In memory of Mary, Gerry, Liam, Larry and Phil.
In Ireland when I was growing up, hugging was not a thing. As a boy you hugged your Mammy, but that stopped at around 9 years of age. I probably hugged my Dad but I don’t remember it. That would have stopped even younger.
While some of the trendy teenage girls in Monaghan in the 1970s probably hugged each other on meeting, I don’t recall it being done in the presence of boys. I don’t recall ever being hugged as a teenager, except as part of my terribly awkward courtship efforts with equally awkward girls. I never hugged a boy. Professional footballers were beginning to do that on the television, but in St. Macartan’s school for boys, to hug a fellow would not have been a wise idea.
I may have hugged my Mother goodbye when I left home to move to Dublin at 17. If I did, it would have been a stiff and perfunctory gesture. In Dublin, I dropped out of teacher training college after a few weeks and went to work in a rather dull office job with Dublin Corporation. Some of the people there were remarkably modern and free thinking – philosophers and a few philanderers – but still no hugging. A manly handshake maybe, at a moment of achievement or a formal occasion. No hug.
Then I left and went to France for a long Summer. “Je t’embrace!”, relative strangers would say, and they would hug you. I liked it, although I was initially confused. The middle-aged farmer woman who was my employer hugged me. Is this OK? I wondered momentarily. But I understood intuitively that it was no more than a more “expressive” way of saying “Good Evening, the dinner is laid out!” At home, on the streets and via British television, we would have said “The French are very expressive!”, with just a little hint of sexual innuendo. For we knew no better.
Then I moved to Germany and everybody was hugging – at least all the young people were. Big bears of men welcomed me into their friendship circles with a hug. The Turkish men on the assembly line where I worked hugged each other. I befriended an Algerian man and the first time he hugged me, I felt safe in his companionship. I met and fell in love with a young German woman. Her girlfriends became my women friends and they always hugged me. I went on anti-nuclear marches and gay rights protests and everybody hugged everybody. I grew to love a good hug.
Meanwhile in Ireland it was the mid 1980s, and hugging was becoming more evident – perhaps with migrants returning, perhaps in tandem with the liberalisation of secular society. I moved from Munich to back to Dublin in 1984 and went to Trinity College where I joined the Players drama society where much hugging went on, and the Modern Languages Society which had a more mixed membership, from arty bohemians to earnest young academics, but hugs were acceptable there too. My German girlfriend could not settle in Ireland and left for home. My new life began. I joined the theatre and became involved in left wing protest politics. Gradually, invisibly, across society and age groups, hugging became common. My mother died young of cancer, at 62. I held her in my arms the day of her terminal diagnosis and we wept together.
I have been missing hugs. We hug at home, but for four months I have not hugged anyone outside my household. On March 12th, I attended the funeral of my dear old friend Gerry Morgan, who died – like my mother – too young, from cancer. It was the day before Lockdown and social distancing was being phased in. All the old pals, most of them theatre people and inveterate huggers, went around touching off each other, elbow to elbow in a strange new dance, while we still thought that such an aloof but proximate gesture was safe. At least we were there to see Gerry off in a moving ceremony.
Since then, I have lost a further four people who were either very dear to me or who were significant figures in my professional life. I have mourned their deaths alone at home: Larry McCluskey, an older man who loomed large at various points of my career – not an intimate friend but a man I held in some esteem and at whose funeral I would have met many dear friends; Liam O’Neill an ex-colleague I had warmly loved, who died of COVID 19; Mary McPartlan the singer, my mentor and beloved friend for a short period a decade ago when I worked at NUI Galway – another woman who died too young of cancer; Phil Taylor, exactly my age, a noted theorist and Head of the Educational Drama school at New York University who I grew to know after I began to work with their Dublin Study Abroad program in 2006; others in my local community I might not have known well, but were my good neighbours.
Last night I lay alone awhile in my bedroom listening to a beautiful recording of Mary McPartlan singing a song of loss. Mary was a woman who gave a good, powerful hug. I missed her hug. It occurred to me that I had not hugged anybody in the mourning of her untimely death – no former colleagues, none of the artists who worked with Mary and me those two years in Galway, none of the former students with whom I have stayed in touch; no member of her family. I felt a new kind of loneliness and loss.
We need to greet. We need to grieve in community. I need a hug, not a “virtual hug” – they don’t cut it. I went back to work outside the home for just one day this week, into a rehearsal room with fabulous colleagues, for a play reading. It was good to see them all again and to hear their voices echo in real airspace and not on headphones. But the smiles and coy waves on arrival, across our socially distanced work table, were as awkward to me as a hug was when I was 14. I look forward to the day when a hug is a thing again.
VIDEO: Mary McPartlan in performance. Courtesy of TG4.