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'I have faith... and prayer is never wasted': Kathleen Watkins on life after the death of her husband Gay Byrne

Almost a year since her husband Gay Byrne died, Kathleen Watkins talks to Barry Egan about dealing with grief

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Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins

Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins

Kathleen Watkins

Kathleen Watkins

Kathleen and husband Gay Byrne in 2018

Kathleen and husband Gay Byrne in 2018

Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins

Today, Kathleen Watkins turns 86. A week and a half later it will be the first anniversary of the death of her husband, Gay Byrne. Kathleen plans to celebrate her birthday in a simple way: dinner with the family. "That will make me happy," she says.

What else makes her happy? "Being out in the fresh air," she says over scones and tea in the Intercontinental Hotel, her second home, across the road from her actual home in Dublin's Sandymount. "When you clap a door behind you and get out, it is the most marvellous feeling."

And when she gets home from her walk and shuts the door behind her, what is that like? "It is very empty sometimes," she says. "Very, very empty."

Does she see Gay in everything at home? "Not everything. I went through the office and all the bits and pieces. I did that at a time when I didn't really know he was gone. Somebody said to me, very soon after the funeral, 'Do you miss Gay?' I thought it was a dreadful thing to say to somebody," she says. "How could I miss him? I didn't even know he was gone yet. I didn't know for months that he was gone."

Kathleen has shown strength in the face of grief. The outside world sees a smiling and positive woman. What goes on in her head when she is alone?

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Kathleen Watkins

Kathleen Watkins

Kathleen Watkins

"I have my moments," she says. "These moments can come at you when you least expect it. You get up one day and you say, 'I'm feeling great today' and then suddenly, whoosh, it hits you like a tonne of bricks - this grief."

Would it be at night in bed when she looks across to where Gay lay next to her for all those years, and realises he is not there?

"Exactly," she says, haltingly, "exactly.

"And it's a trauma for people. But how lucky we were to be able to give Gay the send-off at that time, because the Covid thing followed not that long afterwards."

Her heart goes out to people who've lost loved ones in the pandemic, "who've had no goodbye. They had nothing."

Along with lifelong friendships, what has helped Kathleen through the pain of the last year - and the years before that when Gay was seriously ill with cancer - is her faith.

"Some days I am better than other days. You have to keep going," she says, "I pray. I think prayer is never wasted... I have faith, you see."

When I spoke to Gay a year before his death about whether he believed in God, he batted away my questions.

"He has the faith," Kathleen answered for him then.

"I know the faith," said Gay, who was the host of RTE's The Meaning Of Life. "That doesn't necessarily mean you have the faith. There is a difference."

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Gay and Kathleen with daughter Suzy on her wedding day

Gay and Kathleen with daughter Suzy on her wedding day

STEVE HUMPHREYS.

Gay and Kathleen with daughter Suzy on her wedding day

Kathleen explains that to me now: "Well, he went to Mass in the mornings in Donnybrook, very early, on his way to RTE, and for a long time, I didn't know that he did that."

Where did his faith come from? "I think it was from his mother. When his father was in the war, his mother said, 'If he comes back safe and sound, I will go to Mass every day of my life.' And she did. So, I think that remains with people."

She sums it up like this: "It's all about the kind of life you live, and being aware of people, and giving people the most precious thing, your time - and indeed people have given me, for the last year since Gay died, their time."

Yet the last few months have been especially sad.

"My sister Clare lost her husband, Desmond. And Gay's sister Mary and David, her husband, lost their daughter Alison. She died suddenly. It was a lot. Then Jim (Kathleen's older brother) died two weeks ago. We had a beautiful send-off for him, a beautiful Mass in Saggart."

It was at the same church where she and Gay got married in 1964. "We were glad we were all together for his Mass. That's the way it goes. Jim was very, very ill."

It was, she says, a happy release. He was 89. They'd recently had his birthday with a little gathering of family and he was "really bad that day". She asked him how he was. He gave her a thumbs-down sign. The next day he was in St Vincent's Hospital.

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Gay with wife Kathleen

Gay with wife Kathleen

Gay with wife Kathleen

"And that really was it. Jim had lived a great life. He had lived a wonderful outdoorsy life as a veterinary surgeon," she smiles, then pauses.

"I'll have to give you a little story that I think you will enjoy, which has not been in the public domain before... Everybody remembers the Bishop and the Nightie affair," she begins, referring to the controversy on The Late Late Show in 1966 when Gay asked Eileen Fox from Terenure in Dublin what colour nightie she wore on her wedding night.

Her reply caused a national scandal: "I wore nothing."

The Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan said, "decent Catholics will not tolerate programmes of this nature" and it was "completely unworthy of Irish television". The Sunday Press thought the episode worthy of its front page. In his Sunday sermon, the parish priest at St Brigid's Church in Dunleer, Co Louth, Fr Michael McRory, said "the duty of Catholic viewers to such a programme is clear - they should turn it off".

"Way, way back, years back," Kathleen goes on, "my brother, who was the country vet, was up to his neck in his Wellington boots and cow dung out in some farm somewhere when he got a phone call from a priest to say that he had an urgent message for him. And could he possibly meet him. So, at great inconvenience to himself, he put on the Sunday suit and threw off the Wellington boots and went into the Gresham Hotel of an afternoon and met this priest. The priest was sent to say, 'sorry'."

To pass on a message of apology to Gay from the Church?

"Yes."

Why couldn't they have said that directly to Gay?

"Well, that's the point. Life is like that. Gay and I were just amused and we never said anything. We didn't want to make mileage out of it. I hope we are above that."

Gay being denounced from the pulpits of Ireland, she says, was "an extraordinary time. In those times, you see, the word of a bishop was very important."

Was it important to her husband? "Not really. I don't think it made any difference to him at all. I don't remember him commenting on it. We were just amused."

Gay himself once told me: "When people complained about the Bishop and the Nightie, could they possibly have foretold what they would be watching on television now?" He laughed, referring to reality TV shows like I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! and Love Island.

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Kathleen and husband Gay Byrne in 2018

Kathleen and husband Gay Byrne in 2018

Kathleen and husband Gay Byrne in 2018

These programmes are anathema to Kathleen, who prefers to watch the likes of the recent ballet production of Cinderella on Sky Arts.

Kathleen has just published One For Everyone: More Poems I Love, a second collection of her favourites. It features three pieces that were written for Gay - to whom the book is dedicated: The First by Brendan Kennelly, Clearing The Lane by Eithne Hand and Mortal by Rita-Ann Higgins. Compiling the poems then was quite an emotional experience. "It depended on the mood of the day," she says.

Was it difficult to stay positive in front of Gay during those three years back and forth to hospital? "It was exhausting," she admits. "At the end of it all, I really was totally drained and exhausted."

But, she adds: "He was my husband, and I was doing the best I could. What you do is - you do the best you can at the time. You cope with what you have to cope with when it is presented to you. It is just extraordinary, and then you do a little collapse afterwards. But I really feel for people who are going through it now."

Pigin's Unexpected Adventure by Kathleen Watkins, illustrated by Margaret Anne Suggs, £12.99, and One For Everyone: More Poems I Love, compiled by Kathleen Watkins, £14.50, both published by Gill Books, are out now