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Kathleen Watkins: ‘Occasionally I find myself talking to Gay in my head’

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Kathleen Watkins,  in Howth, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

A year on after her husband’s death, the 86-year-old author knows everything is going to be alright


 

I meet Kathleen Watkins outside Crabby Joe’s seafood restaurant on the pier in Howth. It’s a blustery, bright afternoon and the air is full of the smells of freshly caught fish and the sounds of hungry seagulls. She is about to turn 86 – her birthday falls on October 17th.

The woman who was the first continuity announcer to appear on RTÉ television, back in 1961, looks elegant, as always, and is in enthusiastic spirits as she points out a freshly painted trawler nearby that might make a good backdrop for photos.

As the whole of Ireland probably knows, Watkins used to live in Howth in a house up on the hill with the late and legendary RTÉ broadcaster Gay Byrne, her husband of more than 50 years. That house, now rebuilt and lived in by the couple’s daughter Suzy and her family, was where Gay received palliative care last year. The hospital bed was positioned at a window for the best possible view of the former Late Late Show host’s beloved Baily Lighthouse and the wide expanse of Dublin Bay.

Kathleen Watkins pictured leaving the Pro Cathedral in Dublin after her husband’s funeral. Photograph: Collins
Kathleen Watkins pictured leaving the Pro Cathedral in Dublin after her husband’s funeral. Photograph: Collins

I’m terrific one day and then I get a bang out of the blue and I was told to expect that. So once you know it can happen, you think well, okay

On November 3rd, it will be a year since he died. As she looks ahead to that difficult anniversary, Watkins also has two new books being published – One For Everyone, a second anthology of her favourite poems which she chose during lockdown, and Pigín’s Unexpected Adventure, a continuation of her best-selling series for children. We’re here to talk about poetry. And, of course, about life with and after Gay Byrne.

Watkins and I have been in touch by text but I’ve not seen her since the quiet wake in the house on the hill last November, when friends from Donegal came to pay their respects and a beautiful buffet of smoked salmon and salads covered the kitchen island.

Ryan Tubridy arrived at one point, the family telling him how delighted they were by the warm Late Late Show tribute programme to Byrne, which they’d sat and watched together. Watkins had asked me out to the house knowing how much I hero-worshipped Byrne since I was a teenager. I was deeply grateful for the chance to say goodbye, to see him one final time. There were candles glowing and a small but beautiful portrait of Byrne by James Hanley on display.

Over the years the broadcaster and I would meet occasionally for lunch and coffee. He’d text kind words when he liked something I’d written.

“I love you,” I’d make sure to tell Byrne when I’d see him and Watkins out at the theatre.

“I know you do,” he’d always say. “I know…

Outside Crabby Joes, Watkins orders lunch for us, in the same efficient and helpful manner she has identified the photogenic trawler. Crab cakes and Dublin Bay prawns in garlic butter, she decides, with brown soda bread.

“Anything else?” the waiter asks.

“Maybe a few chips,” she tells the waiter, “and we’ll have a glass of wine, sure it won’t do us a bit of harm.”

Watkins says Byrne’s funeral passed in a blur, she could only watch the recording of it several months later. She was hospitalised – “my heart was galloping” – three times in quick succession after Byrne died, the first time only a few days after he was buried. She says she is in good health now. “With care and rest I’ve recovered.”

She talks about the three difficult years for Byrne and for the family dealing with his cancer. The worrying falls in the night, his failing eyesight, all those appointments in the Mater oncology department. “So many families around Ireland are going through it… and the people in the Mater work long, long hours giving everyone their best attention.”

Coming up to the year anniversary of Byrne’s death, how does she feel? “I have my moments,” she says. “I’m terrific one day and then I get a bang out of the blue and I was told to expect that. So once you know it can happen, you think well, okay.

“Your mind goes back to all sorts of things. Times in our life together. One outstanding thing was we were asked to switch on the Christmas lights at Omagh after the bombing. We went up there, it’s a big main street, and there’s this platform. We’re at the back of it, it was thronged with people and all the twinkling lights and Gay broke down. I mean he broke down. He sobbed, backstage. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen him doing anything like that … it’s etched in my mind forever, really and truly.”

Her mind has also been drifting back to the show they did that toured the country, 46 shows all over Ireland, to packed audiences. They’d have a “tea and biscuit party” before each performance, just three of them backstage, Watkins, Byrne and their stage manager and after the tea and biscuits “we’d go to our separate dressing rooms”, she laughs. “Always separate dressing rooms. I would have driven him mad tapping away on my phone. We had great times, those are terrific memories.”

When the shows were over, they’d always come home “and we’d have the fried egg sandwich in the kitchen, tired and delighted with ourselves”. Does she find herself talking to him in her head sometimes? “Occasionally I do. And I forget, I make a mistake. I say, I must tell Gay that …”

Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins were married for more than 50 years. Photograph: Alan Betson
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins were married for more than 50 years. Photograph: Alan Betson
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins at the opening of The Caretaker by Harold Pinter in the Gate Theatre. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/ Photocall Ireland
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins at the opening of The Caretaker by Harold Pinter in the Gate Theatre. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/ Photocall Ireland

I think of others who’ve lost people during the lockdown, they’ve had no goodbye and I really feel for them

She returns to Omagh again remembering a woman on the Late Late Show telling Byrne about losing her son in the bombing. It resonates for Watkins more deeply now. “I remember she kept saying ‘he’s gone, he’s gone’ and I’d never heard anybody saying it like that before… and now I know, because it’s a shocking thing and that’s what I’ve had. He’s gone. He’s gone.”

She says “in a way, God was good to us. We were able to have Gay at home. Suzy went in the ambulance with him and I drove behind from the Mater hospital and that was some moment, leaving there, knowing the journey we were taking. At home we had him all to ourselves, which was wonderful. The grandchildren milling around him. The hospice team were outstanding. And then I think of others who’ve lost people during the lockdown, they’ve had no goodbye and I really feel for them.”

She knows one woman who went into hospital for a procedure and got Covid-19 in hospital and died. “Her sons never saw her again.”

She still hasn’t managed to look at all the mail that arrived, piles and piles of it, after Byrne died. “There were letters, some five or six pages long, or it was like people had gone out to get the biggest, most beautiful card. There is a sack of it in a trunk. But I couldn’t look at it. I am only beginning to look at it now. I am so grateful to people. The trouble they went to. And even in lockdown people writing to me. They are so good.”

Since Byrne died, there have been three more family funerals; Watkins’s sister Clare lost her husband Desmond; Alison, a daughter of Byrne’s sister Mary and her husband David, died suddenly.

“My brother Jim was buried two weeks ago, he was a good age, 89, we’d had a party for him the week before,” she says. And Paul Sweeney, one of the close-knit crew the couple palled around with on long holidays in Donegal over decades, died during the summer on Byrne’s birthday, August 5th. There’s been a lot of grief to navigate since Byrne died. Her faith has helped. She watches Mass online most mornings and is “a great woman for the prayers”.

What does she miss the most about Byrne? “I miss him sitting in his chair. That’s all. That just sums it up. I look at the chair. Dreadful.”

She tries not to dwell too long on the empty chair. She says she is spoilt by her two daughters Crona and Suzy and feels lucky to have them both in Ireland. “Suzy provided me with hampers all during lockdown, I mean hampers!” she exclaims. She still lives in the apartment she shared with Byrne in Sandymount. “I love it there, it’s so handy for everything.” Life is busy. As well as plotting another Pigín book, she has two podcasts for Senior Times including one about the love poems of WB Yeats.

Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins being helped through a crowd of about 300 people who surrounded the couple when they left the Church of the Nativity, Saggart, Co Dublin, after their wedding in June 1964. Photograph: Gordon Standing
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins being helped through a crowd of about 300 people who surrounded the couple when they left the Church of the Nativity, Saggart, Co Dublin, after their wedding in June 1964. Photograph: Gordon Standing

She knew Byrne was loved, but it was only during his illness she realised how much. She’d be out in town and people would come up to her, men and women, to say “Will you tell him we love him?” Being married to Gay Byrne meant everywhere you went “there were people who wanted to talk to him about something. There was always somebody nibbling at his elbow. I don’t know how he did it because that is tiring. But he was always very good to people, they were the people who listened in. It was important, We’d come home from nights out and our pockets would be full of little bits of paper with requests for Granny.”

They always got up early, about 6am. Byrne wanted to sit and have a proper breakfast before starting work. “He wanted to present himself properly, he’d never be one looking for a coffee and a bun at the desk in the office.” So they’d sit over breakfast, opening up the crumpled pieces of paper and sometimes Watkins would rewrite the messages if they were hard to read. “It was important to him because that Granny would be at the radio listening that morning,” she says.

I miss him sitting in his chair. That’s all. That just sums it up. I look at the chair. Dreadful

As a couple, they had their moments. “I’d hear him saying sometimes, ‘All I want is a little bit of peace and quiet,’ and I’d think excuse me, there’s only two of us here,” she laughs at the memory. She figured out, if she wore runners around the house instead of noisier shoes, it was better for marital harmony. She misses Byrne’s sense of humour, “the quip and the laughing that would diffuse anything, it was always so unexpected and off the cuff and really smart”.

She remembers his way of complimenting her, if he liked something new she was wearing.“Well done Katie, a beautiful suit, tailoring always suits you,” and she gives it the full, iconic Gay Byrne delivery so you can almost hear him saying it. And then we’re both quiet for a moment as we eat prawns and crab cakes and listen to seagulls.

She walks a lot now, more than when Byrne was alive. He would always be disappointed if she wasn’t walking enough. He’d say “‘Oh I give up on you’ … he desperately wanted me to get the enjoyment he did from walking. It let him get away from people and clear his head. He’d walk for three hours at weekends in Howth with his friend Gerry and at the end they’d sit at the wall of the summit shop and have a bar of chocolate each. A Bounty.

Gay Byrne, Kathleen Watkins and their daughters Suzy and Crona. Photograph: Frank Miller
Gay Byrne, Kathleen Watkins and their daughters Suzy and Crona. Photograph: Frank Miller
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins with grandchildren Sadhbh, Cian and Saoirse. Photograph: Brian McEvoy
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins with grandchildren Sadhbh, Cian and Saoirse. Photograph: Brian McEvoy

“All he wanted were his walking boots and his whiskey. He didn’t like the high life and parties. We would go to film premieres and never go to the after-party. His requirements for himself were very little. Towards the end he was so ill, we would go to Suzy’s every Sunday … he was so anxious to get out with the grandchildren, he’d be in the middle of it all, delighted.”

We talk about the poetry she has chosen for this book, One For Everyone. “If the poems paint pictures for me, that’s all I need. Some people are very high falutin’ about poetry but I’m not a bit like that. I feel poetry is for everybody.” To prove it, there is a great one in there from Percy French called If I Was A Lady and her theatrical side comes out as she recites it in effusive Dublinese at the table.

In the foreword of the book she remembers Sr Angela in the Dominican convent where she went to school and learned the harp; Kathleen Watkins was also an accomplished musician. “Sr Angela gave me an appreciation for the rhythm of poetry and the flow.”

Gay Byrne with Kathleen Watkins, after he was conferred with the Honorary Freedom of the City, outside the Mansion House, in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Gay Byrne with Kathleen Watkins, after he was conferred with the Honorary Freedom of the City, outside the Mansion House, in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

There will be dying, there will be dying, but there is no need to get into that … Everything is going to be alright

And as we talk she recalls a memorable poetry event with Brendan Kennelly. “He was so wonderful the way he handled people, the hands went up and shyly hands would go into pockets and they’d take out bits of paper and open them up. And they’d written poetry and other people might have laughed at what they’d written but for him it was very special. It was the written word.”

There is a poem by Kennelly in the book – one of three that pay tribute to Gay Byrne, including Mortal by Rita Ann Higgins. The First, by Kennelly, was written to mark the final Gay Byrne radio show: “You encouraged Ireland to open up, To face the ghost of darkness.”

She says she is “in love” with all the poems in the book. It’s a beautiful collection, sometimes funny, often uplifting with plenty of surprises such as poems by Pat Ingoldsby and Imelda May.

A poem called Love After Love by Derek Walcott, she says, “will speak to everyone”. What does it say to her? “Well, sometimes you put yourself on the back burner. So take time, be at peace, be calm, look and see who you are. Who you were. Things are good aren’t they? They could be worse. Feast on your life, the poem says. That’s important. I was always a glass pretty full person.”

There are three poems by Derek Mahon in the book, which bears a simple, most poignant dedication: For Gay. The Mahon works were already selected by Watkins before the poet died recently. The final one in the book, Everything Is Going to be Alright, is the poem she believes Byrne would have liked the best.

“There will be dying, there will be dying, but there is no need to get into that … Everything is going to be alright.”

Pigín’s Unexpected Adventure by Kathleen Watkins and illustrated by Margaret Anne Suggs, and One For Everyone, compiled by Kathleen Watkins, are published by Gill Books and available now in bookshops and online.

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