Nepalese gay sex scandal may push poet off Irish syllabus

One of the foremost Irish-language poets is expected to have his work removed from the school curriculum in the wake of a tangled sexual controversy.

Until recently, Cathal O'Searcaigh, whose work has been described as "exquisitely beautiful", and has been translated by the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, was regarded as a gentle, eccentric soul devoting much energy to charity work in poor regions of Nepal.

But a television documentary, made with his co-operation in Nepal and screened this week, has divided opinion on his behaviour.

O'Searcaigh has provided substantial funds in Nepal, where he spends three months a year, to improve the education and life-chances of teenage boys. He also says that he has had sex with some of them, seeing nothing wrong with enjoying sexual favours from those he helps.

Aged 52, he is openly gay and has been going regularly to Nepal for more than a decade. He seems genuinely hurt at accusations that he is practising a form of predatory sex tourism, saying the youths involved are over the Nepalese age of consent, which is 16.

He said: "Boys came to my room. Certainly I had sex with some of them, yes, yes, yes. But it wasn't coercing them into having sex with me. That door was open all the time." Irish police say they are investigating, but police in Nepal are less concerned, saying no complaints have been made.

Irish intellectual and cultural opinion is divided, with some critics branding the poet's behaviour opportunistic and morally unacceptable. Ciaran Byrne, a journalist, said: "At worst it shows he exploited his relative wealth in a country where poverty is rife, using his cash to satisfy his sexual desires among highly vulnerable young men."

The Irish Times said that the episode was "in danger of fuelling a modern-day literary witch hunt", asking whether the work of Oscar Wilde should also be removed from the school syllabus.

Ireland's Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, said she was shocked and appalled, declaring: "There might be questions about the character of many people whose literature has been on courses for the past hundred years. This is different, however, because it is a current case involving a person living in this country. Students must answer one question about the poet [in examinations], which could cause difficulty."

The saga came to light when an admirer of O'Searcaigh travelled with him to Nepal to make a film, and became aware that he had sex with young men whom he helped. She said he set himself up as a benefactor to students "but somewhere along the line the boundaries get blurred".

The poet responded that the documentary, called Fairytale of Kathmandu and which aired this week, was "very salacious, distorted and inaccurate". He has engaged a PR adviser to mount an aggressive defence of his behaviour which has included accusations of bias, dishonesty, homophobia and entrapment.

Support for O'Searcaigh has come from the cultural community. Senator David Norris, a gay rights campaigner and Oscar Wilde scholar, spoke of "ignorant vindictiveness, sensationally presented", and the organisers of an international literature festival said they would be "proud" to showcase the poet's work at their annual event in Galway next month. A playwright and rights activist, Margaretta D'Arcy, said that, if O'Searcaigh was forced to sever his links with Nepal, "his friends are bound to suffer desperate hurt to their self-esteem, a sense of deepest betrayal, irreparable emotional damage; and this will be the real abuse."

Geraldine Sheridan, a professor of languages at the University of Limerick, responded: "Many of us denounced the Catholic Church establishment for closing ranks in the face of the indefensible: the abuse of innocence. Let us be spared a similar reaction on the part of our intellectual and artistic elite."

'Innocent and vulnerable' poetry

Cathal O'Searcaigh has been acclaimed by writers and critics in Ireland. The poet Michael Longley wrote that "in his loveliest poems there rings out most spontaneously a note that is innocent and vulnerable". The author Dermot Bolger wrote of him: "Playful, open, ebullient, unafraid of the colours of language, shockingly honest and raw when necessary, he has transfixed the landscape of his native Donegal." The following is an extract from O'Searcaigh's poem, "Here At Caiseal na gcorr Station", translated by Gabriel Fitzmaurice:

Above and below, I see the holdings

farmed from the mouth of wilderness.

This is the poem-book of my people,

the manuscript they toiled at

with the ink of their sweat.

Here every enclosed field is like a verse

in the great poem of land reclamation.

I now read this epic of diligence

in the green dialect of the holdings,

understand that I'm only fulfilling my duty

when I challenge the void

exactly as my people challenged the wilderness

with diligence and devotion

till they earned their prize.

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