A Different Class: Oisín McKenna on moving up to the middle

Oisin McKenna on growing up ‘like Oscar Wilde’ (Cover/Getty Images)
Oisin McKenna on growing up ‘like Oscar Wilde’ (Cover/Getty Images)

At eight years old, I start watching Coronation Street. It makes me feel very sophisticated. My parents, working-class ex-Dubliners, watch every soap opera, every night. We live in Drogheda, the biggest town in Ireland that isn’t classed as a city: an injustice, given that its rival, Dundalk, is widely considered a city despite being smaller and worse. Dundalk is famous for its shopping centre. Drogheda is famous for displaying the leathered head of Saint Oliver Plunkett in the town’s biggest church. I go to an all-boys school. I have two acquaintances. We’re not friends, exactly, but we stand together at lunch. What we talk about is soaps. On Coronation Street, Sarah-Louise is 13 and pregnant. We speculate over what’s going to happen next. A classmate notices our conversations and says, ‘You three are gossiping like grannies’, which is true. The other two boys, sensing the danger of being perceived as granny-like, decide to play football like everyone else, and I spend my lunchtimes by myself.

Around this time, I go to the National Gallery in Dublin. It’s my first time in an art gallery. Our teacher doesn’t have to bring us, but she wants to. She’s taken an interest in the cultural enrichment of the kids and is probably a bit posher than us. On the same trip, she takes us to see the statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square. Oscar Wilde is exciting because he’s gay and he’s loved. Loved enough for our teacher to take us to see his statue, loved enough for there to be a statue at all. It’s the first time I’ve heard of a gay person being admired. So far, I’ve only heard of them being pitiable or laughable or disgusting.

Oscar Wilde is loved because of his wit and also because he was Irish and imprisoned by the English, and therefore — along with the famine and both Bloody Sundays — provided further evidence of their moral bankruptcy, which made his gayness permissible and even venerable. My mother says she loves the statue because it’s colourful, and to be colourful is a good thing. I decide I want to be like Oscar Wilde. I tell my parents I’m going to be a writer and they tell me most people can’t make money that way. Maybe I can be a teacher. (It’s only later I realise this wasn’t a small deal. Teachers go to university, unthinkable for my parents when they were my age). My mother buys me The Happy Prince and Other Tales for Christmas and I burst into her room every morning to recount the stories I’ve read since we last spoke. She likes to read, too, which means we’re alike, and it’s a likeness that pleases us both.

It’s the year of my first Holy Communion. Apart from Oscar Wilde, the only people we learn about at school are Jesus, John and Zacchaeus the repentant tax collector. We sing hymns. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. I’m eight, and I tell a group of boys that I’m gay. We’re playing the game where everyone sits in a circle and tells secrets. I don’t say the actual words I’m gay. I say: I’m like Oscar Wilde. This isn’t out of literary pretension. It’s because I’m shy, and only a child. It’s the year 2000, and the boys say I’m disgusting. They don’t play with me again and neither does anyone else.

At 14, a boy punches me in the face on the pavement outside McDonald’s. It’s a good punch. It breaks my nose and blackens both eyes, and is forceful enough to knock me on to the ground. Other boys start kicking and I can’t get up. It’s 5pm on a Saturday. At this stage I have actually told my peers that I’m gay, using the proper words ‘I’m gay’, also the word ‘yeah’ when random strangers — adults and children — approach to ask if I’m the gay lad, which happens all the time. Many have never met a gay person, or heard of anyone meeting a gay person, which means the news is salacious enough to spread throughout the town.

I have three years left in school. The violence waxes and wanes but never stops. It’s not all bad. I have a lot of friends now. There’s a music scene and everyone is in a band. After my parents go to bed, I perch with the TV almost on mute, my finger hovering above the remote’s on/off button. I scavenge the remains of Channel 4’s experimental late-night programming, learning more about the world beyond my town than I ever learned at school.

At 16, I go to London for the first time. It’s a family trip. I insist we go to Tate Modern even though no one else wants to. There’s an enormous crack running through the floor of the Turbine Hall. It’s an artwork by Doris Salcedo. I love it, and I love London. I love thinking of myself as someone who appreciates difficult art. It’s like how I felt when watching Coronation Street at eight years old: newly sophisticated, only now, it marks me as different from my parents. They hate the crack. For years to come, they remember it as the most ridiculous thing they have ever seen, and further evidence that contemporary art is bad.

The gaps between us get bigger. I go to university, then move to London, and my life becomes very different. I visit at Christmas, and bristle when they say welcome home, thinking it’s not my home and it never was. Then, I feel guilty, because they’re trying to be nice. I wonder, am

I being a snob? And I wonder, are they thinking that, too?

I speak differently now, use different words. My mother says she doesn’t know what books to buy for me any more, and I don’t know what to buy for her either. I have emerged from TK Maxx with a bottle of chilli-infused olive oil. It has Jamie Oliver’s face on it.

Their house is too hot and the telly too loud and every soap has a two-hour Christmas special, jam-packed with gruelling tragedy. Coronation Street is unending. My parents detect my boredom and feel judged. They think that by virtue of me having a different life from theirs, I’m looking down on them. They tell me the town has changed: new gastro pub, new cinema and the Tesco has a great vegetarian selection. I tell them so does every Tesco, and where

I live now is my home. I feel guilty over this too, and on the flight back to London, I ask myself why I couldn’t be nice.

My mother texts without context that B12 supplements are going for half-price on the Holland & Barrett website and it’s worth buying them in case I have a deficiency. My dad sends strangely punctuated messages with links to Facebook posts about a man wielding a knife in Westfield shopping centre and advises me not to travel to Stratford until it’s blown over. I text when Dot dies in EastEnders, when Deirdre dies in Coronation Street, and ask their opinion on who killed Lucy Beale. I tell them I miss them and can’t wait to come home.

‘Evenings and Weekends’ by Oisín McKenna is published on 9 May (£16.99; 4th Estate)