Hugh Wallace: The architect of his own fate
He is one of Ireland’s most respected architects and recently starred in RTE’s ‘Home of The Year’. Hugh Wallace tells Barry Egan about his alcoholism, his depression and how he sought counselling after - in a split-second of madness - he considered stabbing his partner in a drunken stupor
The 16th century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross wrote in The Dark Night of the Soul about an agonising personal ordeal along the ‘narrow way’ that must be experienced to reach a place of inner-harmony and salvation.
In late November, 2009, celebrated Irish architect Hugh Wallace underwent just such a dark night of the soul. So dark, in fact, that he could be in prison now spending the rest of his inharmonious life behind bars for what he considered doing that night.
He and his long-term partner Martin Corbett came back to their home in Dublin 8. As ever, Hugh was the worse for drink. More worse than ever perhaps. Hugh was - as he often was with drink on him - particularly obnoxious to Martin. A row, not unsurprisingly, began. Things escalated in Hugh’s mind.
It was almost like the drink had taken Hugh over and he became someone else, a hideous little creep bordering on the psychotic, and all in the space of a split second. Yet it was in that split-second that the madness descended on his brain.
There was a bread-knife in front of him. Hugh suddenly thought about murdering Martin with that knife. It was the most self-destructive thing Hugh’s inner-demon could summon up inside Hugh to wreck his - and end Martin’s - life.
Hugh, who was a judge on RTE’s recent interiors show, Home of the Year, picked up the knife and stabbed it furiously into the breadboard instead. So furiously that the end of the knife broke off.
Almost six years later Hugh is making me coffee in that same kitchen in Portobello and looking back on the split-second that changed his life.
“When the knife broke, I had a moment of absolute clarity,” he recalls now in the cold light of day, all these years of sobriety later.
“I remember subsequent to that night,” Hugh continues, “a lady up in Northern Ireland killed her best friend in a frenzy. She stabbed her best friend 42 times. And I could actually empathise with what she had done, because if I had kept drinking that’s where I would have ended up.”
I ask him to clarify what he means so as there can be no doubt.
“Stabbing Martin,” he says.
“I was very lucky that I had that moment in my pissed state, that in the morning, I had absolute clarity about the events that had taken place. I had no reason to know why I had absolute clarity. I just had.”
That very morning, Hugh went to the doctor who told him he was an alcoholic. The words were almost soothing to him. ‘So, that’s what’s wrong,’ he thought. ‘I’m not going to die.’
“I was 52,” he says now, “and he was the first person to say it as it was — I am an alcoholic. The relief. He sent me to a psychologist, a super-lady. Hugh asked her how long this whole process would take. She replied: ‘Probably six weeks.’
Two years later of counselling with this Jungian wonder-woman — and going to the Stanhope Centre in Dublin’s Grangegorman Lower for a year — Hugh learned to “find myself.”
“The road took two years and it was good days and bad. It was a emotional ride — reconnecting with lots of suppressed thoughts I had blocked out. . . events, relationships, guilt.”
“It is about coming to terms with what you’ve done. It is about not having to burden yourself with it. I don’t have to take it to my grave. I can actually say, ‘I can draw a line in the sand. I can recognise what happened to me and what I did. But I can move on.’ I’m much calmer now, I’m much more reflective over things. I see things in perspective,” he adds, “which I had lost the ability to. I would be afraid to think where I would be now if I had not had that moment of drunken clarity.”
He learned from looking back on his past that drink “is very cunning, very manipulative....” says Hugh Wallace who looks in a certain light like that ace manipulator Varys, the one-time Master of Whisperers in Game Of Thrones. He believes that his alcoholism was hereditary. “My father was an alcoholic. He drank because his father before him drank. It is a gene in the family.”
“When I was 17,” he continues of his dad Ken, “he signed himself into St Pats. He was there for six months. Nobody knew. He just didn’t appear one Saturday. No one ever discussed it. My father had gone away. He came back.
“Years later, I found out, but it was never discussed in our family. My mother [Susan] told me at the time that he was ‘sick.’ She didn’t say he was an alcoholic because nobody discussed anything about drink because it was swept under the carpet as a society. And so I was unfortunate that I had a large capacity for alcohol. I could drink eight pints and go to work the next day. It didn’t affect me.”
As far as you were aware, I point out.
“Absolutely. As far I was aware! Then there was the issue of my sexuality which was very different at that time,” says Hugh (he and Martin had a civil ceremony in Locks restaurant in Portobello on January 23, 2012, to mark their near-30 year-old love for each other.)
“And I was a Protestant. So I was in a very cocooned world back 40 or 50 years ago. I didn’t meet a Catholic until I went to Secondary School at 12. I lived in this world where I went to Protestant school and I played in the Protestant scouts and my friends were Protestants and my parents’ friends were Protestants. So I was cocooned away.”
“On top of all that, “ Hugh continues referring to his sexuality and his religion, “the drink suppresses your emotions. I suppressed an awful lot of my personal feelings over thirty years. I can say now that I am much more comfortable in me as an individual today than I was ten years ago or twenty years ago.”
What was he suppressing emotionally?
“Anything I didn’t like.”
I ask him did he like himself.
“I thought I did!” he laughs.
“I was drinking 120 units a week. I was drinking a vast quantity of alcohol. I have no idea how. I just loved alcohol. It went down so easily. I never understood that I was an alcoholic.”
It wasn’t until Hugh, who was born in Dublin on December 12th, 1956, “got into my late 40s and 50s that I was also starting to suffer from depression which was a cycle of my alcoholism. The alcohol was the trigger for my depression.”
Hugh’s depression became debilitating, albeit in a darkly humorous way. He would watch re-runs of Gilmore Girls on television on a Saturday morning for four or more hours, because, he says, “I couldn’t physically get out of the bed. I didn’t want to face the world. I would be lying in that bed, not able to get out, in an anxiety attack with the blinds closed on a summer’s day to keep the would out, afraid and waiting for the next drink to numb my brain and start that never-ending moment again and again.”
He can remember being in Dundrum Town Centre, the shopping centre in south Dublin, “hiding behind a column, because a friend was coming towards me. And I just couldn’t cope. That would have been 2008.”
“Martin was trying to look after me as well,” he continues. “It is very difficult to describe. You feel alone. Although Martin was there and very supportive and friends were with me and everything else, your brain was thinking about everything.”
Part of the reason for Hugh’s slide from alcoholism into depression in 2008 was the slow terminal decline of his architect business, Douglas Wallace, which went into liquidation in 2009. “I knew in 2008 it was gone,” he adds. “And I couldn’t do anything. People were leaving and you just felt so alone.”
When things were at their worst — when he knew his business’s entire financial survival was hanging by the flimsiest of threads — Hugh would be physically at his desk, but he would be obsessively watching the clock, waiting for the earliest possible time when he could go out to get a drink without distracting attention.
“I used to watch the seconds. At 12.30, I could run out the door and get a bottle of wine. There is all those people who you work with in the office and no one actually said: ‘You’re an alcoholic. Would you ever go and get treated?’”
In hindsight, he can see that it was a recession that swept like a Biblical plague through the world but at the time, he says he felt, “it’s all personal. You have let all those employees down, your clients. You are so isolated you couldn’t talk. It was like Groundhog Day or that U2 song Stuck In The Moment. It was quite bizarre. Everything collapsed.”
He can remember the day Douglas Wallace collapsed. “The seventh of May, 2009. I was out on the street,” Hugh recalls grimly (he has since bought the firm back from the receiver and got back all their intellectual-property rights). “Everything went. And my life went. I drank myself stupid for another year. No — that is a lie. I drank myself stupid until November 2009. Before that I had been drinking really excessively since the end of 2007.”
Did he and Martin ever come close to breaking up as a consequence of his drinking? “I can say that Martin was my light when I was in the darkness. His support was amazing over those two to three years . . . not judgemental, so patient — to some extent we were both living in a gerbil wheel of existence over those years.”
What was it like for Martin to be living with him? “It was very difficult for Martin. He found it very difficult because he was trying to keep me on the straight and narrow and help me — but I didn’t want any help.”
Asked when precisely did Hugh realise that he had to get help, Hugh says the night of the bread knife. “I knew at that moment I would either die and drink the contents of the house in absolute despair and depression. I am not being glib about it. I can only say that because I have a distance about it now between the events and today where I have a totally different perspective on my personal life, on my life with Martin,on my emotions.”
“The whole world in Ireland revolves around alcohol. One of the most important things you have to do when you have decided that you are going to give up drink is that you, more than likely, have to leave all of your friends behind.”
I ask him is that what he did. He nods his head. “Because you can’t,” he says meaning hold on to friends who drink, “because all a sudden you are in a pub again drinking. I can’t actually go physically into a pub. Because you do want to drink.”
He recalls going into a pub for a rugby match to meet some friends. As he walked in the door, there was a man putting a pint up to his lips to drink and suddenly Hugh felt like the Jim Carrey character with crazy extendible arms in The Mask — “That was me. My arm left my body and went straight for the pint of Guinness. I had to leave.
“The reason that I want to do this interview,” he adds, “is that there are still people out there who are suffering from depression and are suffering from alcoholism. And it is not discussed in this country. The effect of alcoholism in this country on families and on our parents and on children is huge. We discuss cancer and sorts of things but we aren’t yet able to discuss the issue of alcoholism in this country,” he believes, “and the effect the alcoholic has on the 20 people close to him.”
But isn’t that because, unlike cancer, alcoholism is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as self-inflicted? “Yes. It is self-inflicted. The only person who can actually stop it is the alcoholic. The problem is that people don’t cut the alcoholic off. They don’t say, ‘I’m terribly sorry about this, but I have actually had enough.’”
Was Martin ever tempted to say that to him? “He did. But I didn’t listen. But he never threw me out the door. He had to put up with my verbal abuse, with me not being a nice person at a particular time. My internal anger that I couldn’t deal with, I just dumped on everyone.”
Martin obviously had enough emotional intelligence and knowledge to understand that Hugh didn’t mean the horrible things he was saying to Martin, I say to Hugh.
“It’s easy to say it now but at that time it was very difficult. I was very lucky.”
Despite all this, it might surprise some people to learn that Hugh still has the occasional glass of wine with a meal. “I have a glass if I have a good meal but I am clear with everyone that I am a alcoholic. So there is no pressure to drink when I say ‘no thank you’ when asked.”
How Hugh stops himself now from one glass of wine becoming one bottle and then one night of oblivion is, he says, “fear. And I love my sobriety. I love getting up in the morning. I know this sounds really silly but when the foliage came this year, the burst of light green on the trees around near Synge Street was fabulous. And I would never have seen that. I wouldn’t have had time to have seen it. Now I just look at those things and I appreciate it. I never want to let drink into my life because my relationships with my friends and my relationship with Martin is all too important.”
“I am 58 years old. I got a new lease of life. I got a second chance in my life which I just love. I work half the time in Dublin and half the time in Oman. I work for a private family in Oman who I met by chance. It is an amazing job because I am working on really exciting projects. Huge projects. Districts of Oman. And I am still working with Dunnes Stores and Peter Mark in Dublin. So if you can deal with alcoholism, there is a day after,” he says. “But I think when you’re an alcoholic and you’re in that dark period it is very difficult to see any hope.”
In a very real way, Hugh Wallace became the architect of his own fate.
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