Having been bullied by teachers and fellow students alike, Pearse Egan left school seriously lacking in self-belief. But as a new documentary on RTÉ One next Monday shows, joining a gay rugby team helped him let go of his past and find new goals.
He still has nightmares about it to this day. He had just started secondary school and desperately hoped things would be different this time, that his new classmates would be less cruel and that he would finally be accepted by his peers. Unfortunately, Pearse Egan was wrong.
His memory of walking into the classroom and spotting the words ‘Pearse is Gay’ scrawled on the blackboard marked the start of the darkest period of his life. From that day on the abuse worsened, the bullying became increasingly vicious and his sense of despair increased on a daily basis.
The homophobic taunts were at their most intense on the sports field, forcing the Dubliner to avoid the team games he craved to be a part of in his final years at school. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that rugby – that most macho of sports – would eventually prove the unlikely vehicle through which Pearse, now 26, found redemption.
While in Australia last year, Pearse was persuaded to try his hand at the sport for the first time by joining up with The Sydney Convicts, the first club of its kind in Australia to openly embrace gay players. The positive experience was life changing. It gave him a feeling of self-worth and acceptance for the first time in his life. In fact, he has emerged as the charismatic star of a poignant new documentary film, charting the personal journey of several members of The Sydney Convicts.
Darkest Childhood Days
Pearse spent six months with the Convicts before heading on to the Far
East on a backpacking adventure, and it turned out he was rather good at the sport. As a loose-head prop with the club’s 2nd XV, he helped his side reach the semi-finals of last year’s Bingham Cup, otherwise known as the Gay Rugby World Cup. The club’s first team were the eventually winners, thrashing the Brisbane Hustlers 31-0 in the final.
Recalling his darkest childhood days, Pearse says: “I still have nightmares about my time at school. One of my earliest memories at primary school was one day when every child in my class received a birthday invitation, except me. I was very upset and couldn’t understand why nobody liked me.
“When I went to secondary school, I assumed all this would change. But I was wrong. Instantly I was disliked. Any time I opened my mouth to speak, I was called a ‘fag’ or a ‘girl’. My Mum suggested I join a sports group in school, since I was a fast runner, so I joined basketball. I enjoyed it to begin with and pretended not to hear some of the comments, like, ‘I don’t want the ball, he’s touched it’.
“I could almost handled the verbal abuse, but one day it turned physical…
Click on the next page to read more about Pearse’s story
“Another boy kicked me and when another went to punch me, and the coach didn’t do anything; he didn’t say a word.
“The worst moment was when another teacher asked me to stand up in front of the class. I was about 13 at the time and was always a good student, so I had no idea as to why he wanted me to stand up.
“When I did, he asked me if I was trying to start a relationship with him. I did not know what to say. He asked me this, he said, because I said ‘hello’ in the corridor to him – a thing I had done with all my teachers. I was speechless.
“It got worse after that, as some of the pupils who witnessed this felt justified in abusing me. The years that followed were some of the worst in my life.”
Despite such debilitating school experiences, Pearse said he’s finally learned to believe in himself thanks to his uplifting experience with The Sydney Convicts, which is being featured in the fly-on-the-wall documentary Scrum.
“I have to say that I have become a different person,” he says. “When I walked into to training, people would say ‘hello’ to me. I’m not saying that everybody liked me on each of the teams, but if somebody did have an aversion to me, it was because our personalities clashed, rather than a reaction to my sexuality. I wasn’t disliked because they thought I had a disease or because they feared they’d be taunted if they were seen with me.
“I’ve had so many knocks to my confidence over the years that I do have issues with how I look to other people, but this started to change after I joined the Convicts. I now see myself in a different light.
“When so many people start to tell you you’re nothing, in some ways you just start to accept it, but not anymore.”
Pearse returned to Ireland after two years’ travel last month and has just moved to London in a bid to pursue his dream to break into acting. “I’d never have had the confidence to go for auditions before, but now I feel I can achieve anything,” he says.
According to Poppy Stockell, the director of Scrum, Pearse was chosen to feature in the film because his story is “incredibly moving”.
He’d overcome some serious bullying as a child to travel to Australia and join a sports team, knowing virtually no one,” she says. “That’s courage. Plus he’s a lovely lad and loads of fun to be around.”
‘Scrum’ screens on RTÉ One at 11.35pm next Monday, September 5. Watch the trailer here.
Interview by Nick Bramhill
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