Wednesday 16 October 2019

'I buried it for years' - Mike Hanrahan on being abused by Franciscan brother

Stockton's Wing legend turned foodie Mike Hanrahan opens his heart to Barry Egan about being sexually abused by a Franciscan brother as a 14-year-old in Ennis, the death of his father, his love of food, and meeting the love of his life, Donna, on a blind date 31 years ago

Singer-songwriter Mike Hanrahan. Pic:Mark Condren
Singer-songwriter Mike Hanrahan. Pic:Mark Condren

Mike Hanrahan wrote his first song when he was 12. It was a religious song about Saint Joseph. Every night, under the "watchful eye of the Child of Prague and the Lord himself", he went down on bended knee in the living room of his home in Ennis, Co Clare, and recited the rosary.

 The future star of Stockton's Wing also observed First Friday, where he attended Mass and received Communion on nine consecutive Fridays. "I believed in all that and I bought into it," he says. "I was extremely religious as a young man. And then when I was about 14 or 15 it all started to disintegrate for me. And I stopped believing."

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The disintegration happened one day at the family home. Mike was an altar boy in the local friary. On the day he stopped believing in God, a Franciscan brother visited the Hanrahan house to ask Mike's mother's permission to take him to Galway for a weekend retreat.

Afterwards, the brother went out to the privacy of the hallway with young Mike. It was there that he started to ask Mike questions about girlfriends, their names and which ones he liked best. He then began "poking and feeling" around Mike's genital area. He asked Mike if he liked it. Mike "felt trapped and was extremely uncomfortable. I didn't know what to do. He continued until I managed to get to the front door."

Mike begged the Franciscan brother "to leave me alone". As his abuser pushed past him, Mike noticed a "lot of dandruff on the collar of his brown robe". That's how Mike still recalls his abuser. Mike made up "some excuse for turning down the trip to Galway, and left it there in the hallway for years and years and tried not to think about it".

Six or seven years later, Mike was walking down Abbey Street in Dublin when he saw the Franciscan brother coming towards him. Mike panicked and hid in a doorway. More than anything almost, he noticed that the dandruff was "still there". Mike wanted to scream at him, "but I had no voice. I was still scared or perhaps ashamed."

Mike was 20 years of age. He never saw the man again. In 2001, when he was 43, Mike wrote the song Garden of Roses, which helped him "close that door once and for all". He sang the song in 2018 in Tuam at a Remembrance Day for survivors of child sexual abuse by religious orders, "and that too was a powerful thing".

The song itself was a "response to all the horrific stories at the turn of the century and they opened up my wounds. I had to write about it," says Mike, who has also written about the experience in his moving and insightful book, Beautiful Affair: A Journey in Music, Food & Friendship.

Did he ever tell his beloved parents what happened to him as a young teen? "I told my mother years later before I released the song, but I never told my father. He died before I wrote the song."

Why didn't he tell his father? "I buried it for years. That's what you did. That's what shame does for you. Dad died a year before I wrote the song. Writing the song was me finally confronting the abuse. It was only the beginning of a healing process. I told Mum just before the album was released because I knew it would be discussed. I mention in the book that that moment was powerful. I don't show shame any more. It's gone."

I ask him can he walk along Abbey Street now without the memory of that man looming suddenly and menacingly into his head.

"I can indeed. He seldom pops into my head."

One thing that pops into my head over lunch in The Bailey pub in Dublin last week is how full of joie de vivre and warm Mike is. He lives in Deansgrange. He has been in Dublin for over 40 years. "I'm still a blow-in, and I always will be, even though I married a lovely girl from Dun Laoghaire."

He met Donna (who works in Vincent's Private for a surgeon) at the music venue Bad Bob's. She was on a blind date with somebody else. They are together 31 years and married 25 years this year. "We are still holding hands. She is the most amazing person I know in my life and has been for years."

Born on September 19, 1958 in Ennis General, Mike was the fourth of eight children - Gerard, Joseph, Kieran, Mike, Gabriella, Adrian, John and Jean - raised by Jackie and Mary. His mother was taken out of school in her early teens and put to work at Fawls on O'Connell Street in Ennis.

"I suppose the mentality of the time in the Irish psyche was that women had no future except to be married and have kids. Education was just a secondary thing to them. She worked in tea importers in Ennis and then came home and worked the house and worked the farm with my grandmother. I inherited her sensitivity. She is sensitive to people. I like to communicate with people. I seem to be the go-to person for the band," he says, referring to Stockton's Wing. "I like to leave myself open for people. I like nothing than a good old chat, to see if you can solve problems."

Mike can remember being five years of age and his father giving him a propeller-driven paper airplane. "You had to wind the elastic around and you went up to the top stairs and you flew it off from the top window and the plane crash-landed. I always remember my dad fixing that plane a hundred times. He was an amazing dad," Mike says of Jackie, who worked in the county council in Clare. He also managed the local swimming pool.

"But his side gig was collecting tickets at the local dance hall. I was in awe of the guys on stage. I definitely remember being on stage at 11 playing in a ceili band in Ennis. So, when I saw the big boys in action and the lights of the stage… that was that."

The big boys were Brendan Bowyer, Dickie Rock, The Plattermen et al. Through his dad, he got to meet them all. "My mother has a photograph of me as a young fella sitting on [lead singer of The Capitol Showband] Butch Moore's knee. It was the year after he did the Eurovision. We all played at home too. It was a house of music."

If not cooking. As you can tell from the title of his brilliant and often joyful book, Mike has a gra for exceedingly good grub. He did a cookery course in Ballymaloe in September 2007, and subsequently spent ten years cooking up a storm in various restaurants around Dublin. He stopped that two years ago and now does his cooking for darling Donna at home.

"She is delighted that I am back cooking for her. She loves it. Every recipe in the book I have cooked at some stage."

"I love Persian food," he adds. "It's the gentle mix of spices. I am a bit of a spice fiend. Not hot spices, but the blend of really tasty spices."

I say whenever I use spices in a meal I blow the heads off people.

"You don't have to," Mike says before explaining how it is important to "pick the right spices: fenugreek seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, add a few flecks of cinnamon, some smoked paprika, and you have the most amazing spice mix in the world. Take a few cumin seeds, and add some caraway seeds, add some fennel seeds and you have another amazing connection."

Did Mike get his fetish for spices from his mother? "No. I actually used to teach my mother the spices. She cooked very basic food." Mike started cooking when he was about 17. He discovered vegetarian food and started cooking it "in defiance" because everyone else was having meat and two veg. His father would look at the food that maverick Mike cooked, and despair. "How in God's name are you going eat that shit? The dog wouldn't eat it."

"I hadn't a clue but I was determined," he says now of his "lentil mush". Where was he getting the ingredients in the early and mid-1970s? "You could get the lentils in Ennis. There was a health food shop that had just opened. You would search for things like chillies. You might get the odd one, here and there; and peppers were a whole new ball-game in those days. You would have to go into Limerick and get them. There was a great shop in Ennistymon that used to sell a few things as well, because there would be a lot of hippies living up around there. They were all from Doolin and that. That's where you got the food. As I got older, I spent a lot of my life in Doolin in 1976, 1977, 1978.

"Doolin was heaven," he continues. "It was our San Francisco for traditional musicians. It was pretty wild, because you had people from Australia, Holland, Germany, and they were all coming with their music and their songs and their stories." For a young man who had lived a reasonably sheltered life, being suddenly exposed to all this "was wonderful."

So, it was sex, drugs and trad 'n' roll? "Well, we used to smoke a bit of weed, and have a few drinks because we never drank much at home. But it was all about the music and sharing good times and the free life out on the ocean, swimming," he says; his father passed on the love of swimming to him. "And living in was great."

And did the guards turn a blind eye to the San Francisco Summer of Free Love circa 1967 scene happening in front of them in Doolin in the mid-1970s? "Oh, I don't remember ever seeing any guards in Doolin at all. I think they just drove past it!" laughs Mike, who back then was living in Ennis. After the de rigueur wild weekend, Mike would hitch-hike from Doolin "on dirt-roads" to Shannon Airport, where he worked for a mail-order company sending statues and shillelaghs over to America.

Mike was up and down to Doolin from Ennis until 1979 when he joined Stockton's Wing, the legendary Irish group. He spent many memorable years as songwriter, guitarist and singer (and ten years with his dear friend Ronnie Drew as guitarist, writer and producer). Mike left Stockton's Wing in 1994 (he is now back in the band).

The same year he was elected to the board of the Irish Music Rights Organisation; he became chairman in 2000. He left in 2006 because he felt "burned out". Six years before that, in June 2000, Mike's emotional life took a terrible blow when his father died. "It took me many years to come to terms with it."

How did Mike do that? "I had to go and talk to someone about it and get some therapy, because his death had a profound effect on me. I put out an album called What You Know after he died. He used that phrase for everything. If he was looking for a paint brush, he say 'Get me the what you know, I want to do a bit of painting'. Then I wrote a song called Fire Fighter. I had the image of him as a fire fighter, kind of an emotional fire fighter because he was there to quench all our emotional fires…"

Jackie Hanrahan was very religious and would have been horrified at what happened to his son at the hands of a Franciscan brother, Mike says, adding that "you carry the shame with you".

And the blame, I say. "Everything. You can carry that for many years."

How many years? "Maybe 30 or 40 years."

With the help of a therapist, Mike was able "to park these things and then they are done. You move on, and I have certainly moved on. I went to art therapy and it is a beautiful way of expressing things. I covered a lot and I got through a lot. It is no harm to get help for all the things you go through in life."

While he was writing the book, Mike came across his diaries from the crucial age of 14 to 21.

"That was powerful, to go and revisit my young self." What did he learn from reading the diaries? "That nothing else mattered to me other than music, poetry and falling in love. I was reading Kahlil Gibran; Leonard Cohen was everywhere in the diaries. I wrote about our rock band Effigy [Mike's first band] and how much school was getting in the way. I had no interest in school.

"The diaries also charted my exit from the church with references to new discoveries in thinking. At one stage I sneaked out to go to a Bahá'í meeting. I wrote that while it was interesting , it was not for me. I was almost 16."

What place is Mike in his life now at 61? "I'm extremely happy in my personal life," Magic Mike smiles, "still ambitious, always working and thinking of new ideas. Stocktons are back in full swing - new music and tours planned with Leslie Dowdall and Eleanor Shanley and myself. I have started writing a long-overdue theatre show called Remembering Ronnie Drew. Life is good."

Beautiful Affair: A Journey in Music, Food & Friendship is published by HarperCollins, €25

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