Fr. Michael Cleary

(19/04/1934 - 22/12/1993)

Michael Cleary (1933–1993) was a controversial and prominent Irish Roman Catholic priest known for his dual role as a radio and TV personality who was curate at Bernadette Parish on Clogher Road, Crumlin in the early 1960s.

Born in Dublin on November 23, 1933, he grew up in Blanchardstown, Co. Dublin. Cleary attended Clongowes Wood College and UCD before entering Clonliffe College for his priestly studies, eventually being ordained in 1958. Notably, he was the only son among five children of Daniel Cleary and Nellie Cleary (née Lavin).

In his early years, Cleary’s family moved to Blanchardstown, Co. Dublin, where they owned the Greyhound public house. His journey into the priesthood involved serving as a chaplain at Temple St. Children’s Hospital. In the early 1960s, he served as a curate at Clogher Road parish, Crumlin, actively engaging in unconventional outreach methods to reach youth and marginalized individuals. Cleary, known for his plainspoken and informal style, even sang popular showband hits at the parish’s weekly teen dances.

Cleary continued his unorthodox approach to ministry when assigned to the Irish emigrant chaplaincy in London from 1964 to 1967, supporting a largely floating population of young, single people in Kilburn and Camden Town. He gained recognition for his support work with unmarried mothers during this time.

Returning to Dublin, Cleary served as a curate at St Vincent de Paul’s parish, Griffith Avenue, Marino, from 1967 to 1973. During this period, he became a frequent guest on RTÉ television’s ‘Late Late Show,’ making history as the first priest to do so in 1966. Cleary’s musical talents earned him the nickname “the singing priest,” and he traveled extensively throughout Ireland, fulfilling invitations to perform at fundraising functions.

He later served as a senior curate in the new parish of Our Lady of the Assumption, Kylemore Road, Ballyfermot, from 1973 to 1983. Described as the best-known priest in Ireland, Cleary entertained and warmed up the congregation of one-quarter million people before the papal youth mass at the Ballybrit racecourse, Galway, during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

Following his service as the parish priest of St Oliver Plunkett’s, Rivermount, Finglas South, from 1983 to 1987, Cleary became the diocesan promoter of missions and retreats from 1987 until his death in 1993. During the mid-1980s, he hosted a nightly one-hour phone-in talk show on Dublin radio station 98 FM, expressing forthright opinions on various issues and dispensing advice to listeners.

Despite his conservative stance on matters related to sexual morality, Cleary expressed progressive sentiments on certain social issues. He faced health challenges, surviving thyroid cancer in 1974 but succumbed to lung cancer in December 1993. His death sparked controversy when posthumous revelations surfaced about his secret family with Phyllis Hamilton, his housekeeper, including two sons. The revelations, along with similar scandals involving other clergy members, contributed to a loss of faith in the Catholic Church in Ireland during the 1990s.

A documentary film titled “The Holy Show” (2008) delved into Cleary’s life, his relationship with Hamilton, and the reactions of his congregation to the revelations. The film received several awards, including the Irish Film & Television Award for Best Single Documentary and the Prix Italia award for Best Documentary.

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Connection with area: Priest and publicist who lived in Crumlin, ran St. Bernadette Parish and involved in Crumlin community activities.