Cathal O’Searcaigh – “Not such a nightmare, really”

There was a moment of unlikely comic relief during Cathal O Searcaigh’s proxy press conference this week. Liam Gaskin, the PR man charged with giving the poet’s side of the story, informed us that many Nepalese men look a lot younger than they are. He turned to Prem, Cathal’s swarthy ‘son’ and star of the controversial documentary, and said ‘what age are you? (italics) Your real age (close italics) Prem. Poor Prem hung his head in shame and sheepishly admitted he was, in fact, 34. A hush fell over the assembled press mob. Cathal had been ripped off! He was the real victim in all of this.

False advertising is of course the least of Cathal O Searcaigh’s concerns just at the moment. On the one hand he has various hysterical busybodies wondering whether questions about his life should be taken off the Irish syllabus (heaven forefend it should ever get interesting for the kids who have to study it) while on the other he has the ham-fisted defence of amongst others Gaskin, David Norris and Maire Mac an tSaoi who claim that it’s all a homophobic hatchet job, that Neasa Ni Chianain, the director of the documentary, distorted the truth about Cathal and creatively edited what she filmed in Nepal and that RTE were irresponsible in screening it.

Of the two groups I would suggest that the latter, Cathal’s defenders, will in the end do him the most damage. It was his own vanity and detachment from reality that got him into this mess – he after all freely consented to having a film crew follow him around Nepal – and their pious rhetoric can only keep him in this bubble of unreality. The supposed homophobia, which they insist is part of the agenda against him – it was trotted out time and time again at the press conference – is another red herring. There may, as Quentin Crisp wrote of the Oscar Wilde trial, be a love that dare not speak it’s name, but the time to invoke it is hardly when there is a list as long as your arm being read out of boys you knew only in Braille. If the Irish builders who go to Cape Town every year were found out to be using the project as an inducement for sex with teenaged locals you can be sure there would be just as much furore at home, and they wouldn’t have
Aosdana luminaries leaping to their defence.

It was claimed at the press conference this week that certain young Nepalese men were coerced, intimidated or pressurised into ‘questionable behaviour’ by Ni Chianain. Meanwhile a home made DVD – financed by the absent Cathal – was shown depicting several of them taking back what they’d said and a statement was circulated claiming that Cathal had been exhausted from all the travel and speaking English and therefore we couldn’t rely on what he said. Considering the poet had known for over a year that this day was coming it seemed a rather lame defence.

Ni Chianain’s ‘agenda’ – another sticking point for O Searcaigh’s defenders – is slightly beside the point. The initial denial that he had sex with these young men and subsequent blustering admission were all caught in continuous shots on camera. How can they have been creatively edited? Even if she did become aware of the nature of Cathal’s trips to Nepal earlier than she says or ambush him with questions once she got back to Ireland, it no more changes the facts of what happened (which actually aren’t disputed all that much) than Fahrenheit 9/11 changed the facts of the Iraq war.
There are journalists who have said that if she was truly concerned she should have gone to the Gardai instead of to the film festivals and RTE. But she did go to the Gardai (and a year later they had done nothing) and social services and the fact she took nearly two years from the end of filming to work through those issues would seem to bear this out. You can be guaranteed those same outraged journalists if faced with a news story like this would not have simply sat on it and allowed the guards to dally indefinitely while Cathal denied he had done anything untoward.

In fairness to Ni Chianain she did always insist that the film was about exploitative relationships between East and West, the apparently harmless little transactions we do with the subcontinent that aren’t quite illegal but very morally dubious. In a way Cathal is giving these young men something in the same way the woman who buys the sweatshop shirt is giving someone a job. And just like Cathal if you tapped her on the shoulder and asked her if what she was doing was right she’d be indignant and embarrassed.

It’s possible that Cathal O Searcaigh thinks his life in Ireland is over but I really don’t believe there is that level of anger out there towards him. A friend of mine, watching the programme, felt that if O Searcaigh should be indicted for anything it is crimes against conversation. He was referring to the hide-behind-the-couch cringeworthiness of watching O Searcaigh woo a Nepalese youth with the words ‘pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been…’ and the gales of incomprehending laughter from the young men at everything the poet said. Perhaps there was being damage done that we won’t even know of but it all seemed more tragic than truly sinister.

If rather than continuing to have himself presented as a cross between the Pied Piper and Mother Teresa he had simply admitted that he was also satisfying one of his own grubby needs (we all have them), he’d be in a much better position to brazen this out. He’s not a politician or a priest or otherwise self-styled pillar of society. Rightly or wrongly we judge artists by different standards – look at Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson or Woody Allen – and Cathal, better than Emmett Stagg or Eliot Spitzer, would be well placed to ride this out.

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 16, 2008.