IN the unimaginable commotion of Paul McGrath’s darkest days, she was a point of calm, an unwavering beacon of love.
etty Lowth, that gentle creature’s beloved mother, was the sunshine in Paul’s soul.
Their story is one of tenderness and devotion, of overcoming unpromising odds; a life-affirming tale of a bond so intense and pure that it could neither be wounded nor diluted by distance, spiteful prejudice, even by addiction.
That beautiful, bone-deep connection unique to a mother and her child.
Last November, days before Paul turned 60, I spent a blessed afternoon with him in Enniscorthy, a watery sun dappling winter light on the River Slaney.
My own mother, also Betty, had passed away weeks before, and we got to talking about these two female treasures.
It was an access-all-areas pass to the very core of a tender man whose genius on a rectangle of grass hid a choking vulnerability when he retreated back to the obstacle course of civilian life.
The stories about a lady who was truly the other half of him – “my best friend” – flowed from that part of Paul’s being where the deepest emotions reside.
She was far away but his affection carried Betty into the room.
The hours whizzed by as if transported by bullet train.
Paul, a bottomless reservoir of kindness, so soft-hearted and inherently decent, has this lovely quirk where he embraces a friend when they are leaving his company.
He wrapped me in a bear hug and delivered a profoundly moving testament to Betty: “My mum kept me sane when I was insane.”
In his softly spoken voice was the music of love. And behind his eyes was something priceless and without blemish, something that could never be stolen.
Betty, Paul’s beloved mother, passed away peacefully in a Dublin hospital on Thursday night, aged 83.
The ache in his spirit was evident in the tweet with which he saluted the star at the epicentre of his universe.
“Last night I lost my best friend. My beautiful mum Betty passed away peacefully and today my heart is breaking. I owe everything to her. Sleep well Mum, love you. Paul x.”
If those words don’t find that place where tears are formed, you can only be carved from stone.
Paul never knew his father, a Nigerian medical student who Betty met at a students’ dance in the old Four Provinces club on Dublin’s Harcourt Street.
Ireland of the late 1950s was a claustrophobic, judgemental, valley of the squinting windows society. Pregnant out of wedlock, unable to tell her family, Betty left for England.
The last spell of her pregnancy was spent in a nuns’ home in Acton.
Within weeks of Paul’s birth in an Ealing hospital on December 4, 1959, she endured what must have been the torment of giving up her son for foster care. But even if she was not physically in his world, Paul was her alpha and omega. She would send money to help pay for his upbringing. His existence was still a secret at home.
We can only speculate as to her anguish.
As time passed, Paul was transferred to a Dublin orphanage. Betty, by now visiting regularly, found the strength to tell her own family about the son who, decades later on a fabled World Cup afternoon in New Jersey, would send such a jolting surge of pride through so many Irish veins.
If Paul helped the nation locate a new sense of itself over those fairytale summers in Germany, Italy and America, finding himself – and the peace that would come with that moment of clarity – was an infinitely more complex task.
Betty’s visits were gold dust in his early, confused years.
His words from last November come rushing across the months.
“I never thought I’d see 60. Because I was doing so many strange things with so many weird substances and I honestly thought it would be impossible. It is because of my mum that I’m here. She was always there for me.
“Even when I was in an orphanage, she would always come and see me. So, I never had that disconnect with my mother. She was the one constant thread.
“If ever anything was happening in my life, I was able to reach out and I knew she would be there.
“I used to love that my mother had a certain style about her. She was a cool looking lady. And I used to say to myself when I’d see her coming into the orphanage, ‘you’re rocking Mum’.”
The things he most valued about Betty were the things his young self most craved: Loyalty, her non-judgemental nature, the goodness that she poured into his world, nourishing the generosity of spirit which is Paul’s calling card.
Her humour insulated him from the worst of his fears.
“Mum is so funny,” he told me that afternoon, his features creasing into a smile, “she’s got that Irish wit.
“She has a way of saying things. In one sentence she can change your mood, bring a smile to your face.”
There is a line from a Helen Lowrie Marshall poem called Afterglow.
“I’d like to leave an afterglow of smiles when life is done/I’d like to leave an echo whispering softly down the ways/of happy times and laughing times and bright and sunny days.”
Those laughing times with his mum are eternal treasures on the mantelpiece of Paul McGrath’s soul.
At the end of our conversation last winter, he volunteered an audit of his days.
“You know, I’m happy, Roy. I’ve been a fool and God knows how I’m still here. But I’d like people to know I’m in a very good place.”
With that, a compassionate, delicate man on the cusp of a landmark birthday, one of Ireland’s beloved listed buildings, wandered out into the bustle of a mid-November Friday.
Almost 60. Still living, still dreaming.
And, forever, Betty Lowth’s devoted son.