Monday 19 August 2019

Graham Norton: My Protestant upbringing in Cork left me friendless and lonely

Graham Norton
Graham Norton

Lynne Kelleher

Chat-show host Graham Norton has told how his Protestant religion left him feeling isolated during his lonely Irish childhood.

The famously likeable comedian confesses to loving 21st Century Ireland and even spends two months here every summer with his dogs Bailey and Madge.

But in a revealing new interview, the Cork host said his religion did leave him largely friendless when he was growing up in Bandon in Co Cork.

He said: "I remember when we moved to Bandon for the first time during the summer holidays and it was amazing and I played with all these kids and was invited to birthday parties.

"It was great and come September there was much excitement about going to school and it was revealed I wasn't going to their school. I never really saw them again. That was the ending. We all recognised that we were different and that's what would happen.

"I didn't find my childhood interesting at the time. I started finding my life engaging when I was about 16 when I started having experiences outside of Ireland. That's when I sort of became alive."

In an hour-long chat on BBC Four's Mark Lawson series, he said there was an "under siege" mentality felt by Protestants when he was growing up in Cork in the Seventies.

He said: "If you married outside of the faith there was real pressure for the kids to be brought up Catholic and priests would make people convert. "There was a real sense of being shepherded together. You had to go to these special Protestant hops and Protestant socials and the idea was you met a nice Protestant girl and had Protestant babies."

But he said he has made his peace with Ireland in recent years and loves returning to his bolthole in west Cork every summer.

He said: "Ireland has changed so much compared to the Ireland I left when I was 20. If when I was 20 you had said 'would you like to spend time in this country?' I would have said 'No, I refer you to my ticket and passport. I'm leaving'.

"Now I spend at least two months every year there."

He said he was astonished to find openly gay pupils at his school when he returned recently to give out prizes.

He said: "When I did do the prize day there were pupils there who were openly gay. That surprised the hell out of me.

"And there were some recent past pupils who were openly gay."

He said his own coming out happened by default when he spoke about his sexuality in a TV interview.

He said: "The deal was nobody talked about it. On TV I said something about being gay and then that weekend I was talking to my Mum and I could tell there was a slight froideur on the phone.

"She said 'it would have been nice if you told us first'. I said 'you specifically told me not to tell you'.

"I went home with a boyfriend once and got off the train and my poor sister driving us back gave a message from my mother not to upset my father.

"My mother thought it was me coming home to come out. This was my big reveal weekend. It hadn't crossed my mind, but this was the message -- I took it to mean don't say anything, so I didn't.

"She said it turned out he knew. It was incredible to me that this couple had never talked about it.

"I remember not wanting to be gay and I remember being afraid I was and hoping it was a phase and hanging on to the bisexual tag for a while. It was a long time."

He said his time in a hippy commune in San Francisco when he was 20 years old opened his eyes to the world.

He said: "I wanted to get out and it felt like I didn't have options really.

"Leaving seemed easier than staying. America seemed thrilling and America was my first port of call.

"It was a wonderful year of living in this hippy commune, which was really a big flat-share. It was fantastic.

"I was 20, but from Ireland -- which made me an international 13. I was a real conservative with a small 'c'. It was wonderful for me to meet these people who did open up to other ways of looking at the world."

He told how he was very lucky to escape unscathed during that time after impulsively replying to an ad to be a rent boy.

He said: "It was to raise excitement and it also a way to have sex. It sounds so stupid and it sounds like I'm making a joke, but it seemed like quite a good way to have sex because it was your job. I thought I could do this and I had to go to a place for a meeting with this man.

"It got to a point where I thought he was going to try to have sex with me.

"He said 'if you're uncomfortable we'll stop'. I said 'OK' and I walked away from it. I was so lucky that that is all that happened.

"It makes me glad I'm not a parent. To know your child could be out there in the world making such terrible decisions and such stupid mistakes would fill you with dread at all times."

In the interview the chat-show host also tells how his brush with death when he was stabbed during a mugging while at drama school in his 20s changed his whole attitude to life.

He said: "I lost over half my blood. I was very lucky to get away with it.

"The nurse said to me 'Is there anyone you want us to phone'. I said 'Am I going to die?' She said 'Ehmm'. That's when I realised how serious it was.

"It was bad. It was just a mugging. I was probably wearing an annoying second-hand suit. They got something ridiculous like £6.

"It just puts everything in perspective."

And the TV star told how he is very happy to have finally conducted the ultimate interview after snagging a chat with Madonna in recent months.

He said: "I was nervous and I didn't mind looking nervous. Everybody kind of thinks 'Yeah I'd be nervous too'.

"I was frightened of the show being bad but not of her. Once she agreed to do it and I said 'Ladies and gentlemen Madonna' and then she stepped up, that was all I wanted to happen.

"I was genuinely geeked and excited. I know it is tragic, but it was a big day for me. It was Madonna Day in my house."

And while he refused to spill the beans on the star names which regularly land on his sofa, he did tell how one unnamed superstar demanded a dressing room for their phone.

He said: "We did have one person, who will remain nameless, who asked for nine dressing rooms and on the day asked for another one for their mobile phone.

"The mobile phone was very comfortable."

'Mark Lawson Talks to Graham Norton' will be shown on BBC Four on Monday 26 at 10pm

Sunday Independent

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