I am a former professional squash player and coach. I lived over twenty years in the United States before moving back to Dublin in 2015. I spend half my time in Prague, and half in Portmarnock, where I grew up. I’m writing almost full-time now and am in the editing process of my memoir.
Currently working on my memoir – here is a brief ovrview.
‘Delightfully inappropriate’ is an expression that comes to mind when describing Orla Doherty. To meet her will leave a lasting impression – it’s kind of like an unexpected ride in a theme park, provoking involuntarily nervous giggles and possible seat-wetting. She is quietly and surprisingly infectious. Rally has a distinct aroma of sarcasm throughout, and at times is worthy of an explosive chuckle. Born into a 1970’s typical Irish catholic family, Orla describes her journey from a shy and reserved teenager, to a vivacious and often outrageous twenty-something. In an era where homosexuality was illegal in Ireland, she applied for a green card in the American visa lottery. Winning it in 1993, she escaped the persecution of the catholic church (although homosexuality would be legalised a month later) and headed off to the big, bad and beautiful world of America with only $300 in her pocket. Rally recounts how over the course of 25 years she built a successful coaching career through the sport of squash – from supporting disadvantaged youth, to coaching elite college students across the USA, having unexpected encounters with the rich and powerful – all the while punctuated by mental health struggles and some surreal yet hilarious brushes with psychiatric wards. Swinging wildly through her many love affairs, obsessions, addictions, friendships and chance meetings with unpredictable and sometimes terrifying scenarios, her story will leave readers wondering if this isn’t the stuff of fantasy or fiction.
In later years, having decided to come off psychiatric medication, she returned to her family in Dublin, became a stand-up comedian (and promoter), earned a reputation as a nut-case spin-instructor and became the oldest Irish female squash player to get selected for the National Team. Now, 7 years later, and about to turn 50 during COVID-19 times, she is living in Prague and adapting to a recent Lupus diagnosis. Yet she continues to somehow plunge into and dance through strange and interesting escapades that will leave the reader incredulous and delighted in equal measure. Orla’s approach to coping with the huge ups and downs life has dealt her is refreshing and courageous – to be happy and entertained is the priority. Her message is clear: the ability to find the silver lining, the joy within the dismal, and the guffaw amidst the gruesome, is the key to winning the game – one point at a time.
From a very early age, I knew there was something different about me. I was a tom-boy, naturally athletic and always picked first at school for rounders. I also loved my Sindy dolls, (WAY cooler than Barbie, for those younger readers) and Tiny Tears, and especially my Holy Mary illuminous statue that my nana used to fill with Holy Water. I brought her everywhere with me. This post is not about those evenings saying the rosary after the Angeles. No! No! This post is about me struggling with my sexuality as a child, and subsequently finding the courage to come out at age 22.
Allow me to take you back to 1979. I was 8 years old and I had peculiar feelings towards Sister Margaret. I always found an excuse to help her collect the balls after soft tennis practice in St. Marnock’s Primary School. What was it about her long grey habit that I was drawn to? She had a lovely, warm face, and her smile made me giddy inside. I assumed everyone else felt the same way about her. But I seemed to be the only one gathering up those bloody balls.
At age 9, I became enamoured by the girl in 6th class who had the lead role in our play “Is Mise Eireann”. (This is Irish for ‘I AM IRELAND’) I had a minor part. A tree. But a very important tree, that adorned the stage for almost all of the play. I followed her around in my brown leotard and green leafed arms, because I just loved looking at her. She had dark hair, beautiful big eyes, and a slight lisp if I recall correctly. On the last day of the dress rehearsals, a girl in her class approached me asking why I was always around, and she asked if I was a ‘lesbian or something’.
I’d never heard that word before. I went home that evening and asked my mam what a lesbian was. My mother swung around from the kitchen sink, grabbing a wooden spoon. Waving it at me she said “don’t you ever use that word in this house again”.*
I was still none the wiser and didn’t dare ask anyone else. I could’ve asked my cousin Maria, who was my best friend, but she was only 5 at the time, so she probably wouldn’t have known the answer.
If only we had Google back then. I remained confused throughout that year. The icing on the cake was at Movie Friday in 1980, when our class got to watch ABBA-The Movie. My obsession with the music of ABBA had already been established at an even earlier age, but it wasn’t until I saw this movie, that I realized something more.
I loved her. Not only did I fall in love with their music after they’d won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo on April 4th, 1974 (just sayin’), but having watched this movie in the school hall, and feeling unusually weird when they zoomed in on her bottom, and the interviewers asked her if she knew that the newspapers were reporting that she had the sexiest bottom in the world, that I began to look around at other boys and girls, hoping for a reaction. Nothing. Not that I could tell anyway.
It was, in fact, a glorious bottom. I had butterflies in my stomach and I didn’t know why. But I decided then and there, that I loved her. And it would be my secret. I obsessed over ABBA from that moment on. My school project was a large poster I made with cut-out photos of them (carefully making sure I had equal number of photos of all four band-members, so as to not let the cat out of the bag). I somehow convinced my mam to buy me all the magazines that had pictures of ABBA. And I devoured them with a scissors. As one does.
My first LP was of ABBA – The Visitors. Every evening, after piano practice, I listened to this album, gazing at all the photos of Agnetha.
I specifically remember when I found out what the word ‘lesbian’ meant. It was when I was 14, and went to my first World Open Squash Championships, which happened to take place in Dublin. It was 1985. I’d been playing squash for about 4 years by then, had represented my province of Leinster a few times, had my first plastic bottle of cider in a field (fondly known as KNACKER DRINKING) and had started developing crushes on boys AND girls. I was enthralled by the fact that the professional players from all over the world were coming to Ireland. Playing in the final were the world number one and two professional players. Standing next to me was my friend Finola McNamara** (she will feature in another blog!) who was sarcastic and cocky and funny and popular with the boys. I was quiet and shy and insecure and only popular with the boys if I was invited by the other girls to join in.
She muttered something like ‘you know that one is a lesbian don’t ye?’, pointing at the English player, as she served up the first point.
I recalled my mams threatening words from 5 years before.
‘A what?’ I whispered, watching as her opponent hit a back-hand drop shot to win the first point.
‘A lesbian. Ye know. She sleeps with girls.’ Finola was always so sure of herself. I envied this about her.
‘Oh yeah, right, of course I knew that’. My heart went into my throat.
Right then and there, I knew, based on Finola’s delivery of this message, that it was NOT okay to be a lesbian. From that moment on, I knew that my feelings towards Sister Margaret, Agnetha, and now this English Squash Player, were forbidden. I was destined for hell.
I lay in bed that night in anguish. Still clinging to my illuminous Virgin Mary statue, I went into a traumatic monologue. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
She is a lesbian. She has a girlfriend. She kisses her. She knows other people knows she is a lesbian. I don’t really like that word. Is there a better word? I’m pretty sure she smiled at me after the match. Does she know I’m LIKE THAT? Did Finola see me squirm and blush? STOP. This is a sin. I don’t like girls. I can’t like girls. I’ll go to hell. I better not tell mam or she’ll kill me. What’ll dad say? Does God know? I better say my prayers. I’ll beg for forgiveness. I’ll beg to be normal. Like all the other girls.