Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I was like a manic zombie. I didn't want to have any contact with people. I didn't want to live' - Mark Cagney on the loves and losses of his life

Mark Cagney has loved two women since he was 18. He married both of them. He tells Barry Egan about his first wife Ann, who died tragically, and Audrey who helped him rejoin the human race, plus his complex relationship with his parents and leaving Ireland AM

'Breakfast Show' host Mark Cagney, pictured in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eager
'Breakfast Show' host Mark Cagney, pictured in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eager
Mark Cagney with his wife Audrey. Photo:Kevin Kennelly
Early days... Mark with co-host Amanda Byram
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Some people can read Finnegans Wake and come away thinking it's an easy-peasy love story. Others can read the ingredients on a chocolate bar wrapper and unlock the secrets of the entire universe. Mark Cagney is a bit of the two.

Never stuck for a word, or a thought, he spins sentence after sentence - each more analytical than the one that preceded it - for an hour seated outdoors at Balfes restaurant off Grafton Street last Tuesday morning. He has just come off doing the Newstalk Breakfast show, a guest gig he has been enjoying since leaving Ireland AM after 20 years last month. He left the house in Sutton at 4am.

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Before we start chatting, he rings his wife Audrey to say he will be home in 90 minutes. Mark has loved just two women since he was 17 or 18. He married both of them - he wed Ann Humphries in 1980, in Cork; and Audrey Byrne in September, 2002, in Dublin.

To me, that says a great deal about the emotional intelligence and romantic maturity that Mark had from an early age.

Mark Cagney with his wife Audrey. Photo:Kevin Kennelly
Mark Cagney with his wife Audrey. Photo:Kevin Kennelly

"Romantic intelligence or emotional maturity?" ponders the man, who was born on September 25, 1956, the eldest of four sisters and four brothers.

"I would love to tell you that I was smart enough to know that's what was going on at the time. Although I did a have a template, a frame of reference in my parents' relationship. They were besotted with each other until they died. If they were out for a walk, or shopping, or whatever, they would hold hands like teenagers in love."

Mark can remember "actually being embarrassed by it on occasions and thinking, 'OMG - stop it, you're not love's young dream'. But I suppose that instilled a belief, that when you do get married or settle down, that you better make sure you've picked the right one, because it's meant to be for life. That probably seems very old fashioned now, or a product of a holy Catholic Ireland that doesn't exist anymore, but it was a case of - you get one shot at this, get it right.

"Also," he continues, "my paternal grandfather gave me the best marriage guidance of all; he and my grandmother used to sit together, side by side, in their garden for hours.

"Every now and again, one would say a few words, not to start a conversation, more like finishing a thought or sentence the other hadn't spoken out loud. It used to freak me out. I was still quite young at the time, aged 10, maybe 11, I thought they could read each other's minds. Eventually, I asked him about it and he said, 'Your granny and I have known each other for over 50 years, and she's my best friend, we know everything there is to know about each other'."

Mark says he "was really disappointed, because at 10 or 11, you hope that magic or telepathic powers exist".

Then his grandfather continued: "'Do you want to know the secret of a long marriage? Marry your best friend, love is great to start off with, to get you going, but friendship is what takes you the distance'. What was he doing, telling a 10 or 11-year-old that? He wasn't really talking to me, he was talking out loud, reminding himself of his luck and grateful for it. Which brings me back to your question, the answer is it's pure blind luck and then what you do with it. Don't blow it, don't waste it, don't ever take it for granted and always be grateful that you got that lucky in the first place."

On March 18, 1981, at 1pm, Mark's late wife Ann was in Brown Thomas on Grafton Street with a friend - around the corner from where we are chatting now - when she suddenly collapsed. At 2pm, Mark, who was on air at 98FM, got the news that Ann had been taken to the Meath Hospital. "Ann had surgery and then a second, fatal haemorrhage," says Mark.

Ten days later, Ann died of a brain haemorrhage. She was 31. When she was 19, she used to go to a nightclub, Good Time Charlie's, in Cork, where Mark was a young disc jockey.

After Ann died, Audrey, who also worked at 98FM, started to talk to him. They had something in common: loss and pain.

A few years before, Audrey's brother Gerard, who she was very close to, had been killed in a motorbike accident. He was 19.

"Our eldest son is named after him," he says. (Mark and Audrey also have three other grown-up off-spring: Sophie, Daniel and Mary.)

After Ann died, Mark was "a mess. If I say it was all dark and despair, people say, 'Were you suicidal?'"

Was he?

"I'll tell you what I was. Here's the thing about despair. What is despair? Despair, not so much that you want to give up and end it all. You don't want to do anything. You don't want to get up. I didn't want to go to sleep. I was like a manic zombie. I didn't want to have any contact with people. I didn't want to live, I didn't want to die. I didn't know what I wanted to do.

"And I was going mad. I didn't know whether she was really dead or not. I didn't know whether it was a bad joke. I didn't know if I had done something bad and I was being punished for it. And this was my prison sentence, or my purgatory and eventually I'd get a tap on the shoulder and someone would say, 'Ah, listen. It's over, now go on. But that will teach you a lesson. Be a good boy in the future.' Stupid, mad stuff. I did eventually get around to, 'Well, maybe, the best thing to do would be to finish it all.'"

That dreadful night, four months after Ann's funeral in Cork, Mark then fell asleep in the empty bed, in the empty house, he used to share with Ann.

The next thing he can remember that night is "feeling an unmerciful slap on the side of my face. Obviously, I had done it, but it felt to me like Ann had given me a slap on the face," remembers Mark, "because she had spent her entire life fighting for her life, because of her medical condition," referring to the fact that Ann contracted nephritis - an inflammation of the kidney - when she was seven years of age and spent years of her childhood in hospital. She had a kidney transplant when she was 24. Suicide, he says, "would have made a complete and utter nonsense of everything her life stood for. So the idea of giving up would not have been on the radar for her."

He started to see some sort of light through the hell-ish fog of grief. Audrey would check in on him from time to time to check he wasn't going doolally. (Others who checked in on Mark at his house in Sutton to see what condition he was in, included: Gerry and Morah Ryan, Robbie and Martina Fox, Denis O'Brien.)

Audrey told Mark that he needed to get busy living or busy dying. Mercifully, he started to get his life and his soul back together. He "rejoined the human race".

I ask him was Audrey a bit concerned at first that - like Diana with Charles and Camilla - there might be three people in the marriage?

"Oh, yeah. I was."

"And," he continues, "I was acutely aware of the ghost. And that it was going to be very difficult, and very awkward, but then, within 18 months, we had a child. And once children arrive into your life, they take precedence over everything else. They become the whole point of your existence. The question of, 'What is life all about?' gets answered for you, because it is all about them. I never thought I was cut out for fatherhood. And I still don't think I'm a particularly good father. Actually, when I said that before to you, one of my kids said to me afterwards, 'I read that interview, Dad. You're not the worst.'"

When he was 16, Mark left his childhood home in Patrick's Hill, in Cork, and went to live with his aunt Mary and his grandfather, Paddy, on the Waterfall Road in Bishopstown for three years because he didn't see eye-to-eye with his father, Johnny. "The ironic thing about myself and my father is: my father is still the smartest person I ever met in my life. He had a brain to die for. He did a MENSA test and it was up close to 170."

So, what was the clash between them?

"The clash was, he wasn't great with adults. He was brilliant with kids. But once you got to become an adult and start asking questions, 'Ah, no, I don't want to be dealing with that. Just do what you're told, Mark.'"

Why wouldn't Mark do as he was told?

"Because I was too much like him! I was rebellious and stubborn."

There was more to it than that, if you left the family home at 16, I say. "What's the quote? 'All young men idolise their fathers until they get old enough to realise that their fathers are human and they have feet of clay and then they never forgive them.' I suppose there would have been an element of that between myself and my father," Mark says, adding that they eventually reconciled.

"My parents were really lovely people. They were great grandparents. They're weren't particularly good parents with me."

Even his mother?

"Well, my mother was the real problem," he says of Bridie. "My major acrimony was with my mother, not my father. My mother would make the bullets, so to speak, and my father would just be the person firing them. I had a great relationship with them as grandparents, but I was the eldest and the experiment. And like a lot of eldest, they were learning on the job and they didn't necessarily get it right."

His mother, Bridie, passed away 11 years go; his father died 22 years ago. "He knew he was going to go. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer." He rang Mark in late September and said: 'It's not great. I'll be lucky if I get to January or February.' He said it was also his 40th wedding anniversary coming up and he wanted Mark home for that.

Was there a conversation?

"He said to me, 'Listen, you know we haven't seen eye-to-eye but to be honest with you, you did things your own way and I didn't agree and we had a lot of falling out, but you did it your own way and it worked out and I'm proud of you, and I hope you know that.'"

"And I went, 'Oh, OK. Thanks for that.' But, of course, he couldn't leave it at that! He then told me, 'It would have worked out if you had done it my way too!'" Mark laughs.

Were there any similar conversations with his mother? "No. In actual fact, I am probably more like my mother than I am my father."

How does his stubbornness manifest itself?

"I can be extraordinarily black and white about things, and unforgiving."

How so?

"If I get thick about something, if I set against someone... a bit like my mother. My mother could hold a grudge forever. She wouldn't just hold it. She would put it away and she would nurture it forever."

Speaking of forever, I ask Mark is it true that he and Audrey were engaged for 10 years?

"Audrey's just reminded me about that! But you don't want to be too hasty about these things!" the pioneer of breakfast TV in Ireland smiles.


‘It was like looking at a horse and a zebra, they look similar but they are different’

Early days... Mark with co-host Amanda Byram

In 1999, Mark joined TV3 to host Ireland AM. Virgin Media acquired TV3 in December 2015. In July of this year, Mark announced that he was leaving the breakfast show when his contract wasn’t renewed. I asked him why wasn’t it?

“Because it was the right time. I knew this a year ago. You and I talked about this privately during the course of the year. The last contract was a year, fixed term. And, in our business when that happens, you kind of go, ‘OK. That’s it’. But it had come to a natural conclusion. It was 20 years. I probably should have gone two years ago, because there is nothing new that I could do.

“Every single solitary thing that can happen in a live television programme, every topic that we are likely to do I have done not just once, but twice, three times, eight, nine, 13 times, over the years. And while I am endlessly fascinated, endlessly nosey and curious about things, there are only so many ways you can approach cancer or heart disease or emotional turmoil, or whatever life throws at you. Even though I have a very deep and capacious bag of tricks, I had come to the bottom of it. Now I could continue to do the way I had been doing it, but then you are repeating yourself and treading water, and I don’t have the time to do that. I’m 62. I reckon I have one more big hill left in me. One more mountain I can climb. I would never retire.”

Did he see the writing on the wall when Virgin Media took over TV3?

“I did think that things would change when Virgin Media came in, because Virgin Media — no disrespect to them — are a utilities company, like Vodafone or like Eircom. They have customers, clients and accounts. We were a broadcasting company. Now from the outside, a utility company and a broadcasting company can look very similar but, the analogy I give is, Virgin Media knock on your door and they want to sell you a broadband package.

“We, as performers, knock on the door and we’re hoping to be invited in and we’re really hoping we’ll be asked to stay for a cup of tea. It is a completely different relationship. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying that the nature of the beasts are radically different.

“It is a bit like looking at a horse and a zebra. They look similar but they are a completely different species. And when you are at it for a long time, you sniff the wind and think, ‘Do I really want to work for a phone company?’ And does a phone company want someone like me working for it?’ It came to a natural conclusion. I have no ill will and I don’t have a bad word to say about anyone out there, and hopefully they don’t have a bad word to say about me.”

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