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'The grief comes at me like a tonne of bricks' - Kathleen Watkins on life after Gay and the Bishop and the Nightie scandal

As the anniversary of her husband's death approaches, Kathleen Watkins talks to Barry Egan about life after Gay Byrne and dealing with grief - and sheds fresh light on the Bishop and the Nightie scandal

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Kathleen Watkins. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Kathleen Watkins. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy

Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy

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Kathleen Watkins. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Next Saturday, Kathleen Watkins will turn 86. Two and half weeks later it will be the first anniversary of the death of her husband, Gay Byrne. Kathleen will celebrate her birthday in a simple way: dinner with the family. "That will make me happy," she says.

What else makes her happy? "Being out in the fresh air," she says over scones and tea in the Intercontinental Hotel, her second home, across the road from her actual home in Sandymount. "When you clap a door behind you and get out, it is the most marvellous feeling."

Sometimes she will walk the seafront in Sandymount and enjoy it so much that as she turns to go home, she'll think: "Why am I going back home? I should go to the park."

And when she gets home from her walk and shuts the door behind her, what is that like? "It is very empty sometimes," she says. "Very, very empty."

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Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy

Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy

Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy

Does she see Gay in everything at home? "Not everything. I went through the office and all the bits and pieces. I did that at a time when I didn't really know he was gone. Somebody said to me, very soon after the funeral, 'Do you miss Gay?' I thought it was a dreadful thing to say to somebody," she says. "How could I miss him? I didn't even know he was gone yet. I didn't know for months that he was gone."

Kathleen has shown strength in the face of grief. The outside world sees a smiling and positive woman. What goes on in her head when she is alone?

"I have my moments," she says. "These moments can come at you when you least expect it. You get up one day and you say, 'I'm feeling great today' and then suddenly, whoosh, it hits you like a tonne of bricks - this grief."

Would it be at night in bed when she looks across to where Gay lay next to her for all those years, and realises he is not there?

"Exactly," she says, haltingly, "exactly.

"And it's a trauma for people. But how lucky we were to be able to give Gay the send-off at that time, because the Covid thing followed not that long afterwards."

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Her heart goes out to people who've lost loved ones in the pandemic, "who've had no goodbye. They had nothing."

She remembers his final days. "He was delighted to be back [in daughter Suzy's house in Howth]. He wanted to be at the Baily in Howth. We angled the bed towards the lighthouse. I think that was very good for him - and good for all of us too.

"The kids were running around. Gay would hear them saying something, chattering away, and he'd say, 'pay attention'. Another time he said, 'don't be cheeky'. Just normal family things. That was very healthy. But for people who didn't have that, and weren't able [to say goodbye] they must be mentally suffering dreadfully at this moment. So I think of them a lot, I really do."

Kathleen Watkins may have finally found some sort of grace in the grief of losing her husband.

"She is an enduring tower of strength and wisdom to many, including lucky me," Gay's old RTé colleague Joe Duffy says. "My abiding memory is of Kathleen minding, chiding, cajoling her Gabbsy to let her bring him home as a raucous gang of us shared the latest bit of showbiz gossip - and, of course, as always he acquiesced to his darling boss".

Along with lifelong friendships, what has helped Kathleen through the pain of the last year - and the years before that when Gay was seriously ill with cancer - is her faith.

"Some days I am better than other days. You have to keep going," she says, "I pray. I think prayer is never wasted... I have faith, you see."

When I spoke to Gay a year before his death about whether he believed in God, he batted away my questions.

"He has the faith," Kathleen answered for him then.

"I know the faith," said Gay, who was the host of RTÉ's The Meaning Of Life. "That doesn't necessarily mean you have the faith. There is a difference."

Kathleen explains that to me now: "Well, he went to Mass in the mornings in Donnybrook, very early, on his way to RTÉ, and for a long time, I didn't know that he did that."

Where did his faith come from? "I think it was from his mother. When his father was in the war, his mother said, 'If he comes back safe and sound, I will go to Mass every day of my life.' And she did. So, I think that remains with people."

She sums it up like this: "It's all about the kind of life you live, and being aware of people, and giving people the most precious thing, your time - and indeed people have given me, for the last year since Gay died, their time."

Kathleen has a trunk at home with letters and Mass cards. For months, she couldn't open the trunk, let alone read the letters inside.

"I tried. I just couldn't possibly go through all that, at that time. It was too painful. I am beginning to be in a bit of a better place now and any day now, I'll open the trunk," she says, looking like she is going to cry. "Even in the lockdown, people were still writing to me, to know how I was."

And how was she? "I was fine because my daughter Suzy, who lives in Howth, and her husband Ronan were all the time bringing me hampers of food. I had no cooking to do. They brought everything, at a distance, eight feet away.

"And just having that contact" made her feel "very lucky".

Yet the last few months have been especially sad.

"My sister Clare lost her husband, Desmond. And Gay's sister Mary and David, her husband, lost their daughter Alison. She died suddenly. It was a lot. Then Jim [Kathleen's older brother] died two weeks ago. We had a beautiful send-off for him, a beautiful Mass in Saggart."

It was at the same church where she and Gay got married in 1964. "We were glad we were all together for his Mass. That's the way it goes. Jim was very, very ill."

It was, she says, a happy release. He was 89. They'd recently had his birthday with a little gathering of family and he was "really bad that day". She asked him how he was. He gave her a thumbs-down sign. The next day he was in St Vincent's Hospital.

"And that really was it. Jim had lived a great life. He had lived a wonderful outdoorsy life as a veterinary surgeon," she smiles, then pauses.

"I'll have to give you a little story that I think you will enjoy, which has not been in the public domain before…Everybody remembers the Bishop and the Nightie affair," she begins, referring to the controversy on The Late Late Show in 1966 when Gay asked Eileen Fox from Terenure in Dublin what colour nightie she wore on her wedding night.

Her reply caused a national scandal: "I wore nothing."

The Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan said, "decent Catholics will not tolerate programmes of this nature" and it was "completely unworthy of Irish television". The Sunday Press thought the episode worthy of its front page. In his Sunday sermon, the parish priest at St Brigid's Church in Dunleer, Co Louth, Fr Michael McRory, said "the duty of Catholic viewers to such a programme is clear - they should turn it off".

"Way, way back, years back," Kathleen goes on, "my brother, who was the country vet, was up to his neck in his Wellington boots and cow dung out in some farm somewhere when he got a phone call from a priest to say that he had an urgent message for him. And could he possibly meet him. So, at great inconvenience to himself, he put on the Sunday suit and threw off the Wellington boots and went into the Gresham Hotel of an afternoon and met this priest. The priest was sent to say, 'sorry'."

To pass on a message of apology to Gay from the Church?

"Yes."

Why couldn't they have said that directly to Gay?

"Well, that's the point. Life is like that. Gay and I were just amused and we never said anything. We didn't want to make mileage out of it. I hope we are above that."

Gay being denounced from the pulpits of Ireland, she says, was "an extraordinary time. In those times, you see, the word of a bishop was very important."

Was it important to her husband? "Not really. I don't think it made any difference to him at all. I don't remember him commenting on it. We were just amused."

Gay himself once told me: "When people complained about the Bishop and the Nightie, could they possibly have foretold what they would be watching on television now?" He laughed, referring to reality TV shows like I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! and Love Island.

These programmes are anathema to Kathleen, who prefers to watch the likes of the recent ballet production of Cinderella on Sky Arts.

Is she in a new chapter of her life?

"I haven't thought of it like that. A number of my friends are widows," she says, referring to Marie Heaney, Anne Friel and Eithne Healy (who have lost, respectively, Seamus, Brian and Liam), to name but a few. "So we are all meeting and we have time for each other. We are out and about.

"The lockdown has put a clamp on that. I miss the theatre. I was a great theatre person. I really feel for all our artists and writers who have had no opportunity. They are doing stuff online but for me it is not the same."

Kathleen has just published One For Everyone: More Poems I Love, a second collection of her favourites. It features three pieces that were written for Gay - to whom the book is dedicated: The First by Brendan Kennelly, Clearing The Lane by Eithne Hand and Mortal by Rita-Ann Higgins. Compiling the poems then was quite an emotional experience. "It depended on the mood of the day," she says.

Gay's illness meant "three years of going endlessly in and out of hospital. It was one thing after the other. I thought he was wonderful about it. The staff who were dealing with him were so wonderful. We had fun moments as well."

She remembers on one occasion, chief oncology nurse Deirdre Stack - "dear Deirdre" - at the Mater Hospital approaching Gay with a needle.

Mildly horrified, Gay told her: "Oh, go away, Deirdre!"

To which she replied, "Did you know that my father was a butcher?"

"He loved the girls who were looking after him. They were fantastic, as were the doctors. They are the same for everybody. And then we saw people in there who were really very ill and, of course, when they saw Gay, they were so excited. 'It's Gay! It's Gay!' They could hardly walk themselves. Wonderful people."

Was it difficult to stay so positive in front of him? "It was exhausting," she admits. "At the end of it all, I really was totally drained and exhausted."

But she adds quickly: "I really felt for Gay because the medications you are on have different effects. They affected his fingers... so he couldn't play the piano. The medication affected his eyes as well. And of course he loved to read, so it was difficult reading.

"Just when it seemed we were finished with one thing, there was something else. But when I am saying this, I know that around the country at this time, there are people going through exactly the same."

But he was your husband, I say.

"He was my husband, and I was doing the best I could. What you do is - you do the best you can at the time. You cope with what you have to cope with when it is presented to you. It is just extraordinary, and then you do a little collapse afterwards. But I really feel for people who are going through it now."

Did he ever say something like, "I'm too much of a burden"?

"Never. No, he didn't complain. I remember having lunch here in the Intercontinental with Joe Duffy, Pat Kenny and [artist] James Hanley. Gay was just very, very ill... he really looked very ill on those occasions. But he still came out; and he didn't complain. He never said, 'I'm really feeling dreadful', other than 'I'm not great today'. It was extraordinary, really. We all did our best. That's all I can say."

And she has tears in her eyes for the second time.

I remind her of the time Gay told me his memories of growing up in Rialto as we sat at the exact same table in the Intercontinental.

"It was really a Guinness ghetto," Gay began. "There was Rialto Street, Rialto Cottages and Rialto Buildings. And there was the South Circular Road. And the people in the South Circular looked down on the people who lived on Rialto Street."

And so it went on, those in Rialto Street looking down on those in Rialto Cottages, and all the way down to Rialto Buildings. "There was a hierarchy of looking down," Gay said.

Gay can look down on all of us now, but he was never a snob.

"He was a great man," says Kathleen.

Pigín's Unexpected Adventure by Kathleen Watkins, illustrated by Margaret Anne Suggs and One For Everyone: More Poems I Love, compiled by Kathleen Watkins, both published by Gill Books, are out now


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