Ó Searcaigh's Kathmandu controversy is about ethics and responsibility


This is an issue about trust. It is about charity that should be unconditional, writes Quentin Fottrell

Cathal Ó Searcaigh may be a gay man, but the controversy that surrounds Neasa Ní Chianáin's ominously entitled documentary, Fairytale of Kathmandu, which has subsequently led to a Garda inquiry, has nothing to do with him being gay.

It has nothing to do with him being a poet. It has nothing to do with him being a nice bloke. It has nothing to do with Puritanism. It has nothing to do with gay culture. Nor does it have anything to do with the quasi homo-erotic image used on the film's website.

These other issues risk contaminating the testimonials of the boys who were on the receiving end of Ó Searcaigh's charitable endeavours. They were impressionable boys innocent of sex and commerce, and for whom very little money could do so much.

Ní Chianáin, who lives near Ó Searcaigh at the foot of Mount Errigal in his native Co Donegal, became concerned about his sexual relationships with a series of boys, some as young as 16, while filming a documentary about his charity work in Kathmandu.

Ó Searcaigh's response distracts and redirects us to his sexuality. "I am a gay man and I have never made any secret of that. I am openly gay both in Ireland and Nepal . . . The veiled suggestion that I exploited young men for my own sexual gratification is not true."

He freely admits that he had sex with some of the boys: "But I wasn't coercing them into having sex . . . that door was open all the time." Ramesh, a hotel manager where Ó Searcaigh was staying, told Ní Chianáin he had asked for the visits to stop. They didn't.

For someone who makes his living exploring the nuances of life, who has clearly grasped the essence of vulnerability and frailty, the intangible and delicate quality of real love, he certainly misses the big neon sign in his own story.

In a statement this week, he denied engaging in sexual tourism. Sure, sexual tourism conjures up unseemly images of middle-aged men travelling to Thailand to pay for sex with a young or beautiful girl, who may or may not be over the age of consent. But what is worse? Going to Thailand and paying for sex with a woman, who once upon a time was a poor young girl when she first sold her body . . . or going to Nepal with the promise of money, food, education, friendship, love and kindness, with an offer of sex? Yes, the boys who entered his bedroom were above the age of consent there. (In Nepal, it is 16. In Ireland, 17.) Yes, Ó Searcaigh travelled to Nepal independently, so had no ethics of a registered charity to uphold. And, yes, there was no physical coercion.

But one boy said: "I am very shy . . . he bought myself." (Alas, he now sees the ugly side of commerce.) Another said: "Most of time, his hand is on my penis also. In the morning he told me 'I love sex'. 'But what is sex?' I asked him and he told me 'It is complex'."

As Ó Searcaigh is a poet, it is important to hear the language and words of these boys. Sex can take many forms, but its basic definition in our culture is not so complex: it is a physical act of intimacy or love or simply pleasure between two consenting adults.

Hear their words in the film when it is released on February 18th and broadcast on RTÉ on March 13th. You decide if they were taken advantage of, but only then it is still only a fragment of some truth. Still, what is on the public record already is pretty damning.

Consent is even murkier. Ó Searcaigh was not showering these boys - he calls them boys - with diamonds, but the little he offered them, and what it could buy, was worth its weight in gold. He was a figure of authority, bearing gifts, and someone they trusted.

These days, young gay men have less reason to seek the company of older men because of inexperience or of cold, distant fathers, or because they are drunk or curious or just because. In a more open society, confident teenagers have people their own age to kiss. This is not about an 18-year-old gay boy, who wants for nothing. Nor is it about a 68-year-old gay man, who sits at a disco bar with his friends. This is a separate issue in a separate environment. It is not even clear that these Nepalese boys were gay.

This is about trust. It is about charity that should be unconditional, not hunger for something in return. It is about personal responsibility and professional ethics. It is about First World versus Third World. It is about protecting the young and helping the poor.