Fr Brian D'arcy 'Gay was very disappointed when it became known Fr Michael Cleary had fathered kids...it had a big effect on him'
SUNDAY WORLD columnist Fr Brian D'Arcy tells how Gay Byrne adored his wife Kathleen Watkins and the devoted pair were inseparable at social gatherings.
Fr Brian first met Gay casually at various media receptions around Dublin, but he got to know him better at private dinner parties in the Dublin home of Gerry McGuinness, co-founder of the Sunday World.
"In those days, Gerry would host a dinner once or twice a year in his house with guests such as Charlie Haughey, and I would meet Gay at those," says Fr Brian, who has been a columnist with the Sunday World since 1976.
"Gay and Kathleen always sat together, they talked together, and it was hard to know which of the two was really the leader in the house. There was Gay who led the nation as a broadcaster, but was led by Kathleen in social gatherings. It was his respect for Kathleen."
Was Gay comfortable at social events? "I would say he was comfortable in social gatherings on his own terms. He kept himself to himself. He always had somebody talking to him that he knew well, and he always had Kathleen talking to him. There would be people that he'd talk to, and people he wouldn't talk to.
"He was also the kind of man who never stopped interviewing, never stopped thinking about what he would say and never stopped looking for information.
"He always asked you the question that you didn't want asked. Even in private conversation he'd always stay with you long enough till he got the answer that satisfied him, not the answer that satisfied me, or anybody else.
"He was the same with Charlie Haughey. They would be in a corner and you always knew when the Taoiseach, or leader of the Opposition as he was in some cases, had got cornered as he would immediately turn away and walk to the next person.
"From a religious point of view he would be saying the most outlandish thing on his radio show and on his television programme, but at the same time he himself was quite a conservative believer and certainly didn't agree with much of what I was saying or trying to do in the early days.
"He would later admit that in those days he thought that I was off the rails, but as time went on he then discovered that actually I was more correct than he was at that time. And he admitted that to me on many occasions."
Fr Brian made his first appearance on The Late Late Show in January 1982.
He says: "I had just come back from America. While there I had been writing about the Church in America and about women priests celebrating the masses. All of the new things that were happening in America at that time I would have been part of. Gay thought this was unbelievable stuff altogether and he brought me on to talk about it."
The following year Fr Brian was back on the TV show, and this time it was personal. The church and monastery in Dublin's Mount Argus, where he was rector and parish priest, was in a terrible state of decay and needed urgent renovations. It would cost an eye-watering €2.5 million to restore.
"Sunday World photographer Tom McElroy took a series of pictures of the building, and Gerry McGuinness brought them out to Gay Byrne.
"Gay said, 'This guy is pulling our leg, nobody could be living under those conditions.' He sent out his researcher Brigid Ruane to confirm it. Brigid went back to Gay and said, 'You don't know the half of it, these guys are living in awful conditions.' He then got me on the Late Late to talk about it and I think something like €350,000 came in that week."
"It cost €2.5 million to repair, which thankfully I was able to raise within five years. When I went there in '83 to be the rector of Mount Argus and the parish priest, they were €80,000 in debt, plus facing the cost of repairs. When I left there six years later there was €250,000 in the bank and everything paid for. And Gay Byrne had played a huge role in that."
Fr Brian reveals how Gay firmly believed in the power of prayer. "He was a great believer in prayer and he would always say to me whenever we'd meet that 'Please pray for a couple of intentions for me when you're saying your Mass tomorrow morning. Your prayers seem to be heard'. He wouldn't tell me what the intentions were, nor would I ask him."
Despite his own beliefs, it didn't stop Gay discussing contentious issues relating to the Church. "He thought these things should be talked out and thrashed out," Fr Brian says.
Like so many, Gay was shocked by Church scandals and revelations, including the fact that Fr Michael Cleary had secretly fathered children.
"Gay was very disappointed with that, and it had a big affect on him," Fr Brian says. "He liked Mick (Fr Cleary). He thought Mick was good and did the right thing. Mick was far more conservative than I was."
Fr Brian also remembers how Gay was among the people who supported him when the Vatican tried to silence him, and censured him for some of his articles in the Sunday World.
When the Vatican came after me, John McColgan and Moya (Riverdance supremos) had a dinner in their house for me.
"Gay and Kathleen were there, and Mike Murphy. They invited me down so that they could thrash out what I could do or shouldn't do. Talk about a grilling…if the Vatican had called me over the next morning I would have made mince meat of them because Gay had already given me the grilling.
"At this point he was not disagreeing with me, but I think he might have said to me, 'Brian, you are putting yourself out on a limb unnecessarily. They can sack you and all the good work that you do for so many people will be left undone. Don't put yourself in a position where they can say to you 'get lost'. Try and find a better way of saying it.' Gay had the same attitude to his position in RTE in the early days.
"Larry Gogan and Mike Murphy fought with him continually to look for more money, because they couldn't ask for more money until he did," Fr Brian says.
"They would say, 'For God's sake Gay would you ask for more money, we're on the feckin' breadline. Larry shouldn't have to go around the country doing disc jockey gigs, he should be getting a wage from RTE that he could live on'.
"Gay said, 'But if I say anything they'll sack me.' He was very insecure on that front. It was only when he had no money left that he went looking for a proper deal from RTE."
This followed the discovery in 1986 that his friend and accountant Russell Murphy had embezzled all his money. The devastating rip-off came to light after Murphy died suddenly.
"I was in America studying at that time and I wrote to him and he wrote a letter back to me," Fr Brian says. "When I came back I met him and he said he didn't know how he survived. He went into work every morning at that time and he said he was so wound up and uptight and nervous, and he had to take two hands to hold a pen.
"It took a lot out of him. This (Murphy) was a man who had his lunch on Sundays with Gay and the family, who was a godfather to one of his children and used to say to Gay, 'Don't you be worrying about money, you're a broadcaster. I'll look after your money.' Gay gave him the power of attorney because he was his best friend, and a solicitor and an accountant. He completely trusted him."
Fr Brian says that while he was determined to battle on, Gay found his illness difficult to handle having been lucky enough to enjoy good health all his life.
He says: "Gay was a very strong man. He had never been sick in his life. He had never taken even an aspirin in his life, and here he was depending on drugs. It was very hard on him, and he would always say that. 'But what can I do?' he would add."
Through his radio and TV shows, Gaybo helped to launch many careers - the most recent being country music sensation Nathan Carter.
As Fr Brian tells it, this happened by chance: "In the midst of his sickness I said to Gay, 'Would you be able to come and preach at our Novena of Hope at The Graan in Enniskillen?' Gay said he'd love to.
He came up on a Wednesday and he couldn't get over the fact that there were people going to church like this. They were hanging out of the rafters. He couldn't walk across the sanctuary because every bit of the floor was already taken.
"Gay spoke beautifully that night, saying 'be good to yourself, you are not supposed to be perfect, there is nobody perfect, do the best you can, look after neighbours'… it was very homely and it went down a bomb.
"A young fella living in Enniskillen sang that night. He sang a song called Wagon Wheel, and Gay thought he was fantastic. People were dancing and Gay couldn't understand how people could be dancing in the church.
"He said to me, 'This is how it should be, but I have to say I didn't think it was possible in Ireland.' Then he asked, 'What was that young fella's name? And I said, 'Nathan Carter.' He said, 'What a peculiar name for anyone to take.' I said, 'That's his real name.'
'He's talented,' Gay said.
"I said, 'You have no idea how talented he is, but he can't get on the Late Late no matter how talented he is.'
"The following Sunday I tuned into Gay on Lyric FM and I heard him say, 'Well I was in Co. Fermanagh during the week, I don't be up there too often, I went up there for Fr Brian D'Arcy, he was having a novena, I thought 'what is wrong with this man's head trying to hold a novena in this day and age. Who would go to a novena? Gabriel was wrong. Gabriel was very wrong.
"I went up and had the happiest night ever. Young people and old people, Protestants and Catholics were jiving around the church and the place was electric from beginning to end. If you want to see the church of the future go to The Graan in Enniskillen.
"'And a young man with a most peculiar name, who is from England living in Ireland, came on and he sang something called Wagon Wheel.
"I have to admit, Gabriel had never heard of this before, but he had the place rocking. A very talented young fella. And even though I'm on Lyric, I'm going to play it for you.'
"And he played it.
"And Nathan was on the Late Late within two weeks."