(Photo: Christina Noble (left) stands with an “Irish” American Flag presented to her by Kerri Tiernan (standing next to Christina) and Jim Wagenlander, Honorary Consul for Mongolia, Cheryl Ward, Jean Murtagh, and a room full of friends and supporters)
Christina Noble Inspires Denver Audience
By Rodger Hara (December 2015 Celtic Connection, Denver)
Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, better known as George Santayana, was a 19th Century Spanish philosopher, best known for his observation that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Usually a cautionary admonition, Dublin-born Christina Noble has turned the saying on its head by not only remembering her past but using what she learned from it to recognize in children in Viet Nam and Mongolia the problems she encountered as a semi-orphaned street kid in Dublin to make their lives better.
On a bright, sunny November afternoon, Lindsey and Donal Grogan opened their lovely Centennial Home to an international gathering of Denverites with roots ranging from Ireland to Japan to Mongolia to Viet Nam to meet Christina and hear her story. There were County jerseys from Dublin, Donegal, Mayo, Cavan, Down, Kildare and Galway and the lively chatter in the accents from those counties and the Asian countries made a merry sound.
When Christina spoke, the chatter hushed and all eyes and ears were on her as she told her tale of growing up on the poor side of Dublin in the area around the Guinness Brewery at St. James Gate known as the Liberties. Her mother, a Byrne from Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim, had come to Dublin to go to school and met her father, then a police cadet at a bust stop. She lost her mother when she was ten years old and became mother for her siblings as her father, who had been a boxer, had likely suffered concussions from his fights and had taken to the drink. She told of how she had supported the family by gathering twigs and wrapping them with bands cut from old nylons she scavenged from a flea market stall, loading them into an old pram with only three wheels that she’d rescued from a rubbish heap and then selling them as fire-starters. She spoke of going down to Dublin Bay and gathering winkles and whelks, boiling them, putting them into cones made from old newspapers and selling them on the streets. She talked of gathering shamrocks and tying them into bundles held together with thread and selling them outside churches. And she reminisced with great fondness of the times when her mother would take her to the cinema to see American films and how she had fallen in love with Doris Day and the songs she sang and the singing and dancing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and the belting style of Sophie Tucker and how she learned the words and music to all their songs and would go into pubs and sing and dance for the money that people would throw at her feet.
And she also told of how she and her siblings had been placed in foster care with each having been told that the others had died and at one point having lived in a hole in the ground beneath a bush behind a wall under the shadow of the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park in Dublin and how she covered herself with cardboard and dark cloth to become invisible at night and how she washed her knickers at a tap in the backyard of a tenement and how she had been gang-raped, become pregnant and had her baby son taken away from her and given up for adoption.
All of this she told very matter-of-factly and with a certain wistfulness for it all – and in spite of how he had treated her, spoke with love and affection for the father who had abandoned his family and for the husband who had beat her and openly cheated on her and the other husband who couldn’t/wouldn’t grow up.
She shared the story of a recurring dream she had in which children on the streets of Viet Nam were calling to her and how she spoke with her three children and got their permission to finally answer the call of that dream and go to Viet Nam with only a little money, no Vietnamese language skills and a lot of mother’s love in her heart and compassion for children on the street as she had been.
Unable to say her name, the children she helped there settled on “Mama Tina” as she cared for them and created havens from the streets for them in places that she refuses to call orphanages and instead asks that they be spoken of as Safe Houses or birds’ nests. Children with birth defects from the long-term after effects of the Agent Orange dropped on the forests of Viet Nam still abound there and the systems don’t exist to provide for their care as she does. In the 25 years since she began her work, over 700,000 children and disadvantaged people have been helped by her efforts.
She accepts no government funds of any kind in order to maintain her independence and is very careful to avoid saying anything bad about any of the governments she has worked with in providing care around the world – in addition to Viet Nam and Mongolia, she has also provided humanitarian aid in Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon. She spends much of her time today raising money and often visits pubs and other ex-pat watering holes in the places where her birds’ nests are with the children who live there and who she has taught to sing songs like Abba’s “I Have a Dream” and “The Fields of Athenry”, just as she once did for funds in the pubs of Dublin.
Blessed with the Irish wit and charm and memory, she recited a bit of Yeats “Isle of Inishfree” and sang “I Have a Dream” and “Fields of Athenry” for the crowd at the Grogan’s and charmed them into donating over $11,000 to her foundation which was very generously matched by Donal Grogan’s company, Argon Masking Corp.
If you would learn more about Mama Tina, her life, her work and her foundation, start with the website for the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation www.cncf.org and then read her books, “Nobody’s Child” and “Bridge Across My Sorrows” or see the 2015 movie about her life that’s simply called “Noble.” And after you’ve done all that, dig deep and help Mama Tina help others.