Cathal O’Searcaigh – “Odyssey of an Outsider”

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent on February 10, 2008.

Odyssey Of An Outsider

For years Cathal O’Searcaigh’s trips to Nepal have attracted bemused praise and admiration. People love the idea of an eccentric poet travelling from his hillside cottage in Donegal to the Far East on journeys that are, by his own account, one part spiritual odyssey one part philanthropic mission. Our own paper of record referred to the writer’s activities in Nepal as an ‘educational programme’ and O’Searcaigh himself has given interviews in which he spoke of the water filters he had bought and the educations of young men that he had funded. His reputation was that of a modern, secular missionary, discovering himself while opening the minds of others. Everyone wanted to believe in it.

When he decided to hold an auction to fund his trips to Nepal a who’s-who of Irish literature stepped up to the plate. Brian Friel sent a handwritten draft of Dancing at Lughnasa. John McGahern contributed the opening passages from Memoir. Frank McGuinness sent the final speech from Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. The day after he won the Booker John Banville contributed a hand written passage from The Sea. His Aosdana contemporary Seamus Heaney pitched in with a new poem. A more dazzling auction lot could hardly have been assembled and the pieces, as expected, raised over 50,000 Euro. Cathal’s work would go on.

The poet himself had first begun his love affair with Nepal after travelling there with a documentary film crew from TG4 and it was perhaps only a matter of time before another documentary was made about his experiences in the country. In 2005 Neasa Ni Chianain, a filmmaker from an Irish speaking family in Kildare, accompanied him to Kathmandu. A neighbour of the poet, she had moved to Donegal because she wanted to live in the Gaeltacht. She was a huge admirer of O’Searcaigh and his poetry, which explores identity, loneliness and homosexual love, and was full of admiration at his bravery in coming out as a gay man in a small rural community. She had heard about the auction and the film was intended to show how that money was spent as well as being a portrait of a man and his work, which has been read by a generation of Leaving Cert. students. She wanted the film to be an ‘ode to Cathal.’

The film begins in this vein with snatches of O’Searcaigh’s poetry painting a portrait or a lonely but brilliant outsider. He sifts through old photographs and comes across one of himself in his first year at school. ‘The poor boy’ he laughs, kissing the photograph. ‘He didn’t know what was going to happen to him.’ The bleakness of the windswept Donegal hillside soon seems like a sepia-coloured memory as we encounter more boys, this time in the Technicolor bustling streets of Kathmandu. They have come to welcome Cathal back.

One of the young men is Prem, who Cathal first met when he (Prem) was 15 or 16. He has been to Ireland to visit Cathal and the poet describes him as his ‘godson’ and his financial support has immeasurably boosted Prem’s social status in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. Cathal acquired a jewellery shop for Prem and the young man lives in a room rented for him by his older benefactor. While Cathal is in Kathmandu Prem cleans and tidies the poet’s room every day. We learn that Prem has entered an arranged marriage, which was first approved by Cathal, who is clear to characterise it as ‘a marriage of convenience’. When asked about the nature of the relationship with Cathal Prem tearfully explains about his own father’s death. After two months in O’Searcaigh’s Donegal home he said he felt like he got ‘a new father.’

The other young man who accompanies Prem and Cathal is Shantaram. In fractured English he tells of the effect his friendship with Cathal has had on his life: “maybe I am still in my village, doing farming, sowing for others, if I don’t meet him. He is a God for me. With my heart and body I love to him” Cathal is now helping him to build a house. “It is a huge thing to build a house with Cathal’s help I can make it,” he says, beaming.

Ni Chianain accompanies Cathal on a trek through the Nepalese countryside with both young men. The group encounters a village youth, Ram, who speaks no English. Ni Chianian is taken aback to observe that the young man and Cathal spend the night in a room together but tells herself that the young man is 17 and that she has no right to judge a relationship between two legal adults (the age of consent in Nepal is 16, in Ireland 17). It’s clear though that even at that point she felt uncomfortable. The next day she anxiously scans the boy’s face for signs of distress but he stays close by Cathal. ‘I felt disquieted more than anything by the disparity of power. Cathal talks of love and friendship but he could not even communicate with this young man’, she told me.

Ni Chianain hesitantly broaches the subject with Cathal and he segues into a story about his first love in Ireland, a man who eventually left him for a woman, leaving the poet heartbroken. There were, he says, a dark few years, before he came to Nepal.
The idea of mad passionate love that we have in Europe, an idea that he himself once had, he says elsewhere in the film ‘is ridiculous.’ He points out that in Nepalese society even 16 year old boys have very limited understanding of sex. ‘These boys have no experience of girls, none whatsoever.’

As the film progresses we see more boys. Cathal buys a suit for one and a bike for another. He tells of meeting boys on the street and we hear one young man giggle as he explains that Cathal meets ‘many, many boys’ on each trip to Nepal. There are scenes of Cathal sitting round talking to a group of boys, holding forth. They giggle nervously, clearly having little understanding of what he is saying. He asks one about Maoists and the young man starts talking about mice. Bewildered that Cathal could truly claim friendship and companionship from these youths Ni Chianain asks him what he gets in return. ‘I feel there is a certain pleasure in giving rather than taking…’ he replies. ‘They have nothing to give me except to open their hearts and give me their love.’ He blankly denies being involved in sex tourism.

He says that he has seen people he would love to sleep with but ‘it’s much more interesting to get to know someone… I think a lot of these boys love me and that love has nothing to do… I’m aware that there are boundaries and I don’t want to cross those particular boundaries.’
In one riveting scene in the documentary the camera captures a youth approaching the reception desk at O’Searcaigh’s hotel and speaking to the poet on the phone. He says his name Prakesh before adding ‘Prakesh Poudel’. Off camera the hotel manager, Ramesh, murmers ‘he (Cathal) knows many Prakesh’. In an interview Ramesh tells Ni Chianain that he consider the relationships between rich Westerners visiting Kathmandu and the youths who live there to be abusive. ‘They say I want to help Nepal and help the Nepalese but they are taking benefit somehow … due to poverty like that.’

After O’Searcaigh travel back to Ireland with the aid of counsellors Ni Chianain traced and interviewed some of the boys. They told her stories of being propositioned by Cathal and each said that they had had sex with him. One young man said Cathal waited outside the college gates and gave him 100 euro after they had sex. Another said the poet had shown him a pornographic film. All felt they had been exploited. One said ‘he bought me.’

Upon her own return to Ireland Neasa confronted Cathal who for the first time admitted he had had sex with the young men but denied that the sex was abusive. ‘My door was always open … I wasn’t coercing them into having sex with me.’ She specifically asks him about the boy who arrived under the pretext of getting help with his school lessons and ended up spending the night. ‘But I also helped him with his lessons’ Cathal replies. And why did they have sex? ‘Well, why not.’

The ‘why not’ of course is hugely complex. Assuming all of the boys that O’Searcaigh meets on his travels to Nepal are 16 or older (most appear to have been, somewhat serendipitously, right on the button of the Nepalese age of consent), it’s clear watching the film and by his own account that they are as innocent as Irish children of 50 years ago. There is also the issue of whether these young people can really give free consent when they say they don’t know about sex and are in some cases financially dependent upon O’Searcaigh. ‘The film is about exploitative relationships between East and West’ Neasa told me this week. ‘Nepal is a desperately poor country. You don’t see that very much in the film because the boys who appear have been dressed up by Cathal.’

Speaking to her it’s clear she is extremely nervous at the possibility of being depicted as leading some kind of witch-hunt against O’Searcaigh. Members of her crew have been intimidated and she has lost at least one friend as a result of the documentary. She still lives in close proximity with the poet. ‘I’d like to make a few things clear. Firstly I am not Cathal O’Searcaigh’s judge and jury. People can look at the film and decide for themselves and I would urge people to do that before they make up their minds. It has not been creatively edited, by which I mean what you see is what happened. I spoke to Cathal after we finished filming. I was under the impression that he was going to address the situation.’ She tells me that she waited well over a year after shooting the footage during which time she contacted the appropriate authorities and showed the film to senior psychologists. ‘I was open to the possibility of not releasing this film at all. I was as responsible about this as I possibly could have been.’

As the storm brewed this week Maire Mac an tSaoi, who had not seen the film, went on Liveline to defend O’Searcaigh. She questioned whether the type of behaviour that O’Searcaigh is accused of would not one day become acceptable and compared the vilification of pederasts in today’s society to that of homosexuals in a former time. The clear implication was that O’Searcaigh had already lived through one age of bigotry and was now about to become the victim of another. The argument that pederasty (as distinct from paedophilia) as a sexual orientation, which has merely yet to gain mainstream recognition is of, course an old one. Dating back to the Greeks there is a long history in many cultures of sexual relationships between adolescent males and older men and more recently NAMBLA (or the North American Man-Boy Love Association) – which curiously also advocates the improvement of humanitarian situations for youths in poor countries – has actively and notoriously campaigned for age-of-consent laws to be changed in the United States, much to the chagrin of mainstream gay rights organisations which have distanced themselves from it.

O’Searcaigh himself advanced vaguely Solonian arguments and attempted to cast his own behaviour under the ambit of acceptable behaviour for an adult gay man: ‘I openly admit that I had relationships with young men in Nepal and many of these developed in long time companionable, beneficial relationships. Many homosexual men go to other countries and have encounters that over time can develop into something more lasting.’ He does not add that even in the gay world flings between a fifty year old overweight man and a legion of lissom youths could only happen in the poorest countries and money would have to change hands. Love, a word he uses a lot, wouldn’t come into it.
But then many relationships in our own society are between financial and intellectual unequals. Arranged marriages, which are common in Nepal, are conducted specifically with the aim of securing better prosperity for the families involved. If the young men Cathal O’Searcaigh met are indeed of age and have decided that it is beneficial to them to have sex with the poet for money are we in danger of imposing our own cultural values on the situation to argue otherwise? ‘Yes but those arranged marriages are made within that society’ Neasa replies. ‘That is something different to someone coming in from the outside with power and money that he has a result of coming from another society. It’s clear to me that some of the boys we interviewed were damaged by their experiences.’ The focus, she says, will be on Cathal and what this film will mean for him, ‘but there are victims in this and it’s important that people remember that.’

The morality of O’Searcaigh’s activities in the Far East will continue to be debated as will his supposed guile in dealing with the youths of Kathmandu. It seems after all astonishingly naive of him to publicly rope his famous friends into fundraising for what was, at least partially, a sex holiday and then to invite the scrutiny of a documentary film crew along to witness his various flings, underage or otherwise. For him then to continue to insist that his mission was mainly humanitarian seems foolhardy to the point of madness. The look of shock on his face as he is confronted at the end of the documentary is itself shocking. What did he seriously imagine would happen?

In the end the portrait of him that emerges is of a lonely man who, despite his renown, remains the outsider he was growing up, bewildered, as ever, by the rules and mores of civil society and the ways in which they inhibit him. Whether or not the relationships with the youths were abusive or merely inappropriate they certainly seem pathetically unrewarding for a man of his gifts and intelligence. On camera at least the great gaps of age, culture and language seem too great for anyone to bridge, whatever the financial inducements offered.

The sex crimes unit of the Gardai and social services have now become involved and an investigation is believed to be underway. O’Searcaigh was unavailable for comment at time of going to print but in an ironic twist to the story the two boys who feature most prominently in the documentary, Prem and Shantaram, are apparently visiting him this week in Donegal as part of a suspected PR counteroffensive. With the film scheduled to open as part of the Dublin film festival next week and solicitors letters flying left and right, the final chapter of Cathal O’Searcaigh’s fairytale in Kathmandu may yet to be written.

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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