Life was so tough, until I came out

Well-known Cobh singer DARRAGH McGANN reflects on his failed attempt to become a priest, coming to terms with being gay, and his decision to finally ‘come out’
Life was so tough, until I came out
Darragh McGann

TO love: Is it really the greatest sin? For anyone reading this, I am sure the answer has to be: how could love be a sin, let alone the greatest sin?

However, for me and journey that I took many years ago and can only find the courage to talk about now, the reality is that back then, to love was indeed the greatest sin.

Let me explain. Anyone who knew me growing up would have known of my great love for my faith and the Catholic Church. I was an Altar Boy for more than eight years and sang in many choirs, as well as reading at masses right the way through to when I turned 18.

In fact, whenever priests from missionary groups came to my schools seeking vocations, my name was the first to be given and of course I went on encounter weekends to see if I did indeed have a vocation. To be honest, I never questioned anything; I was just delighted to be considered at all.

While most people sitting their Leaving Cert were considering the number of points they needed for university, my only focus was on getting the exams over with so I could go forward to be trained as a priest for my local diocese. I was so excited about this new future, I could think of little else and it really made so much sense. I never showed nor indeed did I ever have any interest in girls in school.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved being around girls, but I was never attracted to them. To me, I never even questioned this; I just believed this was God’s way of protecting me from sin and temptation, so I could focus on becoming a priest and embracing the great gift of celibacy.

It is fair to say I grew up in a very Catholic home and all the way through my teenage years I knew little or nothing about sexuality. In fact, sex was considered an evil word.

As I reflect on my school days, I struggle to find good memories. Primary school was an all boys school and I hated it. I was never a sporty fella and in many ways was a loner. Sometimes I was picked on. I grew up alone and didn’t know how to mix with others — except for teachers. For some reason I always felt safe around adults, perhaps because I was raised with adults and after the death of my dad, had to grow up pretty quickly.

Secondary school in many ways was worse as I was treated as different and never included in anything.

It pains me to remember a retreat we all had to attend, given by the famous singing priest, Fr Michael Cleary. He began to address the boys about sexuality and I vividly recall him referring to what he called ‘wet dreams’. He said how sinful it was, and I remember feeling so scared as I had experienced it. I was 17 at the time, but I really thought I was in trouble.

I actually began to dislike myself and was so horrified at what was happening. I had no idea what was happening to me and couldn’t mention anything at home. Getting away from school was my saviour as I thought I would finally be safe and happy in a seminary.

I arrived at St Patrick’s College, Thurles on September 5, 1991, to begin what I and others believed to be the beginning of the journey toward priesthood. I was so happy going there as now I could finally start doing something I absolutely loved and, better still, I would be surrounded by others on the same journey.

“LOVE IS NOT A SIN”: A life size figure of Pope Francis and a rainbow flag in a window overlooking O’Connell Bridge asthe Pope visited Dublin during hisvisit to Ireland last year.
“LOVE IS NOT A SIN”: A life size figure of Pope Francis and a rainbow flag in a window overlooking O’Connell Bridge asthe Pope visited Dublin during hisvisit to Ireland last year.

Soon I began to become aware of something happening within me, something I had never before encountered and that would ultimately lead to me leaving. There was a guy in my class and I just loved to be in his company. I felt safe and understood and even cared for. It was a really nice feeling to be around someone who didn’t judge me or make fun of me.

However, as weeks passed I realised I was developing emotional feelings for him. What was happening, and I know this now, is I was falling in love.

My relationships with others suffered, I couldn’t talk to my mum, I was a mess and I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. All I did know was that the Catholic Church looked upon same-sex unions as sinful and evil.

I would cry at night, wondering if I would be going to hell. I knew then I had to leave the seminary for good. I had to walk away from temptation for the sake of the love of God.

I told my family a pack of lies, that I wasn’t meant to be a priest and it just wasn’t for me. From then on, I began to hate myself. I was losing the will to live and began to believe I had let God down. This guilt got worse to the point I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.

I was wondering whether life was worth living when Alf McCarthy, on his radio show Cork About, played a request for me someone had sent in. That song, that moment saved my life but it didn’t solve the underlying issue. No, that wouldn’t be addressed for another 26 years, until now.

About 10 years ago, I got the opportunity to sing in a couple of LGBT bars and while I was nervous that someone from home might see me, I really felt at home with people I could relate to. I remember approaching someone very close to me about it and before I could utter the words, she said it was time for me to come out. I was shocked but she told me she always knew and was just waiting for me to tell her.

I couldn’t believe it, the sky didn’t fall in on me and more so, God didn’t strike me down. I was so excited that I went home and tried telling my mum about my good news, but sadly, that didn’t go the way I had hoped.

But recently, while watching a documentary on the Vatican, I had what I call a light switch moment. I took to social media and I finally came out to the world as a gay man. From that day, I have never felt so much happiness in my own skin and am no longer under the control of anyone or anything. I have set myself free and feel totally liberated. I am finally at peace with who I am and am now ready to find love with an open heart and hope for the future.

Last year, on a visit to Lourdes, I entered the underground basilica for a prayer service and found myself looking at various pictures of saints; one really troubled me, a painting of St Sebastian, someone I had never heard of, but his portrait, of a man almost naked, was so different to portraits of the other saints who were wearing crowns and jewels. I asked a few people about it and one said they thought it was because it was said he was homosexual and therefore did not have the grace to be depicted like the others.

Back at my hotel, I googled St Sebastian and discovered he was martyred in 288AD and it was widely suspected he was homosexual. He was the secret ‘patron saint’ of LGBT members of the Church. And there lies the problem. For too long, too many people have been forced to live a secret life for fear of persecution for being themselves, afraid of the shame it would bring to families and communities.

Sadly, when it comes to the Church today, not much has changed. Yes, you are welcome provided you remain single and avoid temptation but if, by some chance, you do find love and have sexual relations you are basically out and no longer wanted.

I am not sure this is what God actually wants, after all, the teaching of Christianity is love one another and that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. If this is indeed correct then why do some in the high echelons of power in the Church see themselves as greater than God?

It has taken me to age 46 to finally embrace my sexuality and while I never want to go back to the past, I can learn from it and I now fully know and believe that love is never a sin and nobody can tell me otherwise.

If this puts me on a collision course with the Church and even God, I will take my chances.

I sat down with mum recently and told her everything and to my utmost joy, she has been very accepting. People are born free to make choices and I know I choose to be happy.

To love is not the greatest sin, to be judged for loving is.

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