The day the laughter died
Unlike most people in this country, Fiona Clarke, Dermot Morgan's partner, has not watched any of the endless repeats of Father Ted since the star died 10 years ago. Fiona says she would find it too harrowing. However, she does find comfort in the video compilation the charismatic comedy genius made of their romantic moments. She tells Barry Egan about their relationship, their son, and how she has lived her life since his death
FIONA CLARKE was with her partner Dermot Morgan on the night he went to that great comedy lounge in the sky ... There was a bit of a do at 119B St. Margaret's Road in Twickenham on February 28, 1998. Dermot's sister, Denise, her husband, Declan, and a couple of friends, Jim Diamond and his wife Chris, had come to the Morgans' flat in south-west London for supper. Dermot, she remembers, had just finished filming the last episode of Father Ted. So they lit the fire and ordered takeaways and settled in for the night.
"We were just having a lovely, relaxed, easy evening with lots of laughs," she recalls. Then out of the blue at around 10pm Dermot "had a massive heart attack.A massive blood clot lodged in his heart. He died almost instantly."
Did she get a chance to say anything to him before he died? She shakes her head. "No ... "
The ambulance which Fiona called came and took him to West Middlesex Hospital, "but I think he was already dead," she says.
Their four-year-old son, Ben was asleep in his bedroom and wasn't immediately awoken by the commotion. Afterwards, Declan took Ben to their house in Twickenham while Fiona followed the ambulance in a police car to the hospital and Denise also followed in a taxi. When the doctor came to tell them Dermot was dead, Fiona, she says, "already knew".
Fiona and Ben flew home on the same flight as Dermot's body. ("We only moved to London for the filming of Ted. Ben was born in Dublin," she says.) The Requiem Mass was held at St Therese's Church in Mount Merrion; Dermot was cremated in Glasnevin Cemetery. To this day, she keeps his ashes in a cupboard at the house they once shared in Sandymount. Fiona never watches old DVDs of Father Ted or listens to tapes of Scrap Saturday. That would be too upsetting, she says.
She occasionally watches a special video he made for her of all the key romantic places they went to in their lives. The first time they met, for instance, was at a charity hockey game that Dermot was participating in. He came up to Fiona, who was all in denim, and asked her: "Have you been a Status Quo fan for long?" She was 23 and he 35.
At the time, Dermot was married to Susanne Garmatz (Fiona is still "very good mates" with her.). "When we met there wasn't even divorce in this country," smiles Fiona. But, she says, she never wanted to marry anyone anyway. Even as a little girl, she didn't want to get married. Her father thinks it is because she just doesn't like people telling her what to do and she doesn't want some piece of paper or any law telling her that she has to stay with somebody. "It never appealed to me."
Born in Middlesex to Irish parents -- Michael and Joy returned to Dun Laoghaire when their daughter was two -- Fiona has vivid memories of her time with a certain comic genius and nemesis of Charles J Haughey. Dermot rushing, for instance, into her flat in Dublin -- "picking me up in his arms and saying 'Ronnie Whelan just scored a goal against the Russians!' He was a mad footie fan." Watching the sea in Bray during a storm and getting soaked by a huge wave which covered the both of them is another memory she won't ever forget. Or having a meal with his sister Denny in an Italian restaurant in London and setting the table on fire with a Flaming Sambuca. "We just had so much fun, madness and love," she says, adding "soppy but true".
Seeing Dermot hold their son Ben when he was born will forever resonate with her. When Dermot died suddenly, she says the hardest thing she has ever had to do in her life was to tell Ben that his dad was dead; she told him the morning after Dermot died.
Fiona's own grief was compounded by watching Ben begin to grieve too. "It was almost unbearable," she says. "As a mum, my job is to fix things -- make them better -- Ben took the loss very heavily. He lost a lot of weight and lost the light in his eyes for a long time. Dermot worked from home, and himself and Ben were rarely apart."
Looking back on that painful time, Fiona says that the first year was the worst "but Ben has a great attitude to life. He gets on with things and has a great ability to find the fun in life -- something he shares with his dad. I think, like me, he doesn't see Dermot's death as life doing something to him, it was devastating but it just happened -- there was no reason and it was not done to him. It is difficult to explain."
Fiona says that she was lucky because Ben had a wonderful teacher who welcomed him with open arms when "we moved back to Dublin". She adds that her mum and dad were always nearby. "Ben and I both had so much support during those days. There were days when I would go out and come home to a lit stove in my kitchen, a basket full of logs and a full fridge. My neighbours were incredible and still are a huge source of support and company for me," she says, referring to Shay Healy and his wife Dymphna. She says she wants to stress that her family -- brother Brian, sister Grania and mum and dad -- and also her friends stopped her from "falling through the cracks" after Dermot died.
I ask her when she realised she began to lose that fear of falling through the cracks. "I don't remember when I felt sure I wasn't going to fall between the cracks, but I do feel very positive about the future. I live very much in the now and don't tend to do 'if onlys' and 'what ifs'. I think that helps, stops me being stuck," she says.
She can remember in the period immediately after Dermot's death feeling like she was the size of a pea and the waves of grief would be like the boulder the size of a house "coming uncontrollably over me. It was that kind of powerful emotion, horrific. There is nothing you can do about it. It's normal in those situations, but it is just huge".
She dreamt that he was not dead at all. She would be walking along and a limo door would open and Dermot would tell her to get in quick, saying, "I had to disappear for a while. I had to pretend. I'll tell you all about it." "It was my way of trying to process the fact that he wasn't there." She didn't need to go to a Jungian psychologist to be told that. Fiona's sister Grania is a psychologist and her husband Alan an analyst. "So," she smiles, "I'm well looked after.
I tell Fiona that last week I had seen Radiohead perform in North Carolina; and at the show I was told about an episode of Father Ted in which a sad young man of the cloth is saved from the black dog of his paranoid imaginings by Ted and Dougal, only to be sent plunging into a black hole of manic depression again when he hears Radiohead's Exit Music (For A Film). She smiles. "Father Ted -- and Dermot's comedy -- is totally universal." Dermot's comedy was about to get more universal when he passed away. He had a project with Chris Evans' Ginger Productions; he had a drama series commissioned with the BBC. He was writing a comedy drama. He was writing a film. He was writing a sitcom. "So," she says, "all of those were started and not finished."
Before he died, Dermot was going to concentrate on writing. He finally, she says, had the financial space to dedicate to his passion. "He would have done it way earlier if he could have. So the idea of the setting up a bursary is just to give someone a couple of months of financial space that they can write the damn thing," she says, referring to the bursary that The Dermot Morgan Foundation has recently set up.
Dermot was tired, she says referring to the time of his death, but he had "so much good stuff ahead. If anything, it was an unstressful time, because his career was finally going the way he wanted. Ted was a huge success."
Was Dermot, in a sense, too driven for his own good? He had died at the age of 45. That is incredibly young for a first -- and fatal -- heart attack. "Oh, absolutely." She says there would have been no point in asking him to chill out and do nothing for a while. "That would have been impossible for Dermot. It wouldn't ever have happened. He couldn't sit still. A lot of stands-ups die very young," she says. "From stress. It is really stressful. You are standing up there on your own in front of 1,000 people who have all paid money [and are] saying, 'Go, on, make me laugh'."
But when he was on his own with her, what was he like? "He wasn't as manic as you would have seen him on stage. He was very loving, very passionate and very romantic. He was very kind of huggy. He was just gorgeous; and his kids would have been his absolute main thing," says Fiona, referring to Ben -- whom she and Dermot had 14 years ago -- and Bobby and Don (27 and 29 years of age respectively) from his marriage to Susanne Garmaltz. "He was a great dad."
Ben is "very like Dermot in his head. He is out of the box in his head probably about 50 per cent of the time. He has a very understanding school and is highly intelligent in the same way that Dermot was. You are never quite sure what he is going to say next. He looks at things from quite a different angle from most people, as Dermot did. He is very funny, like Dermot, but calmer".
Fiona has another child, five-year-old Lara, by another relationship after Dermot died, which didn't, she says, work out. "He was my friend from when I was a teenager and I don't want to offend him by saying Dermot was the love of my life." The relationship ended a year ago. "It didn't work out and hopefully we will be good mates again. I don't really want to go there. It is still a bit raw. I am very happily single." Fiona, who works as an administrator in the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College, Dublin, is friendly and self-deprecating. She is still wearing denim and makes jokes about herself evidently being still into Status Quo all these years later, after Dermot's quip.
"Some people think that I'm a bit dizzy, but I'm really not. I mean, I do manage to hold down a job, organise conferences, do all kinds of these things. I think sometimes I come across as a bit Dizzy Miss Lizzie," she laughs.
We are sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel, having tea. I tell her I had breakfast in this very room with Morgan 15 years ago. He was captivating company over the scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. There were a few people in humankind who didn't enjoy Dermot Morgan. Like, it is said, certain humourless Irish politicians near the top of government in the early Nineties ...
She says Dermot's theory on why Scrap Saturday was scrapped at RTE was that it was "a little too close to the bone at times. It was unpopular with people it made unpopular who were in powerful positions". Asked about one of Dermot's most high-profile victims on the satirical show, she says that she believed that Charles Haughey "quite liked it actually. He was kind of portrayed as this ballsy mafia kind of figure. He never spoke to Dermot about it. He was one of the very few people who Dermot never really sat and had a chat with. I think they nodded at each other over dinner in the same restaurant, but not at the same table. I think Dermot always wished that he had gone over and said hello. He never directly spoke to Haughey about Scrap".
Someone who was definitively a fan and firm friend of Dermot's was Chris de Burgh. To mark the 10th anniversary of Morgan's death, he will perform as part of An Audience Without Dermot Morgan (along with Shay Healy, Ardal O'Hanlon and Joe Rooney et al. ) "Chris is one of the trustees of the Foundation. He was a friend of Dermot and has been a good friend to me since Dermot died, says Fiona. "I think Dermot would have thoroughly approved of the Foundation and the gig in Vicar Street. He did something similar himself for Amnesty International."
Doubtless Morgan is up there in his Father Ted Crilly rig-out willing Fiona to play a bit of Quo on the night.
The Dermot Morgan Foundation is hosting An Audience Without Dermot Morgan in Vicar Street, Dublin on June 9 at 8pm to raise funds for a bursary for up and coming comedy writers. Tickets €35. www.ticketmaster.ie or call 0818 719390/0818 719300