Thursday 22 August 2019

Pat Carey's loveless life inspired change

We were reminded again last week of the old dysfunctional Ireland Pat Carey helped change

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

You can tend to prejudge people and put them into simple boxes, can't you? When I met Pat Carey before he came on TV with me to discuss his life as a gay man and his decision to come out publicly, I suppose I was half expecting some harmless, nice oul fool. That was kind of the image the media often portrayed: a nice, harmless poor crathur. Even the way he sat there the infamous night on Prime Time and took that roasting off Pat Rabbitte, he seemed a bit like a useful idiot sent out to get a kicking. He always had that slightly hangdog look about him, like an innocent from Kerry slightly dazzled by the bright lights of the big smoke. And he always talked so quietly and so gently.

Carey was one of the few who came out of the last Fianna Fail government not loathed by the public in some shape or form. In a strange way, people almost felt sorry for him. He almost seemed like a nice man who fell in with the wrong crowd.

But talking to him that night I began to understand why Pat Carey had been a Fianna Fail whip. It didn't surprise me either that despite having lost his own seat in 2011, he was to be Fianna Fail's director of elections for this General Election. That night I met a guy who was no fool, whose decision to come out at such a critical juncture in the marriage equality campaign was not some kind of happy-clappy, emotional thing. Carey had analysed the situation and had cold, clear, logical reasons for doing what he was doing. He knew that he was in a unique position to help win this thing because of who he was.

Firstly, I sensed he was very annoyed at Fianna Fail's inactivity in the marriage equality campaign. And, secondly, he was very concerned that the Yes side was preaching to the converted. He knew full well the power, and the strategic sense, in what he was doing. He had analysed the opinion polls and knew where the weaknesses were. And he knew that a person like Pat Carey coming out was what was needed to convince more of the mammies and the daddies. Here was a familiar man, a man much like them. He wasn't 'flamboyant' or 'other' or threatening in any way to their way of life. It possibly even worked in his favour that he said he hadn't practised his sexuality until very late in life. It was as if he was as suspicious and fearful of homosexuality as a lot of other people of his generation.

His story of a loveless life, of only finally finding happiness relatively late, of all those wasted, lonely years, was a powerful one, too. No one watching would have wanted what happened Pat Carey to happen one of their children. And no one watching would have wished for a return to the Ireland that caused Pat Carey never to come to terms with his sexuality until his 60s.

Carey became an unlikely hero of the marriage referendum campaign. As Fianna Fail never looked more backward and irrelevant to modern Ireland, one of their old guard suddenly had a reinvention as an icon of a new Ireland, an Ireland that was open about sexuality, an Ireland where the old oppression and dysfunctionality that Carey had lived through, was no more. Pat Carey had grown up not knowing what a gay man was. Now suddenly, as Panti would say, even your granny knew where The George was, and Pat Carey was one of the people who brought that change over the line. And that was partially because people bought into his story: that this decent man had never known for six decades how to express love, because the kind of love he felt was not on the table for a man of his age and in his position.

Pat Carey does not know if he is the ex-government minister against whom accusations of sexual abuse of children are being investigated. He has not been questioned by the Gardai and whoever the ex-minister is has not been questioned by the Gardai. He has, however, seen fit to "absolutely and conditionally deny any impropriety in this matter or in his 39 years as a teacher, as a community worker and in his public life". And he is, as the statement from his solicitor says, entitled to his good name.

The story has also cast our minds back to the Ireland we thought we took another big step towards leaving behind earlier this year. The story reminded us how sexual abuse diminishes us all. It often destroys its victims and creates huge dysfunction in their lives, though increasingly society is helping people to survive and overcome the theft of their childhood or youth.

In a sense, child abuse has diminished all of society. It is not just the guilty and the victims who have suffered. It has diminished how we love our children, and introduced an element of its poison into that love. It has created awkwardness, too, around how we interact with other people's children. Increasingly adults who may have once chosen to teach kids swimming and other sports are nervous of getting involved.

Abuse can sometimes be seen as some kind of twisted love. And that perversion of love can sometimes threaten to cast a shadow over all the real love that exists in the world, too. Because people worry that lines are easily crossed and that one person's experience of something can differ hugely from someone else's experience of the same situation. We are probably even more careful now about how we express the visceral love we feel for our own children. We wonder as we get older about walking around naked in front of them; we are careful when they hop into the bed with us in the morning. There is a sense in which all our innocence is compromised by sexual abuse of children.

Last week reminded us all again, lest we thought we now lived in a New Ireland, of that dark place in humanity and those dark places in Ireland. Sometimes it seems that even as we move forward into a future of a healthy sexuality and openness we cannot escape the echoes of the dark corners of the past.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss