For the past two weeks, ever since RTÉ television showed the documentary film "Fairytale of Kathmandu" (on March 11th), many people on the Emerald Isle are loudly discussing the life - and especially the sex life - of Cathal Ó Searcaigh (photo), a 51-year-old poet from County Donegal who writes exclusively in the Irish language.
From what I hear and read about him, he appears to be a quite gifted wordsmith, probably even following in the footsteps of the ancient bards of this island. But since I am not a great enthusiast of Us Gaelge (the Irish language), I had never before even heard of the man. (I should mention that I am an avid reader of all sorts of books, including poetry.)
But here lays the problem. Since Cathal Ó Searcaigh only writes in Irish, access to his work is very limited. Of the ca. four million people living in the Republic of Ireland, perhaps 1% are fluent speakers and readers of Irish, and the number of those among them who read poetry must be minimal.
All this despite the fact that every child in the Republic is forced to learn the language in school. That means for most pupils 13 long years of compulsory Irish, from the begin of infant school to the leaving certificate at the end of secondary education.
Very few speak Irish at home or with their peers, so the whole exercise - which began as a purely political gesture in 1922 - is pretty useless and futile, costing millions of taxpayers' money every year with hardly anything to show for.
To make things even worse, there is not just "Irish". Each of our four provinces (Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster) has its own version of the language with differences in spelling and pronunciation. As Cathal Ó Searcaigh comes from County Donegal, his Irish is of the Ulster variety, the least common version in today's Ireland. This explains why he was completely unknown to me, and to many others as well, I am sure.
The sudden prominence he has achieved throughout the country has however nothing to do with his poetry. Cathal Ó Searcaigh is the subject of discussion because he is homosexual and strongly attracted to "young men" (some would call them boys).
As this might not be anyone else's business, it entered the public realm when the now well-known documentary "Fairytale of Kathmandu" revealed a side of Cathal that was previously known only to very few people.
Besides being a poet who won several prices and is a member of Aosdána (an elite group of artists - limited to 250 members - which is Ireland's version of the Académie française) Cathal Ó Searcaigh organised a private foreign aid programme in Nepal, a country "he fell in love with" and visited many times. He spent some of his own money on the project, but received also large sums of money from public funds and private donations in support of his work in Nepal.
The documentary "Fairytale of Kathmandu" began as a film that was to show how one man could make a difference in this world, a homage to an Irish poet who went half around the world to help poor people in an Asian third-world country. But during the filming, which happened with Cathal's full knowledge and agreement, the female director discovered a different angle to the poet's activity. It appears that the Nepali people receiving help from the Irish bard were mostly very young men (some say boys), who also spent regularly the night with him.
Given the fact that Nepal, a predominantly Hindu country high in the Himalayas, has a very traditional society in which sex is an extremely private matter between married people (and open homosexuality is unknown), this shed an entirely new light on the frequent visits Cathal Ó Searcaigh made to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu.
Since the film was shown on television, Cathal Ó Searcaigh has gone into hiding and no one seems to know his whereabouts. There are many people in Ireland who are absolutely appalled by his actions and call him a sexual predator who used his position and money for his own personal sexual gratification. But there are also some voices - mostly from fellow artists - who say that he was "set up" and has apparently done nothing wrong.
This position was taken yesterday by the man himself, in an hour-long interview he gave to Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTÉ's Irish language station. I did not hear it, but even if I had, I would not have been able to follow the conversation. Raidió na Gaeltachta is a minority programme exclusively in Irish, with - at best - perhaps 20,000 listeners a day. However, excerpts of the interview were also broadcast with English translation on RTÉ Radio 1.
The argument for speaking only in Irish was that he wanted to talk "to his people" in particular. Never mind what the remaining 99% of the nation think. As long as the few plain Irish speakers know what Cathal Ó Searcaigh has to say, that's alright then. This alone shows the enormous arrogance of a man who seems to think very highly of himself, and thus believes he can do as he pleases and can do no wrong.
But he did not leave it at that. He felt it necessary to invoke the spirit of Oscar Wilde, implying that all the criticism he faces for his predatory behaviour in Nepal was more or less nothing than "homophobia". But, as Wilde wrote, "some of us look up to the stars" even though we are all in the gutter... And he, of course, is one of those few stargazers, he believes.
Now, I am a very tolerant man and try to live without prejudice. For the past two weeks I have refrained from saying or writing anything about Cathal Ó Searcaigh, because I neither know him nor his work, and there are much more important things and people in this country to analyse and write about.
But the statement he made yesterday about himself and Oscar Wilde made me join the debate.
I don't care if he is homosexual or not, and I cannot comment on his poems, as I am unable to read them. But I am immensely annoyed when I encounter hypocrisy and double standards. If Cathal Ó Searcaigh were heterosexual (as the vast majority of people) and had slept with Nepali girls aged 16 or 17, he would be branded a "pedophile" and the full force of the Law would come down on him. (Men have been sent to jail for a lot less, even for nothing more than looking at pictures of young girls.)
But obviously there is one law for most of us, and another for homosexuals, who like to call themselves "gay" these days by hijacking a perfectly normal word that means jolly or joyful.
(For example, the well-known operetta "The Gay Hussar" is not about a homosexual in the Cavalry. Quite the opposite!)
Until recently this country was blighted by homosexual priests who abused young boys in their care for many years. Now there are homosexuals in almost every walk of life and profession, and many of them behave as if they were a new kind of priesthood, superior to the rest of us and entitled to do whatever they desire. And whenever anyone says a critical word about them, they immediately cry "homophobia".
I am a psychologist and have no phobias. And I am not afraid of anything, and especially not of homosexuals. But I am not fond of them either. That is my good and proper right. No one can be forced to like everyone and everything. We all make our choices. This does not mean that I discriminate against homosexuals or wish them any harm. Before the Law everyone should be equal. But this is exactly the problem. After centuries of discrimination and even criminalisation of homosexuality the pendulum is now swinging far in the opposite direction and homosexuals have become virtually untouchable by criticism and the Law.
Being not only homosexual, but also a member of the prestigous Aosdána and a dedicated Irish-speaking poet, makes Cathal Ó Searcaigh - at least in his own opinion - almost untouchable. The Law, he seems to believe, is for the rest of us, the "great unwashed" who speak and write English and do not reside in the illustrious temple of Irish high arts. So he has nothing to feel sorry about, did nothing wrong, and does not even bother to explain himself to the vast majority of the nation in a language that everyone can understand. Some prick, my father would have said, if nothing else.
Well, I am no judge or lawyer, and I do not condemn anyone. But one thing is clear: Cathal Ó Searcaigh is in hiding and in denial. The whole affair around him and his unusual sex life, as well as its current aftermath, leave a visible stain on the Irish state, its arts establishment and the image of the nation. For me personally it also leaves a very bad taste, to say the least.
As I mentioned above, until two weeks ago I had never even heard his name, despite my regular involvement with literature and the arts. Perhaps he is just another of those highly over-rated artists who live in a world of their own, which cannot be accessed by normal people. In Cathal Ó Searcaigh's case the language barrier does most of that already, and - quite honestly - I am personally glad about that.
Knowing what is now known of the man and his behaviour, I have no time for anything he writes, no matter if it has won him prizes and honours or not. And if I were still in school and would be forced to read and study his poems for the leaving certificate in Irish, I would refuse to work with those texts. If that means that I would fail my Irish exams, so be it.
Who speaks Irish anyway after leaving school?
The Emerald Islander