Why the challenge about Fr Michael Cleary is offensive

Opinion: ‘Michael rang me and said that Phyllis really liked me and needed a friend’

Fr Michael Cleary with Phyllis Hamilton and their son Ross

Fr Michael Cleary with Phyllis Hamilton and their son Ross

Tue, Jul 1, 2014, 00:14

On Sunday, June 15th, 2014, Fr Arthur O’Neill, parish priest of St Brigid’s Catholic parish, Cabinteely, Dublin, issued a challenge to 40 journalists including Fintan O’Toole to “prove” that Fr Michael Cleary had fathered two children with Phyllis Hamilton, including their son Ross. He issued this challenge by way of the official parish newsletter, thereby giving the impression that he was speaking on behalf of the church.

Before this public challenge I had never heard of Fr O’Neill. I never heard Michael Cleary speak of him, nor did I meet him or hear of him visiting the home where Michael, Phyllis and Ross lived on Leinster Road in Rathmines for many years.

I sent Ross a message on the day Fr O’Neill’s newsletter was published. I told him I wanted to respond in a short statement, and asked him to read it beforehand. Ross gave me the go-ahead and poignantly responded: “Thanks for standing up for me, it is heartening.”

Ludicrous and offensive

It is astonishing to me that Fr O’Neill has taken it on himself to challenge the parentage of Ross and his older brother, and he did so without contacting Ross, who is entitled after all these years to get on with his life without this kind of attempt to once again seek to deny who his father is. I will not stand quietly by and allow this man to bring more pain to Ross, who has had enough denial rained on him to last more than a lifetime. The challenge is even more ludicrous and offensive when the most cursory comparison between Ross and his father shows the startling likeness between them.

Michael Cleary was the brother of my aunt (who was married to my mother’s brother). The pure force of nature that was Michael would charge into our childhood periodically. He was wildly entertaining, irreverent, loud and opinionated, and through my child’s eyes seemed omnipotent. During my years in art college I thought at one stage I wanted to teach art, but quickly learned I didn’t have the patience for teaching during my first placement in Ballyfermot.

However, I enjoyed again meeting Michael, who lived in Ballyfermot. We had robust arguments about faith, I who had turned away from Catholicism at 16, and he who was the public voice of moral censure.

One day he closed the door of the room to speak to me. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer and was afraid. It was the beginning of many years of friendship, albeit a tempestuous one, with Michael continually urging me to submit to the Catholic code of morality.

His treatment worked, and he went into remission, despite continuing to chain-smoke. In 1985, when both my father and sister died, Michael gave me the gruff support that I needed to pull myself out of inward grieving and look to support my other siblings.

In early 1989 on an impulse I opened a restaurant in Rathmines called Bobbysox. I hadn’t seen Michael for a while and I dropped in to the house and invited him to do the opening for me. He asked if Phyllis – who at that point I knew as his housekeeper – could come.

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