The Confidence of Youth
My friendship with McGiolla was in some ways the story of my college career. I met him towards the end of my first Michaelmas term, on a cold night in November 1990. At that stage, we were both heavily involved in the debating society – the debsoc – but had yet to notice one another. I never spoke at meetings: I wouldn’t have dared contradict anything anyone said there. I preferred to sit at the rear of the chamber and listen to the various contributors. I was always impressed by people who could get up and say things in front of a crowd.
McGiolla wasn’t impressed: that was how he came to my attention. The debsoc meeting on that particular night wasn’t well attended, and there were a couple of empty seats separating me from this one rather restive spectator. Several times I heard him tut-tutting, once even going so far as to whisper, ‘What a load of bollocks’. I couldn’t believe his nerve, and when the business of the society concluded, I decided to follow him out of the chamber and say something.
The small crowd streamed out into the quadrangle and I made my move.
‘They weren’t much good, were they?’ I said in a low voice.
‘You’d get more sense out of a donkey’s hole,’ he replied.
‘They think they’re great because they come from Dublin and they’re all rich,’ I said.
‘Fuck the whole bloody lot of them,’ said my man, as he turned to me in front of the dining hall and offered his hand. ‘McGiolla Carruth – and you are?’
‘Jasper Gorman,’ I said.
‘Well, Jasper, I think a pint is in order after all that.’
And so we went down into the Union bar – my first time in there.
The bar had once been the cellar for the dining hall above it. Its subterranean setting and lack of ventilation made it a dark and smoky place. McGiolla and I stood by the bar with our pints.
‘So tell me, are you a regular at the debsoc, Jasper?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I don’t always agree with what people say, but I think they’re very brave to be doing it.’
McGiolla chuckled and took a puff on his cigarette.
‘God bless your innocence,’ he said. ‘What if I were to tell you that the debsoc functions on my say-so: would that blow your mind altogether?’ He elaborated. ‘You think they’re brave for getting up and saying their piece. Let me tell you, if I wanted to – if, mind you – I could destroy any of them, any single one of them, just like that, no bother to me. Do you know why I don’t?’
I shook my head.
‘Because I choose not to.’ His words gathered weight in the pause. ‘Now that, my friend, is what you call power. Not in its exercise but in its restraint do you see real strength – reserve, do you understand?’
I understood all right. As our chat continued, he told me what else he could do at college if he so desired, and what he had already done with all the women in the west of Ireland. I was spellbound.
I was to see a lot more of McGiolla from that point on. We took coffee and cigarette breaks together and sometimes met for lunch in the dining hall. He opened up a whole new perspective for me, to the extent that my conversations with him formed a parallel education to the books I studied in the library. Indeed, I began to wonder how things would ever have turned out for me if I had never met McGiolla.
I had arrived in Dublin two months previously, full of expectations about college. A vibrant social life, academic success – girlfriends, even: I was going to have it all. I was going to transform myself. I came in off the busy street in Freshers’ Week, under the front arch into the quadrangle where all the student societies competed for new members, and for one shining moment – amid all the excitement, the grand old buildings, the cobblestones and symmetrical lawns – the world was all before me.
Term began and the weeks passed. There had never been so many pretty girls in one place. They were everywhere. And there were guys who looked like they’d been selectively bred for the sole purpose of peopling a university – their clothes, the way they talked, everything. Neither the guys nor the girls were flash; they were all about being cool in an understated, borderline-ragged way. But they shone; they really shone. Freedom: that was what they symbolized. Nothing held them back, nothing inhibited their flamboyance or eccentricity. At least, that was the impression I had formed of them prior to my encounter with McGiolla. Up until that point, the truth was that I envied my fellow undergraduates.
McGiolla was amused when I confided in him. We strolled together along the path between the rugby field and the cricket pitch, arm in arm towards the Law and History Library.
‘You’re going to make yourself terribly unhappy if you think like that, my young disciple. Sometimes you need to take a step back and take another look… maybe look at your own vantage point. Consider this: you come from down the country, you went to an obscure secondary school and had a miserable time there; there wasn’t much money about at home. I would say you were a bit of a non-entity, one of life’s losers. Now you’re here. These people that you see, they have money, they went to the best schools Daddy could pay for, and they all get along like a house on fire because they all come from the same place. It probably looks most attractive and unattainable from where you’re standing. But think again: is there even a remote possibility that you’re giving to them – in your imagination – what you think you lack in yourself? I suppose what I’m saying is that what you see in them might have more to do with you than it does with them.’
His words sank into me and I didn’t know what to say. I remembered the advice of Yoda to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back: ‘You must unlearn what you have learned.’
‘I guess I am impressed by the difference in our backgrounds,’ I confessed.
McGiolla smiled and nodded. ‘Because they’re different, it follows that they must be better. Because they have girlfriends or boyfriends, they must be fulfilled. Because they’re taking part in college societies, they must be having a good time. Because they smile and laugh, they must be happy.’
‘Do you think it’s possible that they’re not happy?’
‘They couldn’t be further from it, my friend. Their romances are nothing but crutches for emotional cripples. Their college societies are only hiding places, the refuge of cowards. If they smile and laugh and carry on, it’s because they’re terrified of admitting how they really feel. There’s nothing they have that you want, Jasper. Nothing.’
I was dumbfounded. We continued on our walk, up the pathway to the library, where a group of girls stood outside smoking. Once I might have thought them attractive; now I felt only a surge of compassion. God help them, I thought; they’re surely doomed.
McGiolla and I found a flat together in January of first year on Effra Road in Rathmines. I emptied my soul to him: doubts about my social standing at college, the danger of never getting laid, stuff that had gone wrong at home – everything, really. For his part, my flatmate didn’t volunteer much information about his own life. It was as though he knew that to do so would violate the dynamic of master and novice. He made disdainful references to ‘the aul’ fella’ and ‘the mother’, but beyond that, said little about home. What he enjoyed most about being there was attending to his sex life in the Claremorris locality. He told me that I was in the wrong part of the country altogether for sexual activity.
‘Back west is where all that happens,’ he said one evening in Easter term, as we looked back on our first year in the capital. ‘If it’s sex that a fellow is after, Dublin is the last place to go. Dubs only do it with Dubs – everyone knows that. I’d say if you’d gone to Galway, you’d have terminal syphilis by now.’
‘I wish someone had tipped me off when I was writing out my college application form,’ I said. I felt quite cheated.
‘You live and learn. At least you managed not to get caught up with all that society bullshit. I was worried about you for a long time. I thought you were going to make an awful eejit of yourself, trying your hand at God-knows what.’
‘That was what held me back: the idea of looking like a gobshite.’
‘Well that’s something to be grateful for.’
There was at that point another source of insecurity, one that I was fearful of raising with McGiolla: the issue of boredom. While it was good to feel superior to everyone else and to know that I was doing the right thing in remaining at a remove from everyone around me, there were times when my perception of the world resembled that of a man trapped behind a thick glass wall. Knowing that everyone else was hopelessly misguided couldn’t quite quell the loneliness or tedium. But if I said that to McGiolla, after what he’d done for me, it’d be like throwing it all back in his face and saying that it wasn’t good enough.
Classes ended on the day of the May Ball, an event to which neither McGiolla nor I was going on general principle. Campus was due to close in the early afternoon to allow preparations for the overnight party. As we walked through the quad to the exit, even McGiolla was struck by the lighting and decorations and the excitement of students hurrying off home to get ready to celebrate.
‘It must be great to be shallow,’ he said.
At last, I thought, a chance to say something. ‘I’ve thought that sometimes myself. To be honest with you, McGiolla, and really, I don’t mean any disrespect by this, there have been times when it’s been a little empty up here, you know, in our lofty vantage point… oh, I don’t know what I’m trying to say.’
I was afraid he would be wounded. Instead he grinned. ‘Have you never heard of ennui, Mr Gorman? Has the concept of existential angst passed you by completely?’
‘Ennui? Existential angst?’ I asked, chuffed. ‘I thought I was just bored!’
‘Boredom is for children on rainy afternoons. No, you’re coming along quite nicely.’
‘Wow,’ I said, as we left the front gate of college. ‘You know I’ve been feeling like this for a good while.’
‘Excellent,’ said McGiolla. ‘Very mal du siècle, I must say!’