My life with a handsome bastard

Barry Egan

DO YOU really want to hurt me? This melancholic refrain from her son Boy George's most famous song was, in fact, the dark mantra of Dinah O'Dowd's 42-year marriage to a monster she never stopped loving. Ask this incredible 67-year-old survivor why she wrote her book Cry Salty Tears and she will tell you straight. Dinah O'Dowd tells everything straight, unflinchingly so. You wa

DO YOU really want to hurt me? This melancholic refrain from her son Boy George's most famous song was, in fact, the dark mantra of Dinah O'Dowd's 42-year marriage to a monster she never stopped loving. Ask this incredible 67-year-old survivor why she wrote her book Cry Salty Tears and she will tell you straight. Dinah O'Dowd tells everything straight, unflinchingly so. You want to hug her.

Her late husband Gerry O'Dowd wasn't big on hugs. He was more thug than hug.

She went to Gerry's funeral and listened to strangers talking about the man she had spent most of her troubled life with. Feeling entirely excluded, Dinah thought: "Who is this man? I certainly don't know anything about him. And what about me?"

Even more bemusing to Dubliner Dinah was the fact that the coffin was sentwithout mourners to the crematorium. Gerry O'Dowd had never wanted to be left alone for even one minute, Dinah remembers.

This in itself was rich in irony. Gerry, terrified of being on his own, was prone to telling her, mostly after a brutal beating: "I'll die if you leave me. Even if you can't forgive me, please don't leave." He died on December 4, 2004, of a heart attack in Egypt with his second wife, who organised the funeral.

"He was a terrible father and a terrible husband. My mother is a tank, a goddess," Boy George said recently.

She's here today in a spacious and posh suite at the Merrion hotel in Dublin (the 10 members of her family lived in two rooms in Dublin's inner city, she says, adding that she didn't see a toilet roll until she went to London), to talk about her life and her abusive marriage, as set out in Cry Salty Tears. God knows she cried enough of them over the years. She met a man named Seamus in 1954 at a dance in Dorset Street. He got her pregnant, and vanished five months before the birth, "disappearing off the face of the earth, or the streets of Dublin at least".

Richard was born on September 27, 1957. Back in the benighted days of Fifties Ireland the shameful norm for babies born out of wedlock was to be put up by the nuns for adoption. Dinah, with the support of her parents, dismissed any such idea. She was a brave woman for those awful times. She was a strong woman to stand up to the Catholic church in Ireland.

It wasn't an easy thing to do. Dinah recalls the nudge-nudge-wink-wink as she wheeled her baby in his pram down the street in Dublin. She remembers feeling "the shame, with everybody looking at me, whispering, knowing I had an infant but didn't have a husband. It was the done thing in Ireland in the Fifties. It wasn't like now". At Christmas 1959, she had to leave baby Richard with her parents in Dublin and go to England.

She can recall the first time, January 23, 1959, she set eyes on the man who would change her life forever, a young builder from an Irish family. Gerry O'Dowd had matinee idol looks. She was originally going to call her autobiography Handsome Bastard. There was plenty of the bastard in him all right.

She can remember vividly - all too painfully - the first time Gerry hit her. She was pregnant with their first child, Kevin. He had seen her talking to a guy in a cafe. He beat her black and blue.

She was so traumatised at the thought of bringing up a child with a violent monster like Gerry as a father that she attempted to abort the baby. She put these crystals, which a friend had told her about, into a piping hot bath and got in, hoping for the worst. "It was absolute agony and absolutely ineffective," she recalls. "I looked like a scalded lobster." They married in November 1959, "a month before the baby was due".

There was also a suicide attempt when daughter Siobhan was two. Dinah took an overdose, but was found in time, fatefully, and had her stomach pumped.

When she was pregnant with George, her baby Kevin was sick in hospital. They were all living with Gerry's parents in a run-down building in south-east London with no electricity.

Dinah asked her husband could she sit in the snug in the pub where Gerry worked, rather than alone in the dark at home in the flat with no electricity. When two men came over to speak to her, Gerry sent her home.

Fearing the worst, she slept on a mattress on the floor. When he came home drunk at three in the morning, she caught hell all right.

He started screaming, and punching the poor woman. "I rolled up in a ball, put my hands over my stomach. His sister came in and asked him to stop. His father came in and [Gerry] said, 'This is nothing to do with you.'

"His father said, 'This is my house,' and [Gerry] stormed off. The next day he'd be sorry and he'd tell me about his terrible childhood. I was married to him. I decided I would just hope for the best."

And like most abusive, highly dysfunctional relationships, it was a hope against hope. That unfulfilled hope of a happy marriage is made all the sadder by the fact that she never stopped loving him.

"I can't say I stopped loving him, because love is forever," she says. "But I lost respect for him."

She eventually went on to raise six children - Siobhan, David, Gerald, Kevin, George and Richard - who came from her parents' home in Dublin to live with them. She can recall running out of the house with her three young boys, with just the clothes she stood up in, and going to her parents in Birmingham (they had left Dublin to seek a better life in England). Her father's words were not the encouragement she had hoped for. "You've made your bed. You have to lie in it."

"My father was right," she says now, looking back on her life, looking out across the Dublin she once knew. "I did make my bed and I did lie in it, for better and for worse." Mostly - it has to be said - for worse. She doesn't regret anything. She says with no exaggeration that she "survived torments which pushed me to the limit, but I have had, and am still enjoying, a great life."

She coped, learning a survival mechanism of sorts. By the time George was born, on June 14, 1961, Dinah had, she says, "developed a way of absorbing the injuries without the babies being affected".

There are a lot of dark memories in Dinah O'Dowd's marriage. So many that you wonder why she stayed at all. Or why she didn't leave him years earlier than she did.

"I wanted to prove that I wasn't a bad girl. Because that's what you were when you had a baby [outside marriage]," she answers. My parents accepted it and were brilliant, but you were a bad girl. Bad girls went into homes and their babies were taken away, and that was all in the background. That stays with you. I wanted to prove I wasn't bad, that I was good, a good mother and a great wife." The handsome bastard, by her own admission, controlled every aspect of her life. She was too scared to defy him.

Was there something going on inside, that she was accepting this brutality? She remembers arriving unannounced at her parents' house to find the door off its hinges. She saw her mum lying on the bed, obviously beaten up. "I looked round and my dad was on the floor. That's where he had fallen asleep. He was paralytic drunk when the incident happened."

In 2001, Gerry left with another woman, Siobhan. In the spring of 1999, Dinah had found travel brochures in his room for a holiday in Ireland and confronted him, reminding him that they were still married. She filed for divorce. The handsome bastard realised then and there that Dinah was no longer frightened of him.

"I wasn't his possession that I had been all my life," she says, "but then I had suddenly stopped and wanted to find myself again. At the end, I had come to terms with the fact that he couldn't show me any affection. I think I had given up trying to analyse him."

"Growing up, I was always very aware of my mother's suffering, but there was clearly so much I didn't know, and this book brought me to tears almost from the first page," Boy George writes in the foreword to Cry Salty Tears. George caused his mother a few tears himself, of course. When Lady Diana's favourite singer became a heroin addict and was a hate figure in the tabloids in the late Eighties, Dinah was distraught. And what woman wouldn't be? She stood up to her son during the ups in Culture Club and the downs of smack addiction. "Junkie George has eight weeks to live," announced those misanthropes in the Sun. "At the beginning, I remember the first time I saw George acting strangely. I said, 'What's that Oxo cube you've got there?'" she remembers. "I thought I would get him to Ireland to a remote part where he wouldn't be able to find any drugs. I thought, 'I know - we'll give him sleeping tablets and get him there.' But I went to his house and he wouldn't let me in."

She went back to the Catholic church (the same church that tried to take her first baby away from her in Ireland; the Church of the Poisoned Mind that her son once sang about). She prayed for him in church. "I may not have been a good Catholic, but I did believe in God," she says. She went to confession to ask God for help.

Her husband, seeing her coming out of the confessional box in tears, asked a friend of Dinah's if she was having an affair.

"Why else would she cry?" he asked. Her son Gerald, who had mental health problems, married a girl called Gill. No good came of the marriage; tragically, he murdered her in 1995. Dinah is extremely sad at this latest turn in her life and understandably doesn't want to discuss Gerald at all. She knows it would be an injustice of sorts to blame her husband for Gerald's problems. But it is an inevitable thought, I say

She looks out the window. "Obviously he played a part in his turmoil."

And yours, Dinah O'Dowd.

Beaming with mother's pride every time I mention his name, Dinah plainly adores her famous son. George Boy came out to her when he was 14, in the kitchen at Eltham.

"You know I'm different from the rest of them, don't you, Mam?" he told her. She didn't, frankly. "I like boys instead of girls." She always looked out for her son, and he reciprocated. When the second-generation Irish George O'Dowd, aka Boy George, became one of the most famous singers and exponents of androgyny in the world, he paid for holidays for his parents, he flew them all over the world to his concerts and put them up in the best hotels.

She adores her son and never stops talking about him as she walks me to the door of her suite. "The New York sanitation department said he was one of the best workers they have had," she says with a smile that is without any irony, in reference to the court-ordered public humiliation in America last year. "Just like me, he got on with the job, and tried not to let the media get to him."

The bould Seamus turned up for the first time in 40 years, as Dinah was finishing the last chapter of her book. Dinah arranged for him to see the son whom he had shamelessly abandoned all those years ago. Then he vanished again without saying goodbye to Dinah, just as he had done the first time.

Her mind flashes back to when Kevin was two years old and first met his half-brother Richard. Dinah recalls that without saying a word, Kevin "put his arms around him and gave him a great big hug. It was heartbreaking to watch, not just because of Kevin's sweet gesture but also because I knew I would have to leave Richard behind again, because we had no room for him back in London."

She says that Gerry O'Dowd remains to this day - and probably to her dying day - "an enigma to me". She is still coming to terms with his death. Dinah adds that when he died she realised that she would probably never "figure out where his anger came from. Even if he didn't hit you, he'd scare you so much with his fury you'd be in flitters".

In hindsight, she believes that a lot of the pain and brutality and abuse - emotional and physical - which she took and accepted from the handsome bastard was possibly related to the shame she carried with her "over becoming pregnant by Seamus as a young girl in Dublin". It's only in the last 10 years, she adds, that she's stopped feeling guilty, "and I think when Gerald followed through on his promise to marry me, I would have put up with anything".

And she did. But at least in so doing, Dinah O'Dowd finally reclaimed her life from the handsome bastard . . .

'Cry Salty Tears' by Dinah O'Dowd is published by Century, price ?14.83