Cathal O Searcaigh's denial is typically Irish
The enormous disparity in age and economic wealth are fundamental issues in Ó'Searchaigh's relations with Nepalese boys.
By Mary Raftery
It is notable the degree to which opinion about Cathal Ó Searcaigh has become polarised since the transmission of Neasa Ni Chianain's documentary Fairytale of Katmandu. What is interesting is that few, if any, of those who nailed their colours to his mast before its broadcast have since altered their opinions.
Their argument is essentially that he is a maligned victim of the combined forces of an unscrupulous film maker and an hysterical, media-driven lynch mob. The motivation, they contend, is homophobic. All Ó Searcaigh did was have sex with young adult men over the Nepalese age of consent. And yet he is being vilified as if he were a criminal.
Why, they ask, has Ó Searcaigh been made into a sacrificial lamb for all those others who exploit those weaker than themselves. They argue that the documentary was unfair to the poet by not concentrating enough on his good and charitable work in Nepal.
Their latest point is that they are dismayed that the Nepalese boys in the film did not have their identities concealed (by blurring or pixilating their faces), as would have occurred were they Irish – or so they contend.
And perhaps most seriously of all, some of Ó Searcaigh's defenders (we are not clear who exactly these are) claim to have recorded on tape interviews with some of the boys and young men featured in the original documentary, who now apparently deny that Ó Searcaigh abused them sexually. There are claims from all sides at this stage that these boys were pressurised and/or duped into making either their original statements or the rebuttals.
Some of these various arguments may have a degree of validity, others are simply untrue. However, what they do share is that they are all somewhat irrelevant to the central core of the documentary – namely the presentation of an individual (Ó Searcaigh) who surrounds himself with young people who live in great poverty, who dispenses financial largesse among them, and who has sexual relations with them. None of this is disputed in any way by Ó Searcaigh himself. It is notable that while the poet's friends and defenders describe the Nepalese concerned as young adults, Ó Searcaigh himself refers to them as “boys” of 16 and 17 years old, and admits that he has sex with them. He does however vehemently deny that he has abused or exploited anyone.
To bring some perspective to the confusion that has been sown around the age issue, it is worth considering the standards which apply generally to those working for aid organisations in developing countries. For instance, in a protocol specific to Nepal, the United National High Commission for Refugees tells its staff that it is a core principle that: “sexual activity with children (persons under the age of 18) is prohibited regardless of the age of majority or the age of consent locally.” Further, it does not accept the excuse of mistaken belief in the age of the child.
It should further be pointed out that were a man to have sex with either a girl or a boy under the age of 17 in this country, he would be committing a criminal offence. Consequently, it appears reasonable to argue that by having sex with 16-year-olds, Ó Searcaigh's behaviour is clearly wrong, regardless of the fact that the age of consent in Nepal is 16.
When you then consider the enormous disparity in age – Ó Searcaigh is 52 – and the profound inequality in economic circumstances, exacerbated by the poet's practice of buying clothes and other goods for these boys, what emerges is a picture of a sex tourist masquerading as a benevolent father figure. Ó Searcaigh shares much with the coloniser and the missionary, both of whom masked their own self-interest under a benefactor's cloak.
What made Fairytale of Kathmandu so intriguing, though, was the fact that its subject was in such profound denial about the nature of his activities. When he told us that he was not interested in sex tourism, and that he even warned “the boys” about the dangers of casual sex with tourists, it appeared that he believed what he was saying. The staggering enormity of his self delusion even extended to a reference by him to his awareness of the importance of defining boundaries to his relationships with the boys.
This was a unique insight into the mechanics of denial. To be able to witness it at such close quarters is a rare spectacle. Usually, it is only dimly perceived, surfacing fleetingly before being submerged in a welter of excuses and obfuscations. But here it was paraded in front of us with unusual clarity. And it is a phenomenon with which we in this country are deeply familiar. It has plagued Irish society in decades past - and arguably continues to do so today. One particular statistic sums up the depths of delusion to which we were collectively capable of sinking.
During much of the 20th century, particularly the 1950s and ‘60s, we used to pride ourselves on how few people were locked up in our jails, a reflection of our holy, Catholic nature and consequent lack of criminality. Taking 1956 as an example, we had a mere 373 people in prison across the State.
However, during that same year, we were in fact depriving almost 25,000 others of their liberty in underhand ways that denied them due process or right to appeal; 19,000 of these were detained against their will in psychiatric hospitals. The remainder were children incarcerated in industrial and reformatory schools and women locked up in Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. However, we never allowed this brutal and widespread denial of basic human rights spoil our virtuous image of ourselves.
Equally we spent decades denying to ourselves that children were abused in Ireland. We denied that among the abusers were those pillars of the community, our priests and teachers. We denied that there was anything wrong with heaping shame and opprobrium onto women who became pregnant outside of marriage. And we denied the vicious double standard of ignoring the part played by their male partners.
Denial allowed us to think of ourselves as good, kind, generous, charitable and moral people and to suppress any evidence to the contrary. Much as it allows Cathal Ó Searcaigh to present himself as someone who benignly helps others less fortunate than himself, and to convince a disturbing number of his fellow Irish language poets that this is so.
What is particularly remarkable, given the necessarily introspective nature of his and their profession, is that both he and they have so completely failed to analyse the motives behind his charity, his power as the giver versus the vulnerability, both economic and age-related, of the recipients. Any honest appraisal of this must lead at the very least to a questioning of whether he has misused his power and damaged the young people in his entourage.
Ó Searcaigh has a stark choice to make: he can continue to hide from reality, locked desperately into his bubble of denial, or he can confront his abuse of power and his sexual exploitation of the objects of his charity. It surely behoves a poet, of all people, to be able to look himself squarely in the eye, with all pretence stripped away, and tell himself the truth.