Donal Lynch: The twist of fate that links Richard Boyd Barrett and Fr Michael Cleary
Priest's elder son was adopted by the same couple who adopted the son of Sinead Cusack and Vincent Dowling
In The Importance Of Being Earnest Jack Worthing, abandoned at a railway station as a baby, belatedly 'acquires' the requisite pedigree when Lady Bracknell discovers his true origins. Richard Boyd Barrett already came from a respectable family, but with the revelation last weekend that he is the biological child of theatre legend Vincent Dowling and Sinead Cusack, of the famous Irish acting dynasty, the outspoken People Before Profit TD received an impeccable artistic pedigree to go with his political power.
Add in the curious serendipity of his adoptive brother being the child of the country's one-time moral arbiter, Father Michael Cleary, and you have a family drama which, had it been written for the stage, might have been dismissed as too far-fetched.
If the story strains credibility in 2013, it must have made some sense in 1967, which is the year it all began. We will perhaps never know the terible pressures that brought Sinead Cusack to the difficult decision to give up her child – she refuses to discuss it. She was just starting out at the Abbey Theatre and her father, Cyril, was already considered a legend of the stage – she had a lot to live up to. When she met Vincent Dowling he was also a well-established figure in the theatre, 19 years her senior and was later described as "a master of seduction", in the words of one of his interviewers.
Cusack had a brief relationship with him from which resulted her eldest son, Richard. The pregnancy would have been a disaster for Cusack. This was, after all, the era of mother-and-baby homes, and boats to England to escape the disgrace of an out-of-wedlock child. Cusack was one of many women who found themselves giving up their babies. In fact, just three years later another woman, with very different pressures, would secretly give up a baby, who, through strange coincidence would soon be a brother to Richard.
Like Sinead Cusack, Phyllis Hamilton found herself in a relationship with a much more powerful, much older man. Fr Michael Cleary was Ireland's "singing priest", a charismatic and bombastic cleric who was also a showbusiness personality and an influential voice against pre-marital sex and divorce. Hamilton was his housekeeper. They met in the same year that Cusack and Dowling had their relationship – 1967. Hamilton was 17 at the time, damaged by a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She worked as an auxiliary in the same hospital where Cleary was curate, and they began an affair. When she fell pregnant, Cleary arranged for her to have the baby in a Dublin nursing home. She would later say: "I only saw the child twice in five days when I was allowed to hold him for 10 minutes. The baby was brought to one home, I to another."
Cleary presented her with adoption papers and told her it would be "best all round" if she signed them. The baby was put up for adoption and he, like Sinead Cusack's young son, would be adopted by David Boyd Barrett, then an accountant, and his wife Valerie, a hairdresser, who gave up work to look after the two young boys. They called the child Douglas. Richard would later remember "tough times . . . periods of unemployment" growing up in Glenageary, but by the standards of the time the Boyd Barretts were well-off and the boys attended the fee-paying St Michael's College on Ailesbury Road.
Their birth mothers, meanwhile, trod very different paths. Sinead Cusack conquered the West End and starred alongside Peter Sellers on the screen and Tony Curtis on television. In 1978, she married actor Jeremy Irons, who himself had family roots in Cork, and who would go on to win an Oscar for his role in Reversal Of Fortune. They had two sons, Sam, a photographer, and Max Irons, an actor.
Although they remain married, Irons would describe his relationship with Cusack as "dysfunctional" and admitted "Sinead and I have had difficult times. Every marriage does because people are impossible, my wife's impossible, I'm impossible". It was a sentiment with which Vincent Dowling would have perhaps concurred. After his relationship with Cusack he would go on to marry Olwen O'Herlihy – his first marriage had been to variety artist Brenda Doyle. Between his two marriages he had five children in all and one of his daughters, Bairbre Dowling, married the Star Trek star Colm Meaney.
Phyllis Hamilton, meanwhile, would continue to live with Cleary, although their relationship was "up and down" – she once saw him having sex with another woman. They exchanged 'wedding vows' in secret but in 1973 Phyllis moved to America in the hope of starting a new life there. While she was there Cleary repeatedly phoned her and wrote to her, pledging his love. She wanted him to leave the priesthood and live with her as man and wife but he implored her: "What will I do if I leave?"
She eventually returned to Ireland and in 1976 she and Cleary had another son, Ross. This time Hamilton insisted on keeping the baby. For two years after his birth Ross lived with her sister and in 1978 she, Cleary and the baby moved to Ballyfermot, where they lived together. In 1983 Hamilton was raped by a trainee priest, Frank Blaney, who was living with her and Cleary for the summer. The attack left her pregnant and in 1984 she moved to Florida to give birth to the baby, a girl, in secret. The child was put up for adoption and grew up in the US. Her son Ross grew up into a handsome young man and in his teens and 20s found work as a model.
The Boyd Barrett boys were, meanwhile, growing up in Glenageary, seemingly with no idea who their famous forbears were, although they were told in childhood that they were adopted. Richard knew Cyril Cusack only as "a character around Dun Laoghaire" but had no idea that the actor was his grandfather.
Coincidentally, the two families – the Boyd Barretts and the Cusacks "knew each other vaguely", Richard later admitted. He would go on to study English literature at UCD while Douglas tried to make ends meet as a model. The younger Boyd Barrett appeared in a number of television commercials and coincidentally ended up working for the same modelling firm that represented his biological brother Ross. Dougie, as he is known, earned a reputation as a playboy and dated Amanda O'Sullivan, a model and the former girlfriend of Irish soccer player, Phil Babb. In the early Nineties he was involved in a road traffic accident, which resulted in the death of his friend, Michael Long. Dougie did not dispute garda evidence that he had been over the drink-driving limit and was jailed for three months.
Fr Cleary died of throat cancer in 1993 without ever meeting his elder son. Three weeks after his death the Sunday World published an article claiming that Cleary had fathered two children by his housekeeper. The claims were sensational and made front-page news for weeks.
Cleary had been the supposed champion of unmarried mothers, and during a Late Late Show appearance had staged an astonishing attack on the family at the centre of the X Case (Cleary thought the whole thing was a set-up to test the abortion laws). Now here he was having evidently fathered two boys out of wedlock. The nation was divided, with some decrying Cleary's hypocrisy, with others cautioning against judging a man who was no longer there to defend himself.
His family strongly refuted the claims that he had fathered two boys and said they were in possession of blood tests and affidavits from two men who claimed to be the boys' fathers (none of these were ever produced). In a poem discovered after his death Cleary described himself as "a liar and a gigolo" Ross Hamilton was initially allowed to stay on in Cleary's house after his death but the church told Ross that he had to leave. He was paid €40,000 and went to live in what he described as a "pokey flat". Ross met Dougie Boyd Barrett before the latter went on the Late Late Show and was surprised at the physical differences between him and his brother – "I was tall and slender; he was short and stocky", he remembered in conversation with the Sunday Independent last week. Phyllis Hamilton would die of cancer in 2001, having seemingly lost the will to live. In the years before her death she would say it "would not bother me" whether she lived or died.
The reunion of the elder Boyd Barrett with his birth mother had a happier outcome. Richard received a letter from the adoption agency asking if he would be interested in meeting his biological mother as she had expressed an interest in meeting him. He agreed and the reunion went well. Richard was delighted that he and Cusack had "similar points of reference" and they went on to forge a close relationship. She canvassed for him in the 2007 General Election in which he (unsuccessfully) ran for the Dail for the first time. In time his biological father, Vincent Dowling, would also reach out to Boyd Barrett although for reasons of geography and the great age gap between them the relationship was somewhat cooler than the one he enjoyed with Cusack. According to Boyd Barrett, Cusack had not maintained contact with Dowling over the years since his birth. Dowling's funeral took place on Friday in Massachusetts.
Boyd Barrett himself has described the coincidence of himself and his adoptive brother both coming from well-known parents as "astonishing". A family friend confirms that the Boyd Barrett brothers enjoy a close relationship and both are in touch with Ross Hamilton.
"I used to be angry at the church but I've moved on with my life," Ross said last week. "There is still a lot they have to answer for." He describes Richard Boyd Barrett as a "nice guy". In latter years the former model has been in an on-again off-again relationship with socialite Antonia Leslie and will appear in a forthcoming low-budget indie flick called Running To Standstill. It seems that Fr Michael Cleary's youngest son is now trying to make it as an actor. Through the stranger-than-fiction coincidences of his family tree he now has some powerful connections in the industry.