Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has revealed how he experienced a sense of ‘othering’ growing up in white, Catholic Ireland.
In a conversation with former president Mary McAleese in RTE’s All Walks of Life series, he says his experience of feeling different resulted in him not fully embracing his Indian heritage as a child.
During the trek, he talks about the impact of his mixed cultural upbringing in west Dublin in the 1980s.
“I did grow up in what was a very monocultural Ireland, very white, very Catholic, I was the guy with the dark skin and the funny name.
“And even though I don’t think I was ever subjected to any kind of racial violence or anything like that, there is an othering when you’re of colour.”
The Dubliner made history by becoming Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister, our first of Indian descent and the youngest person ever to hold the office when he became Taoiseach in 2017.
In the RTE series, the Fine Gael leader tells Mary McAleese he “definitely” felt different growing up as the child of an Indian doctor and an Irish nurse.
“It’s often just the kind of little things, you know, the kind of thing where people ask you where you’re from. “Often one you’d get asked is ‘do you ever go back to India?’
“You know, I was born in the Rotunda, I grew up in west Dublin, I don’t go back to India any more than I go back to Waterford or whatever,” he good humouredly tells the former president.
“No harm is meant by it. It’s just ignorance in many ways but it does make you still feel different.
“I suppose the main thing I wanted to do was to fit in. This is long before I realised I was gay as well, so that kind of came down the line later on.
“But that’s one of the reasons why I probably didn’t take much of an interest in India or being half Indian because I think most kids just want to fit in.”
In a reflective conversation along St Declan’s Way in Waterford, he revealed how he made the decision to come out to himself while walking the Camino pilgrim route.
“I think the Camino did kind of help me take the decision to come out to myself, because it had a real sense of being on a pilgrimage.
“It’s not just a walk and the scenery and the churches and the hostels.
“It’s that time to think and that time to reflect, and it comes to the point where you run out of things to say to each other and you run out of things to listen to on your earphones.
“And on a Camino, you have to have a conversation with yourself, so I found that really useful in that sense.
“I’m probably due another Camino soon.”
On the political front, Varadkar candidly said he does have regrets at his party’s performance in the last election.
“Everyone makes mistakes and one of my character flaws is sometimes I’m too blunt and I say things that come across insensitive when they’re not intended that way, I’m just being blunt.
“So I’m sure there’s lots of things I could have done better.”
Aside from his personal performance, he points to housing as a source of regret.
“But definitely in terms of the election, one thing I really regret is that we didn’t make more progress on housing and homelessness more quickly.
“And that was an issue that touched everyone in different ways but we’re still in government and the only place to be in politics is in government because that’s where you can actually make change.”
As they walk down the boreen, Mrs McAleese questions the Fine Gael leader on how he responds to what is written about him.
“Nobody likes criticism, but sometimes your critics are right,” he answers.
“And you do have to sometimes consider that, that maybe what they’re saying about you is true.
“But that’s why you do need a few people who are on your side. And you know when they come to you with something that you’ve got wrong, you can trust them.”
Varadkar said he does rely on colleagues to be truthful but is quite aware there is always politics at play.
“That can be difficult in politics because if you’re the leader of your party you control other people’s position and fate.
“So it might not be in their interest to tell you what you don’t want to hear.”
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