GUEST COLUMNIST: A high price to pay for revealing documentary on noted poet

THE Nepalese boy looks shocked but he has a very big ice-cream.

He’s had an encounter in Kathmandu with the Irish poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh and it has its rewards.

This was the image I found most disturbing in Neasa Ní Chianáin’s multi-award-winning 2007 film, Fairytale of Kathmandu. It seems to sum up an abuse of power which one boy interviewed for the film puts like this: “He bought myself.”

The routine was nearly always the same. The encounter with an innocent teenager on his way to college, the gift of maybe a month’s wages and Ó Searcaigh’s hotel card. “The first time he was angry with me I didn’t have sex,” explains one of the boys interviewed for the film. “The second time I didn’t complain.”

It was the disgusted hotel manager who finally alerted Ní Chianáin as to the nature of the special relationship between the Irish poet and dozens of Nepalese teenagers.

If people wanted to help poor Nepalese boys it should be “without terms and conditions”, he told her. “People, they just close their eyes.”

I have known Neasa Ní Chianáin for years and I met her from time to time during the filming of what was set to be a celebration of one of her idols, Cathal Ó Searcaigh. When she could not deny the evidence of her eyes and ears any more, she felt she had no option but to tell the truth.

She worried about the film’s potential effect on Ó Searcaigh. But I don’t think she understood how big a price she would pay herself.

That she would be turned on by so many in the communities of which Ó Searcaigh is a part: The Irish language community, the arts community, the gay community.

We don’t like whistle-blowers in Ireland. Neasa Ní Chianáin and her family have since experienced periods of unemployment and psychological trauma, but they are putting the post-Fairytale horror behind them. They have left their home in the Donegal Gaeltacht and this year they will celebrate Christmas elsewhere.

Well, she had to learn, didn’t she? She should have played by the rules and buttoned her lip. Everyone knows that you can’t have a bad thought in the Irish language, at least not in a State-supported broadcast. What might look like sex tourism if we were talking about a businessman from the UK is, when experienced by an Irish poet, a special relationship between mystical mountain people.

If you just can’t put that spin on it, you bin your film and you shut up. You put the fact that virginal young Nepalese teenagers are having sex with a man in his 50s, because they are poor and he is, by contrast, rich, right out of your mind. Even if his lifestyle is funded, through an annual subsistance grant from Aosdána, by the Irish taxpayer.

Things would have been so much easier for Ní Chianáin if she had done just that. A campaign to defend Ó Searcaigh was mounted. A letter was published in the Irish Times which asked for the film’s broadcast to be cancelled because it would “incite hatred against homosexuals.” It was signed by major Irish-language writers such as Maire Mhac an tSaoi, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Mícheál Ó Conghaile, and Gabriel Rosenstock.

In the version sent to Ní Chíanáin the night before it was published, it was also signed by Senator David Norris, who was surely even then nurturing hopes of being our President, but his name did not appear in the newspaper. Perhaps he was saving himself for his tour-de-force in the Seanad that day. He stood up and declared that the film’s broadcast, scheduled for that night, should be cancelled until its veracity could be ascertained by “experts”.

“Gloriously”, he went on, “the artists of Ireland have supported Cathal Ó Searcaigh as they previously did in the case of Oscar Wilde. This is because they have a unique insight into the processes of works of creation and destruction. I wish to make it clear that I support the brave letter sent by artists to The Irish Times. When I saw the film, my stomach sank and I thought of the great British poet, William Blake: “O Rose, thou art sick!/The invisible worm/That flies in the night/ In the howling storm/Has found out they bed/ Of crimson joy/And his dark secret love/Does they life destroy.”

“Senator, please”, cautioned the Cathaoirleach.

The reference to Oscar Wilde was an unfortunate one because Wilde was addicted to having sex with poor London teenagers. And when he couldn’t have it at home, he moved on to Morocco. He is one of my favourite writers, but that doesn’t mean I have to overlook how he exploited poverty.

One of the most disturbing parts of this saga is that of the 2005 Art of Friendship auction of donations of work by major Irish writers and artists, in aid of Ó Searcaigh’s charitable work in Kathmandu. It included hand-written pages by John Banville and Seamus Heaney and raised €50,000.

But Ó Searcaigh does not run a registered charitable organisation in Kathmandu.

As he says in the film, “I prefer to give money directly to the boys, not through charities.” No-one knows where the money went and in the absence of a paper-trail to every last cent.

But that’s not what’s most shocking. What’s most shocking is that no-one has ever bothered to investigate.

The cloak of charity is where the Ó Searcaigh story chimes with the ongoing Jimmy Savile scandal. Savile had sex with minors, of course, and by contrast there is no record of Ó Searcaigh having sex with anyone below the legal age of consent in Nepal, which is 16.

However, in both cases —and all the cases like them, such as that of the Gary Glitter, convicted of having sex with minors in Vietnam, and the recently arrested Freddy Starr, there is one constant: innocence exploited by power. The power of money, the power of celebrity.

While we Irish have no problem enjoying the media circus which is going on around abuses of power else across the water, we “close our eyes” when it comes to one of our own.

The person who ended up paying the biggest penalty for Fairytale of Kathmandu, was not the perpetrator, but the woman brave enough to blow the whistle.


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