Sunday 22 April 2018

Eamon Farrell: Little brother is watching you

His movie-star brother Colin gave a moving interview about him on Claire Byrne Live last month. Eamon Farrell tells Barry Egan about the bullying he received as a gay teenager in school, and how he hopes marriage equality will pass in Ireland because he wants his union with Steve Mannion to be as equal as any other person's marriage

Eamon Farrell, brother of actor Colin Farrell with his partner Stephen Mannion
Photo: Tony Gavin 11/02/2015
Eamon Farrell, brother of actor Colin Farrell with his partner Stephen Mannion Photo: Tony Gavin 11/02/2015
Eamon Farrell and Steve Mannion
Colin Farrell and his sister Claudine
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Little brother was watching him. One day in 1985 Colin looked under his big bro Eamon's bed at home in Castleknock, curious at the box with a lock on it. I ask Eamon why Colin decided to look under his bed that day. "Because it was locked. Because it was forbidden - he was always after what's forbidden. . ."

"So, he opened up the box," Eamon, who has more than a touch of the Robert Downey junior about him, continues the story. "He was only 9 or 10. He saw Gay Community News. He went, 'Oh My God, Eamon's gay! It's true what they're all saying.' He went downstairs and he said to mum and the girls [sisters Claudine and Catherine]. 'Will you sit down at the table? I've something to tell you.' Because he was a little man!" laughs Eamon now. "He said to them: 'Eamon's gay.'"

"And mum says," laughs Eamon - who told his mother Rita about his sexuality when he was 12 - "'We know.'"

"And Colin burst into tears, because he was only about 8 or 9. 'Why didn't you tell me!'"

In 1992, Eamon Farrell completed a degree in psychology at University College, Galway, ostensibly to find out who he was. Who Eamon was, was a young man who had been through a lot - sometimes too much - in his life but came through it. He personified that Nietzsche quote of what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. It didn't kill him but he will never forget the physical bang of his head against the cold, hard marble as his head was forced violently into the toilet bowl when he was 14 by his bullies in Synge Street, where he went to school.

Eamon, who is 47 now, can still taste the dirty toilet water in his mouth. "The head down the jacks, and the bruises, you know, that was really disgusting, disgusting, because it was so visceral. It is so hard to forget because it was so cold.

"It was that marble in Synge Street. It's kind of like The Terminator that moulds into something else. The floor was all marble and the walls were all marble but so were the toilet bowls, they were that marble as well. They banged my head. I used to be shit scared. I would never go to the toilet on lunch break, ever. I would always ask to leave the class."

Does he retain the physical memory of that in his stomach when he remembers those times?

"Oh my God," he says, literally breathing in at the thought. "If I drive past Synge Street now going up to Camden Street . . .I can remember the days. There is a fire exit at the side of the building and I used to hide in there all the time. I was 11 in junior school when I had my head flushed down the jacks."

Eamon can still hear the words, "fucking faggot", "fucking queer", "fudge-packer", "pansy", "nancy boy", among other Neanderthal vituperation, ringing in his head as his tormentors pushed his little face right down into the bowl. (He had bruises on his head as much as bruises on his psyche perhaps.)

There were many other times when he would have blood on his school shirt from being punched in the face and called abusive names. Other tales of his torment included having his school-bag thrown out top windows, or holding in his stomach in pain, as he would be kicked up the backside or in the balls by the bullies. "The wedgies were the worst. I used to go home with my balls black and blue. I was beaten up and I had black eyes." This is Eamon Farrell's truth and he has waited all his life to tell it.

"The bullying started so early but I never let it get to me. It was always a struggle. So in the struggle and in the fight I found the strength to be who I was. I remember Boy George doing an interview [about receiving homophobic abuse] saying that the most important thing was to keep walking but to keep your head held high. And that the minute you drop your head or your shoulders, it is all over. I was very witty and sharp-tongued. Oh - I would rip them apart."

This would include Eamon retorting with lines like: "That's wasn't what you were saying last night when I was riding your father!"

"That would make them worse sometimes," Eamon explains, adding that the kicks and punches raining down on his defenceless body might have been as painful as the words they threw at him, but he was determined not to let the experience break him, or, as we will see, shape him.

He never told his parents what was happening to him at school. Coming home from school, he would hide his bloodied shirt and, more crucially, his emotions from his parents and his siblings. To hide that amount of psychological pain from his family from the age of eight to 15 - when he left Synge Street - Eamon Farrell must have been an actor on a par with his younger brother Colin.

Colin, he says, "protected me. Now he is eight years younger than me, but he acted the part of the big brother. Because I'm not aggressive at all, or violent at all - I hate fighting. But he would do that for me. Colin would protect me. If someone called me names on our road he would go out and kick the shit out of them."

"I remember one young fella out on the road shouting, 'You Faggot Farrell.' Colin went out and kicked the shite out of him. Honestly! The little size of him! He was a little terrier, but I. . .wasn't."

Eamon remembers his earliest childhood memory was "the first time I was called a name. I had long hair. Someone called me 'Girly.' I remember then thinking, 'Why are you calling me Girly? I'm not a girl. I'm a boy.'"

"I remember that very clearly. I was four," says Eamon, 43 years on. "I can tell you what he looked like and where it happened. He had cropped, dark hair and he was small. It was in the yard off Glasnevin Avenue, in the school there. I always felt different to the rest of them," he explains, before adding crucially "but I am not different. I'm completely normal. I'm completely the same as everybody else.

"But then, I was different, because, I suppose, I would never not be gentle. I think the big thing that they were threatened by is that I'm really gentle in my nature when I'm dealing with people. I would take the punch rather than hit anybody back."

I ask him was it almost the harder you punch me and the louder you call me names, the stronger I will become.

"For eight years I really thought: 'I will beat these guys by just being me. They will eventually learn that I am not that different to them.' But then by the time I got to 15, I did really well in my Junior Cert and I had had enough. There was literally a day where I had had enough." And that day was the day he got his Junior Cert results. He went home to his mum and said, "I'm getting bullied. I need to leave that school."

Eamon says "to this day, my mother says to me: 'Why didn't you tell me?'"

During that cathartic conversation with lovely Rita all those years ago, Eamon told her the reason he didn't tell her about the bullying and the abuse was because "he didn't want the bullies to win and I didn't want to upset you."

"It was like control. It's like an eating disorder where it's not about the food, it's about controlling it. It wasn't about the beating or the bullying or the blood on the shirts. It was about controlling my own emotions, and if I could control them, then I was winning," he adds.

His mother said to Eamon when he told her, "You can go to any school you want." Eamon choose St Michael's in Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4, because there was a guy around the corner from where Eamon lived in Castleknock who he had "the biggest" - unrequited - "crush on ever. He was going to Michael's. So that's why I went to Michael's! That's the only reason! He was a year ahead of me. He is married now with two kids. He is just lovely. His sister's kids come here," Eamon says, referring to The National Performing Arts School in The Factory on Barrow Street that he and his lovely business partner Jill Doyle (her husband Fraser McAlister is Bono's guitar guru) set up in 1994.

Unrequited love notwithstanding, Eamon "absolutely blossomed" in his new school. "I had a ball in Michael's, the best time ever. In Synge Street when I used the defence mechanisms that would get the shit kicked out of me, these guys in St Michael's laughed and thought I was funny," he says. "Plus also at 15, 16 and 17, a lot of guys start wondering about their own sexuality. So I had more guys in Michaels falling in love with me for the two years than I've had in my whole life."

Did it ever go any further?"Oh yeah, a couple yeah. They went off and got married and they'll be sitting down and reading this on Sunday with their wives.

"I had done eight years in Synge Street, of it being really, really terrible. I was so afraid to go to the jacks any time because I would get my head pushed into the bowl. I remember their names. I remember their faces. They used to give me a really awful time for years."

How did he overcome the painful memories?

"I talked about it a lot to people. I have a really good best friend, Jill, and I married Steven. But I did a degree in psychology as well and I suppose at the start, it was like, 'Let's just sort me out and see why I am the person I am and how did my childhood affect me and stuff.'"

Asked to describe his siblings, Eamon, the eldest, says gorgeous Claudine is "very bubbly, very sweet"; equally beautiful Catherine is "the most reserved of us"; and while the Clarke Gable-esque Colin "is my baby brother. He hates when I call him that. But he is," Eamon laughs adding that he "fucked up badly as a big brother. It was all my fault!" he roars with laughter.

"I brought Col to the POD nightclub on Harcourt Street when he was 16. He ended up hanging out with all the beautiful people in the POD at that time when they were in their mid 20s and he was 16! It was way too early! Wildness! I remember mum one day when Col was doing his Leaving Cert or he had school or something and she was going around knocking on people's flats trying to find him. And he had been in the POD all night!"

Eamon started wearing eye-liner when he was 12. He explains that the eye-liner wasn't in the context of the music he liked. It was in the context of being gay. "Between the ages of 9 and 15, I didn't say a sentence without the word gay in it. I was so confrontational about that with people. I knew.

"I was in love with guys in my class when I was 10 and 11 years of age. I wanted to marry them. It was so real for me. I never came out, because I was never in. Honestly. There was never an issue. I've never kissed a girl in my life.

"I never had to realise. I just kept falling in love and having crushes on guys in my class when I was 10 and 11 and 12. When others were playing with their Action Men, I honestly had two Action Men living in the doll-house."

He recalls how his grandmother Lilly Monaghan brought him back a pair of cowboy boots once from a trip to New York. "I used to leave the house in the morning with the cowboy boots on under my school uniform and by the time I got to school, I would tuck the school trousers into the cowboy boots. I would have coloured my hair but I wasn't Quentin Crisp," he adds, referring to the gay English eccentric.

Eamon says he had his first boyfriend when he was 20 in Galway. He says he went out with one guy at the start of his 30s for two years - "which wasn't great. He just wasn't the right person for me and it wasn't the right mix."

"Then after him, I met Steven," he says, meaning his husband, Irish artist Steven Mannion. "So I'd had very few boyfriends in my life. This is the whole thing: I might be the gayest man in Ireland - and might never have said a sentence without equality, marriage or gay in it for the last ten years - but I've had very few boyfriends."

Why was that? "I always liked being on my own. I'm totally gentle," he smiles. "I wouldn't get involved in the rows. I'd prefer to just move away from them and find peace. And that's why it works with Steven so well, because he doesn't row either. He just smiles, and is happy all the time. I've never met anyone in my entire life, honestly, of so many thousands of kids and so many thousands of people through the door of this place who are like him. He never stops smiling. And when I met him in the beginning, like on the first few dates, I thought, 'Is this a little bit odd?'"

"But in the ten years we have been together, I'd say there have been two days when he has been in a bad mood."

Further evidence of Steven's impenetrably good humour, says Eamon, is that "he would sing first thing in the morning. That's how I know he is awake in the morning, because he starts to sing. Now in July - I promise you this is the truth - Steven sings 'The weather outside is frightful, let it snow, let it snow!' I promised myself ten years ago never to say to him, 'Stop singing', because who wouldn't want someone singing in their lives to them every day? And being happy every day? It's a reflection of his personality."

"He is absolutely the love of my life," Eamon gushes, like a teenager.

What does he love about Steven?

"His heart, his kindness, his laugh, his desire to protect me and his smile," Eamon smiles, positively beaming.

Eamon and Steven, who met in the summer of 2004 in Renards nightclub in Dublin, married in Vancouver in Canada in 2009. He says he wants marriage equality to pass in Ireland "because I want equal rights for gay people in Ireland. I want my marriage and my relationship to be every bit as important, recognisable and equal as any of my straight friends and couples. Steven is the first person I think of every morning and the last person I think of at night, he'd my best friend, my lover and my whole world. We have a home together in Sandymount, and a life together, we have a mortgage and bills and dogs, Bess, Rosie and Lilly, and in-laws.

"He cooks for me, I iron for him. He is not my boyfriend or my partner or my buddy. He's my husband and I think that Ireland is ready to recognise that and embrace our place in society as an equal married couple."

He adds stridently, his striking green eyes full of passionate intensity: "There is no one who knows me and Steve - I mean, no one - who is going to vote no. People keep going on about marriage being the same for generations. It hasn't. It hasn't even been the same for 50 years. The black vote came in in America in 1967. Society changes all the time. It has to.

"They are trying to say now it is not about equality. It is only about equality. It is not same sex this or man-man this.

"It is equality. It is being equal to our straight friends and straight families and it is about family rights for the kids of gay people as well. So they can say their gay parents are married, the same as every other parent."

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