Thursday 14 December 2017

US woman believes she is the biological daughter of Fr Michael 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. Inset: 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. Inset: Ross and Phyllis Hamilton with Fr Cleary

Paul Williams and  Geraldine Gittens

An American-born woman who was adopted almost 30 years ago believes that she is the biological daughter of singing priest Father Michael Cleary.

Felicia Irwin was given up for adoption as a baby by her birth mother Phyllis Hamilton, who was the secret lover of Ireland's most outspoken cleric and the mother of his two sons.

Ms Irwin - a mother-of-three who lives in Florida - plans to undertake parental tests to determine if she is the third child of Fr Cleary, who died in 1993 aged 60.

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

Ms Irwin (29) told the Irish Independent: "I was born in Florida. My mother came here when she was pregnant. She left almost immediately after I was born."

She added: "I look just like my mother and I know that I have his (Cleary's) traits... I know that she loved that man and she had me with him."

Phyillis Hamilton with daughter Felicia (Felicia’s eyes were blacked out by the Sunday World newspaper to protect her identity)
Phyillis Hamilton with daughter Felicia (Felicia’s eyes were blacked out by the Sunday World newspaper to protect her identity)

Phyllis Hamilton gave birth to Felicia in Fort Lauderdale in January 1985 when she went to stay with close friends who later adopted the baby girl.

By that time 35-year-old Phyllis had been the secret lover of charismatic celebrity priest Fr Cleary since 1967.

Ross and Phyllis Hamilton with Fr Cleary
Ross and Phyllis Hamilton with Fr Cleary

Concealed

The clandestine 17-year relationship - concealed by the fact that she was his housekeeper - had already produced two sons. The first son, Douglas Boyd Barrett, was adopted while the second, Ross, was reared by Phyllis and Fr Michael Cleary.

However, Ms Hamilton claimed in her 1995 biography that she fell pregnant with her daughter after being raped by a trainee priest.

But up to the time of her death in 2001 Phyllis confided that she was still unsure as to whether Felicia's father was Michael Cleary or the deacon who was later thrown out of the Church. The alleged rapist died 15 years ago.

"I don't want to be a child of rape," said Felicia in an interview at her Florida home. "I'm scared of what the outcome may be. I was always told I would be shunned [by the Catholic Church]. I've heard nothing but good things about Fr Cleary, but I never met him as my father," she added.

"I know who he (Cleary) was. He inspired a lot of people and I look up to that. I know who he was in the Church and in the community, and I know that people always looked up to him."

Felicia said she made up her mind to finally establish the identity of her biological father when the scandal was resurrected by a close friend of Father Cleary, who denied that the cleric ever had any children with Ms Hamilton.

In his June newsletter for St Brigid's parish in Cabinteely, Co Dublin, Fr Arthur O'Neill described the original revelations as "exasperating, unproven and the result of shoddy practice" by named journalists.

Fr O'Neill claimed that his former clerical colleague had suffered a serious injustice: "The burial of a person's legacy deeper than their body just isn't fair - if it's based on a falsehood."

However, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin quickly dissociated himself and the Church from Fr O'Neill's outspoken comments.

In 1999 DNA tests confirmed that Ross Hamilton was the son of Michael Cleary. Felicia now hopes that she can also undertake a similar test with the help of Ross Cleary.

Felicia's adoptive parents, who were both born in Ireland, brought her to visit Phyllis and Michael Cleary in Dublin when she was around five or six.

Phyllis Hamilton cherished the pictures which were taken during that visit with Felicia, Ross and Father Cleary.

Five years ago Ross Hamilton visited Felicia in Florida as a surprise, and he presented her with a pair of Claddagh earrings which had belonged to her mother.

"The first thing Ross said when he walked in the door was 'You look just like her'. He gave me a pair of earrings - gold Claddagh - that she (Phyllis) bought for me," Felicia said.

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

"My [adoptive] mother told me she (Phyllis) 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."

Irish Independent

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