He Was Their Life...
Woman's Own
25 September 1989
Woman's Own: Eamonn Andrews article
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Eamonn Andrews

a brief biography

The Legend That Was Eamonn Andrews

a celebration to mark the presenter's centenary year

On a grey and windy November day Eamonn Andrews' wife, Grainne, and their three adopted children were gathered together in the bleak Balgriffin graveyard, a few miles from the family home in Dublin, to bury the man who meant everything to them.

Grainne (pronounced Gronya and Gaelic for Grace) was devastated by the loss of the husband, whom she idolised and who the world knew as the amiable host of television's This Is Your Life. Emma, 27, Fergal, 24, and Niamh (pronounced Neve), 21, were all shattered at the death of their much-loved father. Emma remembers thinking it was all the sadness she could cope with for a long time to come.

What no one could have foreseen was that this was only the first half of a double tragedy. Because just 18 months later, Emma, Fergal and Niamh would find themselves back standing in exactly the same spot. Only this time, they'd be there to see Grainne's coffin lowered into the ground to rest next to her beloved Eamonn.

When Eamonn Andrews died suddenly from heart disease, at just 64, nearly two years ago, Grainne choked back her tears and through the lonely months that followed, put on a happy face. She believed that grief was not for public display.

Close friends, who knew that Grainne was helping to finish off Eamonn's half-written autobiography, believed she was coping well. Most were fooled into thinking her cheerfulness meant she'd recovered more quickly than expected.

Only the children were aware that despite their mother's apparent acceptance of the loss of her beloved "Hymie", as she called Eamonn, it was all a facade. They sensed the heartache Grainne tried so hard to disguise.

"She didn't go around gloomily - in some ways, I'd never seen her looking better," says elder daughter Emma. "But when she'd walk out of the sitting room at night smiling, you'd know she'd go to her bedroom to cry. She laughed and joked - but underneath it all we knew Daddy's death was killing her. Somehow I knew she wouldn't be able to go on living after he died."

What no one could know until too late was that Grainne herself was dying of cancer. It wasn't until March of this year that her incurable illness was diagnosed and the family was told that she had only weeks to live.

"The doctors told us that although she had seemed well, she had probably had bowel cancer ever since Daddy died," says Emma. "By the time she fell ill, it was already much too late to save her." A month later she was dead, at 61, her last sight a favourite picture of Eamonn.

That was less than five months ago and the pain the Andrews family feels at the loss of both parents is still raw. But like their parents, Emma and Niamh don't believe in public grief, even though their words break your heart.

In the last months of her life Grainne was haunted by the prospect of a biography of Eamonn Andrews she knew was about to be published that would, in her own eyes, devalue her memory of her beloved husband.

In this book, which came out only six weeks before Grainne Andrews' death, former This Is Your Life colleague Tom Brennand was far from complimentary about his ex-boss.

Emma points out that while the two events were coincidental, it wasn't until her mother read an early copy of the Brennand book that she fell ill.

"We were waiting and waiting for this book to come out and Mummy was very upset," says Emma. "She didn't know what to expect. And the longer it went on the worse it got. Finally she got a proof copy and when she'd read it she said to us, 'It's the most awful thing I've ever read in my whole life - I feel terribly sick.'"

"Until then she'd been in great form, but from that day on she just became more and more ill. At first the doctors thought it was a tummy bug. Then I had to go to London with her to go over the final proofs of her and Daddy's book and it was then that I realised just how bad she was."

"When we got home she went to the clinic for tests and they operated almost immediately. But by then the cancer had spread too far. They didn't tell us what was wrong straight away because it was Niamh's 21st birthday. But next day, we were told she only had a few weeks to live."

"It was such a blow. We were like lunatics. I really thought I was going mad. It was like a nightmare - you just couldn't believe you could lose two parents so quickly. It's stupid to say it, but I felt we'd had our portion of bad luck, that we weren't due for any more."

"When she asked me if she had cancer I told her the truth. You couldn't lie to my mother. And I think she did what most people do in that situation - she denied it at first. But finally she accepted it, although she didn't know how little time she had left. She would talk about the time when she was better, how she planned to go into town."

"We brought her home with us for her last days and between us, with our housekeeper Mairead and a friend from the village, we slept in her room and shared the nursing. She was in good spirits - we had such a laugh together before she died. But then she gradually slipped into unconsciousness. She was in no pain when she died and we were all with her saying the rosary, which was wonderful, because when Daddy died he was alone."

In her soft Irish accent, Emma - who as the eldest has taken on the role of family spokesperson - recalls her shattered emotions in the weeks after Grainne's death.

"I remember thinking as I stood out in the garden one night, that everything was collapsing around us, that Mummy and Daddy were gone and we were left. It was as though the gods had it in for us."

But Emma and Niamh are slowly coming to terms with their loss. In the enormous white house Eamonn Andrews built for his family above the cliffs at Portmarnock, they're trying to get on with their lives the way they know their parents would have wished them to do.

Emma is working as a copywriter for an advertising firm, Niamh has just got her air hostess wings with the Irish national airline, Aer Lingus; Fergal, who was until recently bass guitarist with the pop group Cactus World News and now a freelance musician, is working in Germany – and Mairead, who's become one of the family since she joined them 18 years ago, wants to go on looking after them and the house.

"Some people probably think it's strange that we're choosing to stay on in the house like three little orphaned mice – but we had a family conference and decided that was the best thing to do," says Emma. "It's taken a bit of getting used to, because even though we're all adults and fairly independent, our parents were the anchor of the family."

"You can still feel their presence. After Mummy died Mairead told me she felt a great sense of peace around the house. It's as if the two of them have been reunited. Mummy is now where she really wants to be, back being looked after by Daddy."

Now Emma, Fergal and Niamh must show their grief to the world with the publication of For Ever And Ever, Eamonn - the book started by Eamonn, added to by Grainne and now, in a sad footnote, finished with a short tribute by Emma.

"The book was part of our lives for so long - Daddy was always talking about it, although I don't think Mummy ever thought she'd have to finish it." says Emma. "After the Tom Brennand book people said to her, 'Now's the chance to set the record straight.' But she didn't see it that way. She thought it was such a load of nonsense that it didn't even bear talking about."

"I hope the real man is conveyed in our book. Papa was brilliant with words. We'd have lunch here on Sundays and he'd have us falling about the place laughing."

"Being careful with money was one of his eccentricities, but I admired him for that. He'd keep bits of twine and re-use paper, but now everyone thinks recycling's a good thing. He'd wash his hair first before he went to the barber's so it didn't cost too much."

"Having to finish the book so soon after Daddy died really upset Mummy. She used to say it was like opening old wounds. For me the worst part was having to write something to end the book as by then Mummy was dead, too. That was heartbreaking."

Grainne, the daughter of a Dublin theatrical costumier, met the young quiz host and radio sports commentator in 1950 and they married in 1951. Later she learnt she couldn't have children.

Her devotion to the man who'd been born a carpenter's son and then got his big break with the BBC by badgering them with letters seeking an audition never faltered. Their marriage survived for 36 years without a whiff of scandal.

"Even after he died, I think Mummy was still very much in communication with him," says Emma. "She used to say she could see his face in the clouds and somehow that seemed quite normal. They were unbelievably close. What few people knew was that Daddy had been ill for two years before he died. Trying to cover it up from everybody must have taken terrible toll on her."

"He'd go to London every week to make the programme and towards the end she was going with him because he was too weak to carry his own bag. She could see him dying in front of her."

"Last summer she and I went for a holiday to America and she was brilliant. But at the bottom of it all there was this deep sadness. She was so alone. A few weeks after Daddy died she turned to me and said, 'You know what I miss - somebody holding my hand.' That really upset me,"

Emma and Niamh believe their father would have appreciated the choice of Michael Aspel to succeed him as compere of This Is Your Life, but it's a programme they can no longer bear to see. When some of Eamonn's shows were repeated after his death they found them too painful to watch.

"There are so many other things to remember about him. He was a very special man," recalls Emma. "Mummy always called him the man nobody knew - now I hope the book will put that right."

"It's very hard to put into words what somebody's really like, but we've tried. I know Mummy always thought of the book as a way of keeping her Eamonn alive."

For Ever And Ever, Eamonn, published by Grafton Books on September 21. £12.95.