Lads We Love – Noel Walsh
I’ve been putting off writing this. How do you sum up someone like Noel Walsh in a few words? But, it’s Irish AIDS Day so I can feel him kicking me in the arse to get it done Noel may have passed away but he continually kicks me in the arse. Some friend eh? Yep, some friend.
I met Noel 10 years ago when I joined GCN. He was the first HIV positive person I ever met but that was just one small part of him. Like all of us, we can get labelled as The Gay, The Dyke, The Poz, but we are more layered than that. And boy did Noel have layers.
His story is fascinating so put the kettle on
Noel was born in Dublin and had a pretty normal childhood. When he was 16 he and his girlfriend realised she was pregnant, so they married. He was a dad at 17 and worked hard to provide for his young family. By the time he was 20, they had another child and Noel was working as a porter in a Dublin hotel. Things weren’t going well for him though.
After being made grow into an adult too quickly, he had his adolescence in his early 20s, and realised that he was gay. He did the only thing a husband with kids can do in this situation, he panicked. He had no idea where to go, so he did something he ended up hating himself for in future years. He ran away.
“I fucking deserted them. Great Dad eh?” he said to me years later, while continuing to work hard repairing is relationships with his, now grown up, kids.
Being gay in the late 70s, he went where he knew other gays where; San Francisco. When he got there Noel thought he had arrived in heaven. There were gorgeous men everywhere, all up for free sex, no strings (unless you’re into it) and he enjoyed as many of them as he could. When I rather daintily asked him if it was as promiscuous as people say, he answered, “Promiscuous? I was a whore! We were all screwing our brains out. It was great!”
While having a ball (or two) Noel worked in restaurants all over the Castro and became a part of the wider gay community. He made many friends, including a woman he mentioned a lot while I knew him. Solange and he worked together in The Cove in the Castro for 10 years:
He had a huge customer following, due to his great sense of humor and his caring. Some of his antics would have made a great sitcom, always cheerful and full of life.
In his early years at the Cove, he talked me in judging the Bear Chest Contest at the Eagle Bar. Noel asked the winner, a regular at the Cove, for his picture to put on the wall. That started a snowball of thousands of pictures being donated over the years, which gave us a sense of history in the Castro.
You know the story at this stage. Gay man goes mad in San Fransisco in the late 70s and early 80s, AIDS arrives and suddenly the party’s over. Well, Noel may have become positive but the party never ended, it just shifted focus.
Instead of losing himself in flesh, Noel found himself in the community. Much to his amazement, it turned out he was a hugely intelligent man, who cared deeply for his community. He threw himself into helping positive people.
When he realised he was positive, people were still talking about the gay disease, terrified and not knowing what it was or how it was spread. There was no treatment, no pills, no hope. In what was the community’s finest hour, they bound together. People took care of complete strangers, caring for them until the end, letting partners cry on shoulders, hunting out as much information as possible. Noel was part of all of this, doing what he could for his brothers.
Eventually, though, he became too ill. He thought he was going to die so he came home. “I wanted my mammy,” he laughed in later years. When he arrived home, Noel was gravely ill and he had nothing, not a penny to his name. He went looking for the gay community in Dublin and ended up at Outhouse which, in those days, shared a building with GCN. Here he met a friend he would have for the rest of his life – Michael.
Michael took on Noel’s cause and did everything Noel was too ill to do – got him a flat, got him on the dole, registered him with Fás – all the things which built a foundation for Noel and gave him a life. The flat Noel got was from Round Tower Housing which finds housing for positive people in Dublin and stayed close to Noel’s heart for the rest of his days.
Noel got stronger and healthier and started the job in GCN he would have for the rest of his life – HIV/AIDS editor. On top of this, he decided to get involved in Ireland’s nascent HIV and AIDS charities. The list of his accomplishments that followed would fill pages, suffice to say that Noel became one of Ireland’s leading experts in HIV/AIDS and its attendant social effects.
He campaigned tirelessly against stigmatisation in all its forms. I remember him one day ringing all of the insurance companies to see which of them discriminated against positive people or asked a person’s HIV status in forms. The companies were amazed, but he made his point.
It was also Noel who, in the old days, used to ring every political party and ask their stance on gay rights when an election was approaching. This is now standard practice in GCN and other groups and publications.
If the picture I’m painting is of a serious man, well Noel was. But my god was he a fecker! Noel was, in a word, hilarious. He had the dirtiest laugh and a great sense of humour; loving a good gossip over a great coffee.
He educated a generation of Irish GCN readers, myself included. He challenged me constantly, he challenged my assumptions, listened to my ideas, discussed issues with me and I loved it. He was fascinating. One of the things I got from him was, always put yourself in their shoes.
Over his years in Ireland he fell in love and ‘married’ his partner, the wonderful Maurice (or Fraggle as Noel called him). He took control of his HIV with the help of combination therapy, but nature had more challenges for him.
The drugs he was on eventually took his sight, although he was always able to see a cute bloke from 100 paces His heart also started to become unwell. Three Christmases in a row, he had a heart-attack. In typical Noel fashion though, he was just annoyed at missing the New Year sales. I remember the first time he was in CCU and I went to visit him, he pointed at a man across the ward, “He’s another Noel. I’m Noel. It’s Christmas, I’m expecting Rudolph to come through the fucking window!”
That sums him up, laugh in the face of it and it’ll never get you down. It was a heart attack that took him from us on November 7, 2008. He went out as he would have wanted to; on holiday living it up with his beloved Fraggle in a city he loved, Amsterdam.
I loved the man, still do and I miss him as does anyone who knew him. At his funeral, his old friend Michael said to me, “I keep thinking of things about him and I keep laughing. Every time I think of him, I laugh”. What a way to be remembered. The world is a better place for him and a lesser place without him.
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