‘My class head accused me of depravity and churlishness’

Dalí was kinda rude, wasn’t he? So says an American visitor standing behind me in the sun-drenched foyer of the Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum, positioned in the bowels of the artist’s hometown of Figueres, Catalonia.

It’s appropriate that the birthplace of this icon translates as “fig trees,” seeing Dalí’s eclectic output was undeniably fruitful, and “kinda rude,” according to this unimpressed critic, now disappearing to the crypt below. Dalí’s paintings of his clearly reflect his obsession with sex—subjects like impotence, self-pleasure, voyeurism, and sadomasochism are commonplace in his oeuvre dele.

As I navigate the labyrinthine space of the museum (conceived by the artist himself), I accept that the aforementioned woman, with her thick Texan drawl, has a point. No matter where I turn, the naked form stares back at me. This extensive nudity — often depicting the Spaniard’s wife and muse, Gala — suddenly produces memories from my school days when I outraged teachers by exploring my identity as a gay teenager while taking a similar approach to Dalí.

Domhnall O’Donoghue at the Dali Theatre-Museum.

original sin

I was 13, and the art assignment was to incorporate our names into familiar images, such as football jerseys or technical appliances. I, however, found my inspiration in the Bible. Specifically, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

With verdant trees floating on the horizon, my naked characters stood coquettishly beside a red apple — my name emblazoned, snake-like, across it. Some might grouse that the figures verged on cartoonish, but I felt confident it would be deemed a spirited effort. However, like Adam eating the forbidden fruit, my creation would have calamitous consequences.

Despite my youth, I’d acquired knowledge of art thanks to my older brother, Darragh — now an archivist in London’s Tate gallery. I remember being intrigued by Dalí’s vivid motifs: eggs, melting clocks and, of course, nudity. As a young gay artist, I lacked technique, but studying Dalí’s dreamlike work, I realized that imagination and tenacity were equally important when creating compositions — skills I possessed in spades.

Even so; my Dalí-influenced artwork, Original Sin wasn’t well received by my dumbfounded teacher, who immediately sent for backup. With the fury of a biblical thunderstorm, my class head accused me of depravity and churlishness — but channeling Jesus Christ, I refused to recant. “Look at those prints!” I argued, pointing at the surrounding au naturel masterpieces hanging on the walls, including David and The Birth Of Venus. “Are you comparing this to Michelangelo and Botticelli?” she shot back.

Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the principal, clearly exhausted from overseeing the daily exploits of 800 teenage boys. He instructed me to confess my transgression to my parents — unaware they’d spent years cultivating a love of art in my siblings and I. The following morning, when I revealed that my well-used father had encouraged me to stand my ground, the principal threatened expulsion unless I created a more harmless portrait. If I had a palette to hand, the only color I’d have identified with was red; I was livid.

As I ping-ponged between staff, my painting Original Sin suspiciously disappeared. Deftly assuming the role of martyr, I boldly composed a second image — Jesus crucified on the cross, with DOMHNALL replacing INRI. Imagine my surprise when my class head deemed it a “significant improvement”, abruptly ending the entire saga.

express yourself

rather than viewing Original Sin as an act of youthful rebellion, I now feel it underscores the struggles the gay community once faced expressing itself. I can’t overstate the endless challenges we had to overcome in 80s and 90s Ireland, held to ransom by the church. Until I was 11, it was a criminal act for men to engage in consensual sexual activity, while the AIDS pandemic was often viewed as punishment for our ‘sins’. With hormones and anxieties running amok, art in its many forms helped me provoke the status quo, and challenge the oppressive teachings that same-sex relationships were the devil’s work — a mantra in my religious class.

The Dali Theatre-Museum.
The Dali Theatre-Museum.

Suppose staff members had viewed my creative efforts as clues to a teenager in crisis rather than immaturity, the subsequent years of school might have been easier.

Today, at the Dalí Theatre-Museum, which welcomes 1.3 million visitors annually, I discover the death of the artist’s brother heavily influenced his work. This insight confirms one of the many benefits of art: it provides cathartic opportunities to translate the pressures of our hearts and heads into something tangible, inspiring and, at times, provocative. Emerging from the building, I stand in front of the church that oversaw Dalí’s christening, communion, and funeral, and reflect on the many positive changes in Catholic Ireland. And while I can’t speak on behalf of the current crop of gay students — who, no doubt,
continue to navigate obstacles daily — I’m encouraged by the headway our community and allies have made in my lifetime. Highlights undoubtedly include the landmark same-sex marriage referendum, and the Gender Recognition Act.

Few could imagine that Ireland’s first Pride, which took place in Dublin in 1983, months after I was born, would blossom into the nationwide event it is today. To quote my former class head, gay rights in Ireland have certainly experienced “significant improvement” in recent decades — and I feel it’s important to recognize this progress.

  • The UP Cork youth project supports LGBTI+ people aged 15-24, using mediums including art and drama. It offers a drop-in service every Wednesday between 4–7pm in South Parish Community Centre, Cork. Visit facebook.com/upcorklgbtyouth

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