Thursday 19 September 2019

'I know what I'd say to God: You've been too good to me' - Kathleen and Gay

As the audio book of Pigin of Howth is released, Kathleen Watkins and Gay Byrne talk about their lives together, about writing, cancer and what they would say to God

Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins. Photo: David Conachy

Emily Hourican

Kathleen Watkins has a voice like caramel - enunciation clear as a bell, with warm, mellow tones and a depth of gentle humour. I can quite see why her five grandchildren pestered her endlessly for stories. And lucky for the rest of us they did, because the results, written into the best-selling children's book, Pigin of Howth, are a delight.

Pigin is a mannerly little pig who goes on a series of adventures with various pals - Sammy Seal, the Badger of Ballsbridge - that take in the mundane (the Dart, GAA training) and the magical (fairies, flying carpets). Presiding over the material fabric of Pigin's life is Nanakit - based on Kathleen herself - who makes sure the pig is fed and washed and minded, and the end result is a series of tales that are both cosy and exciting, with just enough by way of morals ("A gentleman never sits when a lady is standing"; "I could send a text, but it's always nice to receive a note"), to make everyone happy.

And now, fans of Pigin are in for something wonderful - the audio CD of Kathleen reading Pigin of Howth. The combination of her stories, told by her, is especially charming.

And indeed, Kathleen agrees: "I'm more excited about this now, because this is as it originally happened, with the voice, with the children listening to Granny telling the stories. That's the way it started."

Is she surprised at where this has all ended up? "I don't consider myself a writer," Kathleen says, with appealing modesty. "I felt I was doing what all grandparents do - they all tell stories to their grandchildren. I had never intended to publish, it happened by accident. Then the sales were terrific, which was amazing." And when I ask about winning the Children's Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, she says with a smile, "it was a terrible shock to me".

Kathleen is clearly a born story-teller, but she is entirely self-deprecating, insisting that "It was just fun. I was regularly in a corner wondering 'where am I going to go with this…?' I began to write and then I was told, 'no, we want dialogue', and I thought 'Oh God…' that was a terrible shock. I found that so difficult."

It takes Gay, her husband of 52 years, to interject what is clearly Kathleen's due: "You were terrifically inventive at all of these things," he says, adding, "I proffered one or two ideas, that were instantly rejected. They were just not mentioned again. I thought they were great ideas, but there you are…"

We are in the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, having tea and chat, about books, and life, but also about illness. It has been a tough year, for both. Gay was diagnosed with prostate cancer last November and has been having treatment ever since. He has also undergone a double hip replacement in that time.

There will always be something very moving about strength made vulnerable, and to see Gay - an indomitable force for so many decades - at less than his usual immense energy, is difficult. Not that he isn't still very much himself. "We're not here to talk about bloody cancer for the day," he says at one point, with plenty of his usual vigour. He and Kathleen walk every day, around the park close to where they live in Sandymount, or the seafront. They are both still regulars at the National Concert Hall, the Gate, the Abbey, "always on the move", as Kathleen says.

And Gay looks, I think - and say - very well. Kathleen agrees. "I think he looks terrific now," to which he responds ruefully "people keep telling me that. I wish I felt it".

That it has been a hard year, however, neither of them tries to hide, although Gay is quick to point out that "up to the present, I've had reasonably good news about the whole thing".

"It was very difficult at the beginning," Kathleen says. "After the diagnosis, it was very difficult, because everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. We were - every few days I seemed to be getting in touch with people and saying 'this has happened, that happened'.

One example - he was sitting up in bed and he looked around as if he had never seen the room before and I said 'do you know where you are?' and he said 'no'. I thought, 'right, that's that' and I rang immediately and they took him back in. I'm sure that happens to many people, but we weren't expecting it. Then he got pain in the hip, and the hip needed to be done and then within two weeks he'd had a second hip replacement and another operation…"

Gay says: "I had it easy for the first six months because instead of doing the full chemo, I was on tablets. That meant getting up every morning at 6 o'clock and taking these big globules, and going back to bed, which was the greatest part of the day as far as I was concerned. It was lovely snuggling in until 8 o'clock again. But then they found that the PSAs were creeping up again and they said, 'we want to whack this'. I'm back now doing the full chemo."

This will continue "until Christmas at least, every two weeks. It's not a major bloody thing," he insists. "It's not a major imposition. You get into the cycle." And yes, that cycle involves days where he feels ill and weak, but "then you start to crawl back up again… People are going through it all the time."

This is something that both Gay and Kathleen are very aware of - that they are not alone; that across the country, the misery of cancer is something that many are facing. But how much comfort is that, really, I wonder? "Not much," Gay admits, "But you realise other people are doing it too."

"And we have just ourselves to be thinking of," Kathleen adds. "And we have two marvellous daughters and we're lucky enough that one of them lives in Howth, and our son-in-law, and they're in and out to us. They are like scaffolding around us, holding us up. And we're also mindful that nationwide, people are having all these various problems with cancer, and they have to travel for treatment."

For Gay, the "greatest problem" is "that I got through life completely healthy. Never had to think about my health at any stage. I was on that side of the road that is made up of people who are healthy and vigorous and then suddenly, wham! You go from never having had a sleeping tablet, never having had an aspirin, never having had a pain-killer, never having touched drugs of any kind apart from the little Jemmie every now and again, to the other side of the road which is made up of sick people. You're permanently weak, you're permanently down several levels, you can't do what you used to do. Anyway goddammit," he adds, "we're both 83 and we sort of tend to ignore that fact…"

He had planned to be back at work on his RTE radio show this month but that now won't happen, he says. "Because of the medical advice, pushed very heavily by a very recalcitrant wife and daughters, I decided no, I won't go back, and I told my friends in RTE. We'll see how we feel in November/December. They've been extremely indulgent, extremely understanding, extremely welcoming."

And in the end, it is kindness that gets all of us. Where Gay can discuss treatment and outcomes with perfect calm, even with wry humour, when he begins to speak of the outpouring of support he has received, he is clearly much moved. "I have been inundated with letters from all over the country, from people I never heard of and many I did. So many friends, just writing to say - 'wherever you are, whatever the time, whatever the day, whatever you want to do, we're there, we'll be there'." His voice breaks and his eyes shine wet for a moment. "Sorry," he says, "just amazing things. The kindness… it's just amazing."

Of his daughters, he says, "They were just phenomenal. Crona lives in Killaloe so she couldn't do all that much, but Suzy and her husband Ronan were simply incredible and without them I simply couldn't have got through it. Kathleen was terrific as well, but Suzy appointed herself as the gaffer. She knew every nurse, every telephone number, every assistant, every doctor so she could ring anyone at any stage and ask."

His nature, he says, is "I tend to be negative." Kathleen agrees; "Gay will always see what could go wrong, with a programme, with anything, there's always something that could go wrong." She, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. "I'm not like that," she says. And indeed, it seems to me that Kathleen's great strength - or one of them - is her ability to stay cheerful and resolute. "You deal with what you have to deal with," she says. "Whatever comes up on the day, you deal with it." Last week, she administered an immune-boosting injection to Gay. "The nurse came and showed me, I did a few dry runs in my head," and she did it. Just like that.

Asked how did she manage the also vital task of minding herself, Kathleen says, "We just got on with it. You get on with your life. I tried also, and I don't mean this in any selfish way, but I tried to get on with my own life as well; seeing my friends. And we're ever mindful of the fact that there are other people going through the same thing and worse, much worse. You kind of join the club and we're thinking of them too."

One of the things that sets Pigin of Howth apart is the cadence of the writing. This is a book made to be read aloud. And so it is no surprise to find that Kathleen - a well-known harpist and folk-singer - is a great learner-off-by-heart and reciter of poems. "Kathleen is very much into poetry, and she recites poetry," Gay says. "Sometimes I think she's talking to herself during the day, and I think 'this is the beginning of it now, it's beginning to all unravel' but it's actually poetry. She likes to memorise and speak it aloud, and that's what helped the writing."

"I find it easy to remember," Kathleen says. "All the years of remembering songs, Irish and English songs. I love reading poetry, and I read it so often I realise I know them off by heart. Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Kennelly, loads of Yeats: Never Give All The Heart - a jewel; Brown Penny. The man was a genius."

"He was a horny old reprobate, that's what he was," Gay interjects.

Right now, for both Gay and Kathleen, it is a question of getting through. They walk daily, they go for drives - "We like to take a chunk out of the day by getting out of the apartment and driving to Wicklow, to Dun Laoghaire, anywhere. We would stop somewhere for a drink or coffee. You get on with living as best you can," Kathleen says - and look forward to "the little drop" of Jameson every day. "It is your only man; it's wonderful that it's permitted."

"She does the pouring," Gay adds, "so you can imagine, you don't get too much. You would be going raving drunk around town. A little drop."

They are, Kathleen says, "in a good place".

And next year, we can expect more adventures of the mannerly little pig. Does she worry that she will run out of stories? "No, I have the stories all right. Pigin goes to London is next." So who were her favourite writers as a child? "The Patricia Lynch stories, The Turf-cutter's Donkey. And the Elsie Dinsmore books were magic."

Kathleen was the first continuity announcer on RTE back in 1960, and she and Gay were married in 1964. They are, I say, lucky. "Yes we are. Yes we are," Gay agrees, while Kathleen jokes that her full name should be "Kathleen 'Shirley Valentine' Watkins Byrne."

"I think a little setback now and then does wonders for a marriage, if it doesn't wreck it, it improves it greatly," Gay says.

So will he go back to The Meaning of Life? "I doubt that I will do that. It requires a bit of travel. I enjoyed doing it and I loved doing the programme, but if it involves travelling, I wouldn't be up to it. At the moment. But I may be hugely improved by Christmas. Or otherwise. So it's all in the lap of the gods, I don't know."

What amazes him, he says, thinking back over the nine series, which included fascinating interviews with Gabriel Byrne, Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley, Bono and Stephen Fry, among many others, is that "in the end, how little thought people had given to this question, 'what happens when you die?' And probably it's something they automatically avoid thinking about. They may attend their religious services, they may go to mass and say a prayer now and then, and they would describe themselves as believers, but they have never given any great thought to it. Which kind of surprises me".

One who clearly had was Andrea Corr. "The final question is always, 'when you meet God, at the Pearly Gates, what will you say to him?' Her answer was instant: 'Where's me mam?' That really breaks your heart," he says.

And so, if I may turn the question around, to him and Kathleen, what would either of them say to God, in that moment? "I know what I would say," Kathleen says instantly: "You've been too good to me."

I love that.

As for Gay, "I'm not going to tell you," he says. "I'm not prepared to disclose my position on this question because it would inhibit anybody I might be going to interview, if they know how I feel about all of these things. They would censor their answers."

But does he have an idea of what he would say? "I have a fairly good idea yes, but I'm not going to tell you or anybody else." And then he adds, with a laugh and all his usual irresistible sense of himself, "Amn't I a smart egg all the same to come up with that?"

Pigin of Howth, book and CD Edition, written and read by Kathleen Watkins, illustrated by Margaret Anne Suggs, is out now

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