'A dark cloud descended on me and didn't go away. And you think: Maybe it'd be better if I wasn't here at all'
Published 07/11/2010 | 05:00
Talk-show DJ Neil Prendeville can't remember the incident onboard an Aer Lingus flight that propelled his life into a terrifying trajectory of shame, despair and self-loathing -- but he's not dodging responsibility, he tells Barry Egan
Neil Prendeville contemplated suicide as unpalatable sex allegations about him surfaced in the last two weeks.
The Cork 96FM broadcaster -- who allegedly committed a public sex act as an Aer Lingus flight was leaving Heathrow airport at 10.15pm en route to Cork on October 19 -- says it has been the darkest week of his life. He felt there was no way out lots of times.
"As day followed night, it just seemed to be getting worse. A dark cloud descended on me and didn't go away. And you kind of think: 'Maybe it would be better if I wasn't here at all,'" Neil tells me as we walk along the quays in Dublin. It is Friday evening. Two days earlier, Neil fled his Cork home with his wife and children to escape the media glare.
He has pondered how the poor unfortunates who find themselves in such situations actually go about taking their own lives.
"I thought about that over the past few days on more than one occasion. And then when you see them," he says, referring to his wife Paula Lenihan and two children, "you think you couldn't leave them behind. But sometimes you don't see it that way."
Later, in a darkened corner of the city's Clarence Hotel, 49-year-old Prendeville -- his face gaunt, his eyes hollow, his skin ghostly -- looks like a broken man. What he looks like most of all is seriously depressed. He says he hasn't been taking antidepressants. He seems like he needs them. "I don't remember anything," he tells me, "I could have been flying the plane."
Neil is a decent guy and I feel for him. I stayed in his house in Cork as a guest of himself and Paula as recently as August. They are good people. But this isn't a good situation for them (and Paula has been dragged into it, whether she likes it or not). Neil says people have a right to judge him and that it is shameful to know that people are making him the butt of jokes.
How do you feel when you think that some people will scoff at your man in Cork losing his memory about masturbating in public on a plane?
"If you are saying that people don't believe me," he answers, "I have no control over that. I don't think that any man would do such a private thing in public intentionally. I just can't accept that. And I can't accept it of myself. For whatever reason, it happened -- as a result of whatever. Nobody in their sane senses would do such a private thing in a public place surrounded by people intentionally."
He first informed Paula of the allegations against him on November 2 -- when the Irish Examiner told Neil they were running a story the next morning about him masturbating and exposing himself on the October 19 flight. On October 27, Neil was told by the PR company who organised the trip to London for the Cork Convention Bureau that an inquiry had been made by a media outlet about what he was alleged to have done under a copy of the in-flight Cara magazine. When he was told "the bones of what I did on that flight", Neil tells me, he froze and his heart sank. He thought that was it.
That was it for his marriage. That was it for his career. That was it for his life.
"I thought that was it for everything," he says, "including my ability to look my wife and children in the face." Neil was actually on holiday in Morocco with Paula at the time of the shocking call from the PR company on October 27 but decided to keep it from her "in the hope that it would go away." He told his wife he wasn't well to disguise his withdrawn moodiness and deepening paranoia about what was going to happen if the story came out fully. Neil was living in this nightmare he couldn't control because he "didn't know what happened and wasn't aware of the events".
"You can talk about my emotions or my regrets but last week for me has been about my children and my wife," he adds. "There is not a whole lot of singing or joking or whistling going on in our life at the moment. Whatever I have done, I will pay what price is necessary for this, but to put your children or your wife through this," he says, haltingly. Asked what his children have said to him, Neil answers: "They hug me a lot. I have a boy of 16 and a daughter of 14. We took them out of school."
Last Wednesday morning, after the Irish Examiner ran its report on the front page, Neil issued an apology on his radio show -- stating he had absolutely no recollection of the incident because, before boarding the flight, he took a mixture of painkillers, for a persistent neck injury, and alcohol. On Wednesday afternoon, he left Cork with his wife and family -- to flee the circling media vultures.
"It was very upsetting," he says. Paula was afraid to put any of the clothes in suitcases "because you don't want photographs of your wife coming out the door with suitcases". So the high-profile editor of RSVP magazine put anything her family needed into black refuse sacks.
Paula and Neil know each other from childhood. When she started school in Cork aged four, his sister was in her class. Neil lived up the road from her house. Their mothers knew each other. Neil and Paula met again when they both worked in pirate radio and they were best friends for years before they started dating in 1990. They were married in Cork on August 14, 1992.
"Paula is devastated obviously," he says. "She is a very, very strong person but absolutely devastated. But she is there and she is supporting me. I think she is supporting me, perhaps, because she knows it is out of character, and that I, or indeed anybody, in full possession of their senses, would never have done such a thing that is supposed to have happened. And on that basis, she is with me. But she is heartbroken."
Neil, on the other hand, is broken. He lit some candles in church in Cork last Wednesday morning and asked God to help him. He also visited his mother's grave. Neil told his 75-year-old father last week about the story. "He says he loves me and he will stand by me. He is keeping an eye on my house." I would be more concerned about keeping an eye on Neil. His mind is a place of torture and self-loathing right now.
A woman came up to him on Thursday night in the hotel in Castleknock, Dublin, in which he and his family were staying and asked him was he "the radio guy from Cork". He said no. "That's the first time I've ever been ashamed of my name. It is a terrible thing not to be able to stand up and be proud of who you are." Neil was weeping as he recounted this story to me. But what of the story of what went on that day in London -- the day that changed Neil Prendeville's life irreparably.
He says he does not remember anything that happened on the plane, or getting home to his house in Cork that night. He remembers arriving at Heathrow and going by train to Victoria or Paddington station and then by taxi to Bentleys restaurant in Piccadilly. "I went out on a 4pm flight to London from Cork and I left to come back a few hours later. It was a very fast turnaround."
He drank at Cork airport and on the plane (Guinness and red wine) and at the event at Richard Corrigan's restaurant. "I had Stella. I suppose I had a fair bit of drink but I don't know the exact amount."
What is the last thing you can remember of that day?
"I can remember being outside Bentleys having a cigarette. I actually don't know how we got back to the airport. I don't know did we get a taxi or a train. I don't remember going through ticketing. I don't remember the plane. Subsequently, last week, when I was apologising to cert-
ain people who were on the plane, I asked one of them how I got home. He said he put me in a taxi. Paula was in Dublin."
He says he took the painkillers at home at lunchtime before the taxi picked him up to take him to Cork airport for the outbound flight. He says he is not sure of the quantity of painkillers he took or even if he had more painkillers on him en route to London. "I don't want to come across like I'm apportioning any blame," he says, "That's not what this is about."
But where does the memory loss come from then? Is it the pills with alcohol? "I think it is everything. I think it could have been the wine, the beer, the amount."
Have you ever had a blackout, a memory loss, from a combination of those pills and alcohol before? "No. I don't want the impression to go out there that I'm constantly on pills and tablets or anything like that. That isn't the case. I think it was probably a combination of that and the amount."
Have you ever taken cocaine? "I've never ever touched drugs in my life. I've never even touched cannabis."
Neil says that he has heard from neither Aer Lingus nor the gardai. He adds that if the gardai decide to prosecute, he is not going to be disputing it. "I'm not going to be putting up any sort of defence. I hold my hand up and say: 'If this is what happened, I take responsibility.'"
Neil Prendeville talks a lot about the shame and the embarrassment of it all. "That is such a private act, you know, and such a private thing to do. It's not the kind of thing that you do in public if you are fully in control of your faculties. For a man, it is such a private thing. There has got to be something."
What kind of something causes that kind of bizarre sexual episode? He says he hasn't thought about talking to a psychologist about what happened. "I suppose I'm just waiting to see what's next."
I put it to him that some psychologists might view his very strange sexual behaviour as something emerging from his subconscious in a drunken -- or altered state through medication -- as a sign of some underlying problem or sexual addiction. "Sexual addiction? That's laughable," he says. He says that he has never had an incident even remotely like this in his past and that it isn't in any way part of some peculiar carnal pattern.
Questions have gone through his mind since the story broke. If he had been as out of control as the reports suggested -- masturbating publicly on plane -- why wasn't he arrested when the plane landed at Cork airport. He isn't trying to mitigate what he did on the plane by posing this question, merely trying to get out the facts himself. "But whether I was arrested or not, if it happened it was my fault. I think I should have been arrested."
"What we're talking about, I think, happened on the ground in Heathrow. So either [I should have been]taken off the plane there or off the plane when you get to Cork. But that didn't happen. So you think about that. Just the curiosity of it. But I haven't in any way thought that that should mitigate any of my responsibility in that regard." He says he doesn't think he will be the same again after this "but I sincerely hope I will be a better man".
He hopes to get back on the air soon. He asked for some time off from 96FM last Wednesday. He has a meeting next week with the powers that be at the station. When Neil gets back on air, he expects quite an amount of grief -- "and rightly so. But that's Cork, That's just the way Cork people work". He says he has no control over whether people do or don't believe he can't remember what happened on that flight.
"Look, I'm told this happened. I can't doubt that it didn't. I have apologised publicly for any hurt or embarrassment or shame . . . if the things that I'm told I have done have offended somebody. I want to get back to work. I want to provide for my family. I want to be in a position to get some normality into all their lives, however long that will take; maybe it will be in small pieces."
His beloved Paula, he says, has spoken to their children at great length about what happened.
"I don't know how great I've been in that regard to be quite honest. But it is a very difficult subject to broach because there is such shame attached to it. Fathers aren't supposed to do this. They are not supposed to put their children in situations like this. So it is has been very difficult for me to talk to them because I am not so sure that they actually want to sit down and go through it. I know they have spoken to Paula about it," he says.
"In my fall from grace," the jock who shocked adds, "I have let them down a tremendous amount. My job in life is to mind them and not to scar them and not to damage them. They have got lots of texts and Facebook posts of support and that's great but for me that's of very little consolation." He says he doesn't even see how he can start to make this right for his children again.
"By staying around," Neil suggests grimly, pulling his coat up around him to go out in the cold.