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Boys do cry: Why it's good for Irish men to mourn


Vulnerable side: A Munster fan grieve's at the gates of Thomond Park, Limerick for Ireland and Munster rugby player Anthony Foley.

Vulnerable side: A Munster fan grieve's at the gates of Thomond Park, Limerick for Ireland and Munster rugby player Anthony Foley.

Vulnerable side: A Munster fan grieve's at the gates of Thomond Park, Limerick for Ireland and Munster rugby player Anthony Foley.

The sudden death of Munster rugby coach Anthony Foley has prompted an outpouring of grief.

The gates of Thomond Park turned red and white at the weekend as fans gathered in tribute to the late player and manager, who passed away unexpectedly hours before Munster were due to play in Paris on Sunday. On social media, meanwhile, the grieving had a palpable ache. People weren't merely shocked - they were working through a genuine loss and bereavement. 

We've been here before, of course. When David Bowie succumbed to cancer at the start of the year, for instance, many devotees of the singer were profoundly shaken. They felt they had lost a friend and confidante. A similar outcry greeted Prince's tragic painkiller overdose. How could he be snatched from us so unexpectedly?

However, the response to Foley is arguably different because he was a star in a macho sport, and many of those speaking honestly about their feelings are men. Irish masculinity, it is tempting to conclude, has started to cast off that old, crippling stoicism. A chink has appeared in our emotional armour. To paraphrase The Cure, boys do cry after all.

That is obviously a huge shift. Historically, Irish men didn't "do" grief. At funerals, they drank and reminisced and left the sobbing to the women and kids. The loss was buried deep,deep down - where nobody, or so they told themselves, would ever find it.

Such was the factory setting of the average Irish male. For most of our history, the appropriate response to the passing of a loved one was to embark on a melancholy booze-athon, with men telling themselves that is what the person "would have wanted".

How many of us, after all, can recall, as kids, seeing a man cry at a funeral? It rarely happened. In a country stooped under a weight of taboos here was one of the heaviest. The worst thing a man could do was break down in public. What sort of example was he setting for his sons, his friends, his community?

Have things changed? To a degree, say those who have made it their professional business to delve into the Irish male psych. Certainly the reaction to Foley's death - raw, honest grief - suggests that our psychological dials have shifted and that, as a gender, we understand it is no longer healthy to deny our emotions. That way lies stress, depression and roiling unhappiness. Nonetheless we still have quite a way to go, and by the standards of other Western countries the Irish male is still worryingly inexpressive.


Loss: Anthony Foley

Loss: Anthony Foley

Loss: Anthony Foley

"At our core, we are just as emotional as the opposite gender," says psychologist Tom Evans. "But some of us continue to find it difficult to connect with those emotions and to go to that place. We have disconnected and remain disconnected."

In the case of grief, bottling one's feelings can led to stress and psychological issues in the future, explains bereavement counsellor Kathleen Horne.

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"That is all entirely unhealthy. If you don't deal with your feelings, you're not going to become the best person you can be. You are using your defences all the time."

Across the world men have been conditioned to obscure their feelings (see the British stiff upper lip, etc). Yet there are reasons to believe that Irish masculinity is buttoned down even by international standards, says Evans.

The scars left by colonialism and conflict run deep.

"There is a lot of harshness in our history," he says. "That plays a part. Men not crying is a global thing. Yet there are issues in Ireland's past which are still playing out. We inherit and pass on the trauma in our genes. I see it all the time as clients in my work."

Evans takes encouragement from the fact that sports stars from across the spectrum have come out to publicly mourn Foley. Athletes are the role models men still look up to the most and their willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves offers a powerful example.

"These guys have a very important part to play, not just on the pitch, but as an example to us guys. It takes enormous strength to be vulnerable.

"When I see vulnerability, I know it means there is huge strength in the background. Seeing individuals known for their strength and prowess be emotional is fantastic - it is very freeing."

What about the argument that it is folly to mourn a stranger? We may have adored Bowie's music. It is healthy and natural for us to feel winded by his death? Or does it speak to an unhealthy obsession with celebrity?

"Sometimes [public] grief can trigger buried grief," says Evans. "People may find themselves crying when someone they are not connected to at all to the person - it might seem inappropriate, but what has happened is that it has set off a grief from the past. Dormant emotions have been stirred."

With social norms changing, expectations of men as husbands and fathers have shifted, explains Horne. The traditional stoicism is no longer accepted - and that has profoundly impacted on how we express our emotions.

"Women need men to show their feelings," she says. "The old ways of doing things doesn't work any more.

"If you don't express your feelings, you are going to become frustrated and angry and it is going to come out in some misplaced fashion," says Galway-based counsellor Patricia Heneghan.

"It drives women crazy when men won't express what they are going through and go quiet instead. Those feelings often come from a place of anxiety and depression."

One reason why the loss of Foley has hit people so hard, Horne argues, is that sport was traditionally a "safe space" in which men felt free to emote.

"People get very passionate about games and sport," she says. "It was one way to express what they were going true. Nobody likes to cry. When you are going through it, the feeling is not pleasant. But it's a good release. In my line of work, I see a lot more men crying nowadays."

The suddenness of Foley's passing and his relative youth (he would have turned 43 this month) contributed to the response, she says. "There was also enormous shock and disbelief, which has undoubtedly been a factor. It was a big game in France. There were so many people present. It is not something you ever expect."

"I see men being just as emotional as women in therapy," says Evans. "We have the same feelings and we are learning to be fully human. A lot of men are reluctant to express their emotions. But there are plenty of us who are in touch with our feelings and are able to express them.

"There is no question, however, that many men are still unable to connect with what they are going through."

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