Wardens did the job to facilitate doing a PhD. I did a PhD to facilitate being an Assistant Warden. There were eleven of us:
- A woman doing a PhD in Counselling Psychology who was so terrifying that I can’t imagine ever going to her for counselling and coming out alive
- A man who loved Trinity more than life. He wore a three-piece suit all the time (rumour had it even to bed) and had a range of bow ties, cravats, canes, cufflinks and watch chains to match. The only thing that could possibly compare to his love of Trinity was his love of Halloween, when he would dress up as a vampire, a vampire outfit with styling and make-up so perfect that it would take him 5 hours to get ready.
- A woman who drove a motorbike, kept illegal rabbits and played roller derby; full contact roller derby.
- A young man with blond hair down to his ass, who liked sci-fi, knives, chemistry-based anecdotes and cigarettes.
- A curmudgeonly history PhD student with a mysterious past, who was apparently writing his PhD in pencil.
- A man from Sardinia, who was always happy and who taught dance in Hall.
- An engineer, who was far too artsy and interesting to be an engineer, the kind of man whose last 16 photos would be of his mother’s elbow.
- An American woman who told long and dramatic stories about her love life and was adored by everyone in Hall, which was no mean feat in a place with so many insane people.
- A Scottish woman, who took me under her wing and who I regularly stayed up talking to till 4:00 am, who had cats and vigour and could run an army
- An Englishman, her husband, who grew vegetables and laughed at authority with me.
We made an odd team. I often thought of us as a league of postgraduate superheroes, gathered together for our diverse and mysterious superpowers. The team that runs Hall is an odd one. There are the office staff, who don’t get on with the security guards, sixty percent of whom are totally insane. There are the JCR, who are 19 years old, work harder than anyone else in Hall and are generally drunk, and then there is the Warden and his assistants. The Warden is a lecturer, a very thin man, who looks older than he is and has a sly twinkle in his eyes. He lived in an big old house in Hall with his wife and two teenage children, and he had an impish sense of humour, as well as a passionate belief that the young people in his care should have the “college experience”. That said, he wasn’t afraid to be the authority figure on the many, many occasions when this was necessary.
Somehow, the rag-tag bunch of wardens, JCR members, security guards and others kept Hall running, and running very well. It is a happy place.
Our principal duties as Assistant Wardens, was nightly discipline. We were to do “rounds” and shut all parties down and enforce the 11:00 pm all quiet. Shutting parties down was usually fun, coaxing 29 people, all drinking vodka, out of a single bedroom and trying to get them to go to a nightclub and leave the place in peace was hilarious. Someone would invariably have lost their friend. Someone else would have to wait while their friend went to the toilet, and there would always be at least one girl from Donegal who would have to shriek directions down her phone. People carried each other and while we were trying to persuade people off site, we were also trying to persuade the people who were too drunk to stand up straight to go to bed. In an effort to maintain good relations with the neighbours, we would always try to ensure that the drunkards weren’t shouting and drinking as they went down the road and so, as well as moving people on (and moving big groups of drunk people quietly is like trying to put tights on an elephant) we would be trying to persuade them to leave their drinks behind.
Some nights were quiet. But Mondays, Thursdays and some Wednesdays were crazy, and you could easily call into twenty or more apartments in one evening, trying to quieten the place down. And on busy nights, parties would move. You’d clear out a party, hear noise in another building and end up clearing out the same group of people, four or five times in one night. Sometimes you’d knock on a door and suddenly the music would turn off and you would hear “Shhhh! Wardens” and someone would come to the door, trying to make it look as if no one was behind them, but the smoke would billow over their heads and you would come into an apartment to find it had turned into a speakeasy, with ashtrays everywhere, full of smouldering butts and more people in the kitchen than the laws of physics or fire safety allow. And then there were the negotiators. Sometimes, the drunken partyers would try to convince us that they weren’t being that noisy, or that no one had nine o’clock lectures on a Tuesday anyway, or that they’d only stay for another 15 minutes, or that they didn’t have the money to go clubbing so where were they meant to go, or that they were paying rent and this wasn’t fair, or that they were just waiting for their friends and then they’d leave. (Incidentally, the amount of time students seem to spend waiting for their friends seems unnaturally long.) And they’d say that they knew you wouldn’t throw them out because you were the nice warden, and you’d smile bashfully and say, “well, actually…”
We all got good (eventually) at negotiating with drunks in the drizzle and in smoke-filled apartments. We got good at loading them onto buses on the nights of big events, and if you haven’t counted 500 drunk 19-year-olds onto buses then you have never been an Assistant Warden.
While you were on duty, you also had a kind of duty of care over everyone, so you would help drunk students find their bedrooms, and occasionally hold their hair while they vomited, you would comfort those who were crying because of whiskey and you would be there if ever medical attention was needed.
These duties applied to everyone in Hall. However, we each also had our own “parish”, about 70 students for whom we were directly responsible. We were supposed to meet them all at the start of the year and act as a conduit for them to various college and Hall services. We also had a vague pastoral care responsibility for them. My parish was House 87, or the “Irish” House, one of the modern blocks. This was where the Scéim lived – the 18 students who got €1000 each for speaking Irish. Any other student who said they were interested in the Irish language, or Irish music or Irish dancing would also be put in this house, with the result that I ended up with a bizarre house, the only one without any British or Erasmus students. I got the hard-core culchie house, all because it says on my CV that I speak Irish, and so the Irish House was given to me.
I loved my castle of culchies. I made a genuine effort to get to know as many of them as I could and I felt vaguely sentimental about them. Not in the same way as my Boys. I never felt as one of their equals. I just felt concerned about their welfare, and did things most of the other assistant wardens didn’t, like call in on them on nights when I was on duty, give them Christmas cards and good luck cards before their exams. The other assistant wardens were getting PhDs. I was too busy having emotions to be getting a PhD. And I liked going into House 87 because I was always given a welcome. The students would smile at me and greet me and tell me about what happened when their flatmate got drunk and brought home a man they shouldn’t have.
I was innocent enough to believe that they liked me from the few interactions we had, and it was just my natural bonhomie they were responding to. It was more than that. It was the blog. I foolishly didn’t realise until the very last night of the year that everyone in Hall had read the blog at least once and that there was a substantial following of people, reading about my failed dates, my struggles with my eating and my neverending efforts to get my car past the NCT test. I knew that my readership had grown by well over 500, and that there were days when I didn’t publish anything and I still got hundreds and hundreds of hits and I just figured that was what happened when you’ve been blogging long enough. But no, it was the population of Hall, the drunken students, reading my soul before passing out in pools of bacardi-laced vomit.
There was only once that I felt like I crossed the line. The night after I heard that the first boy I had ever kissed had been murdered, I went to one of the young men in House 87, and spilled my heart to him and asked him for a hug (which he didn’t give me), but he listened and heard and I was grateful to him and to all of House 87 that night, because I was kind of on the brink.
The community in Hall was a supportive one. I loved the bizarre group of Assistant Wardens and I loved the drunkards we were chasing around Hall every night. There were some residents of Hall who used to follow me around a bit. There was a group of gay students, and one gay student in particular who would always try to make conversation with me and would sometimes try to coax me out to a gay club. And of course, there was the JCR. To be frank, I used the JCR as a substitute for my Boys at times. Of course, Room 10 and Room 7 were on the JCR, in fact I could always look into their kitchen window on the way to my own flat and I liked that. And there were others on the JCR, particularly the president and vice-president, who I co-opted into my imagination as new Boys. I used to find myself having the most extraordinarily filthy conversations with the President of the JCR, which would have been unacceptable with a first year, but the JCR, who were 19 and 20, rather than 18 and 19, were basically senior citizens in Hall.
I was an “involved” member of the Hall community and would turn up at events whether I was on duty or not. I was known about the place. And if people knew one thing about me, it was that I was a fan of One Direction. I made three different members of the JCR come up to my flat to see my massive canvass that I had had made of One Direction dressed as sailors. As I walked around on rounds, students from the midlands would approach me and tell me about their distant connections to Niall Horan. As I shut down parties, drunk girls would confide in me that they were Zayn girls too. In many ways, 2012/2013 was a terrible year, but the joy of One Direction and the joy of Wardening got me through.
I was sad on the last day of Hall that year, not like I had been when my Boys had moved out, but sad anyway. To be honest what made me saddest was the the last of my Boys was moving out. For a second time. A link to the past was broken.
That summer, like every summer, all the Assistant Wardens were moved into one building and I had a flat with six bedrooms all to myself. It was a lot better than the previous summer. I also went to Russia.
The next September was weird. I knew this had to be the last year of my PhD and my last year in Hall, but I didn’t see a way forward. I was as dysfunctional as ever when it came to the PhD and I didn’t know where I would live if I was to move out of Hall. And then the Warden revealed that he knew about the blog (of course he did. All of Hall was reading it.) He didn’t tell me to shut it down, he just talked about boundaries.
But I shut it down. I didn’t know what else to do. And I still made an effort to get to know the names of all the students in my “parish”. And I still did my rounds. And I still turned up at events in Hall. And I still talked to the JCR, the new JCR, who included 3 people who had been in “my” House 87 the previous year. And there was still joy there, but it wasn’t the same.
There were four new assistant wardens, one of whom was the college chaplain, who was so jolly and friendly with the students it made me cringe. Oh my God. He was outConnoring Connor. And there were three lovely women, one enthusiastic and sporty, one cool and mysterious and one sensible and Belgian.
I still enjoyed being a warden, but it wasn’t the same. As well as that, my health was reaching yet another crisis point, as my weight kept on increasing.
I’ve written recently about New Year 2014, about the weightloss, about bringing the blog back online, about getting my PhD written in enormously productive bursts.
And I began to see a future. A future beyond Hall. I was actually going to finish my PhD. And it’s not that Hall stopped mattering to me. It continued to matter an awful lot, but I began to be able to unravel my identity from it. I wasn’t as good an assistant warden that year as I had been the first, and that’s probably a good thing.
My third last night of students in Hall didn’t carry any of the emotions of previous years. There were no Boys to say goodbye to. But I still marked the end of an era. And the three 87ers who had made it onto the JCR still drunkenly hugged me and I still had a few pangs. I’m a man who is generous with my love and I had spent an awful lot of love on Hall.
As with every summer, we moved out of our assistant warden flats and into the the main block. This time I had the “penthouse suite” at the top of Hall, overlooking most of Dublin, once again, with six beds to myself. And then I went to Slovenia for most of the summer and came back a new person, after my adventures with a certain young man.
I spent my last week in Hall at the end of August with no regrets. I had a job in Vietnam, I was going to finish my PhD, I was capable of having sex again. Hall had done its job. I was ready for the world. I was courageous. That week, I did the ice bucket challenge dressed in bad drag and I wrote to Vietnam and told my colleague to “call me CoCo. Everybody does.” It was the perfect ending.
My second last night in Hall, I did a final round, taking the route we always took on our duty night and listened for non-existent parties. I took the Assistant Wardens’ master key I made a pilgrimage to Cunningham House, where I’d spent my first year with my Boys. I was listening to “I know him so well” on repeat and walked the corridors. There are still traces of my Boys. There is the faint mark on the fridge door from where Room 5 wrote about how he “loved you bitches” in permanent marker drunkenly one night. And there is the logo from some computer game covering the emergency exit light upstairs, which Room 11 had placed there three years ago. On the two or three occasions before when I had called into Cunningham House during the summer, the bedrooms had been locked, but this time, my last time, they had been working on the electrics, and every bedroom door stood open. I went into every bedroom and remembered every one of my Boys and I stood in my own and cried, happily, for the past and the future.
On my last day in Hall, I was walking out of the front gate when I met Room 2, who now works for IT services in college and was in Hall for work. It was exactly as it should be and he gave me a great hug.
It took a long time to pack on my last day. In fact, by the time my sister and I had everything in the car, it was about 3:00 in the morning. My life-size cardboard Zayn from One Direction wasn’t coming with me. I had different plans for him. I hung a note around his neck that said, “Hi _____, This is Zayn. I’m sure you’ll look after him well. Thanks for everything. Connor xx” and I left him on the steps of the Warden’s house.
I went into security and handed in my key cards and signed out. I shook the hand of the security card and I got into the car with my sister, promising myself I wouldn’t cry. And I didn’t. I was looking to the future.
The next day, I got a text from the Warden, with a photo attached. There was life-size cardboard Zayn, with life-size cardboard Niall Horan (belonging to his daughter) and life-size cardboard Harry Styles (a joke present to the Warden from his son for Father’s Day). the message said “Zayn is sooo happy to hook up with the guys. 3 down, 2 to go.”
I will always love Hall, and there are people I met there in all three years, who will always be a part of my life, whether I see them or not, but I’m glad I’m moving on, and I’m glad that after five months, I’ve finally written this chapter.