Saturday, 10 November 2012

Who are the people who shape our early lives? Those special teachers, older brother figures, family friends.  For Stephen McKenna, it was a man he now fondly recalls as 'my gay godfather'.


"My gay godfather was Kieran Hickey, an Irish filmaker. He was a family friend and, I believe, the first adult to see the gay in me.

Although he was in his 40s,  and I in my teens,  when we were first introduced, we fell into an easy friendship and in a kindly hand-on-shoulder way he nurtured my growth into early adulthood. 

I'd never suggest he inculcated me into the gay realm.  That  just happened to be the world he lived in, and through his example I could see that the condition of being homosexual was as real and as valid as one of being heterosexual. Not some perverse aberration as society then felt compelled to insist.

Sometmes he could be a dauntingly stern and private figure. Growing up queer amidst the bigotry of a holy catholic Ireland, wholly unlike the gay-friendly society of today, this had made him acutely cautious and untrusting.  At the first opportunity he was away to London's less repressive lights to work as an insurance clerk. Anything to escape.

Albeit the son of a working-class railway worker,  growing up on Dublin's South Circular Road - about as glamorous as any city's circular road - he was determined to move on. Not to shirk off his lowly origins perhaps, but more to feed his innate appetite for all things artistic. He always wanted to know what I was reading, what I had been to see and he never tired of urging me to write and expand my own horizons.

Eventually, Kieran, his self-education complete, returned to Ireland to carve out a successful niche as an independent filmmaker when there was scarcely such a thing in the land. He would also host an informal Open House (the same one he had grown up in on the South Circular Road) at which fledgling young Dublin gays could take their first steps in a still deeply hostile environment.

Looking back, I suspect he can't have failed to see that I was gay (unlike my myopic self), but he never ever brought up the subject with me, nor did he ever drop any hints. I think he knew that I would find my way in time.

Even if he had said anything, as had another friend,  when I'd announced I was to marry, I'd probably have ignored him.

I last met him in London in the summer of '91 following a call out of the blue. I was working for the BBC World Service in Bush House and he was across the road at the LSE visiting a friend. 'I'm coming across in five minutes!', he declared. I vividly recall him strutting across the Aldwych,  and,  marking the change in our times - out, loud and proud, in a check shirt and denims with a close crop and a Freddie Mercury moustache.  Masculine, but with a lively sparkle in his eyes.

He was utterly in his prime, flitting between San Fran, New York and Sydney, making up for decades of closet living and sending me postcards regular as clockwork.

It must have been about eighteen months later when I was checking the messages on my answerphone. There, between work and social calls was a muted message from my father informing me that Kieran had undergone by-pass surgery. He'd not revived after the operation.  He thought I should know.

Well, thanks for that, Dad, I murmured as the first tears stung my eyes.

Now, fifteen years on and with a straight marriage behind me, I'm fully out and able to strut along the Aldwych myself, but how I wish I could spot Kieran coming the other way. As ever, he'd be in a mad rush to make his next appointment, but even so, I'd hold him just long enough to say, 'I made it, Kieran. God love me, I made it!'

My gay godfather probably never doubted I would."

© Image courtesy of Steve Walker Art

Kieran Hickey (left) directs actor TP McKenna in a documentary
narration for the Chester Beaty Library in Dublin.