A Secret Daughter

Phyllis, Fr Michael Cleary and me

The third child of Phyllis Hamilton needs to know if she is the daughter of Father Michael Cleary.

An Independent.ie Exclusive Feature

Story by Geraldine Gittens & Paul Williams

“I remember once, the phone rang and I picked it up and there was a long pause, and she said: ‘Is that you?’. I said: ‘Who is this?'”

Felicia Irwin was possibly 12 years old when she happened to be walking past the telephone when it rang out of the blue. In truth, she can’t remember how old she was.

She was told never to speak of the phone call or the mysterious woman who was on the line again. Confused though she was, she didn’t.

Now, almost three decades later, that ethereal phone voice still haunts her. There's a yearning to imagine how the rest of the conversation would have played out. It’s sad to think that it never did.

“I think she was trying to reach out to me,” Felicia says, wiping tears from her eyes as she sits in the living room of her Florida home.

The fragile, ghostly voice all those years ago was that of Felicia's birth mother, Phyllis Hamilton, who lived in Dublin.

“I was born in Florida. My mother came here when she was pregnant. She left almost immediately after I was born.”

In 1984, Phyllis, then aged 34, discovered she was pregnant for the third time in her life. She travelled to Florida to stay with her close friend who later became Felicia’s adoptive mother.

By that time, she had been the secret lover of charismatic celebrity priest Fr Michael Cleary for 17 years. The clandestine relationship - concealed by the fact that she was his housekeeper – had already produced two sons.

The first son Douglas Boyd Barret was given up for adoption. Their second son, Ross, was reared by Phyllis and Fr Cleary.

Phyllis claimed her third pregnancy resulted from a rape by a novice priest, who had been staying in the same parochial house with her and Fr Cleary.

Phyllis gave birth to a daughter, Felicia, who she gave up for adoption to her friend and the woman’s husband in Florida.

Phyllis spent the rest of her relatively short, tragic life regretting the fact that she had given up her only daughter for adoption - but she felt she had no choice if her forbidden relationship was to remain a secret.

However, the tide turned for Phyllis after Fr Cleary’s death in 1993. Phyllis and her son Ross were abandoned and isolated by the Church and Fr Cleary’s friends who were determined to bury the truth.

Before Phyllis’s death, she ensured that any lingering doubt about her loving relationship with Fr Cleary was eradicated when a DNA test conclusively proved that Ross Hamilton was the son of the celebrity singing priest.

Phyllis and Ross Hamilton outside court, a few months before Phyllis died of ovarian cancer.
Phyllis and Ross Hamilton outside court, a few months before Phyllis died of ovarian cancer.

Her book, ‘Secret Love’ with Paul Williams became a major best seller.

Over the years the story of this forbidden relationship faded in the national psyche until that is, when last June a former friend of Fr Cleary, Fr Arthur O’Neill used a parish newsletter to challenge the journalists who had originally written about the affair.

And that was how Phyllis’s third, forgotten child decided that the time was now right for her to clarify if Fr Cleary was also her father. This is her story.

Felicia Irwin was born on January 18, 1985 in Florida.

From the moment she was born, Felicia had a happy home. Her parents were Irish Catholics who loved to visit their own country. With the hope that she would get the very best start in life, Felicia was sent to private Catholic schools.

Growing up, cloaked in the innocence of childhood, she looked forward to family holidays to Ireland.

At least twice during these visits, she met a beautiful blonde Irish woman called Phyllis. Phyllis was a "cousin" and so was Fr Michael, she was told.

Left: Felicia treated Fr Cleary "like an uncle", Phyllis said in her biography “Secret Love”. Right: Felicia and Fr Cleary together in the late 1980s.
Felicia with her mother Phyllis and (inset) with her half-brother Ross on holiday in the late 1980s. Felicia’s eyes were blacked out by the Sunday World newspaper to protect her identity when the paper broke the story of Phyllis and Fr Clearys’ relationship in 1995. Photos courtesy of the Sunday World.

The bearded gregarious priest was a maelstrom of energy - generous and loving towards her; and Felicia treated him like her uncle.

So joyful were her visits to the parochial house on Harold Terrace in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, Felicia remembers that she didn’t want to return home to the US.

“I stayed with them one time when I was about four or five, and I remember he went with me to get the paper and he took me for ice-cream. I also remember that they had a black cat and a collie.”

“He was a big, big man. And I remember his beard… he was funny. I knew I really liked him.”

“It was kind of like I didn’t want to leave.”

Fr Cleary was a charismatic, affable cleric who, by that time, enjoyed the celebrity status of a major star in a more innocent era in Ireland.

His star rose dramatically after he was the warm-up act for Pope John Paul II’s historic Mass for the young people of Ireland in Galway in 1979.

He shared the stage with the equally charismatic and popular Bishop Eamon Casey who had also secretly fathered a child – with his cousin Annie Murphy.

Holidays to Ireland for Felicia were exciting adventures, wrapped up in role plays of make believe. She was given a code name. If anyone asked, her name was not Felicia.

Felicia’s adoptive parents had kept the name that Phyllis had chosen for her. “Felicia” means “happy” and Phyllis had named her after a character from her favourite TV show “General Hospital”.

Terrified that the name would draw the attention of parish gossips, Felicia’s adoptive parents did whatever they could to protect their young daughter while visiting Ireland.

“When I would go there, I felt like I had to be so secretive and that it had to be this big secret”

“It was actually pretty funny because I was supposed to go by ‘Ciara’. And here I am going into stores with my mother and she’s yelling ‘Ciara, Ciara, Ciara’…and I’m not [responding].”

At that time, Phyllis and Fr Cleary were locked in a forbidden love affair, from which cosseted Felicia was very much protected.

Phyllis had been an impressionable and deeply vulnerable 17-year-old when she first met Fr Cleary who, at 34, was exactly twice her age.

On that fateful night in 1967, she was awestruck by the tall, entertaining priest singing on stage at a charity night.

And soon love blossomed as Fr Cleary convinced the teenager that they could be secretly married “in the eyes of God” by exchanging marital vows in private.

She would later describe how life had dealt her a raw deal from the moment of her birth. By the time she first set eyes on Fr Cleary Phyllis had been sexually abused as a child by her father. She had also been incarcerated in various orphanages and psychiatric institutions from the age of nine years.

Phyllis confided in Fr Michael Cleary about the abuse and neglect she had suffered since birth. He showed her kindness and made her feel special for the first time in her life. The pair fell in love, and were “married” for 26 years.

One fateful day in the early 90s, young Felicia Irwin spotted her photograph on the front page of a magazine when she was boarding an Aer Lingus plane.

Shocked and bemused, Felicia asked her parents why her photograph was there.

Finally, Felicia was told that the beautiful blonde Irish woman Phyllis was someone more than a "cousin".

Her adoptive parents sat her down and carefully explained where she came from, who her mother was, and that they loved her.

But ultimately, Felicia was unsatisfied with just the basic outline of her story.

Even when she was younger, Felicia had unwittingly guessed the truth.

“I was [maybe 10-years-old] when I got onto a flight and my face was on the cover of a magazine. My eyes were blocked out. In the picture it looks like I was five or six years-old, and I was on someone’s shoulders."

“When I asked about it, I was told not to talk of it.”

But Felicia’s questions multiplied even more, and looking back now, she says her adoptive parents became increasingly reticent. So she reached out to Phyllis herself.

“I wrote [Phyllis] a letter when I was 11 telling her that I knew I was her daughter and that I would come and find her when I was 18.”

“But she died when I was 16.”

Ross Hamilton carries the coffin of his late mother Phyllis from St Philomena’s church in Palmerstown.
Ross Hamilton is consoled by a family friend.

Phyllis died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, from the same disease which killed her long-time lover in Christmas 1993.

Felicia never got to ask Phyllis questions about her father. She believes Fr Cleary is her father, and she wants a paternity test.

Now 29 years-old Felicia, a mother of three children, is taking a leap of faith.

“I don’t want to be a child of rape.”

“I look just like my mother and I know that I have traits of [Fr Cleary]. I found pictures of her when I was younger, and I thought that I looked like her.”

“Mostly I think my mother wants me to know. I think she was trying to reach out to me, especially after Fr Cleary’s death.”

“I know that she loved that man, and she had me with him.”

Phyllis herself said before she died that she could not be certain that Felicia was the rapist’s child or Fr Cleary’s child.

“I didn’t know if he (Fr Cleary) was responsible or the other guy,” she said on RTE’s Kenny Live in 1995.

Whatever the truth, Phyllis Hamilton and Fr Cleary shared their lives – and bed – until his death from cancer on New Year’s Eve 1993.

Over a decade later, speaking to independent.ie, Felicia said: “I’m scared of what the outcome is. I was always told I would be shunned [by the Catholic Church].”

Felicia Irwin, daughter of Phyllis Hamilton, in Florida in August 2014.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things about Fr Cleary but I never met him as my father.”

“I know who he was. He inspired a lot of people and I look up to that. I’m always the one that people run to in a way. I know who he was in the Church and in the community, and I know that people always looked up to him.”

Fr Cleary was one of the church’s most outspoken conservative commentators on the issues of sexual morality, restraint and contraception.

He had his own radio show on 98FM, wrote a number of newspaper columns and regularly appeared to voice his views on TV chat shows.

“It’s the fear of the unknown. How do I get a DNA test? I know who my mother is, but I don’t know who my father is.”

“I feel like my whole life is just ignored.”

Felicia is ready to face the possibility that she could be the product of a horrific rape suffered by her mother in 1984, painful as it would be to accept.

“I think I would feel more sympathetic towards her, that she went through something so horrible. If that is the case.”

“She not only chose life for me but she chose to protect me as well. That’s love. She protected me, she kept me a secret.”

Mother’s Gifts:

Now at home in Florida, Felicia only has a few precious, humble, mementoes to remember her mother by.

“My [adoptive] mother told me she had passed. I knew that was my last way to tell my story gone.”

“I never heard anything and then all of a sudden I received a cheque in the mail.”

"I inherited $15,500. I was told that she had it hidden for me. I inherited it when my daughter was four months old. It shocked me, but obviously I was on her mind. And I believe that she wanted me to be in her life.”

“She put me with great people. She made sure that I was taken care of. In my eyes, that’s pure love.”

When Felicia was 24-years-old, Ross Hamilton visited her in the US as a surprise, and he gave her a pair of Claddagh earrings from Phyllis.

Felicia herself had just given birth to her own child, and tearful, she accepted this gift which she felt was a spiritual gift from her mother.

“The first thing he said when he walked in the door was just ‘you look just like her’.”

“He gave me a pair of earrings - gold Claddagh - that she bought for me.”

She added: “I don’t have much but I have a picture of my mother, myself and my adoptive father.”

Back in 1995, when rumours that Fr Cleary had fathered a child first surfaced shortly after his death, powerful friends of the singing priest launched a devastating counter-attack in which the allegations were vehemently denied.

When Phyllis could no longer tolerate the fact that their son was being so publicly denied, Phyllis decided to break her silence to journalist Paul Williams in the summer of 1995.

Today, likewise, over a decade since her mother has passed away, Felicia Irwin is ready to tackle her own story.

The lingering memories are all that’s left, and now Phyllis Hamilton’s only daughter is ready to step foot on Irish soil, to find out her truth head-on.

“If I could go back and not be a secret. I think that would be amazing,” Felicia says, full of hope for what the future might bring.

Credits

Development Seán Downey, Mike Stempień
Design Hilary Kenna, Simon Tierney
Video & Audio Donal Corkery, David O'Beirne