- 07 Nov 18
As the Environment Editor of The Irish Times, Frank McDonald was the scourge of bad planners, corrupt politicians and get-rich-quick developers. But there is another side to the prominent journalist and writer. He was gay at a time when Ireland was brutally conservative, homosexuality was a crime and AIDS first reared its ugly head.
I catch Frank McDonald in a good mood. He probably shouldn’t be amused by this, but the former Irish Times man is breaking his balls laughing, as he recounts how somebody recently vomited on his doorstep.
”The other day I got a short note stuck in the letterbox,” he recounts. “It said, ‘Sorry for vomiting’ I love Dublin! Cheers.”
He’s still chuckling. In the past, people have literally pissed through the letterbox of his apartment in Temple Bar. There were times when it made him very angry. But he is more sanguine about all of that now.
”We’re just down out of the trees in terms of urban living,” he says with a mischievous grin. “We still don’t understand the basics of city life. It’s really sad. It’s a cultural problem. I think it’s going to take a long time to sort out.”
Frank, of course, knows all about people taking the piss. One of the most recognisable names in Irish journalism, he was Environment Editor with the Irish Times for many years. He wrote The Destruction Of Dublin, a landmark book, in 1985. Many tomes later, he was co-author with Kathy Sheridan of The Builders (2008.) Throughout, the 68-year-old was to the forefront in exposing the deplorable planning corruption culture, with its famous brown envelope scandals.
He documented the close links between developers and disgraced political figures likes Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor. They say you should never speak ill of the dead, but Frank pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the latter. “He was such a sleaze ball,” Frank tells me.
The Dubliner doesn’t have much grá for Bertie Ahern either, agreeing with the assessment that Bertie was in a lot of ways like Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses.
And yet, for someone with such a relatively high public profile, there’s very little known about Frank’s own private life. His memoir will certainly go a long way towards rectifying that - as indeed will this exclusive Hot Press Interview, which is his first in-depth on-the-record conversation about his private life and his attitudes towards all things sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll...
“I managed successfully over the years to separate whatever public persona I have as result of being in the Irish Times and my own life,” he proffers. “Now, I’ve drawn the two together and I’m looking, with a degree of anxiety, at how people are going to react to what’s in the book.”
It’s time, my friend, to be frank.
Jason O’Toole: You say in the book that you started to realise you were gay at the age of just ten.
Frank McDonald: That’s right. I was having crushes on boys in the class. There was one guy in particular - I remember his name was David - and I was smitten by him. I just wanted to be with him all the time. I suppose, in a way, that “gives the lie” to those who say homosexuality is acquired. It’s not. It’s something that’s built into your whole psyche and even your DNA.
Presumably you know when you’re 12 or 13-years-old and find yourself fantasising about males rather than females in order to masturbate.
Exactly. It took me a while to realise I was taking the road less travelled. It was something that gradually dawned on me - and then it hit me like a bolt from the blue in the Phibsboro library. I think I was about 15. And I read Robert Frost’s poem - and it suddenly dawned on me: “My goodness! This is it. I am taking the road less travelled”. And it seemed to be a pretty dramatic realisation because I felt, “Oh my God! What’s facing me now? How am I going to cope with this?” I had always expected that I’d end up getting married and having kids of my own.
Ireland was a very different country at the time.
Dublin was a completely different place. Ireland was a completely different country. It was dominated by the Catholic Church. At that stage, I was a member of the Legion of Mary for goodness sake (laughs)! The last thing I expected was I’d end up having to cope with being gay as well, in that overwhelming context of triumphant Catholicism and Corpus Christi processions, bunting and flags all over the place at different times of the year. It was really difficult.
You mention that one Christian Brother was abusing students. Do you think many boys from your class or school were sexually abused?
Yes. I’m not sure how many. It was impossible to say. But we did have this pervy Christian Brother teacher who I saw through this storeroom keyhole going down on one of my friends. We all wore short pants, which made it easier for them. He would sit down beside his favourite boys in the class and put his hands up our trousers. This happened on a daily basis, nearly.
This Christian Brother was masturbating boys while the class was ongoing?
Essentially, yeah. It was shocking. What made it even more shocking, in a way, was the fact that you couldn’t bring yourself to tell anyone about it. Maybe I didn’t have the words to describe it, or whatever. But I just knew instinctively that it was wrong. It was an example of the abuse that was prevalent in Irish society at the time: kids were being abused by Christian Brothers on a daily basis. And the truth was never told about it until decades later.
He sexually abused you too?
Yes. We all sat at two-pupil desks, the classic school desks at the time with an inkwell slot and the top of the desk opened up so you could put things underneath it, like books or chalk and pencils. So, there were two boys sitting at each desk. And he would then sit down beside one of his pets, as it were, and play with them - while the class was going on.
How did you feel the first time he did that to you?
I thought it was really strange and weird and wrong, instinctively. But what could I do about it? I was 10.
How many times did he do it to you?
I’m not sure, to be honest. It was certainly several times. It could’ve been a dozen times. I can’t remember the details. In a way, I tried to put it out of my head. But some things you can’t put out of your head.
Would he get you to touch him as well?
No, that didn’t happen, I’m glad to say. Like, what happened to me was mild compared to what others have suffered at school. I’m thinking of the likes of Colm O’Gorman, who recalled recently that he was raped by Fr Fortune two weeks after the John Paul II Papal visit to Ireland in 1979. Even though it was shocking at the time, I still think it was probably at the milder end of abuse.
Did it warp your attitude towards sex as a teenager?
It probably did to some extent. But I think the more overwhelming thing was the whole suffocating conformity of Irish society and the overwhelming dominance of the Church and the fact that gay life was largely underground.
How old were you when you first had sex?
I must’ve been 16. It was completely unexpected. I just happened to be in a loo; I think it was the one on Infirmary Road next to the People’s Gardens in the Phoenix Park. I didn’t know that this – ‘cottaging’ - was even going on. I was sitting in a cubicle doing my business and the next thing this guy in the adjoining cubicle put his foot underneath the partition and touched my foot - obviously we were both wearing shoes (laughs). But I was intrigued by this. And then it went from there. We ended up having it off in one of the cubicles. It was just one of those quickie things, which was all that was on offer at the time.
How did you feel after it?
Kind of weird, you know. I just thought, ‘My God! So, this is what happens?’
How long was it before you enjoyed your first loving sexual experience?
I would’ve been in my late teens probably. One of the things that I did was: I always fell in love with guys who were straight and therefore unattainable. You were always hoping that you’d bump into somebody that you’d fall in love with because I’m an incurable romantic. And I was very fortunate to run into Eamon when I did.
For our younger readers can you explain the cottaging scene...
It was, in effect, the Grindr of that era. We had this law: the 1861 Offence Against the Person Act, which essentially made homosexual acts illegal. So, that drove everybody underground. Because it was all illegal, because of the whole atmosphere at the time, there was no visible gay life in Dublin - other than going to public toilets and meeting guys there. The whole idea of so-called cottaging was meeting guys in places like the underground loos in College St. - which is gone now, like all these others, partly because of what’s generally talked about as ‘anti-social activities’ that were taking place in these locations.
All those public toilets are closed down.
When the actual cottage style loo, the gents in Stephen’s Green, on the west side of Stephen’s Green Park, was finally closed down years ago, one of its older habituates left a bouquet of flowers in the railings outside in memory (laughs) of what went on there. It’s funny, in retrospect.
It sounds like you enjoyed the cotagging scene.
I wouldn’t say that I made a huge habit of it, but I was going around meeting guys on a regular basis at the time, different ones. In one of the back pages of a diary from the time, I had a list of them, under different headings - I didn’t even know their names in most cases. Even if I did know the names, the names were probably phony anyway. It was a strange experience, let’s put it that way.
It was common for gay men to use aliases...
Gay guys felt at the time that they needed to use aliases. Certainly, in the late ‘60s, nobody was giving their real names. You just assumed that people were giving you a false name. I didn’t want them to know who I really was, and they didn’t want me to know who they were really were. It was a purely transactional thing really. The idea that you could actually develop relationships just didn’t seem part of the agenda at all, at the time.
You use the word ‘tricks’ in your book to describe the men you slept with. But it’s really a word I’d associate with prostitution...
I just used that term as a kind of generic for what was going on. I’m thinking particularly in terms of public toilets and all the rest of it.
You mention going across the water with a copy of a book entitled The Good Loo Guide to London! I laughed when I read that!
I still have a copy of it. I’m a divil like that. I’ve inherited my father’s hoarding instinct. The Good Loo Guide wasn’t written with any gay intent. It was just a book that came out in the 1960s literally designed for anyone who was coming up to London and might be short taken! And here was a selection of good places to go. I got it because I thought that just as loos were the main places for guys to meet that maybe the same is true in London, which turned out to be true too. We have the same culture, much as we may not like to admit it.
There was a professor from Trinity, nicknamed Minty because he’d give the boys sweets to freshen their breath before sex. You mention he ‘passed you on’ to his friend Alan. It struck me they were treating you like a piece of meat.
Yeah, that’s right. I think they were.
Do you feel you were used?
Of course, yeah, I was. But I was using them too as an outlet.
Does it make you feel angry?
No. It was just something that happened.
You went to The Mullingar House in Chapelizod - a pub made famous by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake - where you met a man who plied you with drink, getting you paralytic...
That was terrible. Teenagers have absolutely no capacity, as we say, to hold their drink. So, I was practically delirious and comatose by the time he drove me up to the Phoenix Park and had his way with me there.
It was effectively rape?
Probably, yeah. But, you see, again, I wouldn’t have defined it in those terms at that stage at all. It was a strange encounter, no doubt about it. It took me a few days to recover from it. He didn’t do anything appalling like rape me in the literal sense, but it was a weird experience.
You’re essentially saying that the gay scene was a promiscuous culture and you wouldn’t even be able to count how many sexual partners you had...
Pretty much. As I said, it was all very transactional, or most of it was.
Do you think the gay scene back then was more promiscuous than it is now?
No, I don’t think so. I think it was probably less because of the fact that there were so few outlets and there was no thriving gay scene. There were no nightclubs, there were no pubs, except for the likes of Bartley Dunne’s. But obviously I wasn’t going to pubs when I was 16 or 17. It was only later that I ended up going to places like Bartley Dunne’s, or BD’s as it was called, regularly.
Maybe I’m off the mark here, but the impression is that the gay scene is much more promiscuous than the straight scene?
I think probably, yes. But I have no statistics on it (laughs).
Do gay men jump into bed quicker than a straight couple would?
Probably, yeah. And sometimes that leads to something and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a one-night stand. Sometimes you go back again. Sometimes a relationship even develops from it, which is much more satisfying obviously than a quickie in some toilets.
You write, “There were girls too. But not for sex.” You’ve never had sex with a woman?
Not at that time. No, I didn’t. Not as a teenager. I think very few boys did at the time. We weren’t living in a sexualised society. I mean, nowadays, teenagers can get their hands on, at a flick of a switch, all sorts of porn on the internet. That just didn’t exist when I was their age. Even if you wanted to get your hands on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or the Kama Sutra or whatever - where would you go to get it? Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned. You couldn’t click onto Google and find it online, or Amazon.
But have you ever been with a woman?
Yes. In my twenties. But I’m not going to go into details (laughs).
Was it a case of being curious?
(Laughs) Sort of, yeah. It was just like something that happened. It’s not something I necessarily set out to do. But sometimes it did happen, yes.
How did you feel after your first time with a woman?
I thought it was great, and all the rest of it. But I knew it was not for me either.
There is a view that aesthetically a woman’s body is much more pleasing than a man’s to look at? Would you agree?
Well, actually, no (laughs). I mean, that is principally the difference between guys who are gay and guys who are straight. At the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to: what do you prefer? And, for me, it’s always been guys really.
Would you consider yourself bisexual?
No, I wouldn’t. I would certainly consider myself gay rather than anything else. The categorisation nowadays is unbelievable really where you’ve got all sorts. It’s almost like a spectrum from being straight through bisexual, transvestite, whatever and whatever, until you finally end up on the other end of being gay on the spectrum. But it wasn’t like that at all for me.
The sauna culture came after cottaging. Were you involved in that scene?
Yes, but not in Dublin. In New York and other places. When Michael McLoughlin from Penguin Ireland asked me to write my memoir, the ballpark word count was around 100,000 words. But the first draft ended up at 193,000 words. Penguin asked me to cut it back. I had a brainwave: I essentially cut out most, if not all the foreign stuff. And that covered a lot of the time I lived in New York in the early 1970s and my travels around the world. So, I’ve saved all of that stuff with a view to possibly doing a followy-upper, as we say in Dublin.
Was there much difference between the sauna scene and cottaging scene?
The biggest difference was, of course, that you had all of these guys who were going around wearing nothing but towels. There was a place in Amsterdam called the Thermos: Thermos One and Thermos Two. One or the other of them used to stay open 24 hours a day. I think they used to close down for an hour at about six o’clock in the morning to clean the place. It’d be a constant stream of guys going in there. And there were all sorts of entertainment, like videos and all sort of stuff. They’d have a café. But a lot of it was just about having sex with guys, yeah.
Were you ever in an orgy?
(Nervous laughter) Oh my God! Yeah.
Was it fun?
Oh, yeah. It was in one of those saunas.
You also wrote in your memoir about friends who passed away from AIDS. Did you fear contracting HIV?
No. I mean, I did much earlier on. When the AIDS panic erupted in the mid-1980s, you began to think, ‘Oh God! This is really bad’. It was being dubbed as the gay plague. And then suddenly, in the succeeding ten years, an awful lot of guys died from AIDS. There was no cure for it at the time. There was really almost no treatment for it either. Also, because of the risk of infection, anyone who was suffering from AIDS was being treated almost like a pariah, like lepers would’ve been treated in the past. I began to wonder if I had a bad cough or a chest infection, or whatever. So, eventually, I summoned up the courage to ask my doctor if I could have a HIV test and that turned out to be totally negative.
By then you were in a long-term relationship with Eamon.
Exactly. Yes, indeed, that was one of the most important things I suppose. From the mid 1970s onwards.
Was it love at first sight?
Oh, yeah (laughs). I was very fortunate to run into Eamon when I did. I was 26 at the time, he was 22. I was chatting at the College of Surgeons with a friend and then this fresh-faced young fella arrived along - and I just thought he was lovely. He was going off to the IGRM, Irish Gay Rights Movement disco, in Parnell Square that night. And I said, “I might see you there”. And, of course, I made a beeline for the IGRM disco. And we danced the night away and then went back to this house I’d just bought in Harold's Cross.
You got married in June 2016. But there was a time when you couldn’t be publicly open about your relationship.
If you were gay in Ireland in the 1960s/70s/80s, you ducked and dived. Friends of ours recently remarked on something I’d never noticed - that old photos of us as a young couple, looking happy, were mostly taken on holidays abroad or within the four walls of our previous home in Harold’s Cross. You lied and covered up. And that’s how it was. Because I’d become a relatively prominent journalist, I just didn’t want it to get out until things became easier.
Senator Jerry Buttimer told me how he was spat at and someone actually threw punches at him when he left a gay bar.
I can’t remember any incident of that kind at all. Mercifully so, I suppose because that would’ve had a terrible affect on me if somebody had spat at me in the street or whatever. But than maybe Jerry Buttimer was more out than I was. Eamon was involved in those early stands for gay rights - where a dozen gay guys would turn up in front of the GPO on a Saturday with little placards saying, “Gays are angry”, and so on (laughs) to be treated with bemusement and contempt by passersby. I never got involved in any of that because I don’t think I would’ve had the stomach for it, to be honest.
You were arrested for stealing milk during your formative years in London. But what about the fear of getting arrested for being gay? It was illegal to be gay in Ireland right up until 1993.
It was illegal and therefore there was a lot of fear. There was a fear of blackmail. People had been blackmailed, as I later found out. Or you could be arrested if you were caught flagrante in some public toilet by the Guards. And there was harassment going on at that time as well.
The law was changed in 1993.
I found that really liberating, because if you were gay in Ireland in the 1950/60s, for people of my generation, it was clear from a young age that when it came to sex what you did were matters of deep concern to the Church. And if you got it wrong you could end up in jail and ultimately in hell!
The Primate of All-Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said that it wasn’t a sin to be gay but that the act of homosexuality is a sin. Do you find that offensive?
Yeah, I do. It’s prejudice. It’s totally unjustified. But I don’t really pay attention to what bishops are saying anymore. I don’t think it’s important what these Churchmen say.
Do you believe in God?
No, I don’t. I’m not Richard Dawkins in the sense that I’m not arrogant enough to be able to say definitively that there is no God. So, I would call myself agnostic. I basically don’t believe in it at all really. I stopped being a Catholic when I was 17. I just gave it up. I said in the book, if anyone asked me to describe where I stood in relation to religion I would say, I’m a recovering Catholic in the sense that I’m recovering from having been a Catholic in the kind of Ireland that I grew up in - and that has taken a long time.
At the end of your memoir, you say one of your big fears is growing old, and which of yourself or Eamon is going to die first.
Whenever I think about that, I just don’t know how either of us is going to be able to cope. But I suppose that’s something that every couple thinks of: ‘Who’s going to go first? How will I deal with it? How will he deal with it?’ I just don’t know. It’s overwhelming really.
Have you thought about euthanasia?
Yes. As I’ve said in the last couple of paragraphs of the book, the thing that I fear most is losing my mind, because I have such a good memory, certainly a very good long-term memory. Eamon and myself have talked about that. I think if we both ended up being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or whatever - that before too long we would be getting one-way tickets to Zurich. But I’m still looking forward to having a quite bit of fun between now and the tomb.
Your father lived to 101. Am I right in thinking you never came out to your parents?
I never formally did. They knew, but we never talked about it. It’s regrettable that we didn’t. We should’ve talked about it. I should’ve talked about it. He reached the incredible age of 101 on December 24th and died on January 19th this year.
Leo Varadkar was up at your place the night before the marriage equality referendum. Before Leo came out, he did an interview with Hot Press in which he said he was actually against same sex marriage.
Really? (Laughs). Well, that would go with his generally right-wing mindset. On the other hand, I still think it was really important that he did that interview with Miriam on the radio and came out and cleared the decks, in effect, for the referendum. I think that was very good. We are still the only country in the world where, by a vote of the people, same sex marriage was introduced.
Did you ever try marijuana?
Yes, of course. I think it should be legalised. There’s an awful lot of money, hundred of millions, if not billions, being wasted in a so-called war against drugs worldwide and it should stop. It’s the equivalent of barking up the wrong tree. Everything should be legalised, in my opinion, under controlled conditions.
Including cocaine and heroin?
Everything. I know that may sound irresponsible. But I think it’s the only thing that makes sense. The experience of places like Portugal, in particular, shows that it works.
In Portugal it’s decriminalised rather than legislation.
Yeah. Yeah, sorry - decriminalised. And that it works. If you look at the war between the Kinahans and the Hutchs, and other crime cartels at war with each other, it’s over the control of the illegal drugs market. So, take that away from them and you eliminate a whole lot of organised crime.
Have you ever tried any other drugs?
Did you like it?
I did, yeah. But I wouldn’t use it. I would’ve just taken it on an opportunistic basis over the years. I couldn’t care less if I never had another snort, let’s put it that way.
What about a joint - do you like one occasionally?
Yeah. I would, yeah.
John Waters wrote a book called Feckers: 50 People Who Fucked Up Ireland. He included you in this dubious honour.
I was completely gobsmacked by that. I mean to walk into Hodges Figgis in Dawson St. and pick up this book which is about the 50 feckers who fecked up Ireland and find that you’re one of them on a completely spurious basis was a surreal moment, let me tell you.
Is there too much focus now on instant news and not checking facts?
Yes. When I joined The Irish Times it was the paper of record and all mistakes or errors were always corrected. It took its role very seriously. I regret the fact that it no longer even sees itself like that. I think that that’s very regrettable.
What is The Irish Times today then?
It still is the best newspaper in Ireland. I still have a great affection for it. But it irks me that The Irish Times was allowing such abuses of the English language as “from the get-go” – what’s wrong with “from the start”? Or, letting a fashion tipster write twaddle. Let me put it this way: I think the younger generation of journalists know everything about process but they don’t know much about product. So, they’re dab hands at things like social media and a whole lot of stuff. But it seems to be that they don’t have cultural reference points in general. And part of the reason for that is because so few of them have actually learnt any history or geography.
RTÉ comes in for a lot of criticism - is it unjust or fair?
I think it’s fair. RTÉ’s record on climate change is really deplorable. They used to have a full-time environment correspondent, Paul Cunningham. But they don’t anymore. George Lee is now the agriculture and environment correspondent. And when you think of the conflict that exists between agriculture and the environment - that is literally wearing two hats. In the recent storms and the extreme weather events we’ve had in Ireland, it took ages for them to even to posit the link between what was happening and the changing climate. Which is why I was delighted that George Monbiot from The Guardian has a tweet today saying that we should stop talking about climate change and just call it climate breakdown. Because that’s what we’re facing.
You were once accused of assaulting a female manager at a hotel in Temple Bar during a quarrel over noise pollution.
That was terrible. What can I say? This is not something I would normally do. I had this terrible feeling that this racket that the Riverhouse Hotel was pumping out on a nightly basis was to continue and that our home was going to become uninhabitable. And her attitude was just so negative where she just smirked and said, “It’s a nightclub - what do you expect?” I basically put my hands on either side of her head and shook it for a few seconds. I shouldn’t have done that (nervous laughter). And I did apologise. It should never have happened. But sometimes in extreme situations like that where you’re getting nothing but abuse, from a licensed premises, on a nightly basis - it does have a damaging impact on your health and well-being. I just lost it basically.
Were you mortified having to read about yourself in the papers?
Yes, I was. But don’t forget: I’d brought it on myself. This was in front of the circuit court. It wasn’t a criminal trial, it was a licensing case. And essentially the Riverhouse had applied to the Circuit Court to have the restrictions that had been imposed on their license as a result of our objections lifted. And I was giving evidence, and I was going through the thing page after page and I came to that section that dealt with what had happened that night and I had a choice there. I could’ve chosen to gloss over it. But because I’d sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I felt that I couldn’t avoid mentioning it. So, I admitted to the judge what had happened. So, I brought it on myself in a way.
You’re lucky it didn’t happen in today’s environment - with #MeToo and Time’s Up, and Twitter - your career could’ve been toast.
(Laughs) I know. But my attitude was: if it was a bloke I probably would’ve done the same thing. My reaction was to what was said, and to the abuse that had been going on repeatedly over a period of years, and this was, in effect, a culmination of it. It had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman.
You’re now opening yourself up to further scrutiny with your very frank memoir.
I just want to give a general indication of what it was like to grow up gay in Ireland at the time when homosexuality was hidden. I’m not sure if that many other people have addressed that issue. I’m not saying I’m the first to do it by any means, but I’m probably the first to do it in any detail. I remember coming out of a meeting in Penguin Ireland, and walking past Easons, and there would be all these people on the footpath, and I was thinking, “What In the name of Jaysus am I doing, telling all of these people about my life?” And then I would say to myself, “Fuck it! Itıs done now!”
Truly Frank: A Dublin Memoir by Frank McDonald is published b Penguin Ireland, priced €23.