Leo Varadkar, elected leader of Ireland’s Fine Gael Party, has become the republic’s youngest Taoiseach or prime minister at 38. This is not the only first to his credit. Varadkar is also the first Irish politician of Indian origin — his father, a doctor who trained in Mumbai, moved to Ireland in the 1970s, marrying an Irishwoman — to lead the republic. And he is the first openly gay PM Ireland has ever had.
Varadkar’s story reflects the remarkable changes that Ireland has undergone through time. From a grindingly poor colony under England’s Victorian rule, that once severely punished homosexuality — its most famous playwright, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned for years, the great writer dying, destitute, devastated by prison’s harshness — Ireland decriminalised homosexuality in 1993. The change came after decades of tireless campaigning by civil society activists who faced constant discrimination and great violence. Yet, in 2015, Ireland held a path-breaking marriage referendum which radically changed the republic’s ideas of love, relationships and unions, allowing citizens — like Varadkar — to come out, demanding an equal and dignified life. Today, sexuality is no longer one of the dark bogies of identity Ireland must fear; several factors propelled the republic towards this change, including the slow decline in the influence of the Catholic Church and the powerful rise in the 1990s of a liberalised economy, which saw the once-poor colony integrate with the economies — and the ideas — of the modern world.
However, Varadkar will find this refreshing openness has not extended to the nation of his origin. Homosexuality is still considered a serious crime in India, a fact which may deter visits — despite a village called Varad in Malvan, Sindhudurg, Maharashtra, which reportedly is eager to welcome its most famous emigre. Unlike Ireland, India, once a Victorian colony too, continues to criminalise and punish sexualities, admitting to which identity could easily, tragically, lead to Wilde’s heart-breaking scenario in
The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “I never saw sad men who looked, with such a wistful eye, upon that little tent of blue we prisoners called the sky…”.