This was first published in VIP Magazine December 2018
Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins are the original power couple. In fact VIP has in our 20 years never met anyone quite like this dynamic duo. Totally engaged when together, yet equally engaging company when apart, they can hold a room, tell a story, and, they have lots of stories to tell.
We spy them locked deep in conversation across the restaurant of their local haunt – The Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 – for this, our very special cover shoot. We had expected to find Gay poorly, a little tetchy even, given his ill health, but nope, not today; Gay is in sprightly spirits, laughing and chatting animatedly. He and Kathleen have just ordered lunch (soup and a whiskey for Gay; a burger and a G&T for Kathleen) so VIP joins them and listens as they discuss an article in the paper, a book they’d both recently read, and the Sky Arts Show, a favourite of Kathleen’s, which she watches religiously each morning at 6am while Gay snoozes.
After lunch we move upstairs to the Intercontinental’s luxurious Penthouse Suite (where Gay has forty winks on the couch) and three of their five beloved grandkids (Cian, 14, Sadhbh, 12 and Saoirse, 10) arrive giddy with excitement for their shoot with Rara (Gay’s nickname) and NanKit (Kathleen’s), both whom they clearly idolize. And you can see why.
Gay and Kathleen, both born in Dublin in the year 1934, making them 84 years old, are endlessly fascinating, perfectly mannered and both quite extrovert in their own little ways. “She’s a mad granny”, he tells as he gently jostles her in his witty deadpan way. We talk about the new book Happy Christmas, Pigín!, about Gay’s cancer journey, we hear all about their Christmas plans and we ask them how after 54 years of marriage they still appear to be such good friends. “It’s all a front”, Gay jokes. But nah, not these two, some things just can’t be faked.
Gay and Kathleen, it’s great to see you looking so well and in such good form. And what about your gorgeous grandchildren? What polite and well mannered children they are…
Kathleen: Aw, that’s nice to know. Unfortunately Kate and Harry were not able to be here today as they’re away on holidays and they are greatly missed. They would loved all the excitement. But yes, they’re all great children. I think investing time in children is the most important thing. Leave the dust under the bed and give children you time. And parents today do give so much of their time.
Times were different when you both grew up.
Gay: Well, I cannot get over the time my son-in-laws spend with their children between rugby and gaelic and hurling and dancing and fiddle…and the closeness they have. Because when I was growing up – and I know it was another era and planet – but to my father I was kind of irrelevant. I was the youngest; he was in his 50s. He wasn’t a tough man or a bad man; I just didn’t register with him. And I never went anywhere with him. Children were intended to be seen and not heard. But now there’s such closeness.
But today Gay you would be very close with both your daughters, Crona and Susie.
G: I am very close. But you must remember for 30 odd years I left home every morning at 6.50am when they were still in bed, and by the time I got home on many nights, they would be back in bed.
Do you have regrets about this as you now look back?
G: I do. Because there are only brief snatches of them growing up that I do remember. But I’m in the same category as most men of my age…
K: It’s just different today. Today there is just a lot more sharing of parental duties. And times have changed, thankfully. In our grandson Cian’s school it was LGBT week recently, isn’t that amazing? Senator David Norris who lives just across the road from the school even came over to talk them.
G: Jesus, when I look back on me at Synge Street with the Christian Brothers, the thought of what happened in school with my grandson recently was so far beyond the reaches of realisation. We knew nothing and we were told nothing. Everything was a secret.
Well what’s your secret?! After 54 years of marriage how are the two of you still the best of pals?
G: It’s all a front! Don’t believe any of it! [Both laugh]
K: We have lots of different friends, lots of interests and hobbies and we’re always reading. One of my main hobbies is watching Sky Arts…
G: Because she’s in love with two cello players! Dreamboats she says they are!
K: 20-something year olds! Fine looking guys! And highly qualified…
Gay can you compete, Gay?! Are you a keen musician like your good wife (Kathleen is an accomplished harpist)?
G: I can’t compete! I used to thump around on the piano. But the legacy of chemotherapy is that you loose sensation in the tips of your fingers and toes. And your nails break and crack and get all jagged and fall off…[we all look at Gay’s nails].
The nails look great now.
My nails are coming back now thank God. And my hair also to a great extent. But the numbness hasn’t gone. So it’s even awkward typing, and as for the piano, no. Not that I was about to play Rachmaninoff’s concerto [Kathleen laughs affectionately]…
So Gay, Kathleen’s second children’s book – you must be so happy for her.
Oh, I’m delighted with her and I’m delighted for her. I’m delighted the first book worked as well as it did, and I’m sure this book will do as well.
Pigin came to life when your eldest grandchild Cian was born, and when you, Kathleen, ran out of stories to read him and so started to make up tales about a pig.
For years there I’d be talking away to this invisible pig! And the children thought I was bonkers! But whenever I finished a story, Cian would say, ‘another piglet story’. I never knew if he disliked the stories and wanted a different one, or if he actually liked the Pigin stories. But I’d do the voices and all!
We can hear you doing the voices! Do you think she’s completely bonkers, Gay?!
Completely! She is a mad granny!
She’s a cool mad granny though….
G: Oh she is!
K: I used to do the hacca at 8.15 in the morning!
G: Don’t try it now…please [he pleads]!
The grandkids are so proud of you both. And we love their nicknames for you – Rara and Nanakit.
G: When Cian was young he couldn’t say grandad, but he could say Rara. So everything became Rara car, Rara horse, Rara everything. The only alternative name for granny could have been Mad Kit! [More laughing]
K: That would have been perfectly okay!
The first Pigin book was written over lots of hot buttered scones and pots of tea. Where was this one written?
K: Actually a lot of this was scribbled in the oncology department, where we’ll be again tomorrow morning at 7am.
G: We’ll leave the house at 6.20am and drive across town to the Mater Hospital, and she’ll be with me, and will look after me extraordinarily well, as she has done since I’ve bee sick. And she needs her own time, her own separate friends to get away from me, and to get away from cancer for a while…but anyway, I have been looked after very well.
She is a good wife, Gay. And she does dote over you.
G: She does. I am very lucky. But my daughters and son-in-laws have been wonderful, too. We are very lucky because many people have nobody around.
Do you dread going into hospital?
G: No, obviously I’d prefer not to be going in, but what can you do? It’s just what you do.
K: An oncology department is actually a very calm, pleasant place; it’s not really sad at all.
And Kathleen is Gay a good patient?
He is a good patient… but I can be a bit inpatient sometimes [wincing].
K: I think I am [she looks at Gay inquisitively].
G: Yes you are! Don’t think you are, you are [they laugh]! I am confirming it for you!
How could she improve Gay?
She could improve slightly in the fellow-feeling area!
But Kathleen must remain strong for you, Gay.
Yes, I know, I know! [Kathleen excuses herself and pops to the bathroom but as she goes Gay says, ‘Kathleen, see if the lady is still fast asleep in the chair down the hall!’ And they both share a chuckle]
Tell us about the lady down the hall, Gay!
The corridor down to the lavatory is heavily carpeted and is very very quiet and there’s a woman fast asleep in a lovely chair. And she’s having the sleep of her life! Wonderful! Wonderful!
Are you a napper? Could you nod off like the lady in the chair?
Kathleen goes for a nap every day for about an hour. But no, I can’t sleep during the day…I’m not good at that…
I don’t know what it is, I just can’t settle down and then dark thoughts start intruding [he pauses]. I don’t like that.
Emotionally how are you doing at the moment?
A friend of mine was talking to my daughter Susie this week, and she said, I was talking to Gay and he’s far better and jolly, and so on, and I think he has lost his resentment and his antagonism towards what has happened. Previously I was very angry…[he pauses to think] but the answer to, ‘Why me?’ is ‘Why not me?’ But yes, I am less angry and more accepting.
The fact that you had lived an active, healthy lifestyle probably bothered you?
I had 83 years of robust good health and maybe if I’d had poorer health I would have been better able to cope. Maybe I would have been more used to doctors and nurses and hospitals…I had no experience of that whatsoever, and suddenly you’re plunged int it, overnight, [he claps his hands] bang. And I couldn’t cope. However, we must remember that there are age-related illnesses and we must accept that. We’ve lived a very long and a very comfortable life…anyway, let’s talk about something more cheerful because there are thousands of people around the country with the same story as me. [Kathleen returns and Gay asks about the lady in the chair!]
K: She wasn’t there. Someone must have woken her up! She must have had a hard night! I think alcohol played a part!
G: You don’t need to say that about that woman! Alcohol had nothing to do with it.
K: I think alcohol had everything to do with it!
Both of you are avid readers so give us some book tips to get our teeth stuck into over Christmas?
K: I’ve just finished Robert Ballagh’s, A Reluctant Memoir, I really enjoyed that. And everybody is reading the Milkman. Did I enjoy it? Enjoy is not the word, a necessary read I would say. Would you agree, Rara?
G: Yes, I suppose so. I’ve just finished the latest biography of Oscar Wilde, it’s a tomb. It goes over his entire life from beginning to end. Fantastic book. The research is amazing. You would think that enough books have been written about Oscar Wilde to do us a lifetime but this is very special.
K: Another one is The Checklist Manifesto by surgeon Atul Gawande who applied the checklists pilots use to his operations. And the results have been amazing. Gay is also a great believer in lists. He always keeps lists.
Christmas you said before is just family and flop time. Where will you be flopping this year?
G: We’ll be flopping at home in Ballsbridge and we think probably the whole gang will come to us. K: We think regularly of people who haven’t access to their grandchildren or those who don’t have grandchildren close.
G: So when the kids got raucous and robust we can console ourselves with that!
Who does the cooking?
G: I think our daughter Susie will do any cooking that needs to be done.
What about Christmas presents?
G: Kathleen does most of the Christmas present buying. What am I going to get Kathleen? I haven’t decided yet. An unusual thing, probably…
K: Well, all I would love is fresh flowers.
G: Well, fresh flowers on Christmas Day are pretty hard to find!
Maybe a book, Gay?!
No, I’ll think of something else. I do have something else in my mind.
What about a Christmas movie? What will be playing in the background on Christmas Day?
G: It’s very hard to watch a movie with children around. But they love Sound of Music and Mary Poppins and the old classic, of course, It’s A Wonderful Life.
Has it been a wonderful life Gay and Kathleen?
G: Oh yes…
K: We’ve been blessed. We have been so lucky.
And us too with this special day. Thank you, for everything, Gay and Kathleen. And Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas to all at VIP and to all your readers, too.
INTERVIEW: Bianca Luykx
PHOTOGRAPHY: Lili Forberg; misslili.net
STYLING: Aideen Feely
MAKEUP & GROOMING: Dolly Buckley; powderroomgirls.com