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Cut From a Different Cloth

Irish Times September 08, 2007 by Hilary Fannin

TV Review: 'Hidden in plain sight" was how Ross Hamilton, the wryly articulate son of the late Fr Michael Cleary, described the circumstances of his family life in Alison Millar's riveting documentary, At Home With the Clearys. 

Christmas 1991: Ireland's "singing priest", a charismatic performer and savvy pundit who had become the Catholic Church's unofficial media spokesman on issues of morality, allowed young film-maker Millar unprecedented access to his private life when she moved in with Cleary and his unacknowledged family to make a film about his busy career. Footage from this film (plus clips from the archive) showed the priest - confident, lanky, nicotine-soaked - broadcasting on his radio talk-show; swinging his mike at live cabarets; defending priestly celibacy (and advocating the same for wannabe fornicators) on The Late Late Show; whipping up the rapturous Galway crowds for Pope John Paul II's 1979 youth Mass; and relaxing - fag permanently glowing between his garrulous lips - at the races, at the football and at home with his partner, Phyllis, their dancing dog and their teenage son, Ross.

During Millar's filming of this time, nobody knew, or nobody wanted to know, that this "star", this man whom his niece described as being "destined for the priesthood since birth", had a lover and a son. Phyllis, a vulnerable character and a victim of sexual abuse, met Cleary when she was just 17 and training to be a nurse. She soon moved in with him as his "housekeeper", and subsequently gave birth to two of his children (her first son was adopted). When Ross arrived, she fought to have him remain at home with his parents, which the boy eventually did, despite an uncertain infancy.

At Home With the Clearys movingly revisited the scenes of Millar's original film, with Ross Hamilton, now adult, filling Millar in on the rest of the story after her student camera had been turned off in the early 1990s. He told her of life in the turbulent household following the revelations about his father's friend and confidant, the former bishop of Galway, Dr Eamonn Casey, who also had a son (a fact which Casey never revealed to Cleary), and of Cleary's subsequent death from throat cancer in 1993. When the story of Cleary's quasi-marriage broke, Phyllis and Ross, unsupported by both Cleary's church and his extended family, published a book about their lives. A few years later, still mired in prurient interest and hostility, Phyllis died from ovarian cancer.

A man with the inherent charisma of his father and poignant traces of his mother's fragility, Ross had had to resort to DNA testing to prove that Cleary was his father. Ross's identity having been negotiated between the tight sheets of hypocrisy and humanity, his father went to his grave without ever publicly acknowledging his son.

This was a film of surprisingly stirring images: windswept Ballyfermot shivering in the cold winds of the 1970s, footballers on their knees before bishops, Cleary talking to giggling gaggles of blushing schoolgirls about the dangers of young men and their unexpected emissions. The film was a dark hucklebuck of parsimonious decades, when many relieved the tedium of a poor, cold country by throwing stones in glasshouses, condemning the boatloads of lonely girls crossing the Irish Sea while turning a blind eye to the misdemeanours of the frocked religious. But it also generously revealed the desperate frailty and humanity of a character frozen in the aspic of his time; ultimately, it allowed us feel for Cleary, a man whom everybody, not least his son, called "father". ....