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Exclusive: Ulster Rugby star Chris Henry's brother says 'not being able to tell my brother Chris personally that I was gay is one of the biggest regrets of my life...'

In a revealing and heartwarming interview, John Henry, a management consultant based in London and the older brother of Ulster rugby star Chris, reflects on the turmoil of coming out to his family - and how Northern Ireland has changed so much since he left at 18.

By Claire McNeilly

Ulster rugby star Chris Henry's older brother says he will always regret the way his famous sibling found out he was gay.

The Ireland international flanker discovered John Henry's secret on the grapevine after a trusted friend betrayed his confidence.

London-based John, who didn't come out until late in his teens, admits that Chris was upset about how he learned the news, but was immediately fully supportive of him.

"Not being able to tell Chris personally is one of the biggest regrets of my life," says John, now 35.

"I had confided in a school friend before I'd got round to telling Chris or our other brother Daniel.

"This friend, however, spoke to someone else at a party - a drunken comment in the wrong environment - and then it spread like wildfire."

A distraught John, who had already left what he perceived to be an intolerant Northern Ireland by then, only realised that his brother knew when Chris called him.

"For Chris at that time, there was the hurt of not knowing, as well as concern for me," the Wallace High School past pupil recalls.

"Both he and Daniel were saddened and upset about how it happened, and the way it quickly became a very public thing, but they were 100% supportive."

John's parents William and Denise - who were aware that their eldest son was questioning his sexuality - were angry at how the two younger boys had found out.

"It was such a surprise to so many people that I was gay; I had been Wallace's rugby captain and the head boy and I was fairly well-known in school, so it was a bit of a big deal back then," he says.

"As I'd just started my first year at university in London I couldn't get back home for a few weeks, so Chris and the rest of family were left by themselves dealing with the potential fall-out of the news."

A month later, an anxious John returned to the family home in Co Down, where he was finally able to have a face-to-face chat with Chris.

He says the conversation, was "loving and positive", adding: "there were tears of worry and fear from both of us".

Chris, he explains, was more concerned about his big brother's welfare, rather than any perceived shame or embarrassment the revelation may have brought into their lives.

"Chris was very popular at school, the life and soul of the party and of course big into his rugby... he never worried too much about how his friends reacted," says John. And, despite the awkward and unfortunate way the news emerged, John's coming out did nothing to alter or strain their relationship as brothers.

"We're very, very close. He's my best friend. And Daniel as well," says John.

"The three of us have always been there for each other.

"We're stereotypical Irish brothers. Woe betide anyone who comes between us."

As a teenager, John, who was both sporty and academic, had three main goals - to play rugby, to get good A-Level grades and to get out of Northern Ireland; his desire to escape was driven by his sexuality.

"I realised I was gay when I was around 11 years-old," he says.

"It was strange. I found myself enjoying rugby and not feeling especially different to anybody else, except for who I had crushes on.

"But I was pretty sure after the first couple of years what it was and I actually told my parents when I was 14.

"Mum and dad responded in a reasonably okay way - they told me not to jump to conclusions, they said it could well be a phase ... let's just not talk about it.

"On a scale of one to 10, I'd say their reaction was about a five.

"It wasn't how some parents react, which is very painful and very negative and horrific sometimes, but it wasn't 'oh, fantastic news' either; it was somewhere in the middle.

"They were very supportive, still very loving. Northern Ireland wasn't the best of places back then in the late 1990s ... being gay was a pretty negative thing in a world where bullying was common; it wasn't the sort of thing you wanted to add to your angst list.

"As I went up through Wallace, I was the Firsts rugby captain and Chris was coming through at the school too. (Daniel, who would later attend Wallace, was still at primary school).

"When I was going into lower and upper sixth, my biggest concern was for myself; but there was also a deep fear that there would be embarrassment and shame for my brother and for the family."

To this day John bears no grudge towards the person who betrayed him - "I think it was just stupidity; a drunken comment in the wrong environment. There's no bitterness and there wasn't a falling out, but it caused so much hassle I just didn't want to be involved with the guy any more."

Having grown up in the hamlet of Boardmills, near Carryduff, John couldn't wait to escape to cosmopolitan London in 2000 after securing a place studying physics at the prestigious Imperial College.

That was 17 years ago, and apart from 18 months spent in America and Spain securing a MBA (Master of Business Administration), he's made England his home.

After a four-year stint in management consultancy for McKinsey, John went out on his own two months ago, setting up his own consultancy, J H Seguoia.

"When I first left Northern Ireland, I couldn't wait to get away, but the place has changed so much," he says. "I miss my family and friends a lot, but I get back as much as possible."

The Henry family was plunged into grief when John's air traffic controller father died, aged 59, from cancer in May 2010. William and Denise (now 65), a homemaker, had been together for nearly four decades.

Another particularly difficult time was when Chris suddenly fell ill prior to an Ireland match in November 2014. It later emerged the powerful forward had had a TIA (transient ischaemic attack), or mini-stroke.

"That occurred because Chris had a tiny deformity in one of the valves in his heart," says John. "It was pretty horrible for him. He'd been in the hotel getting ready for the Ireland v South Africa game; he was in the bathroom washing his face and all of a sudden he felt his face sag to the left hand side. It was very scary indeed.

"I was in London and got a pretty terrifying phone call from my mum ... Chris was in hospital and he went back to Dublin for an operation - they cut him open at his thigh and then inserted a stent into his heart, but by the evening he was back home eating mum's dinner. It was scary at the time, but was resolved very quickly."

As a rugby-mad Ulsterman - who still plays and coaches the game - John is proud, and only a little envious, of 33-year-old Chris, who has made over 100 appearances for Ulster and has been capped 24 times by Ireland.

"To play a sport that you love as your job, who wouldn't be jealous of that?" he says. "But there's a negative side, a darker side - the highs and the lows, the sacrifices you make, the pain your body goes through and the stress when things happen.

"There was a time, for instance, when Chris was accused of eye gouging as an Ulster player. He was cleared by the disciplinary board, but I saw at first-hand what he was going through."

During his time in London, John - who played alongside the likes of Rory Best and Roger Wilson for Ulster Schoolboys - captained the Kings Cross Steelers, the first ever gay inclusive rugby union club, which was founded in the Nineties. Several clubs in the UK are termed 'gay', but straight people are welcome to play for them.

Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas - the Grand Slam-winning captain who stunned the world of sport when he came out a decade ago - is someone John looks up to.

"The difficulty you face in coming out is in proportion to your exposure, and Gareth was already one of the world's most recognised players ... it was a big shock to a lot of people, so I definitely respect his courage to be one of the first... that's always difficult," he says. "I'm also sure it was great for Gareth to finally have that weight off his shoulders."

For John, the furore over his own untimely 'outing' seems like a lifetime ago.

There was a five-year gap between telling his parents about being gay and officially coming out, and John concedes that they "had a really tough issue to balance".

"They had Chris and Daniel to think about," he says.

"They had to look out for all three of us in an environment where things were changing, but not really much, at that time. And their only exposure to gay people was through my dad's best friend's brother - a west Belfast Catholic whose sexuality caused massive heartache and trouble for their family.

"He was estranged from his mother, and ended up having a difficult life... so because their only experience was very negative, they were scared for me and what it would mean in terms of being outcast and ridiculed."

William and Denise did, however, come to accept John's sexuality as time went on.

"When dad realised how hurt I was with the way they'd initially handled it, there was a lot of reconciliation," recalls John.

"These days, mum's only priority is that her sons are living a happy, wholesome life with companionship and love; as long as she's seeing that she's happy."

Chris got married to his long-term girlfriend Jade Hamilton (25) last year, while 25-year-old Daniel, who is doing a Masters degree at Queen's University, is in a solid relationship with his partner Amy (25).

John, meanwhile, has been single for a year, although getting married - and being a parent - are high on his wish list.

He doesn't see Northern Ireland as being anti-gay these days, but adds: "In the UK it would be seen, quite rightly, as having the most conservative population."

Not that that would put him off coming home; but maybe "not right now".

"It's more about being in the right place to meet people and I've friends and a career here in London," he admits.

"Northern Ireland is a beautiful place. I'm definitely not ruling out moving back there in the future."

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