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Tuesday 12 December 2017

'To protect me she kept me a secret. That's love'

Felicia Irwin knows her mum was the priest’s ‘wife’, now she wants to know who her dad was, report Geraldine Gittens and Paul Williams

Ross and Phyllis Hamilton with Fr Cleary
Ross and Phyllis Hamilton with Fr Cleary
Felicia Irwin, an American-born woman who was adopted almost 30 years ago believes that she is the biological daughter of singing priest Father Michael Cleary
Phyllis and Fr Cleary on holiday in Bundoran in 1976
Phyillis Hamilton with daughter Felicia (Felicia’s eyes were blacked out by the Sunday World newspaper to protect her identity)

'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 that call came 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 never did.

Now, almost three decades later, that voice still haunts her.

Read more in our Exclusive Full Multimedia story - A Secret  Daughter:  Phyllis, Fr Michael Cleary and me

"I think she was trying to reach out to me," Felicia concludes with tears in her eyes, sitting in the living room of her Florida home.

The fragile, ghostly voice all those years ago was that of Felicia's biological 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, 34-year-old Phyllis discovered she was pregnant for the third time in her life. She travelled to Florida to stay with a close friend who later became Felicia's adoptive mother.

Phyllis had been the lover of Fr Michael Cleary for 17 years at that stage. She was officially his housekeeper, but their relationship had already produced two sons.

The first, Douglas Boyd Barrett, was adopted, while the second, Ross, was reared by Phyllis and Fr Michael Cleary.

Phyllis claimed she had fallen pregnant after being raped 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.

She spent the rest of her relatively short 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 after Fr Cleary's death in 1993. Phyllis and her son Ross were abandoned and isolated by the Church and Fr Cleary's friends.

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.

Her book, 'Secret Love', became a best-seller.

Over the years, the story of this forbidden relationship faded in the national memory, until in recent months 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 seek if Fr Cleary was also her father.

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

From the moment she was born, Felicia had a happy home. Her adoptive parents were Irish Catholics who loved to visit their home country.

At least twice during these visits, she met her "cousins" Phyllis and Fr Michael. "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 of 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.

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 Ciara.

At that time, Phyllis and Fr Cleary were locked in a forbidden love affair, from which 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 twice her age.

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.

The pair fell in love, and were 'married' for 26 years.

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."

Phyllis died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer - the same disease that 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 parental test.

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

"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."

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.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Felicia said: "I'm scared of what the outcome is. I was always told I would be shunned [by the Catholic Church].

"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."

Irish Independent

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