As the RTE drama brings back teenage memories for viewers, Andrea Smith asks well-known faces about their early romances
The vagaries and tender tribulations of Marianne and Connell’s teenage relationship are capturing our hearts on RTÉ’s Normal People, sending many minds back to the first relationships that captivated our younger selves. Some we’ll remember with tenderness forever, and there are others we’d prefer to forget all about. We asked these well-known people to share their experiences of first love with us.
“When I was 15, 16-year-old Michael Connolly asked me to dance at a hop, and we fell head over heels in love and became absolutely inseparable. He was the most stunningly beautiful person and an unbelievable kisser. We were together for months and never did anything bar hold hands and kiss, as I didn’t know anything about sex back in Galway in 1964!
“One day, we decided to spend the whole day together, so we stole a boat from the university and rowed up the river with our schoolbags and our lunch. We got off at an island and sat there, but everyone was out looking for us, including the nuns and my parents, as we’d been spotted taking the boat.
“There was absolute war and I was locked up for months and Michael was sent away. We weren’t allowed to see each other again, and I was heartbroken and couldn’t believe anyone would keep us apart. I discovered the song ‘I would rather go blind’ on the jukebox in the local amusement arcade, and I played it so often, standing there crying, they eventually took the record out and gave it to me.
“Michael turned up in the Mean Fiddler in London 25 years later, and I nearly lost my life when I saw him standing there in the crowd. We had a chat and kept in touch, but he sadly passed away before Christmas. I often wonder what would have happened if we’d been allowed to stay together, and I look back on it as the most beautiful, innocent love of my life.”
“I was the best friend. The unattractive teenager always listening to the romantic travails of others, but had damn all by way of boyfriends myself. A young actor became a pal and if we’d been unlucky, we’d have become a couple for life.
“We were rescued when a man named Tom Savage prowled into my life, untipped cigarette in hand, and hook, line and sinker doesn’t begin to express how I fell for him. I was 23 and he was like no man I’d ever met before. He had a blizzard of marvellous traits, being generous and funny, scholarly and profane, a sportsman who excelled in everything he played, a dancer, an unequalled listener and a spellbinding lecturer. He was ambitious for me and thought nothing was beyond me, and he loved that I was unpredictable.
“My parents so disapproved of Tom — he was a former priest — that when the actor ex-boyfriend turned up with a gift that Christmas, my father opened the door and said: “What a pity you didn’t press your suit.” This phraseology mystified the ex, who checked to see if he was wearing creased clothes. There’s first love. And there’s first real love. Tom was mine.”
“My first love was a lovely Dutchman called Eric, who I met on a Greek island aged 18. We toured around on his motorbike, and I remember the feeling of leaning into him with my arms around his waist, with the sun and wind in my face. It was really heady stuff and I felt like the leading lady in a movie. We’d stay up late and sit on the beach and talk and kiss under the stars, and it was my first real experience of intimacy. At the end of the two weeks, we were devastated saying goodbye, and both said that we loved one another. I worked for Aer Lingus and had concession travel, so I went over and back to Amsterdam to see him over the next six months, and we phoned and wrote letters twice a week.
“We ended it because he couldn’t come here as he was being called up for his year’s army conscription and I wasn’t ready to live there by myself. I cried for days and remember it fondly as a very romantic and sweet experience of first love.”
“I was 15 when I started going out with a girl from my school in Wicklow. It was the classic scenario where my friend was going out with her friend. We’d spend hours talking on the landline and end up being killed because the bill was so high. We didn’t sleep together, but would meet up for intense, but fleeting, sessions of shifting and whatnot. It lasted under a year and then the girl said she didn’t want to go out any more. I was really upset although, as a guy, you’d bottle how you felt up. There was a beautiful innocence about the relationship, and I look back with fond memories and am still friends with the girl.
“You’re so hormonally crazy as a teenager dealing with all of these feelings that never existed before and I think Normal People captures that. Although they seem very mature and smooth compared to us, even sexually. It’s portrayed very beautifully in a calm, eloquent way, which is gas when I think about the clambering, awkward mess I was when I first started having sex, where you’d be hoping your mam didn’t come up the stairs.”
“As a teenager, the first feelings of love were so all-consuming that everything else kind of blurred away and nothing mattered as much. I laugh now at how seriously I took it, like it was the one relationship I was ever going to have and it was going to work out perfectly, like all the TV shows and movies.
“I remember the excitement and nervousness I felt every time I’d meet the guy, even months into the relationship. I blew hot and cold towards him, because I didn’t know how to handle my emotions, especially ones so powerful. I was in a Catholic girls’ school, so I wasn’t going to have sex until I was older due to the absolute fear instilled in me by the nuns. That in itself presented awkwardness as he was older.
“When we broke up, I bawled crying so loudly that my sister laughed at me and said I sounded like a whale. It hurt for a few days, but the subtle beauty of young love is that it’s easy to recover from. I look back and cringe a little, laugh a lot and kind of hope I don’t bump into him again.”
“I was all dolled up and out with my cousin Mary to celebrate my 16th birthday when I met a guy called Mark. He and his friend invited us to go to a wine bar on Leeson Street, which was such a magical and unexpected experience for us, as they were complete gentlemen.
“Mark was 19 and seemed so mature and cultured, and I’d always get butterflies before seeing him and would dress to try to look older. After a few weeks, he said he was too busy with work to see me and I was devastated. He contacted me again weeks later and we went out a couple of times, but it wasn’t as exciting. I broke up with him as I was afraid that he would break up with me again.
“I met him a few years later when I got into a taxi he was driving and I got butterflies again, but that was just a moment in time. It couldn’t compete with the 22 years I have spent with the true love of my life, Derek, who I met in the Borza in Ballyfermot when I was 18.”
“My first encounter of feeling infatuated occurred when I was around 11. Her name was Sheila Dowling and she was funny and smart, with blue eyes and flicked-out blonde hair like Farrah Fawcett, who was a cultural icon at the time. I thought the sun, moon and stars shone out of Sheila and I adored her.
“I picked up the courage to buy her a birthday present in a local shop in Ballyheigue. I guess the gay genes were coming out, so I chose a really sweet-smelling Avon soap-on-a rope of Miss Piggy, who also had blonde hair and blue eyes. I put so much thought into it and it cost me a fortune, but Sheila was highly offended and threw it back at me because she thought I was suggesting that she was chubby like Miss Piggy.
“She didn’t speak to me for months and I was heartbroken, but happily, we’re still best friends to this day. I was confused about my sexuality and didn’t date in secondary school, and I didn’t encounter first real love until years later in London, when I knew for sure that I was gay.”