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Eamon Casey: The celebrity bishop who loved reaching out to the masses - but had a secret which led to disgrace

With his love of showbiz and fast cars, ex-Bishop of Galway Eamon Casey, who died this week, enjoyed life in the limelight, but dark times were ahead, writes Liam Collins

After a succession of severe-looking cardinals and bishops, Eamon Casey brought the swinging sixties with him to Ireland when he was appointed Bishop of Kerry in 1969.

He was pure showbusiness: fast cars, fine wines and that engaging smile that lit up Studio 1 when he became one of presenter Gay Byrne's favourite talk show guests.

But, as it later emerged, he had also engaged in a dangerous liaison with a striking-looking American divorcee in an episode that would bring disgrace on him and would also mark one of the defining moments in the crumbling power of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

But, when we first got to know him, Eamon Casey was ushering in a bright new era for the Church. It was one of confidence and good humour, where basic humanity would overcome the craw-thumping subservience of politicians and people to their priests and the ecclesiastical princes of the Roman Church.

Where his predecessors had been distant and austere, Eamon Casey had a wide smile, a quick wit and all the Kerry cuteness carefully hidden behind the facade of the laughing boy of the modern Church.

He moved easily and confidently among his people, but also among the media and social elites who had developed a taste for the new liberalism that was sweeping the free world. He wasn't just a media-savvy, trendy clergyman with a new message. In his pronouncements, 'Bishop Eamon' was thoroughly in tune with the line from the Vatican on contraception, abortion and other social issues, he just put a gloss on it, delivering the traditional teachings of the Church in an easier and less dogmatic style.

He used the microphone far more effectively than the pulpit, and he became the first senior churchman to reach a mass new audience created by the onset of television.

In this bright new world, Fr Michael Cleary was the 'singing priest', smoking incessantly and belting out a ballad at the drop of a hat.

Fr Brian D'Arcy was the 'showbiz priest', hanging out with stars and celebrities and writing a weekly column in the racy new Sunday World newspaper.

But Eamon Casey was not any old bishop; he was a man who had 'paid his dues', to use the trendy new parlance. For 10 years before his ordination as bishop, he had been chaplain to the Irish emigrant community in England. Based in Slough, he was national director of the Catholic Housing Aid Society and founder of Shelter, one of the first non-denominational agencies to help the homeless.

He got things done and that was important in the era of new media and mass communications.

As Bishop of Kerry in the early 1970s, he was a man in a hurry, his flashy car zipping between St Brendan's Cathedral in Killarney and Dublin, where he was networking on the social scene with public relations and media types.

He was as comfortable at glitzy occasions in city hotels as he was at the more mundane work of a busy diocese.

He didn't hold back when it came to denouncing US political involvement in the developing world, particularly South America, where the CIA had intervened to launch a series of revolutions and puppet states.

But Eamon Casey also had a dirty little secret. During his time in Kerry, not only did he have a "palace" in Killarney, he also had a secluded holiday home on the coast near the village of Annascaul on the Dingle peninsula. The hunting lodge, once owned by the Earl of Listowel, was where he brought Annie Murphy, the daughter of an American friend who came to Ireland for a little tender, loving care after a messy divorce.

Within a short time, she was accompanying Casey on social occasions and the two of them had become lovers.

In October 1973, she was pregnant, and their son, Peter, was born on July 31, 1974. Some months later, she left Ireland.

It would be almost two decades before Eamon Casey's carefully contrived world came crashing down.

In the meantime, he moved on to become Bishop of Galway (1976) and entertained the young people of Ireland along with Pope John Paul 11 at Galway Racecourse in 1982.

Although Annie Murphy left Ireland, she maintained contact with friends, and the Bishop's little secret sometimes became the subject of whispered conversations at the social occasions he attended. At least one well-known public relations executive - a woman - was aware of his son, but, like a lot of secrets of that era, it was well hidden, for the time being at least.

In his memoirs, RTE reporter Charlie Bird, who was sent to the Philippines where an Irish priest, Fr Niall O'Brien, was in prison charged with murder, gives a flavour of the omnipresence of the Bishop.

"Plenty of visitors came to see Niall O'Brien," wrote Bird. "In February 1984, Bishop Eamon Casey arrived. The Bishop of Galway was also patron of Trocaire, the Irish Catholic Church's aid agency for the developing world. He stayed at the local Archbishop's palace.

"I went up to the house to meet Casey. I can still recall him in the main reception room with all its wooden furniture. He was sitting in a white vest with his braces on. The perspiration was pouring out of him, but he was full of life and personality. He produced a bottle of whiskey and we shared a few glasses."

But in 1988 his past came back to haunt him. Annie Murphy's new partner, Arthur Pennell, arrived in Galway to negotiate a settlement with the Bishop for his son future education. Money was paid over and Mr Casey even went to New York in 1990, where he spent a night in a hotel with Annie Murphy.

On March 5, 1993, rumours of the child finally surfaced and Eamon Casey, who knew what was coming down the track, had already been to Rome and resigned his title of Bishop.

He now left for the US and, by way of parish work in Ecuador, eventually arrived in a convent in Mexico, to which he was tracked by best-selling author Gordon Thomas, who was working on a commission for the Sunday Independent.

On April 11, 1993, the story was published on the front page, leading to consternation and claims that an interview had been fabricated with quotes from tape recordings made from conversations between Mr Casey and a friend of Annie Murphy, Dympna Kilbane.

The 'disgrace' of the Bishop fathering a child soon paled almost to insignificance as the sex abuse scandals engulfed and discredited the Irish Church, almost from top to bottom, in the years that followed.

He wasn't the first or last priest to break the vow of celibacy, but it was the celebrity factor of Eamon Casey that made it all so much more dramatic and, in a way, damaging.

After serving out his time, Casey returned to live in England in retirement, and he later moved back to Galway, where he lived in a retirement home for many years.

He gave some interviews, particularly to reporter Veronica Guerin, around the time of the Gordon Thomas affair.

But he mostly kept his own counsel on the issues of Annie Murphy and his flight to South America.

And he also avoided the medium of television, which he had once used so effectively, in those early years, to deliver the message of a caring, compassionate but conservative Catholic Church.

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