Sunday 18 November 2018

'He was stressed about RTE and things outside'

Gerry Ryan had managed an amicable and dignified separation and was on the verge of the TV success he craved, write Maeve Sheehan and Niamh Horan

AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS POWERS: Gerry presenting his morning radio show in 2005
AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS POWERS: Gerry presenting his morning radio show in 2005

WHEN people die suddenly, their last hours often take on a significance they wouldn't otherwise merit. Many friends and colleagues may well reflect this weekend on their own encounters with Gerry Ryan in recent days, unaware that their exchanges with the larger-than-life broadcaster would be their last.

What he was feeling? What had he said? Was he happy?

To those who saw him stroll into the Town Bar and Grill, the Kildare Street restaurant beloved by celebrities and millionaires, on Thursday, Gerry Ryan seemed in his usual ebullient form -- but tired.

He arrived at 9.20pm with his friend, Dave Kavanagh, the music impresario, and his girlfriend. Graham Beere, the fast-food-chain millionaire, and two friends had been at the table since 8pm.

It was all very jolly. They were a party of six friends, sharing dinner and a few drinks. Being a work night, the atmosphere was calm and the pace relaxed. They ate a good meal -- although not the steak dinner that's been reported -- and shared two or three bottles of wine.

He had much to celebrate. Ryan Confidential, his series of in-depth interviews, was to be broadcast that night, featuring Heather Mills, the model ex-wife of Paul McCartney. More thrillingly, he had recently signed up to front a new television chat show in the autumn, to go out on Saturday night.

The format and the slot were still being negotiated, but the much-coveted show was in the bag.

He had also been signed up for a third series of Operation Transformation, the health make-over show fronted by Ryan. For a man who had failed to crack television in the past, to his deep frustration, this trio of successes was some achievement.

The negotiations weren't easy. He had been stressed about the talks and about other things in his life, according to his RTE colleague, Marian Finucane. On her radio show yesterday, she said she had dinner with him on Tuesday night.

"I bumped into him and his partner, Melanie. It was South Africa Day and there was an event and we met and the four of us had dinner. He was in typical Gerry form: larger than life, full of asides and jokes and outrageousness and all of that. And he was also, I think, very stressed.

"He was really very, very stressed. He was stressed about RTE. He was stressed about other things outside in his life and I know that when people try to figure out what happened... I have heard a number of people mention that (stress) might have been what caused difficulties for him."

He had also been feeling under the weather of late, friends said. He had been trying to shake off some sort of bug. Perhaps he put his fatigue down to that and, of course, to his workload.

He certainly had a lot on that Thursday. After finishing his morning radio show, he joined his agent, Noel Kelly, in talks with RTE executives. He was due to attend the opening night of Krapp's Last Tape at the Gate Theatre but decided to pull out.

He was to meet his friend and producer of Ryan Confidential, David Blake Knox, at the event. He phoned him at 6.30pm to say he wasn't feeling up to it.

"He said he wasn't feeling well and that he was going to have an early night," said Blake Knox.

Tired as he was, he needed to eat. Despite the fatigue, Gerry was said to be in "flying form" in the restaurant.

He chatted to people sitting at the counter and bantered with staff. He didn't linger. He was tired and told his guests he planned on heading home.

Gerry was still in the restaurant when he made the first calls to his radio team to tell them that he wasn't up to work the next day.

Colleagues said that Gerry was usually meticulous about turning up for work , so much so that his radio team sometimes had to persuade him to stay at home when he was unwell. Not on this occasion, perhaps a suggestion of just how unwell he really was.

One of the first people he called was his producer, Alice O'Sullivan, to arrange a replacement broadcaster -- the journalist, Fiona Looney -- for the morning's show. He also called Joe Hoban, his press officer, to agree a statement in advance of inevitable press queries.

He had a busy schedule that Friday. After his radio show, he was due to rehearse with Gerry Fish and the Mudbug Club for a charity performance organised by broadcaster, Derek Mooney, in the National Concert Hall. They were to sing a duet, All The Time In The World. After that, he was due in Athlone at 4.30pm to open the All-Ireland Drama Festival, sponsored by RTE.

Claire Duignan, the managing director of RTE Radio, later explained: "When he spoke with people to say he wouldn't be in today, they obviously expressed concern and asked did he need a doctor or anything like that. But he said no, he was fine, but he wouldn't be in today."

According to colleagues in RTE, when his colleagues asked if he was sure he was alright, he countered that he was just feeling drained and low in energy. He suggested that it could be indigestion. But either way, he didn't feel he had the stamina to complete a three-hour, live radio show the following morning. But no one got the impression that his fatigue could be a symptom of something more serious.

Arrangements made for the morning, Gerry prepared to leave his dining companions, but not before making a characteristically generous gesture. He rose from the table at 11.30pm and discreetly picked up the tab.

At home in an apartment in a Georgian house on Upper Leeson Street, it was close to midnight when Gerry put in one of his final calls to colleagues.

He had lived there for several months, having separated from his wife, Morah, almost two years ago. The split caused him deep upset but he refused to discuss it in his autobiography. He proposed to her in the Metropole Cinema in 1978. They spent their honeymoon in Crete, where Pat Kenny also happened to be holiday.

Over the years, he talked about Morah so much on his radio show that he seemed completely besotted.

He had shared the fascinating mundanities of his 26-year marriage to Morah with his radio show's audience for decades. In an interview in 2005, he said she still seemed like his girlfriend.

But there were strains in their marriage that Gerry did not share with his audience. The couple announced their separation in March 2008.

His reticence after they split showed a discretion and sensitivity that was sometimes hard to glimpse in the bombastic persona he displayed both on air and off.

"Obviously, there are other aspects to our lives together that haven't been included and maybe one day Morah will write her own book," he said in an interview.

He moved out of the family home in Clontarf. Their five children -- Bonnie, Rex, Charlotte, Elliot and Babette -- continued to live with their mother. Gerry lived for a while in the Four Seasons, the Dublin 4 hotel that was one of his favourite watering holes, and later moved to Upper Leeson Street.

Gerry was candid about the toll of leaving the cocoon of his family. In July last year, he confided to listeners to his radio show that there were times when he was frightened and felt very alone.

"I've been deeply afraid and conflicted, worried and overwhelmed. I'm lucky to be surrounded by people who help me conquer that."

But he also insisted he was "okay". "I'm still a good person. I'm still somebody who would be good to have in a jam, I'm good company, I'm generous and I'm likeable. But I'm difficult, odd and strange as well. I'm very hard to get to know. I mean, I don't even know myself," he said.

Gerry found love again with Melanie Verwoerd, a former South African diplomat and the head of Unicef in Ireland. Morah also showed resilience, returning to her career as an artist that she had put on hold for the sake of her family.

The couple managed the separation with dignity. His children remained the bedrock of his life. One friend after the next underlined his affinity and love for them, as the tributes poured in. David Blake Knox said it was impossible to overstate how much he loved them.

He saw them most days and spoke to them several times a day. The fact that he lived in the city centre meant that they could drop in whenever they pleased and likewise, he would always try to hook up with them on their city excursions.

The image of Gerry Ryan dying alone and unexpectedly in his apartment seems bleak for such an avowed and social family man.

But appearances are deceiving. He wasn't quite the lonely bachelor struggling to keep house after years of being bolstered by his family.

In his memoir, he talked about not being able to go to work until he had made the bed. He arranged his shirts according to style and got upset if they weren't "all front-of-collar facing towards the centre of the wardrobe." He also hoovered compulsively, a trait he thought he inherited from his father.

He was also well able to cook, despite his protestations to the contrary. His specialty was the Sunday roast, which he regularly assembled with perfection and gusto for his children, family and friends.

He ate out a lot because he enjoyed the social aspect of communal dining, according to friends. He was also a bon viveur, a connoisseur of fine wines, whiskey and something of a gourmand.

Fine food and wine were his big indulgence and, publicly at least, he was famously dismissive of the health side-effects. In his memoir, he admitted to drinking 60 units a week and claimed that he washed down his anti-cholesterol medication with tumblers of whiskey.

"You can have a good time but there is a point beyond which you probably should not go as you will damage yourself or others.

"I'm probably pretty close to that. If I drank much more for much longer, I'd be sick. I'm below the danger level now," he said at the time.

"For the last couple of years, I've had elevated enzyme levels in my liver, which means it isn't metabolising alcohol as efficiently as it should," he said. "The deal I've done with alcohol, right, is this: I'm going to die anyway."

The drinking, he said, was part of the package. "It's what defined me in a way," he said.

Gerry was definitely more health-conscious of late. He had cut down on drinking and hired a personal trainer to shed three stone before he took to his chat-show chair.

"He was conscious of his appearance and he knew that he would have to get in shape for this gig which would have been the pinnacle of his career," said one friend.

"He was determined to turn it around this time, after popping diet pills in the past, and he wanted to do it the right way, through diet and exercise and a ban on alcohol."

At the time of his death, he had the long-promised television career was about to take off.

He and Morah had succeeded in managing an amicable and dignified separation. Friends said that he was deeply committed to Melanie Verwoerd, with whom he developed a strong and lasting relationship.

David Blake Knox said that he found great happiness with her and was grateful to have found her at that time in his life. They saw each other a lot. She had recently moved from Dalkey and lived near Gerry's home on Leeson Street.

She knew that Gerry had called in sick on Friday morning. She called around to his house at 8am, to make sure he was okay. She couldn't get in and left again. He could have been sleeping off his illness. She tried to phone him several times that morning.

When he still hadn't replied by noon, she called around again. By now she was worried. She asked two builders to help her get inside the house. They broke the locks and accompanied her to the apartment. They found Gerry lying on the bedroom floor, next to his bed.

Gardai arrived after 12.30pm and conducted a technical examination. A doctor arrived at 3pm. Forty minutes later, his agent, Noel Kelly, called to the house accompanied by an unmarked garda car, joining a distressed Ms Verwoerd and Gerry's brother. Gerry's body was removed from the house at 4.18pm. His Lexus car was still parked in the driveway of the house. Two books ordered on Amazon lay unopened on the car's passenger seat.

John McMahon, the head of 2FM, was one of the first in RTE to hear the news early that afternoon. The shocking news rapidly reverberated through the radio building. His producers, his team, the people who worked closest with him were quite simply horrified and stunned, according to one source.

John McMahon later said: "We'd been advised by the family that there were certain very close members who had not been informed, so RTE made the decision that we were not going to broadcast news on this.

"So we did hold off on it. We weren't the first to break a story like this for the very valid reasons that his family and his close personal friends needed to be informed first."

Unaware of this, Miriam O'Callaghan, the Prime Time broadcaster, posted news of Gerry's death on 'Twitter' for her online followers at 2.40pm. "Tragically, it is true. So terribly shocking and sad. Life is just too cruel sometimes. RIP," it said.

RTE bosses called her minutes later asking her to remove it, which she did. She said this weekend that she was responding to nasty internet postings.

"I thought the news was out there at that stage until RTE called two minutes later and advised me to take it down. It was an unfortunate serious of events and I didn't mean to upset anyone. I loved Gerry. He was a good friend and a great broadcaster," she said.

Since news of his death on Thursday, tributes to Gerry Ryan have flooded into the national broadcaster. On The Late Late Show, Gay Byrne recalled with fondness Gerry's bloody-mindedness, Dave Fanning his mischievousness and Pat Kenny the sheer fun of the guy.

Bono of U2 recalled, in his own inimitable style, how he heard the news. "I had just walked out of a meeting with President Obama and I had got into the car and Catriona, my PA, told me. From a really great meeting where everything seemed so possible in the outside world to just this very different reality where all the possibilities of Gerry have slipped away from us," he said.

Heather Mills, one of his last interview subjects, sent an email to David Blake Knox yesterday: "I only had the honour of meeting Gerry once, but I felt as if I had known him longer.He put you at ease immediately and opened up about himself -- very rare in an interviewer.

"My heart goes out to his family, whom he obviously adored, and did not stop talking about. I'm sure he will be sorely missed, remembered, cherished and honoured."

At a party in Il Segreto restaurant last Monday night, Gerry Ryan regaled guests with one of his infamous rants against the recession.

A friend recalled his words, now rendered unforgettable because of the tragedy of his death days later.

"There are two phrases that I'm fed up of hearing," he told friends. "When you ask someone how they are doing, one answer they give is that, 'Ah it's a bit tricky' and the other one, which really gets me, is 'I'm surviving'.

"If I hear the phrase 'I'm surviving' one more time, I'll scream."

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