Born in Dublin, Ireland, Michael Cleary lived there all his life. He attended Catholic schools and became a priest.
As an adult, he lived in Rathmines Road in Dublin. He participated in some of the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, claiming to have experimented with drugs. He was strongly devoted to care for the poor and working on poverty and community development issues.
In the 1960s, Cleary discussed the Catholic clergy's attitudes to celibacy, sex and marriage in the Irish documentary film Rocky Road to Dublin (1967). He admits to a personal preference for being married and having a family, but claimed that the role and necessary sacrifices of being a priest were a valid substitute. As part of his pushing limits, he once claimed to have tried every drug except heroin.
Cleary had one of the highest profiles of any cleric in Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s. During the 1979 Papal visit to Ireland, Cleary sang to the crowd of 200,000 at Ballybrit before the Pope made his appearance. He was a powerful and charismatic figure within the church. He was particularly devoted to raising the issue of poverty in Ireland, especially in Dublin, where he worked for change in inner-city communities.
Three weeks after his death in December 1993 (from throat cancer), when they were therefore no longer liable to be prosecuted for defamation, The Phoenix, a national news magazine, published an article alleging that Cleary had fathered a child, Ross Hamilton, with Phyllis Hamilton, who had worked as his longtime housekeeper. This claim was subsequently repeated and it was suggested it was confirmed by DNA analysis. The remaining Cleary family who volunteered to provide their own DNA refused to acknowledge the boy, nor has any DNA evidence been forthcoming or provided by any of the claimed children. The Cleary family have also disputed claims that he had fathered two boys ( both having the same mother Phyllis Hamilton who it is claimed also had a girl during this time by another trainee priest) and said they were in possession of blood tests and affidavits from two men who claimed to be the boys' fathers but apparently none of these were ever produced.
Cleary allegedly had a secret 26-year relationship with Hamilton that started in the 1960s when she was 17 and he was about 34. They allegedly had two sons, the first given up for adoption and the second they allegedly raised together. Hamilton was later supported by psychiatrist Dr Ivor Browne, who also publicised her story with her consent.
Cleary pretended simply to be Hamilton's employer. According to journalist Paul Williams, she said in a ghost-written unverified memoir published by Williams in 1995 that Cleary had taken marriage vows with her in a private ceremony with no third party present. She died in 2001 from ovarian cancer.Such a marriage ceremony, if it occurred, would not be legally binding under Irish law.
This followed the 1992 discovery that Bishop Eamonn Casey, also a well-known cleric in Ireland, was found to have fathered a son (by then nearly 20) with American divorcée Annie Murphy. Casey was a friend and colleague of Cleary's and as Cleary's confessor, had allegedly known about his relationship with Hamilton. Cleary and Hamilton did not know about the bishop's own affair and were shocked at the revelation about Casey.
These sex scandals shocked the Catholic Church laity in Ireland, although because they were between adults they were not regarded as seriously as those involving direct abuse of children. The Church was strongly criticized and the controversies shook many people's faith in its clergy. There is however no evidence of widespread knowledge among the hierarchy about the personal lives of Casey or Cleary. Murphy and Hamilton appeared on the Later With Clare McKeon chat show in January 1999 to talk about their lives and relationships, adding to publicity about the longtime affairs of the clergy, although Casey's "affair" while not longtime was kept secret by himself and Murphy until she revealed that she had had a child for Casey.
While the Church allowed Hamilton and her son to continue living in Cleary's house for eleven years after his death, it then took possession after she died. The Church informed Ross Hamilton he had to leave. When he refused, the Church started legal proceedings against him and as he had not legally established he was Cleary's son he had no right to inherit. The Church paid him £40,000 in any case. Due to changing requirements, the Church eventually sold the brick house in Mount Harold Terrace, for £700,000. Hamilton did take a case in the High Court in 1996 but this was eventually struck out in 2003. No other Irish Court records have been reproduced by the media.
On 21 April 2008, the documentary film The Holy Show was shown on BBC One. This one-hour film was based on footage shot when the director, Alison Millar, stayed with Cleary in his household as a student in 1991. At the time, his true relationship with Hamilton and their children was secret. In the film Millar also examines the changing roles of the church, social changes, the reaction of Cleary's congregation to the news of his family, and related issues. The documentary was also shown on another BBC programme, entitled The Father, the Son & the Housekeeper.
The film won several awards:2008 Irish Film & Television Award for Best Single Documentary
2008 Prix Italia award for Best Documentary
2008 Boston Irish Film Festival award for Best Documentary
2008 Celtic Film Frank Copplestone First Time Director Award
Nominated for 2009 BAFTA Break-Through Talent Award for Director Alison Millar
Another program, In the Name of the Father, was produced on Scannal, RTÉ One about Father Michael Cleary and his complicated life.