FILM FIGHT

Ac­tivist Christina Noble talks about thee dra­matic ver­sion of her­self with Tara Brady,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

‘I’m a rau­cous kind of a character,” says Christina Noble.

No kid­ding. We’re two hours into an in­ter­view at her Lu­can home and I’ve come down with a most pleas­ant vari­ant of Stock­holm syn­drome.

To know Christina Noble – or Mama Tina as she is called by the thou­sands of Viet­namese chil­dren she has saved from the streets – is to love Christina Noble. And to meet her is to know her. Within min­utes of ar­riv­ing at her house I’ve been in­tro­duced to He­lenita, her daugh­ter. I’ve met Jean, her in­dis­pens­able best friend and neigh­bour. I’ve been hugged a dozen times. I’ve been fussed over. I’ve been asked to stay for din­ner. I’ve been in­vited to Viet­nam.

The house is a per­fect ex­pres­sion of its owner, a riot of art, colour and fam­ily photographs. Here’s a snap of Ge­orgie, the grand­son who loves the­atre. Here’s Houng and Hang, the first two chil­dren she plucked from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Here’s the first of her “bab­bies” – lost to Agent-Orange poi­son­ing. She points to the un­for­tu­nate in­fant’s grotesquely swollen head.

“You couldn’t lift that head,” she says, with tears in her eyes. “It’s heav­ier than all of us put to­gether.”

The after-ef­fects of Agent Orange were just one of many prob­lems Mama Tina had to face up to when she ar­rived in Viet­nam in 1989.

“It was a shock­ing war. More bombs ex­ploded there than dur­ing any World War,” she says. “I had a lot of kids with no arms or no legs. You’d go home and cry un­der the pil­low. And some­times you’d scream un­der the pil­low.”

Her pres­ence in Viet­nam was im­prob­a­ble. She went there – as we learn in Noble, a new, award-win­ning biopic star­ring Deirdre O’Kane – fol­low­ing a strange, vivid dream about the coun­try.

“I can’t sit here and say God just put that thought in my head, be­cause that sounds mad,” she says. “But it was 1977 and I was work­ing in a fish-and-chip shop and had small chil­dren. It’s pos­si­ble some­thing was on the telly in the back­ground. But some­thing hap­pened, some­thing very real.”

Noble cuts be­tween Christina’s char­i­ta­ble ad­ven­tures in Viet­nam and a trau­matic youth. Hav­ing lost her mother, Christina, when she was just 10, she was dragged off to an in­dus­trial school where she was told her sib­lings had died. In re­al­ity the chil­dren would each face the worst that Catholic in­sti­tu­tions had to of­fer.

Their har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are also the sub­ject of Ciarín Scott’s forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary In a House That Ceased to Be. Christina is glad the film gave them a chance to talk about the mon­strous things that were vis­ited upon them. But she also hopes that it won’t over­shadow her on­go­ing work.

“Any­time somebody writes about me they write about Christina Noble’s child­hood – la! la!

“We talk about abor­tion and there’s an up­roar. But what about the bil­lions of chil­dren that are al­ready out there?”

la! – I get sick of it my­self, never mind any­one else. What’s re­ally im­por­tant are the world’s chil­dren. And what’s hap­pen­ing to the world’s chil­dren.”

Liv­ing rough

Still, it’s hard to over­look the con­nec­tion be­tween the in­cred­i­ble work done by the Christina Noble Chil­dren’s Foun­da­tion and the ad­ver­sity she has faced through­out her life. Hav­ing es­caped the or­phan­age she was forced to live rough on the streets of Dublin, where she was gang-raped. She sub­se­quently had a son, Thomas, who was forcibly adopted from St Joseph’s in­dus­trial school in Con­nemara.

“He was just taken. I didn’t find the nuns too bad up there, I have to say. I’d heard some heavy stuff about them but I thought they were okay, apart from the hard work. I wasn’t afraid of hard work. But the way that Thomas was taken it broke my heart. It ripped me apart.”

She re­lo­cated to Birm­ing­ham, where she mar­ried and had three more chil­dren. Sadly, the mar­riage was plagued by do­mes­tic abuse.

“He’s dead now,” she says. “And for my chil­dren’s sake I don’t want to talk about it. They know what hap­pened.”

Any­one else might have had the life squeezed out of them by such a se­quence of mis­for­tunes. But not Christina Noble, a woman who has sto­ries about work­ing for Mon­go­lian chil­dren in tem­per­a­tures of 60 de­grees be­low zero, of clus­ter bombs in the jun­gle, of hos­ing down traders who kept cry­ing bears in cages with tubes stuck into their gall blad­ders.

“I’m an easy-go­ing character,” she prom­ises. “But when I see some­thing wrong I will get mad. I will do some­thing.”

Sure enough, she is a woman whose very ex­is­tence of­fers a def­i­ni­tion of the word “ir­re­press­ible”. Hardly a minute passes in which she doesn’t laugh – and I mean guf­faws, chuck­les, chor­tles at gale force. She bursts into song at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, with a lovely, raspy, rich tim­bre, as if ac­com­pa­nied by an in­vis­i­ble, silent orches­tra. To­day I get Doris Day and Amy Wine­house, and, of course, her un­of­fi­cial an­them, The Fields of Athenry.

She points to the dim­ple on her grand­daugh­ter’s pho­to­graph: “Can you see the cheeky on her?” She points to her own sim­i­larly placed dim­ple: “Can you see the same cheeky there?”

I be­lieve so. She is, I soon learn, banned from the class­rooms of the schools she founded in Viet­nam. “The teach­ers say: ‘No. No. Go Away Mama Tina’. Be­cause I sneak up be­hind them and make faces.”

She even man­aged to get in trou­ble with Mother Teresa: “I spent a lot of time with her in Viet­nam. We shared a lot. We talked a lot. And I know she loved me. But the nuns weren’t al­lowed to read any­thing, and they were bored out of their heads. So I’d smug­gle Read­ers’ Di­gest to them un­der my kaf­tan. Well, she was very up­set with me. But I got her sta­tions of the cross into the coun­try for her. I ex­plained to the au­thor­i­ties: just like Bud­dha.”

Since that first trip to Viet­nam, her foun­da­tion has set up schools, med­i­cal cen­tres, bi­cy­cle pro­grammes, sports pro­grammes, mu­sic pro­grammes, schol­ar­ships and re­volv­ing loans for small farm­ers. The list goes on and on. All across Viet­nam and Mon­go­lia her in­flu­ence has been felt. But how can one woman have done all this? Se­ri­ously?

“I don’t know. Peo­ple ask me that all the time. I have a great team around me. You’re only as good as your team. I don’t want to be on a pedestal. There’s no airs and graces with me.”

‘She left a rich­ness in us’

She is sure, how­ever, that her late mother, a church-go­ing Mayo woman whose par­ents ran a school, has a hand in all those ven­tures.

“She was an amaz­ing, beau­ti­ful woman,” Noble says. “She was very poor but she wouldn’t have taken a dime. She could make a meal out of noth­ing and that was what she had to do. She was at Mass ev­ery morn­ing. She could mend your dress. If your grand­mother died she would wash her down. She could do any­thing. She left noth­ing – no home. But she left a rich­ness in us you can never buy or ac­quire.”

That rich­ness man­i­fests as a hive of ac­tiv­ity. Ev­ery 15 min­utes of so she calls on Jean or He­lenita for as­sis­tance or a re­minder. She must get

tick­ets for the Noble premiere for some­one she met. She has to or­der a wheel­chair for her brother Seán, who is com­ing to visit.

And then there are her “bab­bies”: “From the depths of my heart and stom­ach I re­ally am very wor­ried about the world’s chil­dren. It’s not just wars and star­va­tion. In­equal­ity and poverty are al­ways fac­tors. And fig­ures for poverty aren’t go­ing down. They’re go­ing up and up and up.

“I’m not try­ing to scare any­one. But no child is safe. Be­cause wher­ever in­equal­ity ex­ists the sickos and the preda­tors move in.”

Noble in­sists, de­spite all those aw­ful ex­pe­ri­ences, that she knows good nuns and bad nuns and that there’s kind­ness and love in ev­ery­one. Ex­cept those who prey on chil­dren.

“Some­times I won­der if they are hu­man like us, if they’re the same species,” she says.

“It’s not just that they put kids in broth­els or that they rob their kid­neys or their eyes or their skin. It’s the hor­ror they put them through be­fore they’re do­ing it and while they’re do­ing it. I don’t want peo­ple to be cyn­i­cal about this or get riled up. I want them to be smart. ”

She re­calls that peo­ple thought she was mad when she first started talk­ing about child trafficking some 25 years ago. Nowa­days she re­quires eight guards out­side one of her Mon­go­lian fa­cil­i­ties to keep the chil­dren safe inside.

“I don’t know any­thing about pol­i­tics,” she says. “But ev­ery child should mat­ter. We talk about abor­tion and there’s an up­roar. But what about the bil­lions of chil­dren that are al­ready out there in the world? The only way that things can change is if or­di­nary peo­ple stand to­gether – not a few peo­ple here or there mak­ing a noise - but across the whole world – and say we are stand­ing up for the rights of the child. The leg­is­la­tion is there. We just need to make sure it’s im­ple­mented.”

Noble is on re­lease from Septem­ber 19th

Christina on the set of Noble with di­rec­tor Stephen Bradley, pro­du­ucer Melanie Gore-Grimes and a huge cast of “bab­bies”. Be­low: Deirdre O’Kane in a scene from the film

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