The love story of Cathal Ryan and Tess de Kretser
She was famously married to Cathal Ryan. Tess de Kretser tells us her extraordinary story of love and loss, her 'naivety' in marriage, her divorce and 'outside forces', her eight children, and her tensions with Tony Ryan
Tess de Kretser has always marched to the sound of her own drum. Any woman who smashes down her bedroom door, jumps over the gate of her parent's home in Sri Lanka and runs away at an early age to see the world working on an airline . . . then marries Cathal Ryan in a whirlwind romance, moves to Ireland on the same whirlwind, before having two kids, breaking up with Ryan very publicly . . . and then goes on to have six more kids with three other men - has probably got her own personal percussion section.
The 57-year-old beauty "with boring brown eyes" is an eccentric of the sort that they don't make any more.
"When I die I would like half of me to be buried with W. B. Yeats in Mullaghmore in Sligo."
I ask her which half.
"The bottom part of course as I had lots more fun here in Ireland," smiles wild-at-heart Tess. "Roll over Yeats - I am coming in!"
William won't have to roll over for a while yet as Tess doesn't look anything near her 57 years. Born on October 15, 1959, in Sri Lanka, Tess comes unsurprisingly from intriguing, and well-born, stock. "We spell our name with a small de - which apparently used to denote aristocracy," she laughs.
One of her aristo ancestors was second-in-command in the Dutch army in 1661. He had an affair with his boss's wife and was challenged to a duel which he won. He was, however, banished to South Africa.
Before long he set sail as part of the Dutch East India Company and came to Sri Lanka where he remained. Nearly 300 years later, in 1958, Irwin de Kretser met Anneliese Lachmair in London that summer.
They were married in December, 1958. Anneliese, from the village of Schoeffelding near Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria, moved to Sri Lanka where she and Irwin immediately started a family with Tess.
"It was incredibly brave of her because she left Germany at that time as a young girl and came out to Sri Lanka as a young bride. She had no idea what was ahead of her," Tess says of her mother, who is still very German, and at 80-years-of-age has never integrated into Sri Lankan society.
"She was quite a toughie. I used to joke that I was half-German, half-human! Mama was a formidable disciplinarian - using force if necessary! Mama has mellowed considerably now and we have a great relationship based on a mutual understanding of our differences . . ."
"But back then I was, and still am, a rebel and would fight her, antagonising her even further so naturally we clashed quite frequently during my adolescent years."
One of these clashes bordered on one of Shakespeare's lighter battle scenes in Henry V. On this occasion, when Tess was 20, Mama de Kretser tried to "control me, told me to go to my room, locked the door. I broke down the door, and ran away, with nothing. I didn't even have shoes."
And where was Tess running away to?
"To a friend's house," she smiles.
"I stayed there and then I went to the airline and said, look, I don't have a passport. I don't have papers. And they took me on. That's how I met Cathal. That's where I met my first husband."
The airline is AirLanka and the Cathal is Cathal Ryan, the dashing, debonair son of the incomparable Tony Ryan. Cathal was one of the youngest ever captains on the Boeing 747 aircraft, and according to Michael O'Leary, "one of Ireland's aviation pioneers." Cathal also served on the board of Ryanair from 1996 until 2002.
The legend that was Tony Ryan was born in Thurles, county Tipperary, in 1936 and founded Guinness Peat Aviation in 1975. In 1985 he also founded a certain airline called Ryanair. Dr Ryan became not just extremely wealthy with that and other innovative business ventures internationally but, in the words of Michael O'Leary at the time, "was one of the great Irishmen of the 20th century." "The epitome of what it meant to be an entrepreneur", Richard Aldous wrote in his biography, Ireland's Aviator.
At that time when Cathal and Tess met, "being an air hostess was glamorous and was all about seeing the world. And that's what I wanted to do, she notes "
AirLanka initially chose her as a face of the airline but then when she went for the photo-shoot they said they couldn't use the pictures, because they said she didn't look Sri Lankan enough, "That was the first time I had a bit of an identity crisis."
Meeting Cathal on a flight soon soothed any lingering crisis she might have been having. "He was such a gentleman. So charming. He was an observer pilot on the plane."
And was clearly observing Tess?
"Very much so. It was lovely. He was absolutely lovely. Cathal had great wit. He would say things like. 'That man has been in love with himself all his life and he has remained faithful to that love.' He was so funny."
Asked what was Cathal's opening gambit to her, Tess laughs and says: "My opening gambit to him was on a flight to the Maldives. I was standing at the top of the steps looking at this beautiful blue sea in front of me. I said: 'Oh, to be one with nature!' He caught my eye as he was incredibly handsome! He laughed and the rest as they say is history! He was doing observer training, like a mini internship before his wings!"
And they were borne away on the wings of love?
"Yes absolutely. I love that quote from Kathleen McGowan's The Book of Love," Tess says reciting the lines: 'I have loved you before, I love you today and I will love you again. The time returns.'
"This is being painted on the wall in the living room of Olcote," Tess says of her breathtaking new hotel in Sri Lanka. Tess had "a dream, a vision, to have a hotel in Sri Lanka. With the help of her architect Senaka Fonseka "that beautiful vision became a reality and with honesty, integrity, curiosity and tons of patience, I give you Olcote in Ceylon! One of the most beautiful places on earth . . ."
Maybe one of the most glamorous couples on terra at the time, Tess de Kretser and Cathal Ryan were married in Sri Lanka on May 3, 1982.
"We went on a three-week long honeymoon and then I arrived for the first time in Dublin on May 26, 1982 . . ."
She emails me pictures of them at Bunratty Castle dressed as the King and the Queen and a picture of Cathal "how he looked when I first met him. A stud muffin! We were so in love . . ."
Alas, it was not to last. They were divorced in Sri Lanka - but never in Ireland - in 1986.
"I miss him terribly," she says of Cathal who died of cancer at the age of 47 on December 18, 2007, and left a large sum, believed to be €3m, to Tess in his will. A credit to her; she won't discuss money. Only love and loss.
"He is my guardian angel now. You never stop loving someone you once loved out loud! Oriah Mountain Dreamer - the dance!" she says virtually in a reverie. "He was free-spirited, like I have always been a free-spirit."
Caoimhe, her daughter, would later describe Tess to me in her mother's kitchen in Cabinteely with piercing accuracy as "adventurous, open - sometimes too open - and young at heart. You never know what you are going to get with Tess. Life is never boring . . ."
You can add idiosyncratic, even unconventional, to the description of this 5foot- 4inch emotional and spiritual powerhouse of a woman. Tess de Kretser's life seems to embody Oscar Wilde's quote about keeping 'love in your heart; a life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.' "I loved the idea of living on the edge," Tess says herself, "of tucking my knees under me, holding my nose and jumping! My motto has always been, you can't conquer an ocean until you first lose sight of the shore!"
How does she look back on that time with Cathal?
"It was a lot of fun. I sometimes think: 'Did I really do that?' Now I have a bit more restraint, after having eight children, and being a grandmother to four," she laughs referring to her two grown-up children Cillian and Danielle by the late Cathal Ryan; Simone, Shauna and Johnny Cullen by John Cullen; Caoimhe and Iseult (Issy) O'Maonaigh by Sean O'Maonaigh; and most recently, Allegra (Ali) Cnockaert by Jan Cnockaer, whom she was also married to.
Tess used to joke with all her children when they were younger, and it was their birthdays, when they would ask her what she was giving them as a present: "I would say life! I gave you the precious gift of life!"
There would be groans every single time with a disapproving gasp of 'Oh, mum!' But, says Tess, "I did give them a blank canvas and they have now filled it with a fantastic myriad of colours of accomplishments, of intrepid journeys and of laughter and love. They continually teach me about life . . ."
I ask her to tell me what each of her children have taught her . . .
Cillian? "I love his sense of responsibility and the wonderful love he has for his children, not forgetting of course, how much he reminds me of his own beloved father!"
Danielle? "Her beauty and grace and her role as a wonderful mother."
Simone? "For her tenacity and fierce loyalty. She can organise a army."
Shauna? "Beautiful, creative. She loves mothering us all."
Johnny? "Again witty, creative, - a film-director who keeps us all in stitches with his dry wit," Tess says, continuing that "my beautiful Caoimhe who is so like me; and my gorgeous little Iseult again, the fabulous artist. And finally my greatest teacher - my Ali, my angel", who was born on August 20, 2007.
"There you have it," Tess smiles, "my six goddesses and my two boys! I am embracing the old - if wise - crone in me now and loving it!"
Tess, not finished, then name-checks her "beautiful grand-babies": Carla who is seven-years-of-age; Callum (5); Ethan, (5); "and baby Katie. They teach me of the wonder in the circle of life! Love, at the end of the day, that's what it's all about! Pure, unadulterated, all-encompassing, all-embracing love! Nothing else matters!"
Though I know the answer already, I ask Tess de Kretser who was the love of her life. "Cathal. Always has been and will always be!"
She says she had tensions which she won't go into with Tony Ryan, who died aged 71 on October 3rd, 2007 from pancreatic cancer. (Eleven short weeks later, his beloved eldest son Cathal was to follow him into the grave, aged 48 from cancer.)
Did Tess reconcile with Tony before he died? "No," she says, "but I have forgiven him and he is with Cathal now helping me! Simplistic faith I know, but I feel it to be true!"
And was Tess friends again with Cathal before he died?
"Very good friends and had been for eight years before he died. He helped out with a major personal problem. I went to Cathal to ask him to help me and he was brilliant, as he always was. That was right at the time of the Rocca/Ryan trial," Tess says referring to Michelle Rocca's case for damages against Cathal Ryan at the High Court in Dublin in February 1997. "Cathal and I, we bonded again, at that time. He couldn't have done more for me."
Tess says in hindsight that she was "perhaps naïve" in her marriage to Cathal. "There were outside forces," she says, not clarifying what she means by the term, "I was too young and naïve."
"Two babies born very close to each other," she says (referring to Cillian Ryan who was born on October 27, 1982, and Danielle Ryan, born, November 1, 1983) "a handsome pilot working and stationed in Nigeria and then Sri Lanka."
I ask her to explain the context of the remark.
"I felt Cathal was moving away from me and in my innocence and naivete, I thought if I made him jealous, it would make him desire me again and fight for me. I told him that another man had feelings for me," she says, "and it backfired horribly."
"Let's just say that outside forces and young idealistic minds contributed to a divorce that at its most simple should never have been, but then I wouldn't be who I am now! Anyway, it was a long time ago and a lot of water under the bridge and subsequent healing has happened as a result."
I have a mental picture of Tess, whose ancestor in 1661 fought a duel for his honour, in the divorce court that day in 1986 thinking of 1661. Further proof perhaps of Tess's extraordinariness as a woman was the way between 1996 and 1998 she worked for Maharajah Television as a reporter on terrorism in Sri Lanka.
Her first assignment was on a fire at an oil refinery that was started by the terrorists. She found herself cowering under a seat in a bus with the Tamil Tigers up a tree right beside the bus "and the security forces using the bus as a shield and firing at the rebels. No bullet proof vests or anything."
On another occasion, Tess reported live when "our Central Bank was bombed and 400 people died. Johnny my son, was just a little fella and was on a school-trip to the Hilton Hotel which was right beside where the bomb was detonated. There was no mobile coverage and I was at my wits' end wondering what had happened to him."
Tess later found that the whole class was "hiding in the basement of the hotel and all were safe."
Reporting from the scene of the terrorist bomb explosion, Tess can remember "scooping a man's intestines and putting them back into his body when they brought him out on a stretcher with his innards trailing behind him. I remember saying that this was someone's husband, son and brother."
"Again, my cameraman stopped me tripping over a perfectly formed head in the carnage with its eyes open. Another woman shouted to me to help her and I watched helplessly as she was engulfed in flames, her sari acting as an incinerator.
"These are images that haunt me till the day I die."
Tess continues that it was "when my life and my children were threatened by members of a paedophile gang that I felt really scared that things could go very wrong. Here was I like Don Quixote hoping to save the world and putting the lives of my children at risk," she adds, "I had to completely pull back then."
It is difficult to imagine Tess pulling back on anything. It doesn't seem in her to stop. She is currently non-stop as she is between Cabinteely and Sri Lanka, where she is now a hotelier. "I know! From the sublime to the ridiculous! Only time will tell!"
She gets her drive from her father Irwin who "was a Company Director in my Grandfather's business which was in tea and rubber. The family owned 5,000 acres of tea and some rubber with 7,000 people working for them. That was in the time of the Raj before all the land was nationalised in 1972."
"Dada" died on October 15, 1999 - "my 40th birthday" - from complications of congenital heart failure, aged 66. Tess believes she inherited his gentleness when dealing with people and his love of dancing."
Describe your dance style, Tess.
"A bit of everything!! Rather like myself . . ."
She said earlier that her German mother never integrated into Sri Lankan society. Has Tess integrated into Irish society after 25 years?
"Of course I have. I love being Irish. Ireland will always be in my soul," she smiles. "Sri Lanka and Ireland - the two heart chakras of the world! And the people of Ireland are similar to Sri Lankans. They can both laugh at themselves, and have a very strong family bond."
So, what does Mama de Kretser think of the idea of Tess having a hotel in Sri Lanka? "I like to think she is proud of me! My mother doesn't express her emotions easily!" Unlike the extraordinary, beautifully mad, owner of Olcote in Ceylon.
Olcote in Ceylon:110 Ihala Wewa Road, Jambureliya,Madapatha,Sri Lanka.Phone number: (0094)774 048764. www.OlcoteinCeylon.com
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