A strength only love can bring
Almost eight months on from the tragic death of Gerry Ryan, his grieving ex-wife Morah explains to Barry Egan how she misses him every hour of every day, but that for the sake of their children, she has to put the pain to one side and concentrate on living a normal life
'For the sword outwears its sheath, and the soul wears out the breast," Lord Byron famously wrote, "And the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest." Morah Ryan's love for her beloved Gerard hasn't paused even in his restful death. "I think about him all the time," she told me last month. "There isn't a moment ... " Morah, one of life's true survivors, added, haltingly.
It is all too easy to say Morah Ryan summoned up the bravery to survive. She had to for her children. Their welfare and their protection are her raison d'etre. She told me that the pain was immense but she had no choice but to concentrate all her being on her five children: Babette, 11, Elliott, 15, Bonnie, 18, , Rex, 21, and Charlotte, 25.
"Getting the kids up and fed and out the door is all I'm concentrating on," Morah told me. "They're great kids. We're coping together. The great age differences between the kids means that when one is down the others are up and we all are up then."
Her youngest child, Babette, walked in the door as we talked on the phone. "Hi darling. Did you have a good day?" Morah asked her, showering her in love and affection and kisses. My heart went out to Morah that night as it still does now.
The experience of losing Gerry Ryan twice -- first in a marriage break-up and then in death -- has been unimaginably difficult to deal with emotionally and psychologically.
But she didn't fall apart. She kept going. "It is one day at a time," Morah told me. "It is all still very raw. It has been tough for myself and the kids. There are moments of pain. There is still a lot of shock, too. There is a lot of unspoken sadness and shock.
"There is shock ... " she went on, slowly, that late Friday evening. "It is hard, very hard, but I have to cope and get my children up in the morning and keep going."
Of all the women on the Irish social scene, Morah Ryan is certainly one of the more sincere, the least self-obsessed and dare I say, the least up her own gym-toned derriere. She will always stop for a chat -- usually about the eternal verities -- whenever I have bumped into her over the years, be it in the Shelbourne or at a concert or a charity ball. She always has a smile or a laugh. It's her way. And it has always been her way. This is more than just Morah bravely bearing up as best she can after Gerry's death.
When everything came tumbling down with the end of her marriage in 2008, a new Morah didn't emerge. Her friends (such as Denis Desmond and May Frisby) rallied around her but she was still the strong, slightly New Agey Morah we always knew. She certainly didn't retreat to a crumbling gothic mansion on Clontarf Road to become a bitter recluse like Norma Desmond. She bravely faced reality -- as she is doing now with Gerry's death.
Morah's sheer strength of will makes her a tour de force. Yet she is still human and dealing with something that will probably take her years to come to terms with -- if she comes to terms with it at all.
"I am still in shock, of course," she told me. "But there is a lot of love, too. When something like this happens, you realise what good friends we have, what close friends who have supported us, and how kind people are. There has been so much kindness, so much help and understanding."
I texted Morah last week to tell her that a widow in Co Louth had written in to the
letters page to say that she -- "with many of my other widowed friends" -- wishes to thank Morah for her "very sensitive" words with me in this paper last month: "We had been hoping that Ms Ryan would be given an opportunity to make known some of her feelings. We wish Morah Ryan and her beautiful family peace to remember her long years of marriage and their father."
Morah texted back, thanking me for the text and wishing me well. She texted me several times when my mother died last month. She's that kind of genuine soul.
Restaurateur May Frisby, a friend of Morah's for more than 20 years, told me: "She is a very grounded and giving woman. She has a huge heart. She has coped with it all terrifically well. She never lost her spirit nor her sense of humour. She is a great woman and a great mother to those kids."
"Morah has always had a great inner strength and calm which is apparent when you meet her children," Bernie Cafolla, another confidante of Morah's, told me. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
When you meet her she has an easy, earthy (yet unspeakably glamorous), almost hippyish quality to her. Morah's aura of being a natural bohemian New Ager was noted by her daughter Lottie in an interview with the Sunday Independent LIFE magazine earlier this year.
"From when we were really young, a big thing with my mum was she never dressed us. We were always allowed to pick what we wanted," Lottie said. "But in the long run, it's taught me not to be scared of fashion, to totally experiment, and not care what people think. That, from her, is like the biggest thing ever for me. All my brothers and sisters would be quite stylish, you know. I think so, anyway. Morah has that thing that some people strive their whole life for, which is knowing you and your body really well. She knows what works for her, and she sticks with it. I can tell from my mum she's comfortable with herself. I think it comes across in your personality when you're comfortable with yourself."
If Morah Ryan is anything, she is comfortable with herself. The mother of five is more beautiful than ever. She isn't attempting to recapture her glory days because she never lost them.
She is certainly someone you'd meet and remember. She's unforgettably attractive, as Gerry noticed the first time he set eyes on her (you can see why Bill Clinton would have written to her after Gerry's death). But perhaps what makes Morah so beautiful is her quiet stability and serenity in the storm that was her life for the past year. She invested her grief with dignity. She refused to milk Gerry's death -- it could have been a bad play at the Gate.
To her credit, Morah avoided turning it into being all about her. She has turned it into being all about her children instead. Morah's grief-stricken eulogy at the end of Gerry's funeral mass on May 6 was moving for many reasons, but this is chief among them: "He texted me last week saying how wonderful they [Lottie, Rex, Bonnie, Elliott and Babette] were," she addressed the church, "and I texted him back saying 'I know, maybe they are the best of both of us', and he said 'now there is a thought. Night, night'."
Morah, lest we forget, was speaking in St John the Baptist Church on the Clontarf Road -- the same north Dublin church where Gerry was baptised and she and Gerry were married in 1982. She was only 21.
"Now, you'd lock your daughter up if she came home [and told you she was engaged so young]," Morah told LIFE magazine last year. "My parents were so delighted to get rid of me. But it was a different time. That was the norm." In truth, there was very little normal about it all. It was extraordinary.
In his autobiography Would The Real Gerry Ryan Please Stand Up, Gerry talks of glimpsing Morah Brennan in the front square of Trinity College during Freshers' week in 1978. "I saw my wife before I met her -- this extraordinarily radiant woman, probably the most beautiful creature I'd ever seen," he wrote.
"I remember holding her hand underneath the table," Gerry recalled of a dinner party some time later, "and it was just like touching a high-voltage cable. It was nothing to do with sex. It was instant falling in love. I remember she was wearing a flowing white muslin dress. She didn't look like any woman I had ever met or even seen before. I held her hand under the table and I remember thinking: 'This. Is. It'."
It was it for 26 years -- and three daughters and two sons -- but the couple officially split in March 2008. She had to draw on all her stoic sophistication six months later when Gerry was photographed with his new girlfriend Melanie at the Ice Ball at Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel.
I had met Gerry and Morah hundreds of times over the years at events around Ireland. I thought they were a good fit. Her joie de vivre matched his larger-than-life persona; and their love for each other seemed touching in its camp high drama. They just seemed normal, with normal tensions and problems.
A famous wheeze Morah played on Gerry was instructive about her marriage, perhaps: she rang into his radio programme and let on to be a woman called Norah. Norah proceeded to complain to a clueless Ryan about her husband's lazy ways at home -- leaving his socks and pants on the floor beside the bed every night, never picking up after himself, generally taking his wife for granted.
"What she said is true," Gerry would later confess of the prank. "She has got some legitimate complaints, but I'm trying to improve and, yes, of course,I'm changing my habits."
Not long before Mr and Mrs Ryan's 22nd wedding anniversary in 2005, Gerry gave an interview to the Sunday Independent where he said, intriguingly: "It doesn't seem like that long. Morah still seems like my girlfriend to me. It doesn't seem like I'm married for more than a couple of years. I don't know what the secret is -- that she looks half my age probably helps. She's a constant source of surprise to me, she's very good social company, she's got a great sense of humour and I've never got bored with her company, never gotten used to her. I can never tell what she's going to say or do or think next, and the relationship, to me, has always felt very fresh."
"I remember when my parents were getting ready to celebrate their 25th anniversary," Gerry said in 2005. "I remember thinking: 'My God, I'd rather commit suicide than be married 25 years'." He and Morah got to their 26th anniversary but no further.
"I don't see my marriage as a failure," Morah told Liadan Hynes of LIFE magazine in November 2009. "I think it was a great success. I suppose I was brought up where you married, and, you know, obviously I walked down that aisle saying: 'He'll be throwing the clay on top of me and then he'll be down after me.' So it's quite shocking when that doesn't happen. And you plan growing old together, and that's all gone." It was Morah who was throwing the clay down on top of her husband of 26 years first, sadly, after his untimely death on April 30 at his Leeson Street home, aged just 53.
Seven months later, I can only hope that Morah is finding some comfort and peace. She is possibly a long way from that, but from my conversation with Morah I don't doubt that she knows that the pain of having to cope with the finality of death goes with the ultimate healing that must occur if life is to go on.
The inquest into Gerry's death opened on Friday. Morah and Melanie Verwoerd were among the witnesses due to testify at Dublin City Coroner's Court. It is alleged that Morah and Melanie met for the first time around Gerry's coffin at the wake. Either way, the inquest doubtless reinforces the painful permanence of what has happened for both women, the death of a man who was still in the prime of his life, whom they both loved, one for almost 30 years.
"There is not an hour that goes by that I don't think of Gerard," Morah told me last month. "It is a very painful and difficult time for me and the kids but we are doing our best to get through it, or doing our best to try to get through it. And we are getting through it. We are very close as a family, thank God. And we are there for each other. We are blessed to have each other -- as we were blessed to have Gerard."
It was her mini-memorial to her dear departed Gerard -- memorials, some say, help keep memories of the dead alive and so afford them some measure of immortality. And to Morah and Ireland, Mr Ryan will always be immortal.