The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough sold over 30 million copies and became a hugely successful mini-series. Part of its attraction was the scandalous relationship between the Irish priest Father Ralph de Bricassart and a younger Australian woman, Meggie Cleary. Their relationship was finally consummated on a tropical beach.
When Annie Murphy travelled from America to Ireland in 1973, she (like Meggie Cleary) was looking for a retreat from a broken marriage. She chose, not a tropical island, but the quiet green of County Kerry. A family friend was sent to meet her at the airport. Eamon Casey had first met Annie (as Father Ralph had first met Meggie) as a child. She was now 25. He was 45, the Bishop of Kerry.
When Eamon picked me up from the airport that day in 1973, a light went on, there was a spark, that was it.
– Annie Murphy in an interview with The Irish Independent, 2012
Anyone who met Bishop Casey remarked on his energy and charisma. He was a hard man to dislike, even for those who disagreed with him. He was seen as progressive, working for Irish immigrants in Britain, supporting those who protested against the apartheid regime in South Africa, opposing U.S. foreign policy in Central America. He loved to drive fast, to put his foot to the pedal, to push limits.
Casey, Casey, you’re the divil
When you get behind the wheel
– Casey, song by Christy Moore
Red Cliff House was an 18th century hunting lodge which had become a summer residence for members of the Catholic hierarchy. Nearby was the long sandy stretch of Inch Beach, where Ryan’s Daughter had been filmed four years earlier. For Eamon and Annie, Red Cliff House became a hideaway from the world and Inch Beach a place for romantic walks.
Like Rosy and Doryan from Ryan’s Daughter, like Meggie and Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds, Annie and Bishop Eamon became lovers. And like Meggie, Annie became pregnant.
Wear a condom, just in Casey
– T-shirt slogan
The romance ended with her announcement of the pregnancy. Casey insisted that Murphy was in no position to care for a child. Not long after she gave birth, he presented her with adoption papers for their son. She refused to sign and instead returned to America to raise Peter with the help of her parents. Casey sent regular payments for his upkeep, some of it from church funds.
The world didn’t find out until 1992, when Murphy’s partner took the story to The Irish Times. The scandal echoed around the world. Casey resigned as bishop and went to Ecuador as a missionary. Murphy was suddenly in the limelight, roasted on air by talk-show hosts. Later commentators would see it as one of the turning points where the Catholic Church began to lose its grip on the nation’s identity.
Gay Byrne: If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.
Annie Murphy: I’m not so bad either, Mr Byrne.
– The Late Late Show, 1993
The Bishop Casey affair has long since been overshadowed by more disturbing priestly scandals. Few are still shocked by the tale of a bishop who had a consensual affair with a grown woman. Today, he is in a nursing home in County Clare, suffering ill health and dementia. Annie Murphy lives in California, far from Inch Beach.
Update: Eamon Casey died at Carrigoran nursing home on 13th March 2017 at the age of 89. His son Peter joined other relatives in paying tribute to his father.
- Gay Byrne interviews Annie Murphy (video), The Late Late Show 1993
- Christy Moore sings “Casey”
- Annie Murphy: The woman who rocked the church – 20 years on, Irish Independent 2012-01-29
- Bishop Casey’s former love Annie Murphy speaks following his death, Irish Independent 2017-03-14