Christina Noble: “We talk about abortion and there’s an uproar. But what about the billions of children that are already out there?”
Christina Noble emerged from a tough upbringing and a turbulent marriage to start a foundation that works with children in southeast Asia. As a new movie about her remarkable life opens, the humanitarian worker talks to Tara Brady
Christina Noble on the set of Noble with director Stephen Bradley, producer Melanie Gore-Grimes and a huge cast of “babbies”
Deirdre O’Kane in Noble
‘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! 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.”
No airs and graces
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.
No child is safe
“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."