Noel Cunningham: "I'm 63 and I haven't had the conversation with my family yet about being gay"
He's TV3 showbiz guru, and general manager of Harvey's Point hotel, but Noel Cunningham's sunny smile reflects an inner peace he's attained after years of struggling to accept his sexuality, writes Andrea Smith
He's a very familiar and much-loved face on the social scene, unfailingly dapper, always smiling, and famous for having a kind word for everyone. But Noel Cunningham's kindness has not always been reciprocated by the strangers who hurl abuse at him.
"We are supposed to be this enlightened and liberal society, but homophobia still exists," he says. "If I'm out walking on a summer's day and people are outside drinking, someone is going to say, 'Look at the f**king faggot.'"
While Noel is an expert in entertainment and royal news, and has interviewed many famous faces, this particular interview is a big step for him as it's the first time he has openly admitted to being gay, even to his own family in Donegal. It's important to him, because at 63, and having battled alcohol addiction, he wants to reach out to young people who are struggling, as he believes that the pain of suffering abuse can lead some people to suicide.
"I tell my story not in a self-pitying way, but hoping I can turn my own sadness to positive use," he says. "If I talk to young people in schools, I want to tell them that it's okay to be yourself. I didn't always accept that I was gay, and my biggest wish up until recently would have been that I could have married, had children and not gone through all that pain."
Born in 1953, Noel had an idyllic childhood growing up on a farm in Donegal with his two brothers and three sisters. He was a happy child, sensitive and different, who spent his childhood daydreaming. "My older brother Jimmy tried to ensure that my father didn't include me in farm work, because he knew I wasn't cut out for it." he says. "I used to help my mother with the hanging baskets instead."
With the fear and sexual repression that reigned in the 1960s, where girls were sent to the Magdalene Laundries for getting pregnant, or simply for being too attractive, admitting to being gay was guaranteed to send you on a direct path to the fires of Hell in society's eyes.
When asked how he came to the realisation that he was gay, Noel says that he had encounters that shocked and horrified him, but brought him to that moment of awareness.
"I never really dated girls, it was just for show and some form of self-preservation," he says. "I'm sure people knew by looking at me, but I'd take a girl to events to protect myself."
Noel had a great relationship with his parents, although they would never have believed for a moment that gay people existed in Ireland. And even if he had told them and they had dealt with it, they would have worried about what the neighbours and local priest thought. His dad James died twenty years ago, and his adored mum Kathleen is an extraordinary woman of 89, who still has a full, vibrant social life and drives all over the county.
"Even now, if I was in a relationship, I don't know how forthright I would be about it with my family," he admits. "I haven't had the conversation with them yet about being gay, although I have made references to it, more so in fun to get the message across. My mum is wonderful, and we have so much fun together. I joke with her about doing the flowers, and I'm sure she understands that it would have been impossible for me to tell her, and it may have been impossible for her to understand because of her generation and background."
Noel found his early years at school in Donegal very hard, because being different led to bullying and abuse. Things improved when he went to boarding school at 15, and found good friends, but the early years left an indelible scar. "You think that you dealt with it, but then you look back later in life and realise that you have lived in fear, as a pleaser and a person who wanted affirmation, because you were damaged and hurt," he says.
He went to a hotel school after his Leaving Cert, and his subsequent hotel management roles suited his caring, effervescent personality. He would have loved to have gone to drama school, but there was no chance of a young lad from Donegal pursuing that option back then. Noel worked all over the world, and had two very serious relationships during this time. "They were beautiful, but I suppose we were badly equipped for them because we were fighting a constant battle," he says. "The abuse continued into the workplace, and I was conscious about how I looked and behaved. I was always fearful that someone was going to be nasty."
After 25 years abroad, Noel came back to Ireland from south-east Asia twenty years ago for two reasons. The first was that his sister Marie and her husband Donal were killed in a car accident, their children Niamh (Noel's god-daughter), Tania and Gareth were injured, and another sister, Geraldine, was very badly injured. While the family didn't know how they would ever get through it, it brought them all closer as they rallied to support the children. "I marvel at these three wonderful young people and how they dealt with it," he says. "They are grown up now and two are married. Tania has children, and it's so sad that Marie and Donal have missed all of that."
The second reason was that he was drinking too much, which he links to the burden of living a lie and the pain of being bullied. He drank from a very young age to give himself the confidence to walk into a room, but addiction led to him losing his house, his car, and his self-respect. He credits his niece Tania with being the catalyst for him becoming sober, when she pointed out, quite starkly and courageously, that he was drinking too much. "She was in her late teens, and that inconvenient, brutal, painful sentence uttered on a Sunday was so significant to me," he says. "I thought my life would end the day I gave up drinking, but little did I know that it only began that day."
Noel credits God, his higher power, the support of his best friend Patricia, and an addiction programme for leading him to sobriety, and the joy he got from his family helped him through that difficult period. While he was devastated over the deaths of Marie and Donal, and losing his brother Jimmy to cancer, he has enjoyed building relationships with his twelve nieces and nephews, as he would have loved to become a father himself. He has never felt the urge to have a drink, and while he has thankfully never considered suicide, even in his darkest days, he believes the drink would have eventually killed him. "I can't be ashamed of how my life went, because I have dealt with it and part of getting better is making up to people that I hurt," he says. "I wasn't a messy drunk, and was never violent or angry, but I let people down when I didn't come to significant events because drink was more important."
Noel is now general manager of the award-winning Harvey's Point in Donegal, which this week was named Ireland's number one top hotel in the TripAdvisor awards, for the third year in a row. It was also ranked sixth in Europe and 18th in the world, and Noel is the perfect ambassador for the gorgeous resort.
In tandem with this, he has a TV and radio career, which began because he had direct contact with Princess Diana through charity work he was involved in when he lived in London. He was asked to discuss a royal visit on Gay Byrne's radio show which led to his ongoing relationship with TV3. He works as entertainment correspondent for Ireland AM, and travels around the country surprising people.
So as someone who knew her, what was Diana like? "She was a beautiful woman," he says. "Wonderful, sensitive and a bird with a broken wing, who went to her grave still in love with Prince Charles," he says. "I met her with her children, and she was an extraordinary mother. In Charles' defence, he was a marvellous man, but they never should have married. He lived in a time warp where kings could have their mistresses."
Now living in Killybegs, Noel is very content with his life, and is grateful to the small community there who took him to their bosom. While he thinks love is amazing, part of his recovery and contentment lies with trying to be happy in the moment with his family and very close friends, and anything else is a bonus.
"But if a wonderful white knight rushes down Grafton Street tonight and carries me off, well that's grand," he laughs, as he finishes his difficult story, and the wonderful smile that could brighten up any dull day returns to his lovely face.
I very much like Noel Cunningham and count him among my friends. I knew him when he ran his restaurant in Killybegs. He has been to Larne to see me. I met him on the two occasions I have been to Harvey's Point in Donegal - the last time with a priest friend who is recovering from serious health scares.
Noel is very kind and caring and goes out of his way to make EVERYONE feel special.
I greatly admire him for his successful battle against his addiction.
He has a good sense of humour.
I would love to see him meeting his "wonderful white knight" and having the happiness that has often eluded him.