School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland.
At Home with the Clearys
Broadcast: RTÉ One, Monday, September 3rd 2007.
Produced by Tern TV
Directed by Alison Millar.
Until the 1980s, representations of the Catholic priest in Irish film were generally benevolent. The priest is, of course the mediator between God and the individual, but in traditional genre cinema he is also ‘a social mediator, a figure of authority who will ensure that the physical and ebullient Irish can be regulated and brought under some kind of social control’. (McLoone 2000: 49) One of the best — and most ironic — instances of such a mediating figure occurs in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) where the film’s narrator Father Peter Lonergan introduces himself, ‘here comes myself – that’s me, the tall, saintly looking man.’ Meeting the returned emigrant Sean Thornton (John Wayne) for the first time, the priest perfectly traces his ancestry, a preoccupation of many in rural Ireland, which in turn confirms the historical lineage of a closely-knit community.
A notable exception to the general historical portrayal of a benevolent clergy in Irish cinema is seen in the acerbic and ground-breaking documentary The Rocky Road to Dublin (1968), when the director Peter Lennon contends in a provocative voice-over that Ireland remained locked into a backward, church controlled state, which did not follow through on the heroic struggle of the revolutionary’s vision from the past. To underpin his thesis Lennon interviews one well-known ‘singing (or swinging) Priest,’ Father Michael Cleary. Unknown to Lennon at the time, Cleary would later cause posthumous scandal through the revelation that he had fathered a child. Cleary’s banter and insights in ‘Rocky Road’ assume a hypocritical taint in hindsight, especially when he extols the virtues of celibacy and how the church was ‘not against sex’, per se, but wanted it ‘celebrated in an appropriate way’, rather than being ‘abused’ outside of the sacrament of marriage.
In spite of a slow burning anti-Catholic sentiment, precipitated by the numerous church scandals of the 1990s, it still took a long time for representations of extreme institutional violence by the clergy and Religious orders to be documented. This is effectively exemplified in The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Song for a Raggy Boy (2003). While at another level, the cult television classic Father Ted has helped to comically puncture the aloof and revered authority of the Irish priest. Graham Linehan, one of the creators of this series, comments on the DVD voice-over that Bishop Leonard ‘Len’ Brennan (Jim Norton), whose character had a mistress and son living in California, certainly anticipates the (in)famous real life stories of Bishop Casey and Fr. Cleary. He further notes that Phyllis Hamilton’s biography Secret Love: My life with Father Michael Cleary was published in 1995, the same year that theFather Ted series started. This mixture of generic approach chimes with developments in trauma theory which suggests that comic as well as more traumatic representational exposition of the abuse of power is necessary for the therapeutic process of healing and memorializing to begin.
Lennon’s celebrated documentary and his ironic evocation of Cleary is counterpointed by the contemporary exposé of this most enigmatic of post Vatican II Irish Catholic figures, At Home With the Clearys. The original documentary footage was shot by a film student, who somewhat surprisingly was afforded full access to Cleary’s house, where she captured reality-television type footage of his ‘family arrangement’. In an interview for RTE ( www.rte.ie/TV/clearys/bacground.html ), Alison Millar tells how she first met Cleary at an Irish cabaret show in Kilburn, London in 1991 when she was 21 and a student at the National Film and Television school on the look out for a subject. ‘He’s Ireland’s Pope’ one woman screamed from the audience and she knew then she had a fitting subject for her documentary. At no time she claims did it occur to her that Phyllis Hamilton, his housekeeper, or that Ross her son, were actually related to Cleary.
An earlier documentary, In the Name of the Father, directed by Kevin Byrne (www.rte.ie/TV/Scannal) in 2005, revealed that Cleary had fathered another child with Phyllis in their 26 years together, who was given up for adoption. Furthermore, it was well documented that when Phyllis died in 2001, the house where the family lived was sold by the church with a small reimbursement made to Ross, who had some health difficulties consequently.
Much of the archive footage of Ross with his father appears pedestrian, even mundane, yet at the same time somewhat prurient from this distance in time. Such scruples notwithstanding, it is strange to witness Cleary on his very successful radio chat show dispensing moral and sexual guidance to the nation with his young son in tow. Now many years later, having apparently never revealed the original footage when the scandal broke, the director wanted to come back to ‘fill in the clues of the real Fr. Cleary’, who had fathered a son and yet never publically acknowledged him. Like many documentary formats she attempts to discover the true story by juxtaposing the original archive footage viewed side by side with contemporary footage. Ross on re-viewing the old footage apparently did not find his relationship with his family that strange, I suppose since that was all he knew. Nonetheless the audience is encouraged to feel sympathy for his strange upbringing.
The documentary also includes interviews with Father Brian D’Arcy, a good friend, but who was upset that Cleary never confided in him. Likewise Cleary, we are reliably informed was annoyed when the equally famous Bishop Casey was outed for having fathered a child in 1992. Apparently, Cleary had confided in him regarding his predicament, but this openness was not reciprocated. Within Ireland it cannot be underestimated that these celebrity priests were the darlings of the media and how both served as ‘warm-up’ to the Pope’s visit to Galway in 1979, as seen again in archive footage. Gerry McCarthy best describes this performance-fixated cleric with his ‘jaw jutting at a rakish angle, cigarette in hand, Cleary is the voice of modern Irish Catholicism’ and continues how he ‘sings and dances the boogie woogie’ and acts like ‘being one of the lads’. (Sunday Times May 14 2006)
Signalling the major transformation in attitudes towards religion, At Home with the Clearys did not cause as much of a media ripple as it might once have, probably aided by the fact that this has become such a well known and even old story by now. Nonetheless, the headline review from the Irish Examiner of 6th September 2007 screamed out; ‘Fr Cleary, the obnoxious hypocrite wasn’t half the man his son is’ (www.archives.tcm.ie/ Irish Examiner). The review continues that the film ‘challenges the universal rules of one of the biggest belief systems in the world by examining the damage Father Michael Cleary left behind when he chose to take his secrets to the grave’, having died of throat cancer in 1993. Hillary Fannin of the Irish Times from 8th September, emphasizes how his son was ‘hidden in plain sight’.
The narrative trajectory of the documentary centres on the familiar pattern of the film-makers search for the lost child/man and explores how he has coped with his ‘secret history’. Nonetheless, I feel the viewer remains somewhat detached from easy identification with the main protagonists. One of the most surprising incidents involves speaking with Cleary’s niece, Edel Sweeney who spoke of how her family treated him as a priest from an early age. She was very engaging and appeared visibly shocked even at this distance with such revelations. But she appeared also to have no difficulty relating that the immediate family had nothing to do with his ‘wife’ and most particularly her son, after Cleary died. Apparently the inferred reason was because they had caused such grief and deception within the greater family.
In hindsight and reminiscent of the well worn trope of Citizen Kane (1941) attempting to explain the rise and fall of a great man, many commentators in the documentary suggested that the lanky, chain smoking Cleary was simply overly preoccupied with his public reputation and fame. This was inferred as one of the major reasons why he did not ‘come out in the end’ in spite of this being, according to his son and presumably a majority of the viewers, ‘the right thing to do’. Trying to appreciate the enigma of this father-son relationship remains the backbone of the documentary and was played for all its dramatic effect. As the film concludes we see footage of Ross walking down a beach, while the audience is treated to a romantic pop song on the sound track. The conflicted legacy of Father Cleary lives on and this timely documentary marks another chapter in the reappraising of such an iconic figure within contemporary representations of Catholicism in Ireland.
♣ BBC NI website announced Dec 2007, “Clearys will go out on BBC Four and BBC Northern Ireland in the New Year under the title The Real Father Ted”
McLoone, M. (2000) Irish Film, The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. BFI Press.