Our extract this week – very exciting – is from our very own Liadán Hynes’ new book, Courting, which is out now
A Bit of a Change
Erica grew up on a 65-acre farm in north county Cork. Even as a child, Erica was very involved in the running of the farm. She was originally born a boy into a family of three, the middle child, with an older sister and a younger brother. It would be years before she came out as a transgender woman. Of her childhood she says, ‘I always worked: home from school, out working till night. It was hard work at the time, but you’re born into it and you didn’t kind of question it.’ As adulthood approached, she never considered leaving the farm. ‘At times I would have liked to, but I thought I was responsible, that … ’twas my duty to keep the show on the road, keep things going. I’d probably love to have gone into engineering, I could make or do anything.
Once I could figure out how a thing worked, I could tear it apart and fix it.’ Growing up, she didn’t have much of a social life. There wasn’t much to do, and she was, ‘a bit shy myself. One night I was to go to a Macra event. I got an invitation from the local branch. There was something that night some thing needed to be done on the farm, so I couldn’t go to it. Sure, I never bothered again.’ The nature of the work on the farm, and the way the farm was run, meant she was ‘very tied down’. Erica is sixty-seven now. She inherited the farm several years ago, when her father, a few months short of ninety, passed away. Until his death, the farm was run by him. ‘In a lot of ways, he was a very good person. He’d no under standing of other people, that was the trouble. Life wasn’t easy with him.’
Erica was close to her mother, who died years before she inherited the farm. ‘She was a great worker, a very good cook.’ She was also interested in music, something they shared. When Erica eventually got her own car, they would take off in it together, going to concerts The car meant an improvement in terms of her independence, but there was still a sense of being monitored by the patriarch of the farm. ‘You were expected to be back at a certain time – when you got back, you’d be asked what kept you.’ ‘You’d be out shopping, out for a Sunday drive, doing anything, you could be eaten raw.’
She laughs as she recalls an incident: ‘One year we went up to Cork Summer Show, myself and the mother, he didn’t go. He was a year talking about the work he did the day we went to the show. There was more work done that day … it was the busiest day of the year.’ It didn’t feel like there were many options beyond the farm as Erica became an adult. It wasn’t until her for ties that she first worked off the farm, part-time with a rural development scheme. Getting out was ‘a great release’. She and her father were engaged in a farm partnership, but it wasn’t in truth an equal arrangement. ‘He was chief executive and ruler,’ she chuckles.
There was a resistance to change, new machinery, replacing anything that had bro ken. To any new ways of doing things. ‘Everything had to be done the hardest way. The shovel and the pike and the pickaxe. The hardest way it could be done.’ Was she an employee of the farm until her father passed away? ‘General dogsbody,’ Erica grins. She wasn’t paid a wage, but rather could draw from the farm’s account for day-to-day living expenses. Occasionally, in her younger years, she would go to dances, socials run by the church. ‘Other places as well. Creed or no creed. Ordinary ball rooms. Lovely music, dancing and that as well. I’d go there and sometimes there were some girls now I’d kind of like. Never got down to trying to make a relationship but there’s no doubt the lack of a decent income on the farm was one big barrier at times.
You couldn’t see the farm sustaining another family coming up. That’s probably one of my faults as well. I think things through a lot. Analyse everything. I think a good bit before I do things. What are the consequences? There’s always consequences of everything.’ It took decades before Erica realised that she was transgender. ‘When I was growing up, I didn’t even know what a transgender was. I used to hear [the phrase] LGBT, but I didn’t know what the “T” stood for, and I was one of them. I knew what the others were, but I didn’t know what that was.’ One Friday night, when she was in her fifties, she was watching The Late Late Show. ‘This lady came on, and she had been born a man, and changed. She told her story, and it just rang true, it ticked my boxes. That was what I was.’
She had always known there was something she didn’t quite understand about herself, and describes how, as a small child aged five or six, she had hated getting her hair cut short. ‘I didn’t know there was such a thing as you could be born what I call a bit of a mix-up. Be born your body in one zone, your mind in another zone. I didn’t know what anything about transgender was, I didn’t even realise that was a possibility. I was always drawn more to female-type clothes. Bit by bit it got more feminine, then it was quite feminine in the end.’ Seeing her story reflected back at her from the Late Late that night brought a massive sense of relief.
‘There was a big change, because I knew what I was then. I didn’t actually realise that you could be born partly male and partly female. Whatever way you want to put it, ’tis the same either direction. When she said her feelings and the story, the whole thing matched to me. And I said that’s what I was.’ She explains how, several years before she came out, she ‘went looking’ on the internet, searching in Google: How do you know you’re trans? ‘One advice was to open an email account in your new name, subscribe to a few things and get emails back. Another thing was choosing colours, looking at colours. Everything came up that I was a female. And paint your nails. See does it feel right. My answer was definitely yes.’
Still though, she was unable to come out, that would not happen until after her father passed away. ‘You just said you’d kind of live with it. I could tell nobody. That was very difficult. I just couldn’t pick out the purpose of life.’ She notes two things that comforted her. ‘There was one time now, we had a collie dog, Lassie, she’d be one of the most beautiful people if she was a person. She could just read you like a book. If you were down, she’d shower love and affection.’ The other thing was listening to music. ‘I love classical music. I’d go down in the room and lie on the carpet in the darkness and turn on the symphony or something and just lose myself in it. You’d get lost in it.’
Courting: Tractor Dates,
Macra Babies and Swiping
Right in Rural Ireland by
Liadán Hynes is published
by New Island Books and
is available now