Five Questions With… Damian McNicholl

Damian McNicholl is the author of the Lambda finalist A Son Called Gabriel, who I met at a Lammy reading here in NYC. He’s from Northern Ireland, and Gabriel is about a young man growing up in a Catholic community in Northern Ireland. McNicholl’s blog can be found at, and A Son Called Gabriel is in bookstores, and available, of course, through
1) Considering all the scandals here in the US considering priests and pedophilia, how have people responded to your novel?
First Helen, thank you for the opportunity to visit your site and answer your questions.
While the scene where Father Cornelius seduces Gabriel amounts to only one scene in A SON CALLED GABRIEL, nevertheless, its inclusion was something I wondered about because the scandal involving the church had broken and was gaining momentum. I wondered if it would cause anger among the American-Irish community, particularly among those who are fervent practitioners of their Catholic faith. But any reservations I had about including the scene did not last long because, within me, deep within, I knew I had to remain true to Gabriel, and his story, and the truth in this regard had to be presented. The truth is that in real life some priests have taken advantage of young girls and boys. It has happened in the United States. It has happened in Ireland. It has happened throughout the world. And, of course, I did have a counterbalance to reflect how things are in life because not all the priests are warped: Gabriel’s headmaster at the grammar school is strict but proper, and the parish curate is a very kindly man who’s very much in touch with the needs of his parishioners.
And I am very happy to report that my readers are sophisticated enough to realize these terrible crimes have been perpetrated by renegade, if not evil, priests, and those who have commented or asked about it have done so positively. Indeed, I’ve had more questions from readers about the issue of bullying that’s also covered in the novel, as well as the isolation a young person endures growing up gay in a very conservative community.
And, to be absolutely honest, I really didn’t care about what anyone conservative would say or think about my work after they’d read it. I didn’t, because I was pretty sure no conservative person would read the novel. I mean, let’s face it; conservative people are not interested in reading or learning about or dealing with truths like this because it simply does not conform to their views of the real world.
2) I found the section where Gabriel is fooling around with a girl whose nipples were hard, and managed to get aroused, fascinating. Do you think many gay men try to avoid the realization that they are gay by seeking out women with masculine features? I also find Caroline’s acceptance of her brother’s homosexuality a nice touch – especially as compared to Gabriel’s mother’s non-acceptance. Could you say something about the way various women in your own life have responded to you being gay?
Wow, if I said I believed that about gay men, Helen, I think I’d get lynched!!
Seriously though, I don’t really think gay men who try to repress their homosexuality do so by seeking out women with masculine features. I think it’s quite possible though that many of them would try to date women in general for a number of reasons;familial pressure is one instance, and also some may fervently (though it would be in vain) hope that an absolute attraction to women would develop if they have an intimate experience with a woman.
Gabriel does not really seek out masculine women. In those portions of the novel where he dates girls, he’s trying to counteract if not expunge his attraction toward men. And later, when he becomes fairly intimate with the girl he meets on vacation, he’s genuinely astonished to learn a part of her body–the flesh around and forming her nipples–is actually quite rough and a tad bumpy. This realization shocks him because he regards rough or nubby flesh as masculine due to his upbringing in a culture where women’s bodies are seen as being only warm, soft and decidedly cuddly.
In that sense I can relate wholly to his feeling about women’s bodies because I used to believe as a kid, for example, that the Queen of England never farted, much less used a lavatory. And, like Gabriel, I grew up in a very conservative though loving culture where I dated and ‘petted’ lots of girls–once even made love to a woman much older then me–in a pointless attempt to persuade myself I was heterosexual. And during one such encounter–it was while visiting a fairly new girlfriend who was attending Leicester University–I was blown away by the roughness of her breasts and nipples and could not reconcile it with her rotund femininity and prettiness. in any event, the discovery neither resulted in a stellar performance that evening nor a divine conversion to the other side. She was a little upset at my lack of enthusiasm, but it all ended well because we were both pretty tipsy and I confessed to her I was queer.
The attitudes of the women in my life to my homosexuality has ranged the gambit. I’ve had one woman shriek and cry, and she wasn’t even my mother. Sylvia was from Venezuela and we were at German language school together in Berlin and I took her to a gay disco frequented by many straight girls and she didn’t pick up I was gay. Over a few beers I told her, and she burst into tears and began to howl her grief. It was surreal, actually. For starters, she was enshrouded in an unruly, mauve fox fur at a table near the fringe of the dance floor because she was obsessed it might get nicked if she left it with the coat check person and, for dreadful moments, I felt like I was at an Irish wake for a young person with her terrible keening. You see, I hadn’t realized she fancied me, though in the end we became very close friends, but she could not be prevailed on to believe that there could be such a thing as a homosexual Venezuelan. My mother behaved pretty much as Gabriel’s mother did, though she’s now happy I have a partner and am happy. Her initial fear was it was something she’d done that made me gay. Once she read up on homosexuality, she realized it had nothing to do with her and her mind was set at ease. My sisters have been absolute bricks about it all–they never flinched, never rebuked, accepted it within minutes and went on about their lives. In fact, my youngest sister paid me a great compliment recently by telling me if one of sons confessed he was gay to her, she’d have no issue with it provided he was happy. And all my women friends have never had a problem with it.

3) I love the way being Catholic in Ireland is also symbolic of being a gay man in a straight world, but I’m not sure if that was my reading into it, or if you intended for the reader to pick up on that parallel. Do you think there’s a similarity between the different ways you can be a minority?

In A SON CALLED GABRIEL, I was very conscious about drawing parallels between the milieu and society in which Gabriel lived and his own internal conflict about growing up gay. In fact, just as you have, the author, Seamus Deane, recognized this parallel because he stated in his blurb for the hardcover edition of the book that, “This is the subaltern life, that of a minority within a minority, revealed as never before.”
These words, coming from a straight Irish writer of his caliber, was like manna from heaven for me. I was dead thrilled and the ‘high’ lasted for days. He got that gays–Catholic gays–in Northern Ireland were a minority within another minority, namely the Roman Catholic minority.
And yes, I believe minorities share similarities which are all inextricably related to our humanity and our common struggle for acceptance by society. For example, many of your blog readers are crossdressers or the partners of crossdressers, and all of us, gays, lesbians, crossdressers, wives and partners of crossdressers, transsexuals and our heterosexual friends (because they are part of a minority too, a minority of complete acceptance of our ways of life, let us not forget) are working hard to secure our permanent seating at society’s table. Our foes make little distinction between who we are collectively. They do not say being gay is fine, but crossdressing and being a transsexual is perverse. They view the way we as minorities live our lives as perverse. They do not want us at the table. They do not want us in the vicinity of the table. So, yes, this common struggle against bigotry and intolerance makes us similar.

4) Do you feel that gay narratives are welcome in the larger canon of Irish literature? Why or why not?

It’s really too early to say yet. All I can say is I wrote a novel about family secrets that’s set in Ireland which deals in large part with a young boy’s struggle about his looming homosexuality as he grows up in a conservative community. It was positioned in the mainstream shelves at bookstores (and that’s where it is rightfully, I hasten to add) and it has been reviewed very favorably by the American-Irish media.
Time will determine the degree of its welcome in the canon of Irish literature, though I suspect that will depend upon how I develop as a writer. That would be the ideal test because a writer should be judged by his writing, not by the subject matter of a given book.

5) What are you working on now/next?

I’ve just completed a second novel entitled UNUSUAL STEPS, which is a dark comedy set in Thatcherite London involving a rather shy young Irishman, an assertive top-drawer English lesbian who’s an immigration officer at Heathrow who finds herself blackmailed at work, and their inquisitive elderly neighbor. And I’ve begun work on my first novel to be set in the United States, Bucks County to be exact.