After a lifetime in the public eye Former Fianna Fail minister Pat Carey, 67, came out of the closet as a gay man in an interview yesterday.

Carey was born in 1948, the year The Pilot Press published Patrick Kavanagh’s finest novel Tarry Flynn (the book was immediately banned by the Irish Censorship Board, who called it obscene).

Clearly it was a different time.

“You think back to what it was like when you were growing up, and if I were writing it up or whatever, would say since my early teens that I was aware that I was in some way different,” he told the Irish Times.

“The part of the country I came from the word gay wasn’t even heard of, people were regarded as being a bit odd,” he added.

Growing up there were no words to explain who he was. There were only words to shame or deny him.

If you take away someones vocabulary they can’t say how they feel or what they want. Silence claims them. So like a lot of gay people of his generation, Carey spent most of his life in exile in his own country.

People didn’t know, they didn’t even suspect. It was considered so unspeakable to be gay that no one could even say it. The former minister – with wonderful Irish irony – eventually became the Minister for Equality. It’s amazing where you can find yourself if you play by other people’s rules.

But yesterday he revealed he has been openly gay for just the last four years, having never really “come out.” He added that he is currently in a relationship with another man following 35 years of solitude.

35 years. Half a lifetime. No one to come home to. That was his life.

We don’t really like to look at sorrow too closely, the Irish. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. With our history, we may fear that it could easily overwhelm us. Perhaps we should, though.

I don’t know what his life was like in those thirty-five years. Often lonely, I imagine. Thirty-five years where who he was lost out to the threat that it implied.

I can only shiver at the scale of the theft. And what else but theft can you call the loss of a simple human connection because your society was unwilling to countenance who you were and how you were made?

“There are lots of men and indeed women of my generation who have the same difficulty that I had in coming to terms with how you articulate your gender issues,” Carey told RTE.

Then he spoke of “the gap” between himself and the current Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, who came out recently. The gap was one of time and perspective and changes of attitude. It was more of a canyon than a gap. Varadkar is 35 - he has been alive for as long as Carey lived in this personal exile.

But how much have things really changed? People – young people in particular – use the word “gay” these days to convey that something is suspect, stupid and worthless. “That’s gay,” they say contemptuously. They don’t realize that’s also the message they’re sending to vulnerable gay kids - that they’re suspect, stupid and worthless.

When Carey was a young man the only time he would hear anyone refer to gay people it was usually to dehumanize or stigmatize them. To walk among them was to be tarred by the same brush. It would have been political suicide.

Fianna Fail - then and now - is a conservative political party. Honesty wasn’t an option. It can’t have been easy to have been closeted in such an environment and Carey frankly admits it was not.

During his interview he recalled, “quite crude comments from people that I felt should have known better. I heard it said not that long ago among a group of people whom I thought would have known better, and would have grown out of that way of articulating anything. Some people, I forgive them for their crude use of language at times because they’ve never been exposed to having to argue a position that clearly is new.”

It’s gracious to excuse the unvarnished contempt of others on the grounds of their manifest ignorance, but it doesn’t excuse them.

So I wonder, on hearing of his orientation yesterday, how many of Carey’s former government colleagues reviewed their long friendships for all the times they might have betrayed his humanity? I imagine there must have been many of them.

Did they feel they shame now that they forced him to feel then?

At 67, and in a long-term relationship for the first time in his adult life, Carey has moved beyond the old days and the old ways. “The gap” between the past and the present is best measured in the changes he has seen. Now he wants the nation to support marriage equality and give the next generation the options that he lived without for most of his life.

“I frankly don’t think the sky’s going to fall in - it didn’t fall in when Maire Geoghegan-Quinn brought in the decriminalization of homosexuality, the sky hasn’t fallen in with the Civil Partnership bill, and I have no doubt that the sky won’t fall in when equal marriage becomes law,” Carey said.

The truth, even if it comes late in life, can be transformational. And it turns out it can liberate not just the man but the nation.

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