Sunday 22 April 2018

Van and Michelle's crazy love - ‘At my age, I have found it a hugely wearying experience’

As Morrison reveals his marriage to the former Miss Ireland winner is finally over, Tanya Sweeney looks back on a relationship shrouded in secrecy and controversy

Rocca and roll: Van kisses Michelle at the Irish Music Records Awards in 1995
Rocca and roll: Van kisses Michelle at the Irish Music Records Awards in 1995

Tanya Sweeney

As couples go, Van Morrison and Michelle Rocca were utterly beguiling. He was the mercurial and secretive music genius, while she was the stunning former Miss Ireland with an intriguing past. Together, they may not have looked like a hand-in-glove pairing, but they created a fabulous combustion. And the couple everyone wanted to know about had a lupine hunger for privacy.

They may have withheld the finer points of their romance from public appetite, but the pair were nonetheless regulars on the 90s social scene. Against the backdrop of newly minted glamour, the incongruous pair smiled (or scowled) in front of cameras. The gossip columns found the couple - flitting from Lillie's to Renards to Cooke's Café in Dublin - to be pure catnip. There were reportedly food fights in La Stampa and drinks with Jagger in the Shelbourne. That Van was long known as a recluse only added to the fun.

They posed a united front for the cameras, certainly, but this month marked the official end of Van and Michelle. On a statement posted on his official website last weekend, the Belfast troubadour confirmed that he was granted a divorce from Michelle. And after drawing a veil over the romance for so long, his candour was something of a surprise.

"At my age, I have found it to be a hugely wearying, protracted experience and I'm relieved that it has finally reached a conclusion," he said. Van also thanked his family and close friends "for providing respite from the storm over the past eight years", noting: "You know who you are and I'm eternally grateful."

Details are scant about the protracted negotiations, and Michelle herself has declined to comment publicly. Either way, Van's statement means that the curtain is finally down on one of the most intriguing and explosive marriages ever to hit Irish showbiz circles.

Back in 1992, their courtship got off to a heady start. The pair met thanks to the Honourable Desmond Guinness, initially laying eyes on each other at a dinner party at Leixlip Castle.

Michelle sports her ‘Medusa’ updo with Eurovision winner Celine Dion
Michelle sports her ‘Medusa’ updo with Eurovision winner Celine Dion

Michelle had enjoyed a level of fame at that point as an RTE presenter and could even lay claim to a moment of notoriety when she hosted the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest with Pet Kenny wearing an adventurous 'Medusa' updo in front of a global audience of 600 million.

Van, of course, was long venerated the world over thanks to his critically acclaimed albums Astral Weeks, Moondance and Irish Heartbeat.

By the time they met, Michelle was already a mum of three: she'd had daughters Danielle and Natasha with her former footballer husband John Devine, and Claudia with former fiancé Cathal Ryan (Van and Michelle would go on to have two children, Aibhe in 2006, and Fionn in 2007, keeping Aibhe's birth secret from the press for nearly seven months).

In court, when Michelle successfully sued her ex Ryan for assault in 1997 (although they had seemingly reconciled before his death in 2007), she told the jury that Van "helped put a roof over my head when Cathal cancelled the lease on my house".

Gigi Lee
Gigi Lee

Van - who himself had a daughter, Shana, with ex-wife Janet Rigsbee - proved a tower of support during those turbulent times.

That Van and Michelle craved privacy only served to fuel public interest. When she lived in Dalkey, Michelle took a court case, eventually settled, against her neighbours alleging their landscape alterations breached her privacy.

There have been other bumps in the road: after a tabloid story broke alleging that Michelle had an affair with racing manager Angus Gold in 1996, the two broke off their engagement. In 2010, they officially married. Van posted a brief statement online: "For the avoidance of all doubt and in the interests of clarity," he said, "I am very happily married to Michelle Morrison with whom I have two wonderful children."

Some time later, and two years after the birth of the couple's son Fionn, another statement was posted to the singer's official website that blindsided everyone. Referring to Van's American tour manager Gigi Lee, the statement read: "Gigi and Van Morrison are proud to announce the birth of their first-born son, Little Van, born Dec 28, 2009 - the spitting image of his daddy. He is a dual citizen of Northern Ireland/UK and the United States."

Van's publicists claimed that Van's website had been hacked and that the birth of George Ivan was pure fabrication. Publicists insisted at the time that Van and Michelle were still very much together, and very happy. It was then claimed by the Morrison team that Van had never heard of Gigi, the women who had, oddly enough, worked on his 2009 Astral Weeks series of concerts and was director of many of his companies.

The plot thickened considerably when a photo of Gigi and Van surfaced alongside a rumour that Van had set up home with Gigi and George in Northern Ireland. Both he and Gigi went to the High Court in Belfast to prevent details about where she lived with her son and details about his physical appearance being published.

But tragedy was just around the corner.

George died in January 2011, aged 13 months, from hyperglycaemia and obesity after slipping into a diabetic coma. Nine months later, Gigi died, aged 44, at the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast in October 2011, having been diagnosed with throat cancer before she was pregnant.

Van and Michelle legally separated in 2013 - something that only surfaced in the High Court in 2015 via a statement issued by Van, when Michelle had taken her Dalkey neighbours to court. However, the pair were photographed together in June 2016 at the funeral of Van's mother Violet, hinting at a civil relationship (or at least, an impasse) of sorts.

These days, Michelle reportedly works as a motivational teacher. Van, industrious to the last, released his 38th studio album last December. And the supposed storm that he sought respite from, finally, appears to have calmed.

Irish Independent

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