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


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

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.

Phyllis was strikingly not of this world. She seemed fragile, with beautiful pale blue eyes that alternated between piercing probes and disconnected distraction. At the opening, she sat at the restaurant bar counter, her tiny frame balanced on a high stool, childlike in her physique, with her blonde hair swept back from her porcelain white skin. Her presence was more acutely felt than Michael’s huge whirlwind personality. Pat Kenny wanted her to come on the radio to speak about being a housekeeper in modern Ireland, but she declined. It was clear that she was uncomfortable in the crowded room and asked Michael to bring her home early.

The next day Michael rang me and said that Phyllis really liked me and needed a friend. He asked if I would drop in to see her every now and then as he was out so much and he felt she needed company. I called over the next day and that was the beginning of almost five years of daily visits. Phyllis and I would sit in the kitchen, drinking tea, sometimes vodka, and chatting about life. She and her son Ross, who was a vibrant, intelligent and mature 12-year-old, lived with Michael in the house on Leinster Road.

In 1992 the news broke that Eamon Casey had a son, and all hell broke loose in Leinster Road. I can remember many evenings when Michael furiously decried the secrecy of Casey, whom he viewed as a friend. Phyllis was distraught and drank more than usual. During one evening when she was semi-hysterical she told me that Ross was Michael’s son, that they had had another son together who Michael had arranged to be adopted, and she was terrified that the media would learn of their relationship.

Walking likeness

With the patent stress they all lived under as the Casey scandal kept breaking in waves of disclosure, it was no surprise that Michael’s cancer came back. One evening when I came to the house, Browne was with Phyllis upstairs and Michael was in the kitchen with Fr Brian D’Arcy. Michael was enraged and paced the kitchen. He was convinced that a spotlight would be shone on him, and that it would be discovered that he had children if journalists got anywhere near Phyllis, as she would never deny it.

He asked me to come to St Vincent’s hospital with him to see the consultant. In the waiting room he was accosted by those waiting for their own appointments. He stepped into his jovial entertainer mode and sent me in to see the consultant alone. Afterwards we sat in his car; he had great difficulty accepting that, not only was the cancer back in his throat, but it had spread.

‘Sounded them out’

In October 1993, I met the diocesan chancellor, Msgr Alex Stenson, at Archbishop’s House, who agreed to meet in confidence. I told him about Michael, Phyllis and their two sons and their fears of public exposure. His view was that, until Michael told the church directly, they could not offer him, or anyone else who may be involved, any support.

In December 1993, Michael died. I didn’t see him for the last month of his life as he refused to tell his family that Ross was his son and he was angry that I kept insisting he needed to ensure that Ross had the support of his family when he would no longer be here to take care of him. Michael loved Ross, but I learned after his death that Michael never found the courage to confide in his siblings.

Gone are the days when a senior member of the church in Ireland can make public statements that will go unchallenged. Fr Arthur O’Neill used his position to disseminate a hurtful, confrontational statement whose effect, intended or otherwise, would be once more to deny Ross his father.

I am tired of the culture of mistruths and cover-ups that I grew up with. As a society we need to be open about the wrongs we have inflicted on children, including Ross, who was a child who needed help but instead got the icy chill of outrage for the “sins” of his father.

Ross is an amazing young man, who has struggled over the years with the emotional damage inflicted by the repeated denials, which even a DNA test has failed to quell. He has just starred in his first lead role in a film directed by Fergus Kavanagh. Running to Stand Still , which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month, is a coming-of-age story set in Thailand about a young Irish man’s journey of misadventure and self-discovery. Ross himself is coming of age, his star is just starting to shine, and I for one will not allow anyone to derail that.

Dr Róisín O’Shea was a friend of Phyllis Hamilton and Fr Michael Cleary and is a professional mediator

Rite & Reason has been held over until tomorrow

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