Friday 18 August 2017

'Myself and Gay are hanging in there - a drop of Guinness helps' - Kathleen Watkins

Kathleen Watkins reveals to our reporter her thoughts about death, God, Johnny Ronan, affairs and the difficult times she and husband Gay Byrne endured when Russell Murphy swindled them of their life savings

Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins married in 1964, in Saggart, Co Dublin
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins married in 1964, in Saggart, Co Dublin
Kathleen Watkins dreamed up the character of Pigin while she was telling stories to her grandchildren. Photo: Mark Nixon
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

In 1964, when his courtship with young Saggart girl Kathleen Watkins became serious, Gay Byrne met her father Tom for the talk. In his 1989 autobiography, The Time Of My Life, he recounted the conversation with the man he described as "most convivial; a great drinker, smoker; in appearance, extremely like Pope John XXIII..."

Tom: "How do you do?"

Gay: "Fine, thank you, Mr Watkins. How do you do?"

Tom: "Fine. Will you have a drink?"

Gay: "No, Mr Watkins. I don't drink..."

Tom: "Will you have a smoke, then?"

Gay: "No, thank you, Mr Watkins. I don't smoke..."

Tom: "Ah, musha. Why doesn't God call you!" (In the book, Gay added that Kathleen's father was probably right about him: "Proper little prig.")

The erstwhile proper little prig Gay and Kathleen are now both in their early 80s - she was born on October 17, 1934, and he on August 5 the same year.

Do they ever reflect on life without each other, when God finally calls one or the other?

"You see, the thing about it is," says Kathleen, "a number of my friends have lost their husbands in the last few years.

"And that is really a devastating thing - the loss. The absence of somebody who is just suddenly not there. I never realised it before. Marie Heaney lost Seamus. Eithne Healy lost Liam. Anne Friel lost Brian. My friend Joan O'Sullivan lost Tadgh. It's just devastating. It really is. We have no idea what it is like - the loss. Loss of family is a dreadful thing."

Kathleen Watkins dreamed up the character of Pigin while she was telling stories to her grandchildren. Photo: Mark Nixon
Kathleen Watkins dreamed up the character of Pigin while she was telling stories to her grandchildren. Photo: Mark Nixon

I ask Kathleen at that moment is that when her faith comes into the equation to help her through it.

"I was brought up with faith. My mother Dinah went to Mass every morning. That kind of Irish mother did. They lost three children, my parents. They lost two toddlers and a 12-year-old. So my parents were amazing people to continue. . ." she says, breaking off to look back on that time.

"I don't remember the toddlers. I don't know anything about them. But the 12-year-old? I barely remember him. So, can you imagine my parents? They continued on. They were just wonderful human beings.

"But again, faith," she says, pondering the imponderable, "faith is something we have to hold on to."

Gay's faith - whatever about hers - was severely tested in the 1980s when Russell Murphy, his friend and accountant, visited the ultimate betrayal on him. When Murphy died in 1986, Gay discovered to his horror that his pal had swindled him out of more than €200,000.

"It was a difficult time," says Kathleen now. "It really was a very difficult time. But there is a pattern in your life. You have to look at all the precious things that you do have. And you have your health, which we did at the time, and to get on with living, and that you could still continue with work and move on," Kathleen says, "and also be mindful of the fact that Russell had family and that they were hurt as well.

"I won't say any more, because his very nice family are all still around. I meet them sometimes. Nice people. So it is in the past. Here we are now at 82; how lucky we are. So many of my friends have not been well. We have everything we want and we are still dabbling in what we love, and we have fantastic grandchildren.

"I am not a Holy Joe, but I pray every day. I go to Mass on Sunday. We have little nuns up the road from us in Simmonscourt," says Kathleen, who lives with her famous husband in Sandymount. (They lived in that chic hamlet on the northside, Howth, from 1968 to 2008 before they relocated to the aforementioned chic hamlet on the southside, Sandymount). "The nuns, they're a closed order. Their whole life is praying for you and me and the rest of us. That's all they do all day. And it is an incredible faith that they have."

She is very witty and she's insightful on matters ecclesiastical. The last time I met Kathleen - a 2014 dinner in Chez Max outside the gates of Dublin Castle, with salmon for her and salad niçoise for her husband - she talked about being the first continuity announcer to appear on screen on the opening night of Telefís Eireann on New Year's Eve 1961, and Archbishop McQuaid coming into the station that historic evening.

"He was very fussy that the curtains for the benediction in the room would not be the same curtains behind people who were broadcasting later. The day before the opening, the entire control desk hadn't yet been sunk into the ground.

"It was sitting up, out of the ground, with... hundreds of wires everywhere," she told me, adding that, "The funniest thing was, years later, [one-time TV presenter] Theresa Lowe said to me: 'Is it true you had your harp in there for any breakdown in RTE on the opening night?' I did have the harp with me, tuned up and ready. Because we had regular breakdowns and I would just toss off an Irish song."

Kathleen certainly didn't toss off her children's book, the delightful Pigin Of Howth, the reason we are meeting up today. It is, in a sense, years in the making.

Eight years ago, when she first started telling the stories of a little piglet to her then three-year-old grandson Cian, Kathleen kept thinking to herself: "I hope nobody ever hears this."

"It was all makey-uppy stuff. I had read him stories from books many times and he wanted something new. So I started on this piglet story and we went on from there." Indeed she did.

Asked where the story of Pigin came from, she laughs and says: "Out of the air. One day I just fixed on the story of a pig. Now the pig was invisible to everybody except me. So I would be talking to the pig and he would be looking around to see where he was. He followed me to London on one occasion. He was tired after the flight. My grandchildren seemed to enjoy it," she says, referring to her daughter Suzie's children: Sadhbh, Saoirse and, of course, Cian.

"Cian, Sadhbh and Saoirse always wanted more piglet stories. 'Tell us another piglet story!' So I would go off on another tangent - like piglet following me on the Aer Lingus flight to London. In fact, the children were living in London. When I arrived, I didn't even take off my coat. I just dropped the bags and started on the story."

The book, which by the way is great fun, features Pigin, a very popular pig about the town, and his friends - Sammy Seal, Sally Seagull, the Badger of Ballsbridge and the fairies who live in Howth Castle - on their many adventures, which include learning to swim, going on a magic carpet ride and meeting the President of Ireland.

"It all happened by accident," she continues. "I wasn't writing a book."

How it all happened was that Kathleen was at the launch of her husband's book The Meaning Of Life in October 2013, in the National Library, when her friend Mary said to a woman from Gill Books standing next to them: "Oh - Kathleen could do a book, too."

The lady, who Kathleen did not know, said: "About what?"

Kathleen's friend explained that these were stories she tells her grandchildren about a pig. "Is there anything special about the pig?" "He's beautifully mannered," answered Kathleen.

And the woman from Gill Books is reported to have told Kathleen: 'We'll do it!'"

Kathleen, shocked, replied: "Do what?"

"Publish the book!" replied the woman.

So here we are three years later." says chatty Kathy, adding that the book is dedicated to all her grandchildren. Her daughter Crona has two children, Kate and Harry.

Did she learn anything about herself from writing the book?

"That I'm a little bit mad!" she cackles.

Is the Badger of Ballsbridge character based on Johnny Ronan of Ballsbridge with his, well... badger-style hairdo?

"Everybody said that, but that couldn't have been further from my mind. Everybody thinks that is screamingly funny. But I did not intend that. I know him well. He is very pleasant, very good humoured, and a busy business man."

And did Johnny ask you - 'Kathleen, is this badger in Ballsbridge based on me by any chance?'

"No, he didn't. I haven't seen him for a long time. So I don't really know."

Whatever about Johnny Ronan, does Kathleen ever reflect on life without Gay? "Oh, I have never thought of that. I have never thought of that. But I certainly got a bolt when I saw the deaths of these people recently."

I say to Kathleen that she and Gay seem as fit as the proverbial fiddles anyway. "We're not bad - considering we're hanging in there. Maybe the little drop of Guinness and the little drop of whiskey helps. But we are out and about a lot, yeah. We walk a lot. It is the best medicine, getting out and walking. I went out with a friend yesterday and we walked along the seafront in Sandymount. Absolutely wonderful. You come back refreshed."

In terms of cultural refreshment, Kathleen's favourite shows on television are those involving, she says, "the antiques. I like costume drama, but Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday, I have watched it for years. I have learned more about antiques... I couldn't believe that there is so much learning in it." I ask Kathleen is it a metaphor for her and Gay - learning about life through antiques?

"We are all learning all the time. Even at 82," she laughs. "You learn something new every day."

Gay and Kathleen, our national treasures, whatever about antiques, are happily married since their wedding on June 25, 1964, in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Saggart, county Dublin. In the at times somewhat convoluted run-up to that day, Gay and Kathleen's relationship seemed to be very on-off in the early 1960s. "It was on-off alright!" she laughs.

So much so that he was dating an air hostess called Ann Tolan?

"Oh yeah. He dated Ann for a while. That was in one of the off moments, yes. We're still in touch with Ann. She lives in New York."

And in the off-moments, Kathleen got engaged to someone who wasn't Gay? Was that just to light a fire under Gay?

"I better not go there at all. I did get engaged, but let's not go there."

And when she got engaged to Gay, he almost lost his life when his plane crashed on the runway at Dublin Airport with Kathleen waiting for him in the terminal building. "I saw people running and shouting and they were all running in the one direction through doors. I knew there was something up."

And when it was on-off, what were Kathleen's beloved parents saying to her about it all?

"They never said a word. I think they were throwing eyes to heaven."

Was Kathleen playing a game with Gay?

"No, I wasn't."

Was Gay playing a game?

"I won't discuss that. End of story."

And when they did get married, did the charismatic Kathleen ever think that she was as married to RTE as she was to Gay Byrne?

"Oh no. RTE didn't enter my door. People find that very strange to believe. I remember once saying to dear Pan Collins, the senior researcher for so long at the Late Late, that 'The Late Late does not enter my door. That's for home and family.' And Pan said: 'Really? Well, Gay expects us to live it seven days and nights a week!' I did think that if I continued in RTE, I might have ended up directing The Late Late!" she laughs. "That could have happened," she says of the delicious possibility, sadly unrealised, of Kathleen directing Gay on the show that he hosted from 1962 to 1999.

So, does Gay take direction from her at home?

"I'm the boss at home. I'm head of the house."

Does he know she's the boss?

"Well, I let him think he's the boss," she laughs with her winningly characteristic joie de vivre. "I once heard Gay say that he read: 'Kathleen Watkins says that there is nothing like the clap of the door behind you'; and he said: 'I wonder is that going out or coming in the door?'" (Kathleen clarifies that she meant going out the door to go to the theatre or a launch, ostensibly to have fun.)

We meet up at lunchtime in the National Gallery because Kathleen loves art.

Can she paint herself?

"I once did a bit of painting."

And?

"A disaster," she laughs. "Let us be honest here. A disaster. I'll leave the painting to the artists. And we have some terrific artists," she says, naming James Hanley, Gavin Dunne, Bernadette Kiely, Paul Kelly.

Kathleen has currently two books on the go. The first is The Diary Of Mary Travers by Eibhear Walshe. "She had an affair with Oscar Wilde's father. Eibhear is a lovely writer. Then Ryan Tubridy gave me a book, a fabulous story called The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer [by Kate Summerscale]. It's about a boy who murders his mother. It's an amazing story."

I won't ask Kathleen whether she was ever tempted to murder someone, but did she ever have an affair on Gay?

"I certainly have not!" she laughs.

"How dare you, young man," she adds, putting me in my place; and proper order, too.

Has she ever been tempted to have an affair?

"God, you never know!" she says, rattling with laughter. "Hopes are high at 82!"

With the door shutting behind you, I joke, Gay will surely know then that you're leaving not coming into the house.

"'Oh, she's gone. Thanks be to God!'" Kathleen says, mimicking Gay.

Pigin Of Howth by Kathleen Watkins, priced €16.99, is published by Gill Books.

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