'Bittersweet' | 

Mary Kennedy’s regret at not taking last chance to see beloved dad in his coffin

“I suppose I still miss him. I was the eldest. He used to call me his pet. That’s my dad. I loved him so much.”

Mary Kennedy

Mary Kennedy with Marty Whelan on Open House

Mary Kennedy with Brendan Courtney on Keys To My Life

Eugene MastersonSunday World

Telly favourite Mary Kennedy broke down in tears when she described the pain of turning down a last chance to see her father in his coffin after he suffered a heart attack on a golf course.

Mary was in her early twenties and living in France when she got a phone call from home to say her dad was unwell.

Mary (67) was the eldest of Tom and Pauline Kennedy’s four children and was born in 1954. The couple were from the Dublin 7 area but moved to Clondalkin, where Tom worked as an insurance clerk.

Pauline and her sister got married on the same day and moved in next door to each other. The families lived across the road from Graham Norton, before he moved to Cork.

Mary has fond memories of her father.

“My dad used to read what we used to call the funnies before we went to bed, he’d sit around there at the fire and we’d be kind of just around them,” she tells presenter Brendan Courtney on RTE’s Keys To My Life.

“My mother was the strict one and she’d say ‘wait until your father comes home’. We’d say ‘grand’, because he was a bit of a softie.”

She was the first of her family to graduate from university.

“I can remember my dad being very proud when I graduated. I spent a lot of time in the library, I worked really hard. I was an absolute nerd, I used to study and study and study. It was pen down and look to the finishing post,” she smiles.

Mary moved to Rennes in France in 1976 to teach English, and shared a flat with her friend Jill.

Mary Kennedy with Marty Whelan on Open House

“During the time I was here my father died unexpectedly. It’s an important place and I feel very happy to have the opportunity to revisit it,” she explains.

“I think the way it happened, Jill and I were going on Easter holidays and I got a phone call from Dublin to say my father – who was playing golf, it was a Saturday – had taken a turn. I didn’t realise until I got back to Dublin that he actually was already dead, that he had a heart attack on the golf course.

“You can imagine what that two weeks was like, it was awful. But there was a bittersweet moment when I came back here.”

She adds: “He was a great letter writer and he wrote me letters all the time. I actually brought them to show them to you. When I arrived back here there was one that he had written and it only arrived after he died.

“He actually wrote it on the 11th of March. It didn’t arrive until I got back. It was here waiting for me when I got back. So you can imagine, it was very sad because he was no longer with us and he always signed it ‘mind yourself’.

“I suppose I still miss him. I was the eldest. He used to call me his pet. That’s my dad. I loved him so much.” Mary gets emotional when recalling his wake.

“When he was laid out in the mortuary in St Vincent’s, neighbours said ‘don’t go in and see him, remember him as you saw him last in January when you were leaving to go back to Rennes’ and I’m sorry I didn’t,” she weeps, as she’s consoled by Brendan.

“I think I would have liked to have seen him laid out in the coffin to say goodbye to him. That didn’t happen. He was lovely… he was a special man.”

Mary Kennedy with Brendan Courtney on Keys To My Life

Mary returned to Ireland, when she got a job teaching Irish and French in Coláiste Bride in Clondalkin.

“My mother was a widow now. I was the eldest. I said, ‘I have to go home now, and help with the money’. I’m happy the way things worked out,” she recalls.

Mary had to pack her bags and leave RTE almost three years ago because 65 is the compulsory retirement age for members of staff at the station.

In the late 1970s she had applied for a job as a part-time continuity announcer in RTE .

“I answered the ad, but I told nobody. Got the part time continuity job, which I combined with work here,” she remembers.

“I was a celeb here in Clondalkin! What they didn’t see was when I had done my announcement and the programme started, I’d then be taking out their copies and I’d be correcting them for the next morning — didn’t waste any time.”

Mary went on to become one of RTE’s main stars, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 1995 and fronting magazine shows such as Nationwide and Open House.

“I think if people have the energy and the inclination to work they should be allowed to continue working,” says Mary.

“To be honest, I’m 68 now and I don’t feel any different in my head to the way I felt maybe 20 years ago.”

But she did not want to ruffle feathers and left quietly.

“I was staff and therefore was obliged to retire at 65. It’s not a path I would have chosen,” she points out.

“I’m a real person for abiding by the rules, but I didn’t like the rules. I didn’t like the fact that 65 was the cut-off point.”

Mary marked her departure by appearing on Dancing With The Stars. The mum-of-four downsized from the home in which she reared her children in Knocklyon and has found love again after her marriage ended in 1997.

“I don’t think anyone gets married wanting anything other than that it would be forever and until death does us part. It doesn’t always happen,” she says.

“It was important for me that the children should have the same school, the same friends, and myself and my ex-husband be co-parenting,” she says.

“They are all like adults now, they’re good people.”

Marty Whelan surprised Mary by turning up on Keys To My Life.

The pair chuckle when they recall how tongues would wag about whether anything was going on with them romantically as they got along so well onscreen.

“I remember somebody saying they were having lunch in a certain pub on the northside of Dublin, which is not far from where you lived, and they were saying ‘oh yeah definitely, they are having an affair’,” laughs Mary.

“Every time something close happened between us, or something funny, we’d say ‘this is for the woman in the Coachman’s’.”

Keys To My Life is on RTE One tonight at 8.30pm.

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