Chatting some time ago to a senior Fine Gaeler we were discussing the then popularity of Leo Varadkar among the FG faithful, the more rural element of it — traditionally the backbone of the party.
It wasn’t that long after Leo had been elected leader, when his poll figures were a joy to the party, and my source was recalling a conversation he had with one stalwart, a Co Cavan woman who said: “He’s doing very well isn’t he, and what’s great thing is that no one ever mentions ‘the other thing’.”
What she was referring to as “the other thing” was the fact that the Taoiseach is homosexual.
For many of us it felt like a truly magnificent day when one of our two main political parties elected a gay man as leader who subsequently became Taoiseach.
It sent out a wonderful message to the world at large about how Ireland had changed.
Within that was the realisation that Leo Varadkar, to use that hackneyed phrase, had undergone his own “journey” so relatively recently in relation to his sexuality, and going public on it.
It was in January 2015, on his 36th birthday, he told Miriam O’Callaghan on her Sunday morning radio show: “I am a gay man. It’s not a secret.”
But for many people this actually was big news. It remains a pity he felt he had to go on the public record about what is a private matter.
We also had front row seats as we witnessed the liberalisation of his own personal and political views in relation to issues such as same-sex marriage, and abortion.
It cannot have been easy to grapple with those internal dynamics, while at the same time getting used to living his life openly as a gay man.
It can only be speculated, and one hesitates to delve too closely into something so personal, that there was a huge amount of relief at the freedom that acknowledgement of his sexuality allowed.
However coming so relatively late in life, it also meant a journey of discovery travelled far earlier by many others, in this case had to be conducted under the public gaze.
There are certain cliches that recur in relation to gay men — which must cause many of them to sigh in despair — including that of an obsession with image; fitness and the body beautiful and fandom of certain pop stars — yes I am referring here to a diminutive world famous Australian one who visited Ireland last year.
Certainly in relation to fitness our man has blazed a trail in recent years losing, he has said himself, a considerable amount of weight and exercising in the gym regularly.
Who hasn’t seen the photos of him being driven into Government Buildings one morning in his Lycra workout gear, complete with sleeveless vest.
More recently we saw him on the telly having his metabolic age measured and his visible shock when he was told it was 53, despite him only just turning 40.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about all of that — for a senior and experienced politician — was his decision to do the test so publicly in the first place, and then not to know the result in advance, not to mention being so obviously stung and disbelieving when the result was released.
More seasoned, possibly less needy, political hands might have let it lie, but not Leo.
He has now publicly embarked on a six-week fitness programme under the supervision of celebrity coach Karl Henry.
A subsequent test with Henry, as revealed on his Real Health podcast, to assess the Taoiseach’s fitness, saw him running 1km in 4 minutes, 44 seconds on a treadmill, 34 press ups in one minute, and in a one-minute sit-up test he scored 27.
Henry praised the Varadkar press-up technique as “brilliant” however he was more average on sit-ups.
But his real talent apparently lies in his ability to do planks (holding yourself on hands and toes for those gym ignorant among you).
He excelled, but even so insisted afterwards he could do better than the record among Henry’s other corporate clients. “I do planks, so that was just practice.”
The latest Real Health Podcast episode is now live!
This week I chat all things health and lots more with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
SoundCloud:https://t.co/lxw5oqhappApril 4, 2019
Does any of this matter? Is this all good publicity for winning over the younger vote or is it straightforward preening?
Is it only the more precious, or perhaps older among us, that think with fondness of the days of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, looking ever so slightly dishevelled, doing the annual Ring of Kerry cycle, wearing his green lycra and his long black socks rolled down over his cycling shoes.
The same sex marriage referendum was overwhelmingly passed in 2015, but that doesn’t mean the challenges faced by the gay community have disappeared. Far from it.
Indeed in recent days on social media many people have been commenting that homophobia has fuelled the backlash against the Taoiseach for writing a letter on Department of the Taoiseach headed notepaper offering to give a personal welcome to Kylie Minogue to our country.
Leo attempted to prevent the release of the letter on two occasions under Freedom of Information.
The hugely successful Kylie is known as a gay icon. Nobody would be saying a word if he had written to some big sport star, was the general tone of those annoyed at the controversy.
I couldn’t care less if it was Kylie, Bruce Springstein or Lionel Messi I simply don’t fancy the Taoiseach of the day using the trappings of office to act as a fanboy.
However, you do also have to be conscious of your own, as described by Panti Bliss in her magnificent 2014 speech in the Abbey, “internalised homophobia”.
Acknowledging even herself as a homophobe she said it would be incredible not to be, given that she and those present that night, had grown up in an Irish society that was “overwhelmingly and stiflingly” homophobic.
It was really most unfortunate that former Justice Minister Michael McDowell labelled the Taoiseach “a camera slut” for writing the Kylie letter, not to mention hypocritical.
Was the former leader of the PDs not appearing at the time he made his remark as a guest on the high profile The Late Late Show, plugging a television documentary he had made?
On a wider point has he himself not shown an utter inability to stay away from the world of politics where he thrived on being the centre of attention? Pot, kettle and black.
But the learning for Leo is that now as he’s started to look a bit more ordinary, and a little less popular, his political flaws becoming more evident, the things that some people may not have been bothered about before, or been prepared to overlook, come to the fore.
Leo could justifiably argue that in some instances it is all simply unfair and indeed discriminatory.
But it is also the real world of politics as it exists.