The former DJ tells Barry Egan about the horrific abuse he suffered as a child, battling depression, his diagnosis with a fatal condition, and the healing power of love
It was Gareth O’Callaghan’s 60th birthday last Wednesday. He and his wife Paula spent the afternoon in their back garden in Cork. “We listened to music,” he says, “and relaxed in the unexpected sunshine.”
The former RTÉ broadcaster deserves a bit of sunshine in his life. In March 2018 he was diagnosed with an incurable neurological disorder, multiple system atrophy (MSA), and he retired later that year. He doesn’t know how long he has to live.
Gareth’s latest book, his seventh, What Matters Now: A Memoir of Hope and Finding a Way Through the Dark, is published this week. It is an extraordinary read.
When we meet to talk about the book he looks well and is full of chat. You would never guess that he is in agony.
That morning when he woke up, for example, the pain in his body hit eight on a scale of one to 10. To reduce the pain, he took Sinemet, commonly used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s. He also spent two hours inhaling molecular hydrogen.
His book describes his pain regime, and his treatment. And he writes about grieving for his own death.
“I am grieving a life that I will not have, even though right now I am alive,” he tells me. “It’s a life that carries terms and conditions. Slowly, pieces of that physical life I have always felt are being taken away and being made impaired. Physically, I am slowing shutting down.
“The grief I feel is immense, but I think if I didn’t allow myself to feel it, and to go through the different grieving stages, I would lose my mind and never survive emotionally. I am grieving for the vibrant life force I see in others who are fit and healthy and well.
“I grieve for each feeling inside that reminds me I am no longer on the road I once was, but I also remind myself that this is a new road which must be travelled and experienced to continue to live fully.
“I would like to think I will still have a reasonably good quality of life this time next year,” he says. “I don’t look beyond that. I am at peace with the prospect that I will die from this illness at some point.”
For most of his adult years, though, Gareth O’Callaghan’s life has been one without peace. He suffered from severe depression throughout the 1990s and until 2015. He considered taking his own life in the late 1990s. What stopped him was the thought that his three children, Aibhín, Kerrie and Katie, from his first marriage, would have to grow up with the stigma that suicide might bring.
In 1999, the 2FM DJ had lost three stone in less than two months, and his 6ft 3in frame weighed in at eight stone.
A doctor put him on antidepressants, which he continued to take for two years. Then in 2005 he left RTÉ after 17 years. Later that year his marriage ended “officially”. Broke, he moved into a small flat on his own.
For many years, he had found it difficult to manage the darkness inside his head. That trauma entered his life without warning when he was 11 years of age.
One summer in the early 1970s, he went with the Scouts to stay in Clara in Co Offaly. The house, St Anthony’s, was run by the Franciscan Brothers. A brother invited him to work in the kitchen. He showed him how to bake bread. “I felt really important,” he remembers.
On the third night, he was woken in the dormitory in the middle of the night. There wasn’t a sound. He was shaken by the shoulder, he recalls, “and this dark figure [was] standing there.
“I will never forget the stale cigarette smell off his breath. I could also detect alcohol.
“He said to me: ‘Are you awake? Quick, come with me...’”
He was led out of the dormitory and, in the dead of night, across the grounds to the big house.
“We went upstairs on to the first floor. He just opened the bedroom door and said: ‘Go on in there and get into bed. I will be in in a minute.’
“I got into bed.”
The brother, who had gone into the bathroom, came back into the bedroom and switched off the light. The only other light in the room was the red glow below a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Beside the bed was a wooden crucifix.
“I was lying in the bed.”
Confused, he was asking himself, ‘What is going on here?’
“He took my pyjama bottoms down, and then he moved himself over on to me. He took my hand and put it down his pyjamas. I have vague memories of a couple of sexual acts that happened. I have no idea.”
He can’t figure out how long he was in that room.
“But clearly as soon as he’d had enough, that was it.”
Just as it was starting to get light, the brother walked him back across the open space to the door of the house where the dormitory was.
“Don’t tell anybody that you’ve been here,” he said.
Gareth got into bed but couldn’t sleep.
One of the other boys in the dormitory woke up and asked him: “Gar, are you OK?”
He said nothing.
Then the boy asked him where he had been.
Gareth told him: “I wasn’t well. I have a stomach bug.”
The next morning, the same brother turned up in the kitchen. “He told me to go into the cold room to get something. I was terrified. He told me: ‘If you ever tell anyone what happened last night, I will make sure that you are disgraced, and the guards will be called.’ I said: ‘What did I do?’”
“It will never be discussed,” the brother told the child he had raped.
He wasn’t abused that night. But on the following night, it happened again.
“He tried to get my pyjamas down. I pushed him away. I don’t know where the strength came from, but I pushed him away. I got up and left.“
The week before Christmas of that same year, the brother turned up at Gareth’s house on the Navan Road in Dublin.
“He had nice gifts for my mother. He was decked out in the clerical gear and looked the business.”
He shook hands with Gareth’s parents, before sitting down to have dinner. He also stayed the night.
“I was f**king terrified. My mother had put him in the room opposite my room.”
Gareth forced himself to stay awake, but fell asleep at about 4am.
When he woke up the next morning, he heard the brother’s voice downstairs chatting to his mother.
“The first thing I did was I actually lifted the blankets to see if my pyjamas were still on. They were still on. That was a victory.
“When I got dressed and went downstairs, [the brother] was like a best friend of the family. He said, when I walked in: ‘Here he is!’”
“When I sat down, my mother said: ‘[The brother] has got some good news for you for the Easter Holidays.’
“You’re coming down to Clara for a few days,” he said.
He then had his breakfast.
“He ate the full fry, like a pig,” Gareth remembers.
“From Christmas until the whole way up to Easter, I was completely consumed with every minute of every day and through every night with going back there,” he says.
He tried to will himself to tell his mother. But he just couldn’t. Instead, the 11-year-old wrestled with something he couldn’t understand.
“I had never even heard of the word ‘abuse’. So immediately I thought it was something that I must have encouraged or brought on. I thought if I tell my mother, I’m going to be in trouble with the police, and he’s going to say: ‘He encouraged it.’ And I didn’t encourage it. What did I encourage?”
When Easter came, Gareth took the train from Heuston with his little brown suitcase in his hand. At the train station in Clara, he walked into the car park and saw a hand waving from a car.
“I wanted to lie down and cry, and tell people: ‘Don’t let me go there.’”
His abuser drove him to St Anthony’s.
“I was defenceless at this stage. I was the only kid at the house. This is what I couldn’t understand. Why was I arriving on my own at the invitation of a brother in his early forties?
“It was early to bed that night,” he says. “It was game on.
“He gave me a spare room which was adjacent to where he was sleeping. There was an adjoining door. So, that was it. On the second night he fell asleep, and I had a plan. I slipped out of bed and ran down the stairs and out the door at 5am.”
He ran down the driveway. He was dressing himself as he ran in a panic. “There was a heavy mist that morning.”
He was terrified that the brother would appear out of the mist. He knew there was a train coming through from Galway that stopped at 7am.
At the train station, he stood beside a woman with kids. Gareth kept looking behind him until he was finally on the train to Dublin.
He got to Heuston and then took the bus home. He told his mother that the brother had to go away. She never thought to ask Gareth why he didn’t have the little brown suitcase.
For years, Gareth had nightmares that the brother was coming to get him. In 1976, he began to have suicidal thoughts. He went so far as to ring the Samaritans one day. Then, in the run up to his Inter Cert, he told his teacher he was sick and left school early.
He went to the Pro Cathedral on Marlborough Street. He decided he would go into confession and tell the priest what had been done to him.
“I said: ‘Father, a Franciscan Brother brought me into his bed. He took my pyjamas down.’”
“The priest said: ‘What?’ And I thought, ‘He’s on my side.’”
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“The priest bellowed at me: ‘How dare you come in here and take that man’s good name. Get out.’”
He opened the confession box door. There were 15 people looking him. He ran out of the church and all the way to Eden Quay.
“The wall of the Liffey seemed especially low with a high tide.” He couldn’t swim. He just stood there looking at the water.
What stopped him from throwing himself in, I ask.
“A CIE guy said to me: ‘What are you looking in there for? You won’t see much in there.’ I said: ‘I’m waiting for the 38 bus.’ He said: ‘You’ll be waiting for the rest of your life to get the 38. The 38 is over there on Aston Quay.’”
When Gareth got home he burst into tears and told his mother everything. He didn’t want to go to the guards.
“But I felt the weight of the world had been lifted. My mother assured me that it was not my fault. “
When Gareth was 20, he was at Clonliffe College training to become a priest. One day, he attended a ceremony.
“I was all dressed in the clerical gear. I walked through this door and walking towards me… was him in full clerical gear. He stopped in his tracks and he looked at me. I thought: ‘I’m either going to vomit or pass out.’ I turned around to run. He said: ‘No, wait.’ I ran. It was so shocking to come face to face with him. I kept running.”
He never saw his abuser again.
In November 2008, he went back to St Anthony’s. He wondered how many poor young boys had suffered here like him. He looked on the crosses in the cemetery for his abuser’s name but he couldn’t find it. He now assumes he is either dead or very old.
Does he believe that the abuse he suffered, which caused decades of depression and unresolved trauma, ultimately led to his terminal illness?
“Yes,” he says. He believes that trauma like this means “the child is utterly destroyed while still being left physically intact. But, he says, the trauma leaves an indelible scar that continues to burn deep into the fragile human brain.
“It makes perfect sense that such emotional damage over many years will eventually reveal itself physically by way of a serious neurological illness.”
This story doesn’t have a happy ending. But within it there’s a story of a deep healing love that has, in recent years, helped him through it all.
In March 2015, at a low point in his life, he met Paula Delaney. He was not a great catch when they met. In December that year his credit card was declined at the ATM. He found €157 in an old credit union book, enough to get him through Christmas.
“She was sent to me,” he says now. “The years before I met Paula had become intensely lonely and isolating and solitary for me.
“A dear friend, the DJ Tony Fenton, had passed away almost a fortnight before Paula and I met. I remember in the days following Tony’s death, listening to the beautiful tributes that were being paid to him by his radio colleagues almost daily, [and] asking him to end the loneliness I was feeling,” he says. “I believe Tony played some part in getting the two of us together from wherever it was he had gone to after his death.”
In early 2016, he started to feel strange sensations. “My heart was pounding like a hammer in my chest.”
Then, one day in late 2017, he fell over a sofa at the radio station Classic Hits (where he had had a show since 2009). The following March he was diagnosed with MSA at the Mater Hospital. He held Paula’s hand as she cried into his shoulder.
“It felt like a sudden loss of everything that was so important to me,” he says.
He and Paula married in Cork Registry Office in September last year. She says she doesn’t allow herself to think about the inevitability that one day she will become his carer.
“Gareth is my husband and I married him for better or for worse. I don’t ever focus on a time that he won’t be here,” she says.
Every morning, Paula lights a candle in the kitchen of their home in Cork. “Some days are so dark within my heart that I need that flicker of hope,” she says.
“It’s difficult to have a discussion with the woman you love about death,” says Gareth. “But in a gentle and prompting way, we have found ourselves chatting about the subject.”
He believes that without Paula he would be already dead; that MSA would have already taken him. When this progressive condition leads to a place where his quality of life is zero is assisted suicide an option?
“This is something I have given a lot of thought to,” he says. “I have drawn up a short list of medical directives that I have sent to my solicitor.
“The human body reaches a point where it knows when the time has come to be allowed to naturally die, as in the case of grotesque neurological illnesses and incurable cancers. Modern medicine has discovered new ways to prolong human life, even though that life is running very low on quality and purpose, and any genuinely real reason to stay alive.”
He doesn’t want to prolong a chronic condition that is slowly robbing him of the joy of living. Right now, though, he still retains that deep joy and connection.
“However, once that joy has been extinguished, then it’s palliative care that I will opt for, and the personal choice to bring closure to my own life at some point in the future; not any further medical intervention that will effectively prolong the physical act of ‘being alive’.
“For what purpose?” he asks. “I can’t find any.”
He believes in God but not the orthodox version of the deity that he was taught to believe in at school.
He visits his local church to ask his God for strength. Could he find it within his faith, within his soul, to forgive his abuser?
“I have found peace within my soul,” he says. “Who am I to forgive a bastard like him, when I now know that I wasn’t the only one he abused and raped? I can’t forgive him, not when I know there were others whose voices would never be found and heard. There will never be any forgiveness for a rotten, dirty bastard like him, who lurked in darkness waiting to drag you back into the night shadows, knowing, as I suspect, that there were others who had to know what he was up to, in order to facilitate him. They had to know.
“They were there, and they were as evil as him. There is no forgiveness for him, or for any of the others, ever. Why would you want to forgive someone who stole the timeless beauty of what your childhood should have been each time you look back? I don’t anymore.
“It’s important that I allow this small boy to allow himself to forgive himself for thinking and believing that he had done anything wrong. This was not the young boy’s fault, even though he was made to believe it was, and he was forced to carry this rotten secret with him for decades.
“The only forgiveness that I can consider is to allow that small 11-year-old boy to feel the peace of forgiving himself for believing he was at fault.“
‘What Matters Now: A Memoir About Hope and Finding a Way Through the Dark’ by Gareth O’Callaghan, is published by Hachette Books Ireland and is available online from bookshops now
If you’ve been affected by childhood abuse, contact Connect Counselling, a free telephone counselling and support service for any adult who has experienced abuse, trauma or neglect in childhood. The service is also open to partners and relatives. Phone 1800 477 477 or connectcounselling.ie. Alternatively, contact the Samaritans Ireland on freephone 116 123; samaritans.org