Morah Ryan has won the admiration of many
Gerry Ryan's wife of more than a quarter of a century has become an emblem of the country's deep resilence...
Published 12/05/2014 | 02:30
The breakdown of a marriage, it's been said, is like a death in the family.
But what happens when someone is unlucky enough to experience both death and separation? The Australian feminist Germaine Greer once spoke of a woman who was "mid-divorce when her husband died. She quickly transformed from a slightly pitiable figure, embroiled in a public mess that was hardly of her making, into someone whose sorrow was to be respected." The grief of widowhood, it seems, is more socially sanctioned than the pain of being left alone in life.
Morah Ryan was separated, not divorced, when she found out that Gerry, or Gerard, as she called him, had died on his own at the Leeson Street apartment in which Harry Crosbie was allowing him live.
And it's doubtful that anyone found her pitiable. But there's no doubt that after the death of her estranged husband, she became a more sympathetic figure.
By then, she had lost him twice: first during the breakdown of their relationship – made official when they separated in 2008 – and later with his untimely death two years later. She had thought they'd be together for life. He, by contrast, had said he once thought he would "prefer to commit suicide than be married for 25 years with one person."
In fact, he got to his 26th year of marriage with Morah but the manner of his death gave these words a haunting quality. The troubling narrative of Gerry's last days – replete with illness, cocaine use, and work pressures – spoke of an accident waiting to happen. Many of those who knew him felt he was careening out of control.
His death sent shockwaves through Irish society and naturally there was a fascination with the women he left behind: his girlfriend of two years, Melanie Verwoerd; and Morah. In Gerry's will, made in 1992, long before Melanie came on the scene, Morah was left an estate valued at €1.3 million, while Gerry's girlfriend was left nothing. To some this represented a telling snapshot of the broadcaster's deepest priorities but, then, why would anyone change his will for a girlfriend unless there was clear and present danger?
The presenter, perhaps, saw reason he wouldn't go on functioning – and living. Or maybe Gerry simply was apportioning his wealth as he felt most appropriate – Verwoerd is, after all, a successful career woman in her own right. Either way there seemed to be little sympathy for her. Verwoerd's ill-timed memoir went down like a lead balloon in Dublin society circles. For Morah, by contrast, there seemed to be only goodwill.
Perhaps she received such sympathetic press because we were just slightly in awe of a woman who could put up with Gerry Ryan for that long and still look that good. Or maybe she had by then won the sympathy we often bestow on famously long-suffering women. While Gerry's death conjured up for many a period in Irish life we would rather forget, Morah seems emblematic of our ability to stoically absorb the tragedies of those years.
Given her beauty in middle age, it's little wonder that Gerry was mesmerised from the moment he saw her, at Fresher's Week in Trinity College in 1978.
"I remember holding her hand underneath the table," he once said. "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'."
They were married young – her parents were "delighted to get rid of me", she once said – at the Church of St John The Baptist on the Clontarf Road (the same church where she had been christened and where, nearly three decades later she would deliver her husband's eulogy).
Pat Kenny, who modestly called Ryan part of Irish broadcasting's "holy trinity" (the other two being Gay Byrne and Terry Wogan) gave up his bed in Greece so that Gerry and Morah could share it on the first night of their honeymoon. Money was tight in the beginning but Ryan quickly climbed up the ranks at Montrose and within a couple of decades was the second highest earner (and unlike weaker souls he never wavered in his certainty that he was worth every penny) at the national broadcaster.
They would go on to have five children together – Lottie, Rex, Bonnie, Elliott and Babette – all aspirational, home counties kind of names – and Morah later quoted her husband, Gerard not Gerry, as saying that the kids were "the best of both of us."
By some accounts Morah was a gifted artist but the thought of making a career out of her talents took second place to homemaking and her husband's boundless ambitions. There was humour with an edge in her famous jape in which she rang his radio programme, posing as 'Norah' a woman frustrated about her husband's idle ways at home – leaving his socks and trousers 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 concede. "She has got some legitimate complaints, but I'm trying to improve and, yes, of course, I'm changing my habits." Of course we now know that slovenly laundry habits were the very least of Gerry's vices – but Morah, like Melanie, was unaware of his drug use.
"I don't see my marriage as a failure," Morah told Liadan Hynes in the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine back in November of 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."
Four years on from Gerry's death and his anniversary hardly warranted a mention on the airwaves. For his family meanwhile the grieving goes on but there is hope for the future and Morah no doubt has great pride in the successes of her children.
At the 2014 VIP Style Awards a few weeks ago she still wore mournful black but the effect was utterly radiant. If the broadcaster, with his large ego, wild spending and fraught cycles of fear and euphoria, embodied the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger – a time we would rather forget – then Morah has been an emblem of the country's deep-rooted resilience. In widowhood she has blossomed.
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