'Michelle will always love Van Morrison, but he has broken her heart'
Niamh Horan reveals the inside story of the Belfast-born musical genius and his estranged wife
Last Monday morning, a phonecall came through to Michelle Rocca that was to rock her world. The former Miss Ireland had been in the middle of a High Court case about her sea view at her Dalkey home. She had fought for eight years and had gone to court against her neighbours Conor and Eileen Kavanagh, who had redeveloped their home.
Michelle had said she wanted to protect her family's privacy, citing, among other reasons, the importance of discretion for Van. In court she maintained when he "gets out of his car, he wants to be able to walk to the hall door without feeling he was being overlooked". But the Belfast-born singer was about to throw cold water over her story. He fired off a public statement to the national media to say, not only did he never live at the home, but, he announced, he and Michelle have been legally separated since 2013.
Michelle heard the friend's concerned voice on the other end of the line: "I have to warn you ... Van's released a statement."
The former model, with whom he has two children, politely excused herself and left the room.
"It was like Christmas 2009 all over again, when a statement went out that Van had supposedly fathered a child with Gigi Lee," a close friend said. "It was the same feeling. She told us afterwards that the pit of her stomach fell through the floor.
"Her instant reaction was to stay in the moment and survive. Michelle has always been someone to hold her dignity. But she felt betrayed.
"For over 20 years Michelle has feverishly protected Van and their young family's privacy, only to have him publicly announce their separation to the world. He didn't even let her know that it was coming."
The singer's estranged wife had spent the past few weeks going in and out of court. "She couldn't believe she was going in again after everything that happened with the case against Cathal Ryan. That turned into a circus about rich people. She deeply regretted that. Cathal was a true love of Michelle's and she was young and fiery at the time."
After the shock statement from Van, she withdrew the case. "It was to stop media coverage. She wasn't going to let it turn into a circus. Sometimes it's not a weakness to give in," said the source. But the question remains - where did it all come crashing down for Ireland's golden couple who had once lit up Dublin's social scene with their megawatt love?
Van met Michelle Rocca in the early 1990s, at a dinner party at Leixlip Castle hosted by Desmond Guinness. He had been previously married to Janet Rigsbee, with whom he has a daughter, Shana.
At the time, Michelle was forging ahead in her career as a model, TV presenter and prolific writer for the Sunday Independent, but in her private life she was also a vulnerable woman.
She was the single mother of three girls, in the aftermath of two high-profile, failed relationships. She was married to footballer John Devine (with whom she had two daughters), and became engaged to Cathal Ryan with whom she had a third daughter.
But the relationship with Ryan ended in 1997 when the former Miss Ireland went to the High Court to seek damages from her lover, arising out of an assault at a 30th birthday party in Blackhall Stud in Co Kildare, which Mr Justice Michael Moriarty memorably conceded would "not fall within the realms of a Vicarage tea-party". Van, Michelle's new lover at the time, famously stood by her in court.
"The loyalty that Van showed to Michelle during that period stayed with her and that is why she has protected him ever since. She had the same dream as most girls. All she ever wanted was to be a good mother and wife to Van and to keep the home so he had somewhere safe to return in between touring the world.
"Van told her that it would be a conflict of interest if she continued writing for the newspaper so she stopped that. On another occasion, when they were engaged, she had a few glasses of champagne with a friend in his hotel room and Van got annoyed, so she didn't touch a drop of alcohol after that. She became sensible and stopped going to parties and withdrew from the social scene and dedicated her life to Van. She wanted to be his friend and to understand him. They had great chemistry. She understood fame and that was one of the things she and Van connected over. He was very kind to her. He let her stay in his place on Clyde Road."
For a few years, her openness brought out a more relaxed and sociable side of Van. Together they were at the centre of an uber-cool sociable gang, including stylist Ian Galvin and Marianne Faithfull. There were evenings with Mick Jagger and - such was Morrison's pleasure in her - she appeared on two iconic album covers. First No Prima Donna in 1994, and then, a year later, Days Like This, in which Michelle glows by his side, both holding muzzled greyhounds, against a grainy urban backdrop. She would read poetry on stage at his gigs, and provided inspiration for his ability to write beautiful, evocative lyrics.
When the couple moved into Kilross House in Dalkey they were very happy. He travelled the world, while Michelle looked after the homestead. They had two children, Aibhe and Fionn Ivan. Friends say they had a "dull and boring, non-celebrity, everyday life. They enjoyed walks with the children and went on nice summer holidays together". The couple wrote a musically academic book together on Van's career, that has never been published.
Despite his genius and huge success as a musician, Michelle never treated Van like a "demi-god", said the friend. "People only cared about the music," said the source, but "she saw him as a gentle soul who loved his children. But the ego, the validation he needed, Michelle feels that took over as the years went on".
But it wasn't until December 2009 - when a woman named Gigi Lee emerged from the woodwork and declared through a shock announcement on the singer's official website, that she had given birth to Van's child, George Ivan Morrison III. Lee, a Texan and Van's tour manager, described the new baby as the "spitting image of his daddy".
Michelle and Van had just spent a lovely, family Christmas together and the singer had flown off for business. She was unwinding after the festivities when the call came through. Top public relations executive John Saunders was one of the first to break the news to her.
"Michelle was in complete shock. Out of anything, she would never ever have put Van down as a philanderer. She rang Van and he completely denied everything. He swore blind it was all lies and that it was just a set-up."
Van instructed an unwitting Saunders to conduct a series of interviews on his behalf and deny reports that he was the father or that he knew the mother, which Saunders duly did.
The singer released a strongly worded statement, which read: "For the avoidance of all doubt and in the interests of clarity... I am very happily married to Michelle Morrison with whom I have two wonderful children."
From there, as evidence emerged to contradict that initial, rash denial, Van was involved in an embarrassing public climbdown. It culminated in he and Gigi dropping their attempts at an injunction forbidding any comment on their private lives or relationships, once it was demonstrated that in fact she was responsible for the internet post, and not malicious hackers, as first claimed.
Saunders took a case against the musician and, in Dublin's High court, counsel for Mr Saunders said the two sides had reached an agreement over fallout from the allegations, "on terms that include a letter that the plaintiff John Saunders acted with integrity and on the express instructions of the defendant Van Morrison". The case was settled for undisclosed damages. This weekend, a friend told the Sunday Independent that Van had convinced Michelle there was nothing going on between him and Gigi and she had taken his word for it.
"Michelle believed him for a few months. They went to the park with the children and tried to do normal things as they sorted through the mess. Van tried to get her to move from Dalkey to Belfast. He almost had her convinced, but Michelle wanted to stay in their home."
But less than a year later, when Van Morrison applied for a court injunction banning the publication of a newspaper article printing photos of him, his home near Belfast and Gigi Lee, Michelle became uneasy.
"Michelle couldn't understand it. She started asking questions. She asked why on earth he was getting an injunction if it was all lies. But when she challenged him he got angry and told her to stop quizzing him. That's when Michelle decided to pull the plug on their relationship."
Despite everything, friends say that Michelle still loved Van and wanted it to work. A source said: "He had gotten himself into a strange situation; it was almost like Ripley's Believe It Or Not. He ran in fear and I think his biggest fear was the exposure from Gigi's side, but instead of trying to understand that it [his relationship with Michelle] could have been salvaged, he panicked.
"Van was going back to the family home in Dalkey for the first few months," the source said: "I'm not saying that Michelle would have forgiven him but this was her third major relationship. She was older and wiser. She saw the bigger picture and felt they could have worked things through. They had a good situation going. Instead their marriage was destroyed."
Then, in 2011, it emerged Van had been hit by a double tragedy in the space of a year with the death of a former lover and the baby. George Ivan Morrison III was aged 13 months when he passed away in January of that year, believed to have been the result of a diabetes-related illness. The 44-year-old Texan died from throat cancer in the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast in October the same year. The friend explains: "I still don't know if Michelle believes that Gigi Lee gave birth to Van's child. Part of her feels it was all a set-up and still wonders if the child was really his."
The friend said she knows he is a good man but cannot understand why he acted as he did.
"What hurts her the most is that he never took any responsibility for any of it. Lots of successful men have mistresses. They think it is okay because they have money and fame. He acted like a rock star and Michelle believes he acted more and more like one as their marriage went on.
"If he had put his hands up and said, 'Look this happened, I made a mistake and I am sorry'. But he wouldn't do that. It was incredibly disrespectful. And Michelle had believed him and stood by him for so long. It caused her a great deal of pain. But part of her understands him and will always love him."
In the past few years, friends say Michelle has been writing again and practising meditation, yoga classes and attending seminars by renowned spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, who travels the world helping people find inner peace and greater fulfilment in their lives. Her spirituality was clear in court. Each day she brought with her a small statue of Buddha, special coloured mists to reflect her mood and a picture of her brother, property tycoon Patrick Rocca, who died tragically by suicide in January 2009. A friend said: "She felt Patrick's presence with her through it all.
"Michelle has done a lot of work on herself in recent years and has become very strong. She sees everything as a lesson and she doesn't want to be a victim in any of this. Even after the court case, you saw pictures of her smiling with her sister, Laura. They have been able to laugh together, even in the darkest moments."
The dispute had been going on for eight years and, the friend says, it took its toll on Michelle in many ways. "When it first started, she had just had a baby and she was dealing with Patrick. Patrick's death was like a bomb going off in the family. Michelle believes she got post-natal depression after the shock of it all.
"But she firmly believes you have to have faith in yourself and found that, even at her lowest hour, it kicked in.
"She decided, going into court this time, not to do any PR. And she hasn't read any of the newspaper reports since because she wants to protect herself. Just like Nigella Lawson, her philosophy has always been silence, dignity and antiquity. And she believes that will see her through."
Speaking of her feelings towards Van now, the friend said: "She understands him and - in many ways - she will always love him because he was there for her."
In the run-up to the case, friends say that Michelle was in a hairdressers when she overheard a woman in another chair give out about "that Michelle one up there fighting over a view".
The woman didn't realise Michelle was there and afterwards the pretty brunette dismissed it to her inner circle, saying "you have to rise above it". Friends say she made sure to drive the children to school the next day and say she has an inner contentment and no regrets over how she has handled the knocks life has thrown at her.
"She believes she has to accept it and align herself with what is. She has let go of the beautiful view of the seafront from her back garden and her kitchen window, but is glad she took the course she did. She feels, despite everything that has happened, it was worthwhile, because of the lessons she has learned."
In addition to her Miss Ireland title and TV work, Michelle also read for a Masters in philosophy, focusing on women's studies and psychology at Trinity College Dublin and completed a Masters in English at Bristol University. She is working on self-help books but it is not known if Michelle will ever pen a book about Van. The friend said: "She may do so in the future if she chooses."